LOS ANGELES – Randall Park grew up watching reruns of the TV western “Bonanza.” But what he saw left him confused.
“You think of yourself as a Cartwright and then realize that everyone sees you as a Hop Sing,” the actor says in the five-hour documentary “Asian Americans,” which examines the challenges that have faced the country’s fastest-growing racial group over the past century.
Park, one of dozens who were interviewed for the two-night documentary debuting Monday on PBS, went on to star in ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom that helped usher in a new wave of TV shows in which immigrants finally ride high in the saddle.
One-note bandleader Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy” has been outplayed by scene-stealing Cuban-American grandmother Lydia on the new “One Day at a Time,” who boasts of her U.S. citizenship while insisting her family not forget its roots. Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu from “The Simpsons” has been lapped by Devi, the Indian-American teenager in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” who grumbles about wearing a sari but prays to the Hindu gods.
The 1970s sitcom “Chico and the Man” may have targeted bigots, but it still hung onto clichés, like having Freddie Prinze’s fatherless character mangle the English language and depend financially on a white man. In 2020, the taco shop on Netflix’s “Gentefied” may not rake in big bucks, but at least its Mexican-American owners are calling their own shots.
“I didn’t grow up with a half-hour comedy about a Middle Eastern family. Most of the Middle Easterners I saw on TV were actively working against Jack Bauer on ‘24,’ ” said “Saturday Night Live” veteran Nasim Pedrad, who plays a Persian-American boy trying to navigate high school in an upcoming TBS series. “What’s exciting for me is creating something with humanity and depth. The only thing worse than no representation is a sweatier, contrived attempt at it.”
These new-generation characters are multidimensional and often conflicted, trying to honor their heritage while striving to be All-American. In short, they’re real.
In Netflix’s “Master of None,” Aziz Ansari’s Dev Shah respects his parents’ strict Muslim practices but sneaks out to attend a barbecue festival. The protagonist of “Ramy,” which returns to Hulu for a second season May 29, faithfully attends mosque but isn’t opposed to one-night stands.
“What does it feel like when you want to go to Mecca and you also want to go to Burning Man?” said creator and star Ramy Youssef, who won a Golden Globe for his performance this year. “I had never seen that played out before.”
People over politics
Many of these series strive to humanize the marginalized. But some viewers will also see them as Hollywood’s response to those who want to reduce immigration. That’s a fair assumption since these shows often were hatched during the debate over building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., the start of a crackdown on undocumented citizens and a string of hate crimes.
David Simon, best known for “The Wire,” originally passed on doing a TV version of Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America,” which reimagined a world in which the United States didn’t enter World War II, triggering a rash of anti-Semitism in an alternate-history 1940s. He eventually changed his mind.
“How wrong was I?” said Simon, whose HBO miniseries debuted in March. “The piece is incredibly relevant.”
In “Vida,” which returned to Starz for a third season last month, the Mexican-American characters in an L.A. neighborhood confront ICE. In Freeform’s reboot of “Party of Five,” the kids’ parents get deported, rather than die in a car accident as in the original run.
“Coyote,” set to debut on Paramount Network this year, is seen through the eyes of a conflicted border patrol agent. But star Michael Chiklis insists the drama was never designed to make a statement.
“We’re not going to proselytize. We’re not going to preach to you,” said Chiklis. “We’re just going to tell stories with all different points of view. It isn’t about this side or that side. It’s about people.”
The creators of “Little America,” an anthology series on Apple TV+ that shares a different immigrant’s story in every episode, are also wary of being perceived as a show with a liberal agenda.
“If you make it overly political, you’re taking the focus away from the people whose stories you’re trying to tell,” said executive producer Kumail Nanjiani, best known for “Silicon Valley” and “The Big Sick.” “But there are certain people who are going to see it as some radical political statement and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Still, the very fact that immigrants are taking center stage is a kind of statement, one that’s decades in the making.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu, who is featured in PBS’ “Asian Americans,” said all the pestering and protesting is starting to pay off.
“The reason it’s happening now is a result of us fighting,” said Kondabolu, who wrote and starred in “The Trouble With Apu,” the 2017 documentary that persuaded Hank Azaria to stop doing the voice of the only Indian-American regular on “The Simpsons.” “There were all those years of people saying, ‘Oh, that’s just one of those whiny organizations that represents some minority group saying they don’t like this portrayal’ or ‘Oh, there’s another academic paper on this.’
“Well, all those little jabs, they finally turned into a movement that helped shape what we see today.”
Joining the Club
Actor Tamlyn Tomita, like many of her contemporaries, is quick to give credit to the 1993 film “The Joy Luck Club,” which she appeared in.
“It presented a story that cut across generations of women and looked at the battle of having one foot in American culture and the other foot in another country,” said Tomita, who is currently starring in ABC’s “The Good Doctor.”
“To this day, I get comments from girls and mothers on how that story spoke to them on a personal level.”
The TV equivalent of “The Joy Luck Club” was 1994’s “All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho. But it took more than 20 years for the next Asian-American sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat,” to come along. And there was an ever-wider gap between “Joy Luck” and 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Part of the excuse has been the lack of first- and second-generation talent behind the scenes. That’s no longer the case.
Latinas dominated the writers’ room for this season of “Vida.” For each episode of “Little America,” producers strived to hire a director who shared the same heritage as the featured character.
When Amy Lippman decided to resurrect “Party of Five,” she made sure her staff reflected diversity. “I don’t think I realized until I got into the writers’ room with people who had very different life experiences than my own what value there was in having those voices in the room,” she said. “One of the greatest compliments I got was from a director who said he had never heard so much Spanish being spoken on a set.”
Despite mostly positive reviews, “Party” will not be returning for a second season. “Vida” has also not been renewed. But there is a great deal of optimism, especially with the rise of streaming services that are thirsty for fresh perspectives.
“Our old stories happen to be your new stories,” Tomita said. “You’re just getting a new set of glasses to see the world.”