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.

Inspired by Ken Jeong’s former life as an actual Los Angeles-area medical doctor, Dr. Ken invokes familiar sitcom tropes with its casting of Jeong as Dr. Ken Park, an abrasive physician and tortured father of two. Suzy Nakamura (alumna of the acclaimed The Second City improv troupe and series regular on The Closer) is Allison, the classic sitcom wife and mother: patient, long-suffering, practical,  whip-smart, and woefully underutilized. Rounding out the main cast are Krista Marie Yu (The Thundermans) and Albert Tsai (Trophy Wife) as the Parks’ precocious teenaged daughter, Molly, and oddball son, Dave.

Dr. Ken‘s pilot episode (which airs tonight at 8:30pm EST/7:30pm CST) is rough — as many show pilots are — and is premised around Ken’s struggle to come to grips with daughter Molly’s newly earned drivers license. For the show’s first episode, Jeong plays the role with his usual larger-than-life buffoonery, but with the comedian suddenly thrust into the role of show lead rather than side act, his characteristically exaggerated persona feels surprisingly and uncomfortably forced. Thankfully, by the show’s second episode (which I overwhelmingly enjoyed more than the first), Jeong has stopped screaming and has blunted enough of his comedy’s wilder edges to fit more snugly into the role of sitcom dad.

In fact, it is this choice to blunt Jeong’s humour that I think might underlie Dr. Ken‘s generally negative reception among television critics. In the New York Times, Mike Hale bemoans his “disappointment” at his inability to “laugh at” Jeong as he feels so effortlessly able to do with Hangover and Community. Could we finally be seeing the racial slapstick of Ken Jeong’s famous roles to be the double-edged sword it is? What does it say when critics are delighted by Jeong in the role of clown, but bemoan his performance when he is basically playing himself?

Filmed in multi-cam sitcom format with a laugh track and standardized writing formula, the show’s pacing, character interactions, and easy humour reminded me — in a good way — of Home Improvement and Full House, two sitcoms that I grew up watching while curled up on my living room floor. Yet, there was a striking novelty within this nostalgia: the classic sitcom format I had learned through White performers was being played out in Dr. Ken by a cast of Asian American characters.

Moreover, these are Asian Americans who are solidly Americanized. Missing from Dr. Ken are the usual writing tropes one has come to expect from pointedly Asian American works: the classic “where are you really from?” encounter, the smelly foods joke, the “you speak English so well” knowing eyeroll. Although a really bad Asian joke and a worse funny-talking Asian accent appears in the show’s pilot, these are among the most cringe-inducing moments of the episode — and gone by the show’s second episode. By Dr. Ken’s sophomore outing, Ken Park and his family are settled comfortably into the role of second-generation Asian Americans, where the jokes acknowledge but don’t laugh at racial identity. There’s something revolutionary about Dr. Ken‘s unremarkable sitcom normalcy.

I didn’t expect to find much in Dr. Ken that would appeal to me. Yet, like Ken, I am a second-generation Asian American in a STEM career. Like Ken, my partner is my rock. Like Ken, I am terrified by the concept of parenthood. It is an exceptionally weird feeling to find myself relating so completely with a sitcom character, let alone for the first time with a sitcom parent. Like Ken Jeong’s comedic styling, perhaps I, too, am growing up?

If so, maybe Dr. Ken is exactly the Asian American sitcom I’ve been waiting for.

Dr. Ken premieres tonight on ABC in its regularly scheduled timeslot at 8:30pm EST/7:30pm CST.

Read More: Jeff Yang’s incisive interview with Ken Jeong for Slate is a must read.

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