What other TV shows can learn from the creators of 'This Is Us' and 'The Good Place.'
On the NBC hit comedy, "The Good Place," Manny Jacinto plays, well, a lovable idiot.
The show follows a group of strangers brought together in the afterlife. Jacinto's character, Jason Mendoza, is always a little behind on the group's quickly shifting plans. But the aspiring DJ and Jacksonville Jaguars fan with a gentle spirit is often the heart of this charming comedy.
But while the hapless goof is a pretty common television trope, there's one thing that sets Jason Mendoza apart from the rest — he's Filipino-American.
[rebelmouse-image 19533058 dam="1" original_size="400x225" caption="GIF via "The Good Place."" expand=1]GIF via "The Good Place."
It is truly rare to see Asian-American characters on television, let alone one who isn't high-achieving, bookish, or an otherwise model minority.
Mike Schur, the creator of "The Good Place," took this into account when developing the show's cast of characters.
"They were trying to figure out something different and one of the things that popped up was that you don’t really see a lot of dumb Asian guys on mainstream television," Jacinto said in a recent interview with Vulture. "He’s usually intelligent or the model minority. I’m not saying playing Jason is pioneering, but it’s so great for me to do because it’s not a stereotype."
Manny Jacinto after the Golden Globes. Photo by Loreen Sarkis/Getty Images.
Now, full disclosure, Jason was confused for a silent Buddhist monk from Taiwan named Jianyu for the first few episodes of the show, and it looked like we'd be right back into Asian stereotype territory. (It's a delightful reveal, and though I just revealed it, there are plenty more where that came from.)
But on the whole, "The Good Place" works hard to subvert and call out cultural stereotypes through character development and sharp writing. Even in a place as perfect as heaven, Mendoza is offered tofu instead of his favorite meal, buffalo wings. And he commiserates to main character Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, “Everyone here thinks I’m Taiwanese. I’m Filipino. That’s racist. Heaven is so racist.”
[rebelmouse-image 19533060 dam="1" original_size="400x225" caption="GIF via "The Good Place."" expand=1]GIF via "The Good Place."
But even while calling out stereotypes and rethinking representation, Jason Mendoza's ethnicity isn't the crux of his character. And that's kind of awesome.
“His culture doesn’t make up his character,” Jacinto said in an interview with Mochi magazine. When Jason connects with other characters of color, there's no pressure to push on his background. "They’re having a normal conversation as people. It’s not something you see in mainstream media at all — usually, there’s some sort of cultural joke.”
This doesn't mean his background gets erased or ignored — just the opposite. Jason Mendoza gets to be Filipino-American, and a huge Blake Bortles stan who has a fondness for EDM. Like all of us, he's the intersection of a lot of weird and wonderful things. Why shouldn't TV show all of that?
[rebelmouse-image 19533061 dam="1" original_size="400x225" caption="GIF via "The Good Place."" expand=1]GIF via "The Good Place."
Roles like this remind us that while colorblind casting affords great opportunities to actors of color, sometimes there's beauty in specificity.
Sterling K. Brown, who won a Golden Globe for his role as Randall Pearson in the NBC drama, "This Is Us," made a point to mention this in his acceptance speech, emphasis added.
"Dan Fogelman, you wrote a role for a black man that could only be played by a black man. What I appreciate so much about this is that I’m being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me.”
Sterling K. Brown poses with the trophy for Best Performance by an Actor In A Television Series — Drama. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.
What it comes down to is this: representation matters.
Seeing someone like you, with your skin color, spiritual background, age, sexual orientation, or disability is no small thing. It can inspire, change minds, and move people to act. Every role on every show gives Hollywood another chance to get it right. Not just for top talent, but for the children (and Jacksonville Jaguar-loving adults) watching and wondering if anyone sees them too.