Dr. Ken, Season 1, Episode 8: “Thanksgiving Culture Clash”
Original airdate November 20, 2015.
Symptoms: Molly’s tattoo of a Japanese kanji character upsets both parents, but where Allison is upset about the tattoo itself, Ken is bothered that it’s specifically a Japanese tattoo, launching a disagreement about Ken’s Korean-ness. Fearing that his kids aren’t in touch with their Korean heritage, Ken is determined to establish new Thanksgiving traditions, without Allison’s input, in order to express his cultural awareness. In the subplot, Julie invites other “Thanksgiving orphans,” including Damona, Clark, and Pat, to her place for a holiday party.
Diagnosis: When Ken accuses Allison of “Japanifying” their children and when Allison very calmly responds with, “You’re a lapsed Korean,” the show’s dialogue and acting reach levels of sharpness, cleverness, and humor that Dr. Ken hasn’t yet seen this season. Allison’s line is especially cutting, and it shows how language on a sitcom can be funny and deadly without being mean. Suzy Nakamura delivers it with the confidence of a ninja with a blade, sliding it home without being loud about it, because she knows exactly where it’s going. The studio audience laughs, but for once I would have agreed with a collective gasp or an “Ooooooooh.” The thoughtfulness of this scene all by itself makes this the best episode so far.
Prognosis: In the next scene, Ken explains to Clark how his father taught him about his culture and “how not to control my temper!” I love this line; I love that it plays on a stereotype that Korean Americans joke about all the time. Near the end of the episode, Ken and his father have a heart-to-heart where a funny joke about alcohol could really have been a home run, but the writers passed on this opportunity, much to my sadness. Still, although some of the mechanics of this episode (such as the weird interactions at the dinner table) don’t work very well, the addressing of an issue that mixed-Asian families in this country are keenly aware of, right alongside other issues of family, parenting, and rebellious teens bodes well for the remaining two-thirds of the season.
Other sneaky-brilliant lines include “You not true Korean until you hit bucket of golf ball with cigarette in mouth” (Ken’s father), “You teach the kids Japanese stuff with a rigid efficiency that i don’t know where you get” (Ken to Allison), and “Hey, you know how to cook bul go gi?” “I don’t even know what that is” (Ken and Molly). Okay, that last one’s not sneaky or especially brilliant, but it’s cute.
Rx: More of this please. The issue of Korean-ness vs. Japanese-ness doesn’t go away with one episode, and there’s still more terrific material in there about Allison’s being a third-gen Asian American and Ken’s being second-gen, and about younger generations in successful families inheriting privilege that their parents worked for, something Molly exhibits in nearly every episode. I’m not prescribing an issue of the week, necessarily, but great comedy makes you laugh until you cry, as Sid Caesar said. Here’s to continued real laughter that at least approaches greatness.
In this week’s Post Show and Tell, Joz Wang interviews Krista Marie Yu and Suzy Nakamura about the Thanksgiving episode, right on the Dr. Ken set.