Since its earliest days, American television screens have never looked much like American reality. Network executives have apparently never been comfortable with too many Asians being on the small screen at one time. Asian sidekicks are alright, as are Asian guest stars. A non-recurring Asian love interest is acceptable, provided the character is female. There have been only a handful of television shows starring Asians and even fewer with primarily Asian casts. [UPDATE — this post was originally written in 2012 and since then the number of Asians on network television has begun to grow].
Meanwhile, the internet has become the great democratizer, allowing Asian-Americans (and Canadians) like Christine Gambito, Michelle Phan, Freddie W, Fung Bros, Jessica Lizama, Kev Jumba, Kevin Wu, Nikki Limo, Peter Chao, Ryan Higa, Timothy Traphik DeLaGhetto, Wong Fu Productions and others to garner millions of followers each and in the process become internet celebrities, if not terrestrial television ones. Nowadays there are far more Asian-American (and Anglo-Asian diaspora) web series than network shows and while television slowly adapts, at this rate it may cease to exist before it even begins to resemble its audience.
In the other corner, television, which though having existed for many more decades than web series, is rather more anemic. Consider this short timeline of Asian-American television, drawn from network, cable, and syndicated series.
[ANOTHER UPDATE: Since 2012 network appliances like Apple TV and Roku as well the advent of original content from streaming sites like Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix have practically erased distinctions between television series and web series so I’ve begun adding that latter to the timeline].
THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG (1951)
The first American show with an Asian lead was obscure The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which ran only ten episodes from 27 August to 21 November in 1951 on the DuMont Television Network (which itself only existed between 1946 and 1956). It starred Chinese-American, former silent film superstar Anna May Wong as a detective. It was cancelled after one season and no episodes are known to exist today.
THE AMAZING CHAN AND THE CHAN CLAN (1972)
In 1972, CBS aired The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. It may’ve been a cartoon but many of the voice actors were Asian, including Keye Luke, who provided the voice for Chan (and was the only actor of Chinese descent to play Charlie Chan in any screen adaptation). In fact, when it debuted all of the voices were provided by Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) actors except for the talking dog (this was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon so it had mystery, a band made up of kids, a magic vehicle and a talking dog). However, most of the voices were subsequently re-dubbed by non-Asian actors (including Jodie Foster). Sixteen episodes aired in all.
MR. T & TINA (1976)
The third American TV show starring an Asian-American had a very short run. Mr. T and Tina, a spin-off ofWelcome Back, Kotter starring Pat Morita, ran for only five episodes in the fall of 1976. Morita starred asTaro Takahashi, a Japanese inventor married to a ditzy, white American, Tina Kelly. According to the recollections of the few that remember it, hilarity didn’t really ensue.
GUNG HO (1986-1987)
The fourth TV series with mostly Asian-American stars was the short-lived Gung Ho, adapted from the Ron Howard film of the same name that opened earlier in the year (1986). In addition to Heidi Lawson, Scott Bakula, and Stephen Lee; the nine-episode series co-starred Gedde Watanabe, Patti Yasutake, Rodney Kageyama, Sab Shimono, and Scott Atari.
Sidekicks was the first Asian-American show made for and aired on cable television. It co-starred Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Ernie Lee, the Last Electric Knight, and Gil Gerard as Sergeant Jake Rizzo. It aired between 26 September, 1986 till 13 June, 1987. Disney would revisit the formula of Asian kid who masters martial arts with the training of an elder with their Brenda Song film, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2008).
Ohara, was the second Asian-American television show to star Pat Morita, this time as Lt. Ohara. It ran for 30 episodes from 17 January, 1987 till 7 May, 1988. Of course Ohara used martial arts and spoke in fortune cookie/Charlie Chan-esque epigrams.
VANISHING SON (1995)
Vanishing Son was the first Asian-American show made for syndication. It ran from 16 January, following the airing of four Vanishing Son TV movies in 1994. Hunky star Russell Wong played a foreigner – in this case a fugitive Chinese musician named Jian-Wa Chang. It was cancelled after thirteen episodes.
