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New TV Shows Feature More Diverse Faces, Will They Survive?

"Fresh Off the BoaAt" stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery, Ian Chen as Evan, Randall Park as Louis, Hudson Yang as Eddie and Constance Wu as Jessica. 18 13:02:49

Twenty years after its first attempt to introduce an Asian-American family into living rooms across the country, ABC is ready to take another chance. The network announced in May that it has ordered the first season of Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about a Taiwanese-American family that moves from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to the suburbs of Orlando, Florida.

Based off chef Eddie Huang’s memoir and set in the 1990’s, Fresh Off the Boat features an all Asian-American cast -- a first for any major television network since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994.

Image: Fresh Off the Boat" is based on Chef Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat.
It's the 90s and 11 year old, hip-hop loving Eddie just moved to suburban Orlando from DC's Chinatown with his parents. It's culture shock for his immigrant family in this comedy about pursuing the American Dream. "Fresh Off the Boat" is based on Chef Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat. Eric McCandless / ABC

“I call them my second family,” Hudson Yang, the 10-year-old star of Fresh Off the Boat said of his on-screen family. “We spend a lot of time together, and I think we connect in a way that is just really different from other ways I’ve connected with other people.”

That strong family bond familiar to viewers across ethnicities is something ABC is counting on to bring in a larger demographic. Fresh Off the Boat is one of three of the network’s forthcoming sitcoms that feature a minority family at the heart of the show, along with Cristela and Blackish.

“If you look at the critical base that advertisers are looking to consume...it makes sense to put things on screen that they connect with”

Yang is the son of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang, a former television critic for The Village Voice who originally panned All-American Girl back in 1994. Now, as the father of the star of a potentially groundbreaking show, he says watching the development of a program like Fresh Off the Boat is both fascinating and scary as advertisers in the 21st century struggle to reach a wider, and more diverse, audience who have turned to other mediums to get their entertainment.

“If you look at the critical base that advertisers are looking to consume [18-34 year olds], this is a group that is 40% African American, Hispanic, or Asian American, and as a result it stands to reason that in order for you to capture their attention, it makes sense to put things on screen that they connect with,” Yang said.

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If online presence is any indicator of Fresh Off the Boat’s connection with millennials, ABC may have made the right moves with their new lineup. Huang himself led a Twitter campaign to ask the network to pick up the series, and also to keep the title of the show intact after the network announced it would change the name to Far East Orlando (a decision they reversed almost immediately after the backlash began).

“The assumption is that if they don’t cast a Korean American to play a Korean American or a Chinese American to play a Chinese American, it’s because Hollywood can’t tell the difference between us.”

But while the buzz surrounding Fresh Off the Boat has been optimistic, the criticism surrounding All-American Girl’s downfall looms in the not-too-distant past . Reviews of Cho’s sitcom at the time ranged from attacks on the misrepresentation of Korean culture to general dismissal of the writing, which Entertainment Weekly called “banal” and “unfunny,” to anger over the casting choices made by the network (Cho’s on-screen Korean family featured no Korean actors).

Margaret Cho shows her tattoos of U.S. presidents

That criticism is hitting Fresh Off the Boat before the show has even premiered. Online commenters cringed at the fake accents from actors cast as Eddie’s parents, and railed against the fact that Randall Park, who plays Eddie’s father Louis, is Korean American and not Taiwanese, as the role calls for.

“Asian Americans are going to be more critical about [casting],” said Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Aoki disagrees that Asian-American actors should limit the roles they pursue because of ethnicity, but says he understands the opposition waged by some critics.

“The assumption is that if they don’t cast a Korean American to play a Korean American or a Chinese American to play a Chinese American, it’s because Hollywood can’t tell the difference between us.”

Park himself acknowledged the casting criticism in a recent post for KoreAm Journal online, and said he’s expressed his concerns to Huang, but was reassured he was the right actor for the role.

Image: Xbox One At Comic-Con 2013 - Day 2
Ken Jeong (far right) with fellow cast members from NBC's "Community" at the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. Chelsea Lauren / Getty Images

“People are hungry to see themselves represented on television, and people rightfully want to be represented properly,” Park wrote. “Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat. Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle...I believe [Fresh Off the Boat is] a step toward more varied representation on the small and big screens.”

Networks have had no trouble casting Asian Americans in supporting roles over the years. Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim were on Lost as the Korean couple who struggled to learn English and fit in with the rest of the castaways. Ken Jeong plays the eccentric and odd Spanish teacher on NBC’s Community. Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ companion on CBS’ Elementary.

But the number of lead roles held by Asian Americans on network television remains low. Currently, there is just one: actress and writer Mindy Kaling, who created and stars in Fox's The Mindy Project.

Image: Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling arrives at the 16th Costume Designer Guild Awards, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Jordan Strauss / AP

The decades-long absence of leading Asian-American actors and actresses seems to be on the brink of a major shift. Along with Fresh Off the Boat, ABC has also ordered the first season of Selfie, a sitcom featuring Korean-American actor John Cho. At CBS, Kal Penn is set to star in the upcoming detective drama Battle Creek. Maggie Q, a Vietnamese-American actress who formerly held a title role in The CW’s Nikita, will play one of the leads in Stalker.

As network executives stack their primetime schedules with faces that reflect an American audience hungry for diversity, hopes are high that this time, it won’t take another 20 years to stick.