20 years ago, a brief era ended when Margaret Cho’s sitcom, All-American Girl, was canceled after just one season. The show, which was the first to focus on an Asian American family, was the source of much conflict between Cho, who wanted to base it on her stand-up comedy, and ABC, which pushed for a less controversial and more whitewashed sitcom. So why couldn’t it last?
In fact, writes Rachel C. Lee, ABC tried to salvage the show’s falling ratings “by eliminating most of the Asian American actors” — the very factor that had made the show both so hotly anticipated and so unique. Lee explores Cho’s stand-up comedy as “a camp response” to a world in which Asian race is both marginalized and fetishized.
“While the show did sport the ubiquitous living room interior,” writes Lee, All-American Girl “was incapable, ultimately, of simulating a homespace for ‘alien’ Asians within the white world of television.” Cho’s show and her subsequent stand-up performances, argues Lee, show the ways in which the idea of home has been breached and challenged.
The show was unable to provide a real home for its actors or its audience. In her exploration of the sitcom, Sarah Moon Cassinelli notes that All-American Girl might have had the potential to show Asian Americans in a positive light, but squandered that possibility with myths of ethnic authenticity. “The show seemed to overemphasize the characters’ Asianness, marking the Asian face, body, and family structure as decidedly uncanny,” writes Cassinelli. ABC executives seemed to think that the solution was to erase its Asian roots.
“The show became concerned with supplying the audience with a rendition of an Asian American family that meets stereotypical expectations,” writes Cassinelli. The result were stale, obvious jokes and troubling portrayals of “authenticity.”
While it failed to do justice to its Asian American cast, Cassinelli notes, All-American Girl also exposed faultlines in the concept of “Americanness,” siding squarely with the concept that assimilation and whiteness is in fact American. Even its name, she argues, erases Asian Americans by failing to acknowledge them and implying that by default, Asian is not compatible with American.
Perhaps All-American Girl was doomed from the start, writes Cassinelli — after all, the Kim family it represents was expected not just to represent all Asians, but “to fulfill the expectation that the sitcom family is a representation of nationhood at its strongest.”