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'Girl' Undergoes Major Changes Amid Criticism

March 11, 1995|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first season of "All-American Girl," the groundbreaking sitcom about a Korean immigrant family, is coming to an end but the controversial show continues to generate passionate debate in Los Angeles, the capital of Koreans in the United States.

Even as producers at Disney prepare to air a new version of the show Wednesday--to give ABC an additional option when it comes time to decide whether to renew the series for the fall--many Asian Americans, especially Koreans, say they have too many misgivings about the program to support it for another season.

In the revamped version, Margaret Cho, who plays a rebellious and outspoken second-generation Korean American college student, moves out of her family's home into an apartment with three guys. The only survivor from the original supporting cast is Amy Hill, who plays Cho's grandmother.

"All-American Girl," as the first prime-time sitcom to feature a predominantly Asian American cast, elicited high expectations among Korean Americans who had hoped to see an accurate portrayal of an immigrant family.

But to most, the show was a disappointment--yet another example of Hollywood's ignorance and indifference when it comes to depicting an ethnic group about which it knows so little.

"They would have had a good show had they spent even a week with a real Korean American family, instead of creating that hokey make-believe family," said Ellen Thun, a Korean American film buff who has lived in Los Angeles since 1927.

"The show insulted our sensibilities and intelligence," said Korean American commentator K. W. Lee, an observer of Korean American life for four decades. "If this is the only way for Korean Americans to become visible on TV, they are better off remaining invisible."

Some viewers were so angry that they stopped watching the series. Others now say that unless its creators make it more reflective of Korean culture and life, they would prefer that it go off the air.

Critics said that while the program purported to depict a Korean immigrant family, it did so with a mishmash of ethnicities. Korean phrases and words were so mauled that they were unintelligible to native speakers. Older members of the family--except the father--spoke English with concocted Asian accents, stilted and very un-Korean. Food, clothing and home decor were a hodgepodge of what non-Asians might perceive to be generically Asian. Most unconvincing were the characters and family dynamics.

"We thought Koreans could use a little PR, especially after the riots," Thun said. "But all we saw were these exaggerated characters who didn't look or talk like Koreans, acting silly and making fun of Koreans." Of the show's 11 writers, none was Korean. Cho was the only Korean American in the cast.

One major problem revealed by the "All-American Girl" gambit is the sitcom format itself, which relies heavily for its humor on family members insulting each other, either aggressively or benignly. This formula jars the sensibility of Koreans, who esteem politeness and generally do not find personal insults funny.

Koreans of Cho's generation have been among those hardest on the show.

Some, such as Harvard University sophomore Jeffrey Lee, said he felt uncomfortable watching Cho poke "fun at a lot of things we hold dear," such as the relationship of Korean parents to their children.

"I felt like it didn't represent my community," Lee said, adding that he believes someone as visible as Cho has a responsibility to advance the Korean American image.

Cho, 25, who did not return calls seeking comment, has told Asian American gatherings that the criticism from the Korean American community has been "painful." She also has complained that she has never sought to be a spokesperson for Korean Americans.

Cho isn't the first Korean American comedian to hit the mainstream, but she is the first to get a high-profile show. The exposure may have increased expectations that Cho, who does not speak Korean, was unprepared to meet.

The show is not without fans. Edward Chang, assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, has not missed a single episode, out of both personal and academic interest. He is glad it was on.

"Even negative visibility is preferable to invisibility," he said. "The show put Koreans on the map."

And regardless of some reservations he shares with other viewers, Chang said the sitcom has been a boon to Korean children such as his 7-year-old daughter, Angie, who loves seeing Cho on TV.

Angie said "All-American Girl" was her favorite show. "I think Margaret is so funny," cooed the first-grader, who attends Wilson Elementary School in San Gabriel.

For every Korean youngster who loved the show, however, there were others who did not.

"It makes us look so bad," complained William Shin, a ninth-grader at La Canada High School. He said the sitcom reinforces the stereotype that "Koreans can't talk (English), they can't drive--and they look so awkward."

Calabasas High senior Karen Kim objects to the image Cho's character projects.

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