Dr. Ken Treats Asian American Viewers With a Nostalgic Take on the Family Sitcom

Ken Jeong and Suzy Nakamura in a scene from the pilot episode of ABC's "Dr. Ken". (Screen Capture via ABC/Disney Press)
Ken Jeong and Suzy Nakamura in a scene from the pilot episode of ABC’s “Dr. Ken”. (Screen Capture via ABC/Disney Press)

This evening, the Asian American community ventures into uncharted territory. With tonight’s premiere of Ken Jeong’s newest venture — the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken — two family sitcoms featuring Asian American characters will for the first time be on television’s primetime broadcast schedule in the same fall season. Dr. Ken joins ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, last year’s mid-season replacement of Selfie which starred John Cho and which was cancelled after just seven episodes. Fresh Off The Boat is itself only the second Asian American family sitcom, debuting nearly twenty years after Margaret Cho broke ground with All-American Girl.

Yet, I have to confess: I don’t consider myself a fan of Ken Jeong’s body of work. I find Jeong’s most notable role — the sardonic, antipathy-fueled Leslie Chen of the Hangover films — racially unsettling for its flirtation with stereotype. I was deeply concerned when Jeong appeared in inexplicable Blackface for an episode of Community, a show that featured the comedian as a series regular. I also take issue with Jeong’s overall comedy persona; often, Jeong creates humour through racial dissonance by appearing as an Asian American while acting against expectation. Yet, he occasionally builds that dissonance through unchecked use of hip hop culture and slang; in a recent review of Dr. Ken, Christopher T. Fan recounts how Jeong entertained the writer and other visitors to the set over lunch by describing “his shit” as “on fleek”. Too often, I find myself so preoccupied trying to parse the racial play of Jeong’s comedic style to find the work funny. Thus, while Ken Jeong’s brand of humour is wildly popular and successful among mainstream audiences, it just really hasn’t been “my thing”; consequently, I had planned to pass on watching (and reviewing) Dr. Ken.

I was drawn back into reconsidering my feelings towards Jeong’s work, recently, by his largely unannounced cameo appearance in the independent Asian American feminist and science-fiction film, Advantageous. Jeong’s brief performance was subtle, heartfelt, mature and nuanced, and helped me to see the actor beyond the exaggerated parodies of social maladjustment that he is best known for.

Then, when Fan (who apparently shares my unease over Jeong’s comedic work) wrote in his review of Dr. Ken that he unexpectedly found himself “laughing out loud”, I was intrigued enough to sit down and preview the first two episodes of Dr. Ken for myself.

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There Can Be No Room in this Movement for Misogyny

Eddie Huang
Eddie Huang

It’s not easy being a feminist of colour.

There’s this presumption that we as minority women can divorce our feminism from our race advocacy, and — more importantly — that we should. Among White feminists, the sticky issues of race and racism are rarely addressed; or when the existence of race is acknowledged, it is treated with such appalling clumsiness as to render theoretically feminist safe spaces decidedly unsafe for women of colour.

Among communities of colour, aspersions are also sometimes cast against WOC feminists. Sidelong glances are thrown in our direction because we understand that race oppression does not occur in a vacuum, and we dare to include within our race activism an integrated focus on the twin spectres of misogyny and male privilege. We present an intersectional politic that intermixes race and gender privilege with oppression, but we are often asked to mute our feminism and decenter ourselves in the name of blind racial solidarity. Talking about White patriarchy is okay, they say, but patriarchy in communities of colour must be taboo. The Movement, they say, requires a unified front. Feminism, they say, is a distraction from the Cause. Those of us who refuse to divorce our feminism from our race advocacy, they say, are misandrists and sellouts. Never mind, of course, that some of Asian America’s most dedicated civil rights legends — including Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Helen Zia and Patsy Mink — were self-identified Asian American feminists whose feminist work is treated as completely compartmentalized from their other advocacy.

