After the Margaret Cho vehicle All-American Girl was cancelled in 1995, television wouldn't see another primetime sitcom starring an Asian-American family for nearly two decades. That changed in February with the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, a fictionalized version of restaurateur Eddie Huang's experiences growing up in the '90s.
Now, for the first time in history, there are two sitcoms about Asian-American families on the air at once. Dr. Ken, a multi-camera comedy inspired by creator and star Ken Jeong's own life as a doctor married to a doctor, joined Fresh Off the Boat on the ABC lineup last week. And as of late September, Quantico made Bollywood A-lister Priyanka Chopra the first Indian actor to lead a primetime drama in this country. (Full disclosure: Fusion is a joint venture of ABC and Univision.)
We're witnessing a revolutionary moment for Asian-American visibility on TV.
Back in April, we reviewed every primetime series on the five major networks since fall 2014 to determine how many main cast members were of (full or partial) Asian descent. Now, we've updated those numbers to reflect the new season, counting every single Asian series regular to appear on every current network TV show, including those that will debut later this fall.
Of the nearly 700 actors considered main cast members on more than 90 network TV shows, 49 (7.1 percent) are of Asian descent. (CBS, Fox, and The CW have confirmed our numbers, which we gathered by researching every current network actor’s biographical information. We also reached out to NBC and ABC but have not received a response.)
The representation of Asian series regulars on network TV has improved slightly since we last reviewed this data, from 6.6 percent of cast members to 7.1 percent. Series with multiple regulars of Asian descent currently account for 11 percent of the total primetime programming, up from April's 8 percent.
That said, the share of network shows to feature an Asian main cast member at all has declined from 38 percent in the 2014-2015 season to 35 percent as of this fall. That's due in part to the cancellation or conclusion of shows like Parks & Recreation (which featured Aziz Ansari), Stalker (Maggie Q), and Selfie (John Cho), as well as the departure of ensemble members of Asian descent from still-airing shows—Archie Panjabi's farewell to The Good Wife, for instance, or the death of Katie Findlay's character on How to Get Away with Murder.
However, these numbers don't adequately convey the significance of what's happening on our television sets. Strictly speaking, the 7.1 percent figure is fairly representative of the U.S. population as a whole—but the quality of roles available to Asian performers is just as important as the quantity.
There are only four network shows in which the unequivocal lead character is portrayed by an actor of Asian descent: Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, Quantico, and CBS's Scorpion, which stars Elyes Gabel—who does not personal identify as Asian, despite his Indian ancestry—as hacker Walter O'Brien. (Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project has left Fox for Hulu as of the current season.)
This is an incredibly recent phenomenon: Half of those series hadn't premiered as of one month ago, and none of them were on the air before September 2014—and with the exception of Scorpion, none of them were on the air before February. Meanwhile, the walking, talking racial stereotype of Han Lee (Matthew Moy) on 2 Broke Girls shows no signs of disappearing now that CBS has renewed the sitcom for a fifth season.
Looking forward, there's reason to be optimistic. In terms of ratings, Quantico and Dr. Ken have both enjoyed strong debuts. But it's important to remember that this is a battle fought on more than one front. As Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu said on the podcast Bullseye this week, behind-the-scenes diversity in Hollywood is as vital as what see on camera: "[Diversity] doesn’t mean we want the white people to write Asian stories. What I want is to foster the Asian-American writers and directors and producers and actors…foster their stories to come into the spotlight a little bit."
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.