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.
“We’re looking for someone that’s a little more… universal.”
This line — uttered by James Urbaniak’s character Fisher in Jennifer Phang and Jacqueline Kim’s new science fiction film Advantageous — hit me like a punch to the sternum.
Body transformation and body switching is a staple of science fiction, featured in movies like Face-Off, Xchange, and most recently Self/less. In most of these films, body switching is treated as a convenient plot device for wacky hijinx to ensue, typically devoid of serious consideration of race and gender politics.
In Advantageous, however, screenwriters Jennifer Phang and Jacqueline Kim (who also stars in the movie) offer a refreshing and long overdue take on the body switching concept. Informed, perhaps, by Phang and Kim’s own identities as women of colour, Advantageous focuses specifically on the ramifications of body switching technology on race, gender, and interpersonal identity. The resulting film is a deeply emotional exploration of one woman’s love for her daughter and, to my knowledge, one of the first Asian American feminist science fiction films in history.
The following post contains spoilers.
Last week, ABC made history by green-lighting two new sitcoms for their fall lineup that will include Asian American men in leading roles.
Earlier in the week, ABC announced it was picking up Selfie, a sitcom adaptation of My Fair Lady. Scottish actress Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) plays Eliza Dooley who enlists the help of Henry, an arrogant marketing expert (and likely love interest) played by John Cho (Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow, Harold & Kumar, Better Luck Tomorrow), to help her rebuild her image after a humiliating break-up goes viral and launches her social media presence into the stratosphere.
Selfie features a racially diverse cast, and with its pickup, Cho will join only a small handful of Asian American men currently on TV as lead characters in primetime sitcoms.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!