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Eric Byler directs what could be Asian America's big return to the small screen.
Margaret Cho's maligned ABC series All-American Girl may have been axed after a mere 19 episodes in the 1994-95 season, but its impact has proved far more enduring for Asian American producers and audiences alike.
In creating the pilot for the high school drama My Life Disoriented, which premieres December 26th on PBS as part of Independent Lens's Short Stack series, director Eric Byler, producer/actress Di Quon, and writer Claire Yorita Lee discussed what kind of business a mixed-race Asian American family should run. An original family business was rejected as not being edgy enough. Then Byler threw out a suggestion.
"I just remember him saying, let's do a massage parlor," recalls Lee. "And Di and I were like, ‘Huh?! No!' It really scared me, because it reminded me of shows like All-American Girl."
But Byler had more on his mind than repeating a tired American stereotype of Asian female sexuality. "I wanted to take that a bit further." His suggestion, which his fellow producers ultimately accepted, was a family chiropractic business transformed by a Caucasian husband into an Oriental massage parlor called "Touch of the Orient," where massage therapists are made to wear Asian makeup, hairstyles, and clothing even if they're not Asian. The stereotypes are certainly there, but exaggerated to reveal their constructedness. The result is a self-consciousness over Asian exotification, rather than an indulgence in it. Whereas All-American Girl clumsily avoided Asian themes while over-emphasizing Asian stereotypes, My Life Disoriented confidently weaves those stereotypes into the drama in order to break them.
"Those are the things in it that I wanted to explore, and Di and Claire were shocked that I would suggest something that could be a potential pitfall," says Byler. "But if it's treated right, it could have a certain irony and commentary to it. When the massage parlor is introduced in the show, it's sort of an awkward thing."
That willingness to take risks and expose the awkwardness of racial exploitation in American society is one of My Life Disoriented's major strengths, and how well these playful – and often very funny – deconstructions of race play to American audiences during a month of airings across the nation beginning Dec. 26 will determine where and if the pilot will be expanded into a regular TV series.
The 30 minute pilot was always conceived as a running TV show, but its producers found a way to sidestep the usual route in order to produce a program with intelligence and subtlety. While the show fits cozily in the high school drama genre, the emphasis on an Asian American teen and her dysfunctional family proposes a marketing problem for risk-averse networks. Based on a two-page description of the show written by Quon, Lee produced a treatment, which they submitted for a grant to Independent Television Service (ITVS), which produces the PBS anthology series Independent Lens. Based on the treatment, ITVS granted the team $11,500, which ITVS later increased after being impressed by preliminary footage that Byler had shot with the original grant.
ITVS's support for My Life Disoriented is unusual because Independent Lens typically only funds small documentaries and one-offs rather than serial dramas. In fact, written in the grant rules is a stipulation that the story must have a closed ending.
"When we applied for the grant, we were advised very strongly not to mention anything about pursuing it as a show," Byler recalls. "I think Claire does a great job riding that line. She does resolve most of the conflicts, but leaves a lot of questions, so they could still be developed." Among them: what's going to happen with Charlie, the hot Asian American high school male who eyes our lead Kimberlee, played by Quon. Or what happened in the past between cousins Phil and Amy, who swing cozily in a hammock under the moonlight, suggesting that they're more than just cousins. "There's a lot of fun stuff to play with," adds Byler. "We're dying to get busy on that."
Lee adds, "It was written to be a pilot, but we had to make [the ending] like an ending. We called it a short film and thus we were able to put it into film festivals as well." The closed ending enabled My Life Disoriented to find its first audiences while playing at the DC APA Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival.
Back to school
My Life Disoriented is and isn't your typical high school drama. Shot at Di Quon's own high school in Bakersfield, California, the markers are all there – cool kids, outcasts, cafeteria drama, even Autumn Resser from The O.C. – so it's easy to latch onto the drama through the genre conventions, which the show sticks to faithfully. Writing the script, Lee had some cultural landmarks in mind. "I watched every episode of My So-called Life while I was doing it. Everyone had been talking about it. Eric referred to it a lot, so I ran on my treadmill and watched every single episode, and it was fantastic."
However, as the title of the pilot suggests, there is an affinity for other high school programs, but also a disorientation via Orient-ation. "Claire and her writing are sending up those character tropes while playing into them," says Byler. "If this weren't an Asian American show, you could say we'd have to take the genre in a direction that's going to update the genre or change it. Since it's an Asian American story, why not let it be this all-American high school story and just change one thing, and just make the characters Asian."
Given the marginalization of Asian Americans in mainstream TV dramas (exceptions include The Gilmore Girls and Grey's Anatomy), a simple "disorientation" of an accepted genre is revolutionary on its own. But Byler and his team have greater aspirations. The director consciously describes the show's depiction of high school – and its associated clichés – as a metaphor for the Asian American experience.
