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Fil-Am Actor Vincent Rodriguez III, Pinoys Get Hollywood Boost in TV Series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Until recently, the American entertainment industry has seemed reluctant to acknowledge the presence of a steadily growing Asian minority in the United States population, or at least in terms of the balance of roles and themes portraying Asians in movies and television.

If at all, Asians rather tended to be cast in stereotypical roles such as in kung fu movies or as gangsters in criminal organisations. This stereotyping has not been favourable to Filipino-American actors, many of whom had had to play Chinese roles as well as those of other ethnicities.

This seems to be changing, and the American viewing public seems now to be more accepting of entertainment fare with more overtly Asian themes.

Last year, three television series debuted with decidedly Asian themes. Netflix’s Master of None is about the life of a South Asian immigrant living in New York. Meanwhile, ABC aired Fresh off the Boat, a series loosely-based on the life of second-generation Taiwanese food personality Edwyn Huang.

Finally, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend debuted last October on the CW Television Network. This comedy-cum-musical series is done somewhat in the Glee mode, which had performers doing theatre-like musical pieces in between dialogues.

The series has been favourably received by critics. The story is about successful New York lawyer Rebecca Bunch – a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, no less – who turns down a junior partnership at her firm to seek out Josh Chan, with whom she had a summer camp fling ten years earlier.

She flies out to this obscure southern California city named West Covina and quickly lands a job in a low key law firm just so she can do her obsessive pursuit of Chan. The latter is played by Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez III.

Rodriguez was born in San Francisco to a Filipino family. His three elder siblings – all sisters – were born in Manila. He grew up in Daly City, which an article in the Asian Journal says he calls “The Second Philippines in the World.”

In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rodriguez’s character Chan is not immediately acknowledged as Filipino, as indeed the surname is Chinese. The first hint of his Filipino parentage is given in episode 4, when Chan has to seek out a job at a local hospital with the help of his radiologist father.

Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of the Filipino’s omnipresence in medicine and allied services not only in America but also elsewhere around the world.

That Chan is Filipino is finally confirmed in episode 6, when Rebecca and her scheming friend Paula Proctor – played by Donna Lynne Champlin – between them contrive to get her invited to the Chan family home for Thanksgiving.

West Covina is supposed to be a West Coast locality known for its Asian – and particularly Filipino – community. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tries to be authentic in the sense that so many of the actors and even extras who appear on screen are unmistakably of East Asian descent.

Filipinos, in particular, are favourably portrayed in episode 6 for the close family ties and religiosity that we bring with us even after we have crossed the Pacific. However, notwithstanding that the series is comedy, the same episode is also somewhat derogatory towards Filipinos.

I do not know that Filipino-Americans ought to be amused that Josh Chan’s mother is portrayed as a first generation migrant who cannot pronounce her ‘f’ and ‘v’ properly. I know that West Coast comedian Rex Navarette uses this linguistic idiosyncrasy for his own stand up materials.

I still think it creates if not reinforces an unfair stereotype.

Apart from giving Filipinos in particular and Asians in general much-deserved exposure for the greater American audience to enjoy, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is actually a very watchable comedic series in itself.

Co-creator Rachel Bloom is excellent as Rebecca Bunch, the fast talking obsessive lawyer who gives up a career in New York to chase after Chan. The way she and her co-worker Paula scheme to prise Chan away from his Latina girlfriend Valencia is a source of great hilarity.

Truth be told, this series is more about Rebecca and her psycho-social hang-ups. That Josh Chan is Filipino is almost incidental; and like I said, it is not clear that he is until episode 6.

However, what it does along with Fresh off the Boat and Master of None is to hint that the American entertainment industry is belatedly starting to acknowledge the diversity of modern American society and that there are cultural themes from this diversity that can be used as material beyond the usual Hollywood stereotypes.

Perhaps, in the near future, we will even be treated to a television series entirely about Filipinos in the United States. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the very least opens the door. If at all such a series materialises, then that can only be good news for Filipino-Americans in the entertainment industry who have been marginalised for so long.

Finally, as a footnote, TV Patrol reported the other day that Lea Salonga will be guesting in the show’s final first season episode.