I’m finally caught up on the new season of ABC’s Friday night comedy DR. KEN–where COMMUNITY’s Ken Jeong plays a Korean American doctor struggling with issues both at work and home–and I think I can say with a fair degree of confidence that DR. KEN has the best portrayals of Asian men on American TV.
Now I know the bar hasn’t been set too high–Hollywood’s history with Asian men on both the small and big screens has been pretty dismal with the Charlie Chans, Fu Manchus and Long Duk Dongs often the norm, but that doesn’t take away from DR. KEN’s accomplishment because the show doesn’t feature just one fully developed Asian male character or even two, but a whole cavalcade of Asian dudes from series regulars to recurring parts to guest stars. Whether it’s Jeong’s Dr. Ken himself or his dad’s poker buddies, Asian and Asian American men are a regular presence on the show and presented without stereotypes, as a subversion of stereotypes, or minus the usual token tropes that we’ve become accustomed to (i.e. the nameless Chinese delivery guy).
Here are some examples:
Yes, Jeong’s character is often the bumbling butt of the joke, but that’s only one aspect of the character. He’s also a loving husband to wife Allison (Suzy Nakamura) and father to two children (Albert Tsai and Krista Marie Yu) as well as a good doctor who loves his job and enjoys the occasional stand-up gig as a side hustle. He may not be perfect, but he’s someone who’s always trying to be a better person which makes him relatable and sympathetic.
DAVE (Albert Tsai)
Ken’s son could’ve been a stereotypical nerd but the character and Tsai’s take on him includes a fair helping of a biting wit and off-kilter sense-of-humor that makes him unique.
D.K. (Dana Lee)
In many ways, Ken’s traditional Korean father is the stoic Asian immigrant parent we’ve seen before, but especially in this new season as the character deals with his divorce, moving back in with his grown son, and finding love for the first time in decades, he’s become a stand-out favorite.
JAE (Justin Chon)
As the recurring love interest of Yu’s Molly, Jae was initially presented as someone Molly had no interest in–just a boy D.K. wanted to set his granddaughter up with and Molly wasn’t going to have any of that traditional Korean matchmaking shit. But once they met…come on, I’m a raging heterosexual guy and even I have no doubt that JC is dreamy!
TOPHER (Danny Pudi)
If we’re talking non-stereotypical roles, Jeong’s COMMUNITY co-star played the asshole, manipulative ex-boyfriend of season 1’s Julie (Kate Simses) whom she still had a thing for. Yes, Asian men can be dicks too.
KEVIN O’CONNELL (Will Yun Lee)
Lee played Allison’s hunky “Irish/Korean” ex-boyfriend. As written, this part should’ve gone to a hunky white Irish American dude, but Jeong pushed for Lee.
There have been other memorable appearances by Asian American men, including ALL-AMERICAN GIRL’s Clyde Kusatsu and FRESH OFF THE BOAT’s Randall Park and Ian Chen, which also makes DR. KEN the show that’s probably cast more Asian American males than any other network TV series (again, not a high bar but still impressive nonetheless).
Which brings me to my final point: why Asian American representation is important not only in front of the camera, but behind it. Jeong isn’t just the star of the show but its creator and producer as well and that has made all the difference.
When Jeong had his career breakthrough with THE HANGOVER, some in the Asian American community found his portrayal of an “effeminate” gangster to embody the worst stereotypes of Asian men–all the way down to his small dick. But regardless of how you felt about the movie, it’s become clear in hindsight that Jeong was just biding his time–working hard and taking any and all roles that would move him up another rung on the Hollywood ladder until he got to the point when he could finally assert the type of creative control to allow him to do things like make sure his TV wife’s hunky Irish ex-boyfriend was played by a hunky Korean American actor. It’s doubtful that the show would’ve given so many opportunities to Asian American actors–both male and female–had someone like Jeong not been calling the shots behind the scenes.
DR. KEN isn’t the type of show that’s going to sweep all the critic’s awards, but I would argue it’s significance to the American pop culture landscape might be greater than anything else on TV at the moment. As a kid, I grew up watching ABC’s popular family-friendly Friday night comedy line-up (“TGIF”) and I never saw anyone who looked like me. In fact, seeing a three-dimensional Asian character didn’t even feel like it was in the realm of possibility because you rarely saw one Asian face on network TV, much less a whole family plus a cast of additional characters to boot.
To have a show like DR. KEN exist in something like ABC’s prime TGIF slot is important not just because it’s unprecedented, but because it’s also so, well…unexceptional. Multiple Asian faces on one series representing all different types from all walks of life? That’s not just pioneering, but downright normal.