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In its (almost) three seasons on the air, AMC’s The Walking Dead has become one of the most successful television series on cable. Based on the comic book of the same name, the show follows a group of zombie apocalypse survivors as they make their way in this brave, new world.

There’s a lot about the show that makes it interesting—the fact that it openly rebels against many of the traditional “rules” of television yet remains hugely popular is impressive enough. But The Walking Dead also holds another notable distinction—it has given audiences what may be the most interesting Asian male character to ever appear as a regular on an American television series.

Now, I understand that’s a bold statement to make, but I stand by it because the character of Glenn (played by Korean American actor Steven Yeun) is three-dimensional in a way that Asian males are rarely allowed to be in Hollywood.

Granted we’ve come a long way since the days of Hop Sing on Bonanza with a number of non-stereotypical Asian males as regulars on television series including Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii 5-0, C.S. Lee on Dexter, Harry Shum Jr. on Glee, Danny Pudi on Community, John Cho on Go On and many others, but what I think sets Steven Yeun’s Glenn apart from even these impressive examples is the amazing arc we’ve seen him take in the course of the past three years. I can’t think of an Asian male character in another television series who has grown to be so interesting and complex in such a short amount of time.

In the first season, Glenn was more of the everyman–though with a special skill for getting in and out of zombie-infested hot spots quickly and efficiently. He was the nice guy we could see ourselves hanging out with, he was often the comedic relief providing levity amongst the bleakness, but it wasn’t clear how or if he’d grow beyond that. However, it was a great part for an Asian actor and I appreciated that Glenn was an all-American boy and not the foreigner that we’ve often come to expect in these situations (“hey, look, a Korean tourist survived and banded together with this group of survivors because apparently Asian Americans can’t seem to make the cut”).

In the second season, Glenn matured and gained a greater self-confidence, but more importantly, he found love with fellow survivor Maggie (Lauren Cohan). And if it’s rare to see an Asian male engaged in anything romantic or sex-related on American television, it’s even rarer to see him in a nuanced relationship that develops over time. Yes, it’s cool to see a brotha getting to knock boots with a hot white chick, but what’s even cooler is to see that coupling grow into the romantic heart of the series.

Which brings us to the current season and here’s where things get really interesting (minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t been keeping up). This season saw Glenn and Maggie taken prisoner by new baddie, the Governor. He was savagely beaten and tortured and we’ve seen the emergence of a much darker Glenn. This experience and the near rape of Maggie by the Governor have driven a wedge in their relationship and has also sparked a bloodlust for vengeance—this is a man who’d be unrecognizable to the Glenn of season one, yet the arc that brought him to this darker place feels completely organic. And when have you seen an Asian male character go through such a rich journey on a TV series?

There’s still a number of episodes left in the season so what Glenn chooses to do and what happens to him remain to be seen, but if what we’ve witnessed thus far is any indication, I’m fully expecting further pleasant surprises (though characters also tend to get off’ed with regularity on this show). The Walking Dead writers and producers should be given most of the credit for the development of the character, but Steven Yeun has been up to the acting challenge every step of the way and Glenn wouldn’t have become one of the most fascinating and endearing characters on the show without his nuanced performance. I’ve been talking to Steven about doing something with us at YOMYOMF and hope we can find something because he’s a seriously talented dude.

With that said—anyone disagree? Any Asian male who’s a regular on an American TV series that you think is a much better character than Glenn? Let me know in the comments below.

27 Comments

  1. Hear, hear! Do it!

  2. I’m a big fan of the walking dead, and glenn is one of my favourite characters. I think it’d be awesome if YOMYOMF had a project with Steven Yeun~~

  3. I agree–I think his performance is nuanced, his reactions delightful to watch, a truly likable everyman that I’ve yet to see in other fictional Asian characters.

  4. Jin from LOST.

    He went from an abusive Asian male caricature in his first flashback arc, to a man deeply in love with his wife, and later sacrificed his life to stay with her.

    “I can’t think of an Asian male character in another television series who has grown to be so interesting and complex in such a short amount of time.”

  5. Too bad he….
    [spoiler]
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    dies in the comic series, and very badly I might add. [/spoiler]

  6. Absolutely agree.

  7. Was reminded by a colleague that Steven has technically already worked with YOMYOMF. Check out his cameo at the start of Blowout Sale:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O22PTmj-svs&feature=share&list=SP2E4C8246DD101878

  8. @IWinCommentSection?

    Yeeeeaaaaaah. I didn’t see that coming. And turns out he fathered a fictional offspring too. Which will turn out not to be his anyway (because she was raped). How convenient this all is, if not utterly predictable. White power!

  9. Agree completely, Glenn is the “realest” Asian character on TV – kudos to Steven and the TWD writers for a job VERY well done. The difference between Glenn and Jin from Lost is that Jin’s “character development” was mostly a matter of us learning more about him and his past (although he did change some during his time on the island, mostly by breaking free from the restrictions that his culture, and especially his personal experiences within that culture, placed on him). In contrast, Glenn is developing in “real time” as we watch, maybe even more than any of the other characters. Can’t wait to see more!

  10. I don’t watch enough TV to compare Glenn to other Asian male characters, but I think this article is a great read! The last few episodes, I felt like Genn was too emotionally unstable to lead the group – due to his issues with the Governor, Maggie, and then Rick. But after the last episode (where we saw the Governor gearing up his people for war), I think I changed my mind. Glenn’s approach and attitude might be the right move after all. You’re right though, we never really saw an angry side to him until Season 3. Even in Season 2, he was ducking and dodging and scared to lose his life during gun battles.

  11. If I may clarify on behalf of the writer of this post…

    Glenn is the most interesting Asian AMERICAN male character on television. Jin wasn’t American. Glenn is from Michigan. Glenn’s presence helps to fight the image of Asians as the perpetual foreigner in America.

  12. i was just thinking about this the other day and everything you’ve said it right on point. i am amazed at the arc that he went through and although he might die this season or next, i’m glad that they expanded his role more than just the asian guy.

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  14. Keep an eye out for Christopher Larkin and his role as Monty in the upcoming new series from The CW called The 100. Korean American in a non stereotypical sci-fi drama. He was also in YOMYOMF’s “Squad 85”.

  15. i’ve also got Harry shum jr. as ‘mike Chang’ on glee, it isnt action but i love him too 😀 and ki-ong Lee as minho in ‘maze runner’

  16. Lucille is a vampire bat.