Rising number of Asian leads in network shows, the latest Catherine Haena Kim in ‘Company You Keep’

Given network TV’s record of failing to cast Asian actors as main characters, an extraordinary number of recent broadcast series have Asian or Asian American lead actors.

SHARE Rising number of Asian leads in network shows, the latest Catherine Haena Kim in ‘Company You Keep’
Catherine Haena Kim in “The Company You Keep.”

Catherine Haena Kim in “The Company You Keep.”

ABC-TV

In fourth grade, Catherine Haena Kim couldn’t muster the courage to audition for the female lead of her school’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

But her teachers saw something in her.

“My teachers actually gave me the part because, whenever I did speak up, I was very animated and expressive,” Kim says. “When I did this play, I honestly think it’s one of the first times I actually felt seen and special in a way that I think I really hadn’t before that.”

Kim’s teachers subverted a problem that’s frustrated many Asian Americans: being praised as reliable, hard workers but not perceived as leadership material.

Asian Americans have long been held back by biases rooted in stereotypes. Employers often paint Asians as passive, lacking in gravitas or not a “cultural fit,” says Justin Zhu, co-founder of the advocacy group Stand with Asian Americans.

Kim now revels in the thrill and pressure of being the lead on a much bigger stage, starring with Milo Ventimiglia in ABC’s “The Company You Keep,” premiering Sunday.

Given network TV’s long record of failing to cast Asian actors as main characters, an extraordinary number of recent shows are making changes. Other recent broadcast series with Asian or Asian American leads include “Quantum Leap” (Raymond Lee), “Kung Fu” (Olivia Liang), “The Cleaning Lady” (Élodie Yung), “NCIS: Hawai’i” (Vanessa Lachey) and “Ghosts” (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

In 2019, after “Crazy Rich Asians” became a hit, things looked promising, says Milton Liu, interim executive director of the Asian American Media Alliance. That year, six TV pilots with at least one Asian lead were ordered, but only one — “Sunnyside,” a sitcom starring Kal Penn — became a series. It was canceled after 11 episodes.

Liu says the current shows indicate things are “improving slowly.”

“The Company You Keep” executive producer Jon M. Chu, who directed “Crazy Rich Asians,” suggested that agent Emma Hill be Asian American, with a Korean American father and Chinese American mother.

Kim’s on-camera father (James Saito) is loosely inspired by former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the first Asian American governor on the mainland. Locke says seeing Asians and Asian Americans taking charge on-screen has an impact.

“Just seeing more more Asian Americans in all walks of life — even if it’s fictitious — is important because that may be [viewers’] only exposure to Asian Americans in roles that they’re not accustomed to,” Locke says.

Kim sometimes still feels the insecurities of her fourth-grade self.

“But I keep going because it’s all mixed in with that feeling a little kid dreams of,” she says — of being seen and recognized as special.

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