What about John Cho?” Every time. Whenever I note in conversation the absence of Asian stars in Hollywood movies, “John Cho?” is the response I get. Every single time.
And I’m not particularly surprised: the South Korea-born, LA-raised actor has made himself known to everyone and their mothers through a dizzying number of TV and film guest roles; he got his ass kicked going to White Castle in Harold & Kumar, and pilots the Starship Enterprise as Sulu in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek movies. He didn’t do them with kung-fu or foreign accents, he just did them — as a guy, who also happened to be Asian.
John Cho is one of the most recognizable Asian-American actors in pop culture. So the fact that Cho hasn’t had the opportunity to save the world as a Marvel superhero or romance a leading lady in a rom-com makes the Twitter hashtag #StarringJohnCho so fucking genius. Started by New York digital strategist William Yu and not by a feverish stalker, the “social movement” swaps white male leads in posters for movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Martian, and the romantic drama Me Before You for Cho, the 43-year-old actor known for screaming “MILF” in American Pie.
“The goal was to spark discussion and get people to question [themselves],” Yu told THR. “If you’re laughing at John Cho as James Bond, why does that seem so outrageous?”
But what bums me out, aside from seeing Cho in a James Bond tux as revelatory, is that Cho did show off his leading man chops before. In 2014, Emmy Award-winning producer Emily Kapnek created Selfie, a short-lived ABC sitcom starring John Cho opposite Doctor Who alum and Scottish actress Karen Gillan.
A very, very modern spin on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady, Selfie followed shallow, self-absorbed Eliza Dooley (Gillan) as she enlists a level-headed marketing exec, Henry Higgs (Cho), to turn her image around. As is the case in meet-cutes, they were headed for romance… until ABC canceled Selfie just a few months into its only season.
Yes, Selfie hamstrung itself from the start with that cringe-worthy title. And even with crowd-pleasing leads in Cho and Gillan, Selfie wasn’t able to overcome those hostile expectations. Its overt attempt at co-opting “the selfie” with overly saccharine wit made Selfie feel safe, non-threatening, and perhaps to many, almost like a waste of time.
Hillary Busis of EW wrote of the show’s first episode: “[T]here could be a decent show trapped within Selfie … Too bad the show’s cruel sense of humor and reliance on instantly dated references … may very well drive away viewers before they can see what Selfie and Eliza become.”
Busis wasn’t the only one who noticed Selfie’s shortcomings. In writing for The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon gave the series back-handed praise, dubbing it “repugnant.”
“It’s unusual that a TV show is so simultaneously of-its-time and instantly dated,” Fallon writes. “It’s hard to remember when a sitcom was as relatable and inviting as it is alienating.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to cancellation: Selfie got better. Cho and Gillan displayed more comfort in their roles — and their chemistry became electric, then downright hot. The show’s hilarious co-stars, like Homeland alum David Harewood (now the Martian Manhunter in Supergirl embraced their goofiness to amazing effect. When ABC gave Selfie the axe, the internet lit up with remorse, white-hot rage, and of course, petitions.
It seemed that it took a cancellation for people to realize that Selfie was the first American comedy series to feature an Asian-American romantic male. Busis changed her opinion of the show in a follow-up on EW. Vulture lamented its cancellation. Salon did too, calling Henry and Eliza “the most promising interracial couple on TV.”
The producers admitted Cho wasn’t their first choice, but when he auditioned, he made the role his own. “We looked at tons of different actors, and really once we kind of opened our minds and said let’s get off of what we think Henry is supposed to be and just talk about who is, we just need a brilliant actor and John’s name came up,” Kapnek told TheStar.
Even better, Henry’s race is virtually unacknowledged in Selfie, which Cho praised as “really new,” “mature,” and a “bit of a landmark.” He wasn’t not wrong. I mean, Selfie once had the guy ride on a freaking horse just to be by Eliza’s side. And yeah, I wish I had an embeddable clip of it.
Selfie wasn’t perfect, but it deserved to grow — and Cho deserves another chance at leading a major TV series; it seems as if networks gave him just one chance, while most white actors get shot after shot at a successful show.
More than a year after its untimely end, here we are again wondering where our representatives — characters we wish to live vicariously through — all are. Our heroes get washed away, and when we have them, they leave too soon. But, at least Selfie is still on Hulu.Photos via #StarringJohnCho, ABC