About a year ago, Dino-Ray of 8Asians mused that the new TBS show Sullivan & Son looked sort of intriguing because of its ethnically diverse cast, but would commit only to the possibility that he might see it when he got around to it.
Most of me doesn’t blame him: the promos for this show featured one-line zingers that seemed to think political incorrectness was by itself funny, or that a bar populated with colorful characters shooting insults at one another could recreate the magic of Cheers or Friends. I also don’t blame Dino-Ray for missing a critical, significant mile-marker in television history: a main character of mixed Asian and Caucasian ethnicities. Unless I’m missing something, Steve Byrne’s character in Sullivan & Son is the first hapa central character in a television series, and that’s reason enough for me to make this regular viewing.
I am not one of those who thinks the mass media owes it to me to represent me and my ethnicity in a responsible way. I was never offended by Arnold, Mr. Sulu, Long Duk Dong, or anyone on All-American Girl. Yes, I was keenly aware, even at a very young age, that none of the moms on TV looked anything like my own American mom, but as vaguely irritating as that all was, I didn’t blame networks or producers so much as the market. After all, I’m from Hawaii, a state so culturally, economically, and politically insignificant that there was a time in my life (I’m 44) when all the prime-time shows aired a week later than in the rest of the country. Even MTV’s New Year’s Eve broadcast aired on January 6.
But dang. Here is a character around my age who’s got a Korean mom and an Irish dad, someone who, despite a different Asian identity and a very different hometown, is interpreting some of the things I’ve known, some of the things that make growing up hapa different from growing up Asian American or any other kind of American, and I have to admit that it gives me an unexpected feeling of inclusion.
And I don’t want that to go away. If Sullivan & Son fails, it will fail because it’s in a weird spot on the dial, or because the writers are playing to lower common denominators of humor, or because the network isn’t supporting it well enough. I don’t think it will fail because of its hapa-ness, and it certainly won’t fail because some mid-forties guy in Honolulu watched or didn’t watch it. Still, if it fades into oblivion, I don’t want it to so without something to mark it, as if nobody were appreciative of the one thing that makes it unlike anything that’s come before. So for the next eight weeks (two episodes have already aired in the show’s ten-episode second season), I will offer quick, next-morning reviews of Sullivan & Son, which will be the exercises in brevity this little rant clearly is not.
Before I review the two episodes that have already aired, here is a CliffsNotes run-down of what you’ve been missing.
Premise: Steve Sullivan was an attorney with a big-time firm in New York, a pretty fiancé, and too many excuses not to visit his family in Pittsburgh. On the night of the bar’s closing, he visited one last time and realized that everything he really cared about was there in that bar, so he purchased it from his parents and changed its name, keeping his parents as employees and reacquainting himself with old friends, leaving the lawyer life, the fiancé, and the law career behind.
What works: Steve (played by stand-up comic Steve Byrne) is extremely likable as a sometimes impulsive, sometimes level-headed ringmaster of the circus taking place around him. His father, played by Dan Lauria, too often plays the Voice of Wisdom, but he is also pretty unflappable, something that really highlights the relationship between Steve and his dad. Vivian Bang plays Steve’s little sister Susan, in a role that doesn’t get enough screen time. There’s a lot of tension in her character, being not only the little sister but the only daughter, and there’s a lot of good stuff to be mined in her relationship with her parents and brother, if the writers will only go there. There are flashes of sensitivity in every episode, and more important (for me), there are flashes of hapa-ness that ring true all the way to my skeleton.
What doesn’t work: The supporting cast started out far too big to manage without confusion. It’s slowly finding ways to define everyone, but the relationships are tenuously juggled and the characters feel a little flat. The best-realized of the supporting characters are all ridiculous cartoons, the most annoying of whom is played by Brian Doyle-Murray (as Hank). Christina Ebersole (Carol) and Owen Benjamin (Owen) are also completely implausible, only-on-TV characters. Most of the jokes are quick, stupid, obvious, or simply outrageous.
