Commentary
4:54 am
Mon September 24, 2012

Fall TV Lineup: 2 Shows Star Asian-American Women

Originally published on Mon September 24, 2012 11:10 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The big broadcast networks are rolling out their new fall TV shows. And this season, there are not one but two shows with Asian women in starring roles. Indian-American Mindy Kaling has her own showcase on Fox's "The Mindy Project" and Chinese-American Lucy Liu stars in "Elementary" on CBS. TV critic Eric Deggans is looking forward to seeing more of them.

ERIC DEGGANS: Mindy Kaling could not have more expectations attached to her new TV comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MINDY PROJECT")

MINDY KALING: (As Mindy) I'm Mindy, obstetrics and gynecology.

DEGGANS: And it's not just because she's TV's latest it girl, coming off a stint on "The Office" with a best-selling book to her name. It's because she's probably the first South Asian woman ever to star in her own network TV comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MINDY PROJECT")

KALING: (As Mindy) Maybe I won't get married, you know. Maybe I'll do one of those eat, pray, love things. No, I don't want to pray. Forget it. I'll just die alone.

DEGGANS: But I noticed one other interesting fact about The Mindy Project. Other than a brief, early scene from her childhood in the pilot episode, there are no other Indian-Americans on the show and no other people of color in the core cast.

There's a similar setup on CBS's "Elementary." This show reinvents Sherlock Holmes with a special twist: the super detective's sidekick Watson is an Asian American woman, played by former "Charlie's Angels" co-star Lucy Liu.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELEMENTARY")

LUCY LIU: (As Dr. Joan Watson) I've been hired by your father to be your sober companion. I'm here to make the transition from your rehab experience to the routine of your everyday life as smooth as possible.

DEGGANS: We learn a lot about Liu's Dr. Joan Watson in the first episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELEMENTARY")

LIU: (As Dr. Watson) The day we met you deduced that I gave up being a surgeon to become a companion. The truth is...

JONNY LEE MILLER: (As Sherlock Holmes) The truth is that you made a mistake during a surgery that cost a patient his life.

DEGGANS: But, other than a brief glimpse of her mother in a photo, we don't see much about her ethnic heritage or any other Asian characters. Which led me to a troubling conclusion: Characters of color won't add nearly as many new dimensions to a TV show, if they don't reflect their heritage.

It's true: lots of racial minorities now live in a mostly-white world. And it's tough to judge a series' vision on a single episode. But it's also true that it wasn't always this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIMES")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Good times. Anytime you meet a payment.

DEGGANS: Network TV once built series around entire casts filled with non-white characters, from the days of "Good Times" and "Sanford and Son" in the 1970s, all the way to "The Cosby Show" in the 1990s.

Before then, black people on TV often were like Bill Cosby on the classic adventure series "I Spy," a bit marooned in white culture. Producers isolated the few black stars on shows from other black characters, fearful of repelling white viewers. In a 1981 documentary, "I Spy" creator Sheldon Leonard explained how he brought Cosby into a white man's environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I SPY")

SHELDON LEONARD: Very early on I learned that the proper way to treat the use of Cosby was to forget that he was black. To ignore it.

DEGGANS: Sounds like he's talking about "Elementary" or "The Mindy Project" today. It's obvious by casting actors like Kaling and Liu, producers wanted to shake up old formulas. Somehow, it feels fresher to see someone with coffee-colored skin navigating romantic comedy territory usually reserved for the Jennifer Anistons and Katherine Heigls of the world.

Spread that idea around, and it can only make the shows more compelling and surprising. At an age when the White House has more diversity than your average prime time sitcom, isn't it time network TV finally caught up to reality?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That's TV critic Eric Deggans, who also writes for the Tampa Bay Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.