Wednesday, October 28, 2015

So They Gave Ken Jeong a Sitcom

Asian-American solidarity requires that I have an opinion about Ken Jeong's new sitcom, "Dr. Ken."  I wasn't looking forward to this, after hearing reports about how bad the pilot episode is.  I've liked Ken Jeong in "Community" and his movie roles, but he strikes me as one of those actors who works better in small doses as a wacky supporting character.  I wasn't looking forward to his often obnoxious weirdo persona being at the center of a whole show, particularly such a by-the-book network show.

As the commercials have relentlessly told us over and over again, before Ken Jeong got into comedy, he was a practicing medical doctor.  So he should be well suited to playing a doctor on television, right?  Here, he's Dr. Ken Park, a brilliant physician with a terrible bedside manner.  He practices at an HMO clinic with nurses Damona (Tisha Campbell Martin) and Clark (Jonathan Slavin), and resident Dr. Julie Mintz (Kate Simses).  In the evil sitcom boss role is Dave Foley as the clinic's administrator, Pat.  Ken juggles his duties at work with being a husband to wife Allison (Suzy Nakamura), a successful psychiatrist, and overprotective father to teenage Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and middle-schooler Dave (Albert Tsai).

So far I've seen four episodes.  The pilot is as terrible as everyone has said, but the other three episodes settle into something decent, if pretty unoriginal.  The workplace hijinks are straight out of any middling 90s sitcom you could name, like "Just Shoot Me" or " Veronica's Closet."  Dave Foley is playing the sleazy version of Jimmy James from "NewsRadio," which helps, but he doesn't get a lot of screen time.  Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Suzy Nakamura does an excellent job as Dr. Ken's lovely spouse, who has her hands full curbing his worst impulses.  The kids are very familiar types, but get some good moments.  There's enough good talent in the supporting cast that both sides of the show could develop into something solidly entertaining. 

Unfortunately, one of the major stumbling blocks is Ken Jeong himself.  He's clearly putting in a lot of effort, but he just doesn't have the charisma or the comedic chops to keep my interest as a leading man.  He's toned his usual obnoxious shtick way, way down here, but I wouldn't call him likable.  Frankly, I haven't made up my mind what to think of him.  I think the trouble is that Dr. Ken Park is still an awfully inconsistent character, sometimes a jerk, sometimes an angry little man, sometimes just thoughtless and obtuse, sometimes awfully reminiscent of "Community's" deranged Senor Chang, but sometimes entirely unlike him.  There are occasional instances of mild shock humor that he pulls off well, but at the same time they don't seem to fit the softer tone of the show.  Jeong could get better, I'm sure, but it's going to take some time.  I can't help thinking that the show would probably be much more fun as a simpler medical workplace comedy with Jeong and Foley co-starring. 

We're still at a point that having an Asian-American lead actor in such a high profile part is something worth noting.  "Dr. Ken" is taking the "Mindy Project" route, acknowledging that the Parks are Asian-Americans, but treating the race of the characters as a minor aspect of their lives.  They could be any ethnicity, and nothing would really change.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, though from the second episode where Ken's parents drop in for a visit, the show probably could tackle racial issues head-on if it wanted to.  I just don't see it ever wanting to.  This is altogether a much safer and more formulaic sitcom than "Fresh Off the Boat," and though I'm a little surprised that it's been picked up for a full season order already, I've got a good idea of why it's been successful.  It's familiar, palatable, and pleasantly brainless.      

I don't think I'll be watching much more of this one, and I don't feel guilty about it.  It's nice that "Dr. Ken" is finding some success, and giving the Asian-American presence on prime time network television another boost, but it wouldn't have been much of a loss if it had been cancelled early.


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