ALL-AMERICAN GIRL (1994-1995)
All-American Girl starred actress/comedian Margaret Cho and depicted her as and her family in TV’s second Asian-American sitcom. It’s notable for being the first American TV show with an entirely Asian starring-cast (rounded out by Amy Hill, B.D. Wong, Clyde Kusatsu, J.B. Quon, and Jodi Long). It was also the first TV series to star an American-born Asian actually playing an American-born Asian rather than an Asian-born foreigner — a fact underlined by the series’s title. Nonetheless, an “Asian Consultant” was hired to teach the Korean-American star of the semi-autobiographical show how to “act more Asian.” It ran for nineteen episodes between 14 September, 1994 and 15 March, 1995.
MARTIAL LAW (1998-2000)
Martial Law starred Chinese actor Sammo Hung as Sammo Law, but was an American-Canadian co-production that aired on CBS so I’ve chosen to include it. It was also set in Los Angeles and I am a big fan of Sammo Hung’s (and Kelly Hu is hard to find fault with) with but as Hung barely knew any words of English, many scenes Hung had no lines of dialogue.
RELIC HUNTER (1999-2002)
Relic Hunter wasn’t an American series – it was Canadian. However, it did star an Asian-American tough, in this case, Hawaiian-born Pinay, Tia Carrere. It ran much longer than its American predecessors, lasting three seasons and 66 episodes total between 1999 and 2002. One possibility is that Canadian network officials gave it a fairer shake. Of course, another possibility was Carrere’s sex appeal. As Wayne Campbell expressed of Carrere’s “Cassandra” character in Wayne’s World, “She’s a fox. In French, she would be called ‘la renarde’ and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.” I never watched the show but do remember it being promoted with billboards promising “dangerous curves ahead” so I reckon sex was a big factor.
THE CHANG FAMILY SAVES THE WORLD (2002 – unaired pilot)
The Chang Family Saves The World didn’t make it past the pilot stage. That audition program was filmed for ABC in 2002 and never aired. The pilot, written and produced by John Ridley, starred the mixed race Nia Peeples (her maternal grandparents with Filipino mestizos) as “Pearl Empress.” The rest of the cast was rounded out by Asian-Americans including Lauren Tom, Dante Basco, Byron Mann, and Melanie Jayne.
I GOT YOU (2002 – unaired pilot)
Another John Ridley effort for ABC that didn’t make it past the pilot stage. I Got You was to have been a comedy starring Ming-Na Wen. Her co-stars in the pilot included fellow Asian actors Burt Bulos, Eric Kan, and Suzy Nakamura.
A SHOT AT LOVE WITH TILA TEQUILA (2007-2008)
Tila Tequila (née Tila Nguyen) was a popular import model who starred in the “reality” show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, in which she “played” a bisexual in search of love. She courted 32 contestants — male and female. It debuted at No. 1 in its time slot and was MTV’s second highest-rated debut series that year (2007), seemingly disproving conventional TV wisdom about Asian-American leads (at least female) and simultaneously re-affirming the ancient adage, “sex sells.”
THE CHO SHOW (2008)
Perhaps the producers of The Cho Show were encouraged by Tila Tequila’s success when they decided to give Margaret Cho another shot at TV with a reality series/sitcom. The Cho Show debuted 21 August, 2008 on VH1 and concluded seven episodes later, on 25 September.
Katana was a web series about a sibling rivalry between Yakuza directed by Richard Cranor and starring Yuji Okumoto, John Koyama, Don Tai, Sam Looc, Ned Luke, and Al Goto. As far as I can tell, only a pilot was made.
Lumina was a web series written and directed by Jennifer Thym and starring JuJu Chan and Michael Chan. The plot centered on overworked Lumina, who forms a relationship with a man only visible in reflections.
Manivore was a web series which starred Grace Su as Annie Chew, a woman who loves to cook and who finds love with Roger, played by Taylor Humphries.
ON THE CLOCK (2009-2011)
On the Clock was a web series produced by the Center for Asian American Media following the work lives of the organization’s employees.
I AM ASIAN, HOW ARE YOU? (2010)
I Am Asian, How Are You? was a web series about an eternal optimist named Scot Su.
KTOWN COWBOYS (2010)
Ktown Cowboys was a nine-episode web series written by Danny Cho, directed by Daniel Park, and starring an almost entirely Korean-American cast, including guest stars Bobby Lee and Vivian Bang. The plot revolved around Johnny (Lanny Joon), a transplant to Los Angeles’s Koreatown who’s taken in by a group of hard-partying residents of the neighborhood. In 2015 it was adapted into a film of the same name.
