Rise of Asian leads in network TV shows, now ABC’s ‘Company’
In fourth grade, Catherine Haena Kim could not muster the courage to audition for the female lead of her school’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But her teachers saw something in the way she held herself in the classroom.
“My teachers actually gave me the part because whenever I did speak up, I was very animated and expressive,” Kim said. “When I did this play, I honestly think it’s one of the first times I actually felt seen and special in a way that I think I really hadn’t before that.”
Kim’s teachers subverted a problem that has frustrated many Asian Americans’ career trajectories, whether on screen, in political office or in an executive suite: receiving praise for being reliable, hard workers, but never quite being perceived as leadership material.
Across industries, Asian Americans have long been held back by unquestioned biases rooted in racial stereotypes. Employers often paint Asians as passive, lacking in gravitas or not a “cultural fit,” said Justin Zhu, co-founder of the advocacy group Stand with Asian Americans.
An all grown-up Kim (“Ballers,” “Good Trouble”) is now reveling in the thrill and facing the pressure of being the lead on a much bigger stage: She stars opposite Milo Ventimiglia in the new ABC drama, “The Company You Keep,” which premieres Sunday. A remake of the Korean drama “My Fellow Citizens,” it centers on the hot and heavy romance between Kim’s CIA agent and Ventimiglia’s con artist.
Given network TV’s woeful record of failing to cast Asian actors as main characters — and increased competition from cable and streaming services — there is an extraordinary number of recent shows that are making change. Other recent broadcast series with Asian or Asian American leads include “Quantum Leap” (Raymond Lee), “Kung Fu” (Olivia Liang), “The Cleaning Lady” (Élodie Yung), “NCIS: Hawai’i” (Vanessa Lachey) and “Ghosts” (Utkarsh Ambudkar).
Advocates are mixed on whether this rise in visibility is a sign that Asian Americans are actually gaining wider, meaningful representation. Over the last decade, there have been ups and downs: For two years, ABC even had two sitcoms with all-Asian casts — “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken” — but the latter, starring Ken Jeong, was nixed after only two seasons.
In 2019, after “Crazy Rich Asians” became a box-office hit, things looked promising, said Milton Liu, interim executive director of the Asian American Media Alliance, which puts out a diversity “report card” rating the broadcast networks. That same year, six TV pilots with at least one Asian lead were ordered but only one — sitcom “Sunnyside” starring Kal Penn — went to series, and it was canceled after 11 episodes.
Liu concedes that the current crop of shows indicate things are “improving slowly.” A member of the Writers Guild of America, he tempered that assessment with a reminder of how difficult it is just to get a TV pilot made.
Also, most of these broadcast shows don’t showcase an Asian main couple or all-Asian ensemble. The conventional wisdom that many industry executives still hold firm to is that casting a white actor as the lead will make a series relatable to more viewers, so it will be more profitable. Liu said that demographics for network viewers are trained to older audiences, which skew predominantly white.
“We understand that,” he said. “But we also understand the importance of having shows like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ so that we aren’t just marginalized.”
A Nielsen Company study found that two-thirds of Asian Americans feel there is not enough Asian representation on TV. More than half say the depictions that do exist are inaccurate.
It was “The Company You Keep” executive producer Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” who suggested that agent Emma Hill be Asian American — and have an on-screen family with a Korean American father and Chinese American mother. The Hill family is also a political dynasty.
The character of Kim’s on-camera father (James Saito) is loosely inspired by former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the first Asian American governor on the mainland. The former U.S. ambassador to China has no direct involvement, but called the connection “awesome” in an interview with the AP.
In past political roles — which include serving as commerce secretary under former President Barack Obama — Locke never lacked confidence in his ability to lead. It was anti-Asian racism that colored how he was perceived by others that was the problem, he says.
In 2003, the FBI learned he was the target of an assassination plot by a white supremacist and anti-government extremist who “specifically said that there’s no way that an Asian American could be a legitimate governor of the state of Washington,” Locke recalled.
Zhu, of Stand with Asian Americans, said that underestimating Asian Americans goes back to the 1800s, when Chinese laborers built the U.S. railroads.
“Asian Americans, since we’ve gotten to this place from working on the railroad, we’ve been paid a fraction of what we deserve and have been seen as sort of workers but not leaders,” Zhu said.
Locke believes seeing Asians and Asian Americans taking charge on-screen does have an impact in real life.
“Just seeing more more Asian Americans in all walks of life — even if it’s fictitious — is important because that may be their (viewers’) only exposure to Asian Americans in roles that they’re not accustomed to,” Locke said.
Kim feels like a “lucky chosen one” because she has a seat at the proverbial table with her new, leading character status. Seeing her name at the top of the call sheet is a brand-new experience. Despite the confidence she now has, sometimes the insecurities that once dodged that timid fourth-grader persist.
“Most of the time, I’m just like ‘How does everybody do this?’ I feel my imposter syndrome blaring louder than ever,” Kim said. “But I keep going because it’s all mixed in with that feeling a little kid dreams of” — of being seen and recognized as special.
Terry Tang is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at @ttangAP.