To ask that feminists of colour be only feminist in feminist spaces, and only POC in POC spaces, is to ask the impossible: I cannot sometimes be only a woman and sometimes only be Asian American. I am both these things at all times; so too, therefore, are my politics.

Five years ago, long before Fresh Off The Boat became a runaway ABC sitcom hit, I wrote my first post on Eddie Huang. This was before Eddie was a star of Vice TV. This was before he was the author of a hit Asian American memoir. This was before Eddie Huang was a household name.

This was also way before Eddie Huang fucked up royally on Twitter last week.

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5 Reasons To Watch #FreshOffTheBoat Tonight

Randall Park and Constance Wu play the Huangs in ABC's Fresh Off The Boat.
Randall Park and Constance Wu play the Huangs in ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat.

Last week, Fresh Off The Boat debuted as book-ends to ABC’s Wednesday night powerhouse, Modern Family. Tonight, Fresh Off The Boat moves to its regular time-slot on Tuesday nights at 8pm.

Because everyone loves listicles, here are five reasons to tune your TV to ABC tonight at 8pm EST/PST and catch episodes 3 and 4 of Fresh Off The Boat:

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Disney-ABC to reach out to #AAPI moms for #FreshOffTheBoat!

Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang on ABC's new sitcom "Fresh Off The Boat"
Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang on ABC’s new sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat”

It’s no secret: Fresh Off The Boat has been hugely impactful to the AAPI community. One particular subset that has connected with the show are AAPI mothers, particularly first-generation parents who gravitate to Constance Wu’s funny, poignant and nuanced portrayal of an intelligent, fiercely passionate fish-out-of-water immigrant mother in Jessica Huang.

That may be at least partially why AAPI family bloggers reacted with such dismay earlier this week with news that a Disney-ABC mommy blogger junket that included a screening and cast meet-and-greet for Fresh Off  The Boat  and Big Hero 6 included no self-identifying Asian American or Pacific Islander family bloggers. Lack of AAPI representation at this junket was a missed opportunity to engage with the AAPI community surrounding programming of particular significance to us.

Yesterday, I blogged about why these kinds of promotional junkets are important, and how Disney-ABC could stand to benefit by increasing engagement with Asian American consumers.

Today, we’ve got some amazing news from this studio: it looks like Disney-ABC heard us!

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Yes, It Matters That #AAPI Bloggers were Left Off The #FreshOffTheBoat Bus

A photo uploaded to Instagram of bloggers boarding the #ABCTVEvent bus.
A photo uploaded to Instagram of bloggers boarding the #ABCTVEvent bus, which included a showing, and cast meet-and-greet for “Fresh Off The Boat”.

Fresh Off The Boat‘s debut this week has rocked the Asian American blogosphere to largely rave reviews (read my review). It has spawned hundreds of thinkpieces, many written by Asian American television viewers ecstatic to see themselves, their families, and their experiences included, for one of the first times, among the lineup of primetime television sitcoms.

Sadly, it seems that at Disney-ABC, this new commitment to diversity extends only as far as investing in a single 22 minute television show; when it comes to marketing and community outreach, the corporate powers-that-be have been seriously dropping the ball.

A week before Fresh Off The Boat premiered, some (former) marketing intern tweeted a bizarrely offensive graphic depicting stereotypical caricatures of people of colour beneath the headline “we’re all a little fresh off the boat” (picture after the jump).

Now, the folks behind Fresh Off The Boat are in hot water again for another marketing misstep related to the sitcom. Last month, Disney-ABC (the parent television group that oversees both Disney and ABC Television products) invited a bunch of people to an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles (#ABCTVEvent) to preview and meet the cast and crew of five shows and movies — including a number that intersect with the identities of communities of colours such as Fresh Off The BoatBig Hero 6, and McFarland USA. 24 bloggers — many of them mommy bloggers — were flown out to participate in this invitation-only junket; not a single one was Asian American.

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