A Brief History of Asian Americans on Television

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Those who have still not recovered from the tragic loss of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 can finally draw their mourning period to a close. Former showrunner Nahnatchka Khan just received a pilot order from ABC, and it’s a far cry from the two-single-gals-in-the-city premise of her last project. An adaptation of Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat, the would-be series is a family sitcom based on Huang’s experiences as a Taiwanese American growing up in Orlando. Combined with the news that Margaret Cho will co-star in Fox’s upcoming Tina Fey-produced comedy, it’s a promising development for Asian-American representation on television. To put it in perspective, here’s a brief, non-comprehensive history of Asian Americans’ role in the medium, from George Takei to Lucy Liu.

The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong

A successful film actress who’d previously spoken out against both the whitewashing of Chinese roles and racial stereotyping in the industry, Anna May Wong became the first Asian American to play a television series lead in 1951 with this short-lived DuMont Network mystery, centered on a crime-solving gallery owner. After broadcasting only ten half-hour episodes, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong was abruptly canceled, and no copies survived the discarding of DuMont’s archives in the early 1970s. With a title derived from Wong’s birth name, the show marked a coup for an actress who was once denied the leading role in the film version of The Good Earth in favor of German colleague Louise Rainer.

Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi series may not have featured an Asian-American actor as its protagonist, but Hikaru Sulu nonetheless represented a landmark moment for Asian-American representation on screen. Unlike The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, Star Trek enjoyed massive audiences and popularity, serving as a launching pad for the career of George Takei, now one of the internet’s most beloved celebrities. Between Sulu and Uhura, Star Trek’s use of three-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters of color was borderline revolutionary for the late 1960s.

Mr. T and Tina

Before he was Mr. Miyagi, Pat Morita became the first Asian-American sitcom star in his role as Taro Takahashi, a Japanese inventor who takes a job in Chicago and clashes with his American housekeeper. Lasting just five episodes, Mr. T and Tina aired on ABC, the same network that just ordered Fresh Off the Boat to pilot. Morita filmed the 1976 series while on leave from Happy Days, where he played Milwaukee diner owner Arnold Takahashi, a role he reprised in the unsuccessful series Blanksy’s Beauties. A survivor of spinal tuberculosis who spent time in internment camps as a child during World War II, Morita eventually won an Academy Award for his work in Karate Kid.

All-American Girl

Margaret Cho’s early-’90s series, set in San Francisco and co-starring Amy Hill and B.D. Wong (now better known for his work on Law & Order: SVU), was the next comedy series to star an Asian-American after Mr. T. After the 20-year gap, television had yet to become a friendlier place for Asian-American stars; not only was the show canceled after a single season, but Cho later told horror stories about her tenure at ABC, including undergoing extreme weight loss and being alternately admonished that she was “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.” Cho has cited the show’s cancellation as a factor in her subsequent struggles with addiction.

Elementary

The choice of Lucy Liu to play Joan Watson a female, Asian-American iteration of Sherlock Holmes’ originally white, male, English sidekick provoked a serious backlash among some less savory sectors of the fictional detective’s fan base. But Elementary, the CBS procedural that costars Liu and Jonny Lee Miller as the crime-solving dynamic duo, has stealthily become a critical hit, with the AV Club recently arguing the show surpasses even its British competitor Sherlock. As Holmes’ stern “sobriety companion,” Liu brings much more to the canonical character than just her identity, but as the first Asian-American Watson, her unorthodox casting makes an important statement in an industry rife with whitewashing.

The Mindy Project

Though this list primarily focuses on Asian Americans of East Asian descent, Office alumna Mindy Kaling’s status as the country’s first-ever South Asian series lead, beginning in 2012, is a major milestone. On hiatus until April though it may be, The Mindy Project is a smart, sweet addition to the network comedy lineup, and an important part of Fox’s dual initiatives of stealing NBC’s sitcom crown and introducing significant diversity to more of its primetime shows. Now that the romance between Mindy’s title character and Chris Messina’s colleague/love interest has finally shifted from “will they/won’t they” to “they so totally will,” fan love might be enough to take this show off life support.