"I wrote down my grand scheme for the show: the whole thing would be a metaphor for acceptance, which is something that all Asian Americans long for. But you know what? So does everyone else. And everyone who's been to high school knows what it's like to fear that they're not going to belong or be accepted. So I thought that this very natural metaphor within the high school genre would allow the show to appeal to a much wider audience perhaps than any Asian American television show or movie has to date."
By referring to race metaphorically, racial tensions often play out in the background, allowing the family and high school melodrama to come to the fore. While it's always present in the characters' faces, race is only emphasized sporadically, albeit strategically, which is something evident in Byler's previous features.
"I sort of have a rule where I only allow race to have as big a part in a movie as it would in real life. And those occasions are rare. A lot of time in real life, race is a factor but it isn't spoken."
For mainstream American television, this is a breakthrough, or at least a far cry from All-American Girl, which schizophrenically tried to be both Asian and un-Asian. Here, the strategy is to show the world of real Asian Americans, where race is rarely spoken or confronted, but often felt. In the context of the high school drama, the question becomes: if the popular white girl wants to be friends with the new Asian American arrival, is it because she wants a token Asian for her clique, or does she genuinely want to be her friend? Yet the question isn't verbally asked until the very end of the pilot; you either feel it or you don't. And when it is brought up, it serves as a reminder of the lurking racial unease throughout what appears a typical high school drama. The disorientation forces a reorientation.
Teddy Chen Culver. Photo by Rob Humphreys.
As in Byler's feature films Charlotte Sometimes and Americanese, which premieres commercially in mid-2007, My Life Disoriented manages to be revolutionary on a second front. More so than most other films or TV programs of any ethnicity, these three works provide a devastatingly honest portrayal of mixed-race characters.
Originally, Kimberlee's love interest was going to be mixed-race, but the criticisms Byler received for Charlotte Sometimes perhaps made him rethink those plans. "You have to be careful with the degree to which you involve mixed-race people. Even though you have a mixed-race director in me, mixed race people on screen can convey different things." So the hapa character shifted from the love interest to the goth cousin. "The theme really is about acceptance, and it's what the characters want. It's what drives them. It's what the audience identifies with. So for that reason I thought the hapa character should be someone who's an oddball – an enigma. It's what we often are. Instead of a love interest."
But while the issues of mixed-race Asians are thus relegated away from the main character's central conflicts and love story, Byler is encouraged by the possible subplots, particularly involving the hapa Phil and his Asian mother, played by Tamlyn Tomita.
"This is an interesting relationship between the hapa son and the very, very pretty, very accomplished Asian mother, and how he's always felt that he has not measured up to her expectations. He wonders if it's even worth it to try, because maybe she's always expected that her son would look like she looks, yet he doesn't look like her."
But whether viewers will get to see those scenes depends largely on the feedback PBS and the producers get from audiences.
"One way or other, we'll try to do it," says Byler. "But it would be much, much easier if, when the show premieres, the show is a big success and tons of people watch it and are clamoring for more episodes.
"If it ends up being one of those things, like most Asian American movies, where everyone who sees it says it's great, but the average person doesn't see it, then it's going to be another one of those uphill battles. It would take longer; the actors will outgrow their roles. Hopefully we just sort of hit the jackpot."
Lee sees this as an opportunity for viewers to call the shots. "PBS is open to it, so feedback is really important. It's kind of exciting too because it means that the people who like it and the audience have a big say, and that's something that could push them to do more."
Byler is also optimistic. "PBS is very much hoping to continue the series. However, it would be somewhat of a hardship because they don't have the kind of money that an MTV would have, so they've said that if MTV would pick it up, they wouldn't fight for it." The producers have been in contact with several other networks, but in the last few weeks, they've all taken a wait-and-see attitude, with all parties waiting for the public response to the December 26 premiere.
Thus Byler also stresses the importance of feedback. "We're supplying people with email addresses to write to us and write to PBS and copy us both. We can say ‘look, ten thousand people wrote to you about the show: there's an audience.' It takes an especially forceful movement to break through barriers: to do things that haven't been done. When All-American Girl came along, we didn't have the internet to communicate with each other."
Which not only means that if we have another stinker on our hands, Asian Americans have the power to request change, but also that if we've actually stumbled on something revolutionary and empowering, that there is a way to insist on its survival and to usher in what could be the next landmark for Asian Americans on network television. And then we can all stop talking about All-American Girl.
Official My Life Disoriented website: http://www.mylifedisoriented
My Life Disoriented MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/mylifedi
For local showtimes, refer to: http://deerstudio.com/myspace
To give feedback on the show, contact the producers at: email@example.com
To email your local affiliate, find their contact info here: http://www.pbs.org/stationfinder/index.html
Date Posted: 12/20/2006