We rate the sitcoms that have brought Asian family life to the forefront of pop culture consciousness.
Master of None
The A Student
In a nutshell… this dazzling Netflix sitcom, which premiered last November to rave reviews, revolves around Dev, an aspiring 30-something actor of Indian-American descent who tries to find love and success in New York City.
Watch it for… Aziz Ansari and his acerbic views on big-city life and privilege. Aside from his starring role as Dev, the ‘Parks and Recreation’ alum is also the co-creator of this wildly acclaimed show.
The premise sounds familiar… but the ambition and execution of ‘Master of None’ is second to none. Throughout the first season’s ten episodes, Ansari manages to poke fun at various #firstworldproblems plaguing today’s Social Media Generation, from spending a ludicrous amount of time consulting the internet for the trendiest food in town to Uber-ordering etiquette while on a date.
So, it’s kind of like ‘Girls’… but less grating and more upbeat, with likeable characters you can root for facing more profound issues. Case in point: The debut season’s most talked-about episode, ‘Parents’, involves flashbacks of the immigrant stories of Dev’s parents (played by Ansari’s actual mum and dad) and their initial struggles in America. Meanwhile, the brilliant ‘Indians on TV’ episode is a biting satire about ethnic casting and stereotypes in television and Hollywood as a whole.
‘Master of None’ is groundbreaking… and also just plain ol’ excellent. Sure, the diversity of the cast received plenty of press attention upon its premiere – and rightly so – but ultimately, ‘Master of None’ ranks among the finest and snappiest comedies in modern television because of its stellar cast, outstanding writing and clear ethos.
As if the series wasn’t well rounded enough… ‘Master of None’ also succeeds as a rom-com. Dev falls for Noël Wells’s Rachel – a cool music PR executive reminiscent of Gretchen from ‘You’re The Worst’ sans the cynicism and nastiness – and the sheer unpredictability of their relationship evokes memories of indie films like ‘(500) Days of Summer’ and ‘While We’re Young’.
Fresh Off The Boat
The Class Clown
In a nutshell… this hilarious ABC comedy, which is inspired by the childhood of food personality Eddie Huang and his book ‘Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir’, premiered last February. Set in the mid-1990s, season one opened with 12-year-old Eddie’s Taiwanese family relocating to Orlando, Florida from Washington, DC’s Chinatown and follows their myriad misadventures in adjusting to life in a new town.
Watch it for… Constance Wu. She plays Jessica, Eddie’s no-nonsense mother who steals almost every scene she’s in. With her penchant for tough love and tiger-mum tendencies, she is evocative of every other Chinese auntie you’ve ever known or will meet.
It’s kind of like ‘Black-ish’… except the Huangs, unlike the well-to-do Johnsons, live a more modest, penny-pinching existence. Louis, the head of the Huang household, uproots his family in order to open a cowboy-themed steakhouse in Orlando and embraces the concept of the ‘American Dream’. Meanwhile, Eddie, an ardent hip hop aficionado with a rebellious streak and a fascination with Shaquille O’Neal, is the oldest of three brothers – his overachieving, adorable siblings Emery and Evan are distinctively more straight-laced.
The theme of self-discovery is universal… but the fact that ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ deftly explores topics like heritage and identity from an Asian standpoint elevates this series beyond a run-of-the-mill ‘Modern Family’ knockoff. In the memorable ‘Philip Goldstein’ episode, for instance, Eddie is paired with a new Chinese Jewish student named Philip at school for a project plainly because of their race. When Jessica, who struggles with adapting traditional Asian values to suburban American life, finds out that Philip is soft-spoken and plays the cello, she immediately brands him a ‘good Chinese boy’ and hopes Eddie can emulate him.
In a nutshell… Ken Jeong of ‘Community’ and ‘The Hangover’ trilogy fame is the mastermind behind this middling ABC production. Debuting last October to largely poor reviews, ‘Dr. Ken’ is about the ill-mannered titular physician and his fairly typical TV family (naïve, nerdy son + sassy, popular daughter + successful career-woman wife who happens to be an awful cook = ‘Black-ish’ in disguise?).
Ken Jeong used to be a doctor… before he became the high-profile comedian we know today – his medical experiences form the basis of this series, which can only be described as generic and unimaginative. Surprising, considering that Jeong is renowned for his uninhibited, wild-and-free shtick.
The Parks are as American a family as it gets… and that’s okay. ‘Dr. Ken’ doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel nor does it try to get involved in debates over race relations. As far as the show is concerned, the central family just happens to be Korean. Ken and his wife Suzy, an accomplished therapist, face the same challenges as most overprotective parents of teenagers and tweens around the world (and in ‘Modern Family’): drinks, parties, boundaries, school projects.
Ken’s workplace is where… the fun is. His wacky colleagues can get a tad over-the-top and caricature-like – Jonathan Slavin’s Clark, an insecure nurse, is the main culprit – but at least there’s potential for unpredictability here, something that’s in too limited a supply on the rather lifeless ‘Dr. Ken’.
More Asian characters on TV
Josh Chan in 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'
One of the revelations of the 2015 fall TV season, ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ did the unthinkable and cast a hunky Filipino-American actor (Vincent Rodriguez III) as the easy-like-Sunday-morning Californian love interest. Not a doctor, not a dweeb… but an Asian surfer dude. As a bonus, this critically lauded (albeit criminally little-watched) musical-dramedy also shed light on Filipino food and culture during a recent Thanksgiving episode.
Han Lee in '2 Broke Girls'
How ‘2 Broke Girls’ is still on air is the biggest TV mind-boggler since ‘Lost’. One can only hope that this near-unwatchable comedy’s unfathomable nine lives are not down to Matthew Moy’s portrayal of Han Lee, an effeminate and work-first Asian-American diner boss who is regularly ridiculed for his second-rate English and failure to grasp the American way of life.
Ravi Chakrabarti in 'iZombie'
The Lovable Geek
It’s fair to say that Ravi, played by Rahul Kohli, has some of the best zingers on this top-shelf CW dramedy about Seattle’s undead. He’s an avid gamer, an expert medical examiner and the caring boss of Liv, the lead character whom he tries to find a zombie cure for. His British accent is also definitely a plus-point.