"K-Town," a new reality show on Youtube's Loud network, first caught the public's attention in early 2010. At the time, the show was nothing more than a casting call, yet the idea of a reality show, set in L.A.'s Koreatown, documenting the antics of young Asian Americans, made instant waves. Popular blogger and news aggregator Phil Yu, aka Angry Asian Man, wrote in March 2010, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued by the premise of this show. I'm already imagining the can't-stop-watching train wreck this show has the potential to be." That attitude, one part anticipation mixed with one part dread, wasn't unique to Yu. As news of the show spread, the response to "K-Town" always combined amusement, outrage, and curiosity.
"Culturally, Koreans, and Asians in general, are very concerned with image and how they are perceived as a group," says Eugene Choi, one of "K-Town's" founding producers.1 What surprised Choi was that, "the negative response came when there were no episodes produced, and not even cast members selected." Kai Ma, former editor-in-chief of the L.A.-based KoreAm Magazine, recalled, "some readers were thrilled that the first Asian American reality TV show was rumored to air; others were horrified by the show's seemingly deliberate plan to expose Koreans as vapid, obnoxious and fucked up." As one commenter wrote after a July 2010 KoreAm story online, "who ever started this [show] hates koreans...boo! for shallow arrogant vain crazies who are going to shame our race and embarrass themselves in the making."
However, it wasn't just those within the Korean American community who took notice. "K-Town's" main source of inspiration and comparison has always been MTV's enormously popular -- and controversial -- "Jersey Shore." Just as that show followed around young Italian Americans in their social/sexual adventures, media pundits were quick to describe "K-Town" as "an Asian American 'Jersey Shore.'" That included "Saturday Night Live:"
SNL took a cheap shot but the punchline -- a bespeckled violinist as the uber-Asian -- precisely addressed how "K-Town" can't help but play off of racial stereotype. By showcasing Asian American 20-somethings engaged in hard drinking, partying and fighting, "K-Town" pushes against the so-called "model minority" ideal of Asians as studious and unassuming. The show's trailer reel all but revels in anything-but-model behavior:
Undermining one set of caricatures by potentially substituting another set is always a risk. As Yu observes, "there's the 'dirty laundry' factor. Korean Americans are certainly aware that the "K-Town" nightlife scene exists -- some critics might even be participants. But with so few 'real' depictions of Korean Americans in the media, part of the criticism is, 'this is what they're going to show?'" Choi is similarly aware of that dynamic. Referring back to the early critics of the show, he says, "I think because there is such a lack of representation in TV/film/media of Asians, coupled with the reasons above, many were just afraid of the unknown."
Notably, these same tensions run underneath another recent reality show, also set in Los Angeles, also focusing on an ethnic-specific group of young people: Bravo TV's "Shahs of Sunset." Focused on wealthy (read: spoiled) Iranian Americans living in mid-city, "Shahs" was critically reviled, least of all within the Iranian/Persian American community who, as entertainment critic Kia Makarechi argued, "have spent the better part of the last decade explaining that they're neither Arabs nor terrorists." Makarechi went on to note that although, "I'd rather be stereotyped as a giver of gaudy birthday parties than as a threat to national security, that's not a choice I -- or my grandparents -- should have to make."2
In both "Shahs of Sunset" and "K-Town" -- even Jersey Shore -- sensitivities to depictions of these particular ethnic groups are fueled by the legacies of race, class and immigration, whether we're talking about a history of anti-Italian American discrimination dating back to the late 19th century, post-9/11 Islamophobia, or the enduring model minority mythology of Asian America. Communities used to seeing themselves diminished or demonized in mass media are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of reality shows that highlight bad or deviant behavior even as this is precisely what television audiences hunger for.
While none of these shows compete with the massive ratings of broadcast network reality programming like "American Idol" or "Survivor," for cable channels, they've become a notable boon, especially when they delve into subcultures that many Americans may have little, direct interaction with. For example, the highest rated show on The History Channel is "Swamp People," which follows the travails of multigenerational Cajuns living in/around Louisiana's massive Atchafalaya Swamp. While the show does focus on more than just a bunch of alligator hunters, at heart, it's still a show that spends quality time with...a bunch of alligator hunters. There may not seem to be much in common between Korean American clubbers, scions of the Iranian American 1%, and Cajun, uh, swamp people, what binds them is how each respective show is either subtly or explicitly premised on a voyeuristic window into communities that seem starkly different from "the rest of us."
Compare that with even well-scripted sitcoms such as "Modern Family." The latter is shot in Los Angeles, including both my old and current neighborhoods of Rancho Park and South Pasadena, but its "L.A.-ness" isn't remotely overt for those who don't recognize Kaldi Coffee's storefront on sight. "Modern Family," like many sitcoms, feels set in a generically middle class American suburb, with residents who could be interchangeable with that of any other sitcom neighborhood.
What reality shows like "K-Town" partially sell isn't just people, but also a sense of place. If "K-Town" does eventually produce those predicted train wrecks, inevitably, they'll take place in hole-in-the-wall soju bars and underground karaoke studios off of Western, or smoky BBQ joints and gleaming nightclubs on Olympic.3 For these shows, geography is always tied to its own kind of cultural pathology.
If "K-Town" does take off, you have to wonder how many other L.A. ethnic/subcultural communities might be ripe for the reality show treatment. Imagine..."Down and Out in Downey," focused on 20-something Latinos who spend weekends composing narcocorridos and hanging out at Gardena's Normandie Casino. Or maybe "Reservoir Dads," following young, hipster fathers in Los Feliz and Silver Lake, negotiating the complex social relations of ordering at Intelligensia or the swing queue at the Silver Lake rec center playground. And as my previous column practically set-up, "The 626" is just waiting to happen, dramatizing the lives of the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese American kids who spend their days at boba cafes. (These are meant in jest yet their very plausibility is also part of the joke here; for all we know, these all may very well be in development as we speak.)
In the meanwhile, I'm split on whether I'll end up watching "K-Town" once it debuts in a few weeks. I have no problem with its premise or its casting; I just don't know if either is particularly appealing to my t.v. sensibilities. But to the extent that the show sheds some light -- however staged and plotted -- on the social lives of young Asian Americans, I'd have to concur with Phil Yu when he suggests, "as stupid as [the show] might be, if this genre is what passes for popular entertainment in America, I say, 'why not?' We have a place somewhere in there too, for better or for worse."
1 Full disclosure: I learned, after "K-Town" had made its initial splash in 2010, that Choi was a former student of mine from UC Berkeley, about a decade ago.
2 Critiques aside, "Shahs"' spring 2012 run was strong enough to warrant a second season from Bravo. The relative success of "Shah"s on basic cable raises an interesting question as to why ""K-Town"" is airing on an online network. Internet television may very well "be the future" but at this current moment, it's hard not to see this as a demotion of sorts, especially since ""K-Town"" was initially optioned by a basic cable network. Is this because television executives consider Iranian Americans more marketable than Korean Americans? Is it because "Shahs" had "American Idol's" Ryan Seacrest as their celebrity executive producer while "K-Town's" Tyrese Gibson isn't as high profile? Or is it just one of those random happenstances within pop culture? I don't have a good theory here except to opine that, on the Orientalism spectrum, "Persians" historically conjure up images of exotic myths and picturesque locales whereas Koreans are more stereotyped for their inexpensive cars, hyper-pop girl groups, and kimchi. The former lends itself to "general audience interest" in a way the latter does not.
3 I'd have to wager there will be an inevitable trip to the beach. For one, the casting of so many fit bodies almost necessitates it. Second, the "greatest hits" of Los Angeles's landscapes are hard to escape for any show set in our fair city.