Half-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q stars in Nikita, a CW series that has, to date, aired for 45 episodes, beginning with its debut on 9 September, 2010. In it, Q plays a vengeful former assassin and spy in a role adapted from the French film of the same name.
HAWAII FIVE-0 (2010- )
Two of four stars of Hawaii Five-0 are Asian-American, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park (who, though born in the US, is a Canadian citizen). Reflecting the fact that Hawaii’s largest racial group is Asian-American, many of the recurring charaters and guest stars are also played by Asian-Americans. It debuted 20 September, 2010 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. In 2011, it entered the Guinness World Records for “Highest-Rated New Show in the U.S.” when the episode “Kai e’e” garnered 19.34 million viewers. And whereas there’s a long tradition of fetishization of Asian women in American culture, the fact that a Google search of “Daniel Dae Kim” brings up related searches of “Daniel Dae Kim shirtless” and “Daniel Dae Kim muscles” probably reflects changing mainstream attitudes about Asian-American men as well… at least as far as objectification goes.
Another show that debuted in September, 2010 was NBC‘s Outsourced. Many of its stars were Indians from Canada, England, Germany, South Africa, and the United States (and in only a couple of cases, India). The plot concerned a white American being transferred to India, and thus Asians from several continents played Asian Asians (i.e. foreigners). I haven’t seen it but it seems to have garnered a strong but small following. Nevertheless, it wasn’t renewed for the 2012 season.
THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID (2010-)
That’s What She Said is a web series which explores the lives of “five different queer-identified characters living in the greater Los Angeles area.“
MIXED BLOOMS (2011)
Mixed Blooms was a web series about the integrated Fluge family, whose members run a flower shop in a small suburb.
Mythomania is Derek Kirk Kim‘s web series about a group of emerging cartoonists, based on his comic TUNE.
SuperTwins! was a web series about Karin and Kai, two fraternal super twins living in New York.
ALFIE THE OFFICE DOG (2012)
Alfie the Office Dog stars Alfie, a dog, and his attempts at confessing his love to his human co-worker Jenn, portrayed by Alice Wen.
AWAY WE HAPPENED (2012)
Away We Happened was a web series starring Chris Dinh and Jen “Frmheadtotoe” Chae as two strangers whose luggage gets swapped at an airport and the relationship which subsequently evolves between them.
CHOP SOCKY BOOM (2012)
Chop Socky Boom was a web series created by Darlene Sellers and Heath Ward starring Khan Doan as an actress who, along with her friends, are attempting to complete the filming of a kung fu picture, Final Zodiac Warrior.
Elementary is a contemporary update of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes literary series. It co-stars Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as his foil, Dr. Watson. It premiered on CBS on 27 September 2012.
THE HO’S ON 7TH AVENUE (2012)
The Ho’s on 7th Avenue was a web series.
HOME IS WHERE THE HANS ARE
Home Is Where The Hans Are was a web series co-produced by Wong Fu Productions and Fremantle Media (American Idol).
K-Town was a reality series in the vein of Jersey Shore or Geordie Shore but about a group of Korean-Americans (mostly — Scarlet Chan is Chinese). It ran for two seasons, with Cammy Chung only appearing in season one, and Christine Chang filling in for season 2.
MODEL MINORITY (2012)
Model Minority is a web series starring as Chantria Tram as May Chen, a young lawyer in Montreal.
Mother Lover was a web series produced by You Offend Me You Offend My Family.
NICE GIRLS CREW (2012)
Nice Girls Crew was a web series revolving around Sophie (Lynn Chen), Leena (Sheetal Sheth), and Geraldine (Michelle Krusiec), a group of Angeleno women who’ve been friends since elementary school and form a book club in which they never discuss books.
ONE WARM NIGHT (2012-2013)
One Warm Night was a web series comedy/mystery about a a group of friends who are part of a murder plot.
PRISON DANCER (2012)
Prison Dancer was an interactive, Canadian web series inspired by the video of prisoners in the Philippines‘ prison depicting prisoners dancing to “Thriller.”