What sort-of works: The critical role of Ok Cha, Steve’s mom (Jodi Long), is sometimes deeply truthful and sometimes too easily, too flatly drawn. Whether or not the show succeeds is largely dependent on how well they flesh this character out. Steve’s sort-of love interest, Melanie, is played by Valerie Azlynn. Remember that episode of The Big Bang Theory where that actress who plays a dead prostitute on CSI moves into the apartment upstairs from Leonard and Sheldon and has all the guys doing things for her, much to Penny’s disgust? That was Azlynn. The show’s done a nice job of setting up these lifelong friends for a possible romance, but it’s clearly not a priority for the show or for the characters, so the will-they-or-won’t-they thing, which gets tired quickly, isn’t really in play so much as the comfort and familiarity of two people who really, really know each other well.
Season 2, Episode 1: “Pilot, One More Time” (aired June 13, 2013)
Micro-synopsis: Susan asks Steve to let her doctor husband Jason (Ken Jeong) hang out in the bar because he’s overworked and can’t relax. Jason has such a good time that he threatens to leave his career, and soon the bar is full of Asian doctors doing shots and chanting, “We’re never gonna die!”
Good: Ken Jeong is funny just by walking into a room, and although there’s a little too much syrupy sweetness in this episode’s resolution, the circus-like atmosphere in the bar, something I usually hate, actually works as the backdrop for Jeong’s out-there brand of humor. Ok Cha has some good rants about the sacrifices Asian moms make for their children. There’s a funny sub-plot where Melanie helps some of the patrons who are ashamed to admit they have certain holes in their knowledge of sports. This is the second-most we’ve seen Susan in any episodes so far, and it’s nice to see her in a different context.
Bad: The racial jokes from Hank and the slutty jokes from Carole continue to be unfunny. Do we really need to hear “Your most important job is as a husband and parent” from Steve’s dad? The lesson’s already been learned, so why put it into stupid words like that? Dan Lauria, in fact, is one of the weak links in this episode, with a rather uncharacteristic bit of overacting.
Hapa moment: There are a couple of moments when Steve and his dad are behind the bar, just observing and reacting to what’s going on around them. They look nothing alike, but there’s something similar in their bearing, and there is an ease and comfort that sells the father-son relationship. I appreciate moments like this, where the hapa-ness isn’t the point, but is part of the unspoken reality.
Overall: This is one of the least over-the-top episodes of Sullivan & Son, but it’s still a little on the wacky side. Humor tends to lean shallow but there are little hints at more thoughtful humor here and there, as when one character is embarrassed that he doesn’t know what the balk rule in baseball is, or when Ok Cha explains that the relentless expectations of Asian moms is, in fact, love.
Final grade, this episode: C+.
Season 2, Episode 2: “Acceptance” (aired June 20, 2013)
Microsynopsis: Steve, Melanie, and Owen realize that they haven’t been very open-minded in seeking company of the opposite sex, so they make a pact to override their reservations with the next few people who walk into the bar. Owen hooks up with a woman he doesn’t know is his uncle’s widow; Melanie hooks up with a guy who has the annoying habit of giving everyone stupid nicknames, and Steve is propositioned by a very attractive woman who markets cigarettes to children in developing nations.
Good: The fellowship between Steve, Melanie, and Owen is starting to work. There’s very little Carole in this episode. Ok Cha gives an interesting take on guarding your heart against intruders.
Bad: No Susan in this episode. The subplot involves Ahmed dating a fellow tow-truck driver who’s pretty big and tough. I was uncomfortable with the jokes implying she was manly. If the regulars in the bar don’t approve of her, that’s one thing. But joking about which bathroom she’s gone into feels unjust, not to mention cheap.
Hapa moment: Nothing specifically hapa-feeling in this episode.
Overall: A kind of mindless entertainment, this episode does a little bit of character development that I think is generally lacking in this show. The interactions between Melanie and Steve are really well-done; the timing and familiarity are excellent. I know this is stupid, but I kind of giggled at the coining of the terms “dry bonk” and “bonk job.” This is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite episode, but neither is it likely to be a least-favorite.
Final grade, this episode: C.