Rise of Asian leads in network TV shows, now ABC’s ‘Company’

Los Angeles, Feb. 17 (BNA): Fourth grader, Katherine Hina Kim couldn’t muster the courage to audition for the lead in her school’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But her teachers saw something in the way she stuck around in class.

“My teachers gave me the part because whenever I spoke, I was very moving and expressive,” said Kim. “When I did this play, I honestly think it’s one of the first times I felt visible and special in a way that I think I’ve never felt before.”

Kim’s teachers bungled a problem that stymied many Asian-Americans’ career paths, whether on screen, in the politburo, or in the executive suite: They received praise for being reliable and hard workers, but never seen as leadership material, the AP reports.

Across industries, Asian Americans have long suffered a decline due to unquestioned biases rooted in racial stereotypes. Employers often paint Asians as negative, lacking in attractiveness or not “culturally appropriate,” said Justin Chu, co-founder of the group Stand With Asian Americans.

Older Kim (“Ballers,” “Good Trouble”) is now enjoying the thrills and facing the pressures of being a lead on a much bigger stage: She’s starring opposite Milo Ventimiglia in the new ABC drama, “The Company You Keep,” which premieres on Sunday.

K-drama remake “My Fellow Citizens” focuses on the hot and heavy romance between Kim’s CIA agent and con artist Ventimiglia.

Given network television’s sad track record of failing to cast Asian actors as main characters and increasing competition from cable and streaming services, there is an unusual number of recent shows making a change.

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Recently aired series with Asian or Asian-American characters include “Quantum Leap” (Raymond Lee), “Kung Fu” (Olivia Liang), “Cleaning Lady” (Elodie Young), “NCIS: Hawaii” (Vanessa Lachi) and “ghosts” (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

Advocates disagree on whether this rise in visibility is a sign that Asian Americans are in fact gaining broader and meaningful representation. Over the past decade, there have been ups and downs.

For two years, ABC had two sitcoms with an all-Asian cast “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken” but the latter, starring Ken Jeong, was canceled after only two seasons.

In 2019, after Crazy Rich Asians became a hit at the box office, things looked promising, said Milton Liu, interim executive director of the Asian American Media Alliance, which puts out a diverse “report card” for rating broadcast networks.

That same year, six TV pilots with at least one Asian hero were ordered, but only one sitcom “Sunnyside” starring Kal Penn went to series, and it was canceled after 11 episodes.

Liu acknowledges that the current batch of offerings suggests things are “slowly getting better”. As a member of the Writers Guild of America, he tempered that assessment with a reminder of how difficult it can be to get a TV pilot just right.

Also, most of these broadcasts do not feature an all-Asian lead couple or squad. The conventional wisdom that many industry executives still hold is that casting a white actor as the title role will make the series relatable to more viewers, so it will be more profitable. Liu said the network’s viewer demographics are trained for older audiences, which skew mostly white.

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“We understand that,” he said. “But we also understand the importance of having shows like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ so that we’re not just sidelined.”

A Nielsen study found that two-thirds of Asian Americans feel there is not enough Asian representation on television. More than half say existing photos are inaccurate.

It was John M. Chu, executive producer of “The Company You Keep,” and director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” who suggested that agent Emma Hill be Asian American and have an onscreen family with a Korean American father and a Chinese American mother. The Hill family is also a political dynasty.

The on-camera character of Kim’s father (James Saito) is loosely inspired by former Washington Governor Gary Locke, the first Asian American governor on the mainland. The former US ambassador to China has no direct involvement, but described the contact as “fantastic” in an interview with the Associated Press.

In previous political roles that include serving as Secretary of Commerce under former President Barack Obama Locke, he has never lacked confidence in his ability to lead. He says it was anti-Asian racism that affected the way he was perceived by others.

In 2003, the FBI learned that he had been the target of an assassination plot by a white supremacist and anti-government extremist who “specifically said there was no way an Asian American could be a legitimate governor of Washington State,” Locke recalled.

Underestimating Asian Americans, Zhou said, from Standing with Asian Americans, dates back to the 19th century, when Chinese workers built America’s railroads.

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“Asian Americans, ever since we got to this place of working on the railroads, we’ve been given a fraction of what we deserve and seen as kind of workers rather than leaders,” Chu said.

Locke believes that seeing Asians and Asian Americans take charge on screen has an impact in real life.

“Just seeing more and more Asian Americans in all walks of life, even if it’s fictional, is important because it may be that they (viewers) are only exposed to Asian Americans in roles that they’re not used to,” Locke said.

Kim feels “lucky” to be sitting at the proverbial table with her new, leading character. Seeing her name at the top of the contact sheet is a whole new experience. As confident as she is now, sometimes the insecurities that once dodged that shy fourth grader persist.

Most of the time, I’m just like, ‘How does everyone do this? “I feel like my imposter syndrome is getting louder than ever.” “But I keep at it because it’s all mixed with this little kid’s dream feeling of being seen and recognized as special.”

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