Why "Selfie's" cancellation is a massive shame: This was the most promising interracial couple on TV

When "Selfie" leaves the air, so will our only Asian sitcom lead -- and his story line was just heating up

Published November 10, 2014 8:59PM (EST)

John Cho and Karen Gillan in "Selfie"         (ABC/Eric McCandless)
John Cho and Karen Gillan in "Selfie" (ABC/Eric McCandless)

Damn, John Cho just got cockblocked again.

Cho is the lead in ABC's comedy "Selfie," which was canceled on Friday after the studio decided not to order more episodes beyond the 13 already in production. And news of the show's cancellation came right after the Nov. 4 episode "Never Block Cookies," in which Cho's Henry and Karen Gillan's Eliza share a tense romantic moment so hot it nearly sets the screen on fire.

Now, whatever happens this season for Henry and Eliza will be the end of their story. And while both actors, hopefully, will land better and better roles, it seems an especial travesty for Cho, who has been on the fringes of Hollywood stardom for most of his career. Though "Selfie" made no mention of it — a deliberate choice from the producers — Cho is the first Asian-American leading man in a rom-sitcom. And though that might sound a little bit like a milestone that I just made up, Asian characters are one of the least-represented groups in Hollywood. Asian men in particular have historically had a lot of trouble being seen as anything except asexual sidekicks.

Vulture, in fact, did an analysis on the subject in October: "An In-Depth Cultural Analysis of Asian Male TV Characters Getting Some Action." It's a subject that fits into a six-point article, which writer E. Alex Jung observes is the whole problem: "That we can even attempt a fairly comprehensive list of every Asian male to have had an onscreen kiss demonstrates that there is a serious problem of racial inequity here. Try doing it with white actors in one season and your brain will explode." (Careful readers will observe that on this list, Cho is the "type" that gets the most action, and even his romances can be counted on just one hand.)

Vulture's list reveals a type of insidious typecasting that opens up roles for characters of color but then limits who or what they can be to the rest of the show. It's nothing new, but it's especially highlighted when a character like Cho's Henry comes along — a character who does not fit comfortably anywhere on that list of "types." Creator Emily Kapnek told the Toronto Star this summer that "Selfie" was originally hoping to cast an older British man for the role before widening the search. It was the network — which has been making efforts for more diverse casting in a lot of its programming, from the fractured fairy tales of "Once Upon a Time" to the sitcoms "Black-ish" and "Cristela" — that suggested color-blind casting.

Cho came to the role and owned it; much of "Selfie's" charm comes from how fully he inhabits the role. And a big part of that is his chemistry with female lead Gillan. They do not just have good presence together; they do not just photograph together well. The two of them playfully encourage and exude sexual chemistry — Gillan, by perfecting the doe-eyed innocence that made her famous in "Doctor Who"; Cho, by serving up what Genevieve Valentine calls "Romantic Lead Face." And in "Never Block Cookies," Henry is not asexual; Henry is super hot.

And that matters. It matters whether or not John Cho has a romantic story line — whether or not he's allowed to play up sexual energy in a role — because those are the roles that make long character arcs; those are the roles that create fans; those are the roles that make television stars into movie stars. "Selfie's" fans love this relationship, making so much noise about it that for a brief window after "Never Block Cookies" aired, searching "selfie" on Tumblr brought up posts about that scene, not just users' own selfies.

And if it seems improbable that Asian men aren't encouraged to be sexually available romantic heroes, look no further than America's most watched television program, "The Big Bang Theory" — which has spent nine seasons making its Asian male cast member Raj Koothrappali into a caricature of ethnic jokes, nerd stereotypes and asexuality. Raj's main character trait for a full five seasons was that he was completely silent around women unless he was intoxicated. That included series regular Penny and everyone's romantic interests, including his own — talk about cockblocked! This, while the show's protagonist Sheldon was written into a relationship, despite the fact that for the first few seasons of the show his affect was determinedly asexual.

It's an unsettling reality that the sitcom with the first Asian romantic lead just got canceled, in a world where the sitcom with an Asian lead who can barely speak to women is the most-watched show on television. It's hard to tell how much John Cho's unconventionally sexy Henry contributed to the show's low ratings. It might be a truth I'd rather not know. 

I should clarify that from a business perspective, the cancellation makes sense: The show got off to a rocky start, creatively; Tuesday night was a difficult night for a new show to break out on ABC; the title of the show is catchy but essentially ungoogleable; and the stylized humor of the show is an acquired taste.

But for me, "Selfie's" cancellation is a blow for the movement of Getting John Cho Laid On-Screen — the superficial arm of the larger organization titled Hey TV, Not Everyone Is White, In Case You Hadn't Noticed.

If it weren't for a few other shows, "Selfie" would be the only network sitcom with any interracial relationships: "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" has teased a few; "The Mindy Project's" third season is set around one, and "New Girl" has an ongoing will-they/won't-they story that crosses racial lines. And though all the shows are doing fine, none is characterized by particularly high ratings.

The next episode of "Selfie" airs tomorrow night. After that, its future is murky; ABC has yet to announce if it will air the remaining episodes now, or hold off and burn them off in a less desirable time slot. I will watch with bittersweet fascination. On one hand, it's such a shame to see it go, just as it was starting to iron out many of its problems. On the other hand, it feels like a piece of a future we just weren't ready for. "Selfie" is a forward-looking, optimistic show, where becoming the best version of yourself is the point for all of its characters. It's a show focused on who they could be — not who they were yesterday, or what they look like, or how they think they should be acting. Sometimes, I'd rather live in that universe. At times it looks significantly less "butt."

By Sonia Saraiya

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Abc John Cho Karen Gillan Selfie The Big Bang Theory