SILENT TERROR (2012)
Silent Terror was an horror anthology web series. Although the filmmakers involved were foreign — Joko Anwar (Indonesia), Erik Matti (the Philippines), Noboru Iguchi (Japan), and Woo Ming-Jin (Malaysia) — it was created and produced by Justin Lin (Buena Park) and Anderson Le (Palolo Valley).
SULLIVAN & SON (2012-2014)
Popular half-Irish/half-Korean stand-up comic Steven Byrne co-wrote and co-created the pilot for Sullivan & Son with with Rob Long. In it he stares as the son of an Irish-American father (played by Dan Lauria ofThe Wonder Years) and a Korean-American mother (played by Jodi Long of All American Girl). His sister is played by Vivian Bang (best known as Soo-Mi in Yes Man). TBS ordered ten episodes in February, 2012 with a premiere date set for this coming summer.
VIDEO GAME HIGH SCHOOL (2012-2014)
Video Game High School was a web series produced by Freddie Wong‘s Rocket Jump Studios. It was set in a near future where video gaming is the world’s most popular competitive sport.
CAR TALK WITH SUNG KANG (2012)
Car Discussion with Sung Kang was originally going to be known as Car Talk with Sung Kang but it seems was retitled after its producers, You Offend Me You Offend My Family, received a letter from the lawyers of NPR‘s most popular program, Car Talk.
THE MINDY PROJECT (2012- )
The Mindy Project stars Tamil-Bengali-American actress Mindy Kaling as a physician named Mindi Lahiri. The plot was greenlighted by FOX in May, 2012. The series is due to debut on 25 September, 2012
WHEN IT COUNTS (2012)
When it Counts was an interactive web series, produced by Wong Fu Productions and AT&T. The plot concerned four friends on a college hip-hop dance team.
BABY MENTALIST (2013)
NORMAL GAYS (2013)
Normal Gays was Tommy Do‘s web series about “normal gays who normally talk about normal things.”
RILEY REWIND (2013)
ROLL MODELS (2013)
The producers of K-Town returned with Roll Models, a reality show about Asian-American import models and go-go dancers.
AWESOME ASIAN BAD GUYS (2014)
Awesome Asian Bad Guys was a web series about a group of Asian character actors who join forces to fight crime in Los Angeles.
BFFs was a web series produced by You Offend My You Offend My Family about four best friends Jessica, Courtney, Betsey, and Sam.
Selfie starred Karen Gillan and John Cho, and debuted on 30 September 2014. The characters they played were named Eliza Dooley and Henry Higgs — a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion. It was cancelled on 7 November of the same year. Only seven episodes having aired, the remaining five episodes were released on Hulu and WatchABC.
DR. KEN (2015-)
Dr. Ken was created by Ken Jeong, who worked as a doctor before launching his career as a comedian and actor. It co-stars Suzy Nakamura, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Jonathan Slavin, Albert Tsai, Krista Marie Yu, Kate Simses, and Dave Foley. It debuted on ABC on 2 October 2015.
Fresh Off the Boat follows a Taiwanese-American family in the 1990s and is based on the memoir of Eddie Huang. The first episode was co-written by Sanjay Shah and Nahnatchka Khan. The Taiwanese family is played by Korean-American actor Randall Park and Chinese-American actors Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, and Lucille Soong. The series debuted in 2015.
MASTER OF NONE (2015-)
Master of None premiered on 6 November 2015, on Netflix. It was created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, and stars the former in the lead role of Dev, a 30-year-old actor living in New York City.
Millions is a web series about a group of twenty-something Canadians with the shared goal of becoming millionaires before thirty.
Quantico debuted on 27 September 27 2015 and stars actress Priyanka Chopra (as Alex Parrish), a suspect in the commission of a terrorist attack.
So there you have it, a handful of mostly-obscure American shows (and one Canadian) in roughly 65 years of TV. The frequency with which Asian-Americans star in television series has increased in the recent past but neither kept pace with the internet nor demographic trends. In Los Angeles, where most American television series are filmed (and many are set), Asian-Americans make up roughly 14% of the population — the city’s largest racial minority and its fastest growing. Color may’ve been introduced as a technology to television more than 60 years ago but today, for the most part, it remains frustratingly black and white.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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