Screen Test

The Hangover star Ken Jeong disappoints with his Asian-themed sitcom

(From far left) Albert Tsai, Suzy Nakamura, Ken Jeong and Krista Marie Yu make up the Korean-American family in Dr Ken, while Danny Masterson and Ashton Kutcher star in The Ranch.
(From far left) Albert Tsai, Suzy Nakamura, Ken Jeong and Krista Marie Yu make up the Korean-American family in Dr Ken, while Danny Masterson and Ashton Kutcher star in The Ranch.PHOTO: SONY CHANNEL

Two new sitcoms on conservatives and Asians offer only serviceable jokes

When it comes to actually making you laugh, neither The Ranch nor Dr Ken breaks any new ground - the comedy is standard-issue and the jokes, for the most part, merely serviceable.

Yet these new sitcoms stand out because they depict two communities - conservatives and Asians - that have long been underserved and under-represented in Hollywood.

The Ranch, a new Netflix series produced by and starring Ashton Kutcher, is set in a tiny, rural Colorado town, with the actor playing the prodigal son in a family of farmers headed by a God-fearing, Obama-hating, gun-toting patriarch.

Dr Ken is the brainchild of Ken Jeong, best known as Mr Chow from The Hangover (2009-2013) films. Loosely based on Jeong's previous career as a physician, it is about Dr Ken Park, a doctor with terrible bedside manner, and his Korean-American family: wife Allison (Suzy Nakamura) and children Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and Dave (Albert Tsai).

Demographically, each show is a welcome departure from the usual situational-comedy universe, which is mostly populated by well-to-do white urbanites whose values and cultural preferences reflect those of liberal Hollywood.

The Bennetts of The Ranch are white, but they are working-class folk from a town with a population of 512 and only one traffic light.

The series sets itself apart with an earnest attempt to explore blue-collar struggles in a way few comedies do these days.

The drought-stricken Bennett ranch is on the brink of collapse when younger son Colt (Kutcher) returns home after failing to make it as a semi-professional football player. His father Beau (Sam Elliott) thus agonises over whether to spend US$250 on antibiotics for a sick calf or fork out a co-pay to have his bad back treated.


Albert Tsai, Suzy Nakamura, Ken Jeong and Krista Marie Yu make up the Korean-American family in Dr Ken, while Danny Masterson (above left) and Ashton Kutcher star in The Ranch. PHOTOS: SONY CHANNEL, NETFLIX

The theme is continued with the tone and look of the show: Instead of the urban, upbeat and over-saturated vibe of other sitcoms, you get jokes about country singer Shania Twain; a cover version of Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys playing over the opening credits; a muted palette and lighting; and some good old cussing.

The last major US sitcom to air in Singapore that dealt meaningfully with such working-class woes was probably Roseanne, the 1988 to 1997 series with Roseanne Barr and John Goodman.

But The Ranch is not quite a worthy successor to that superlative show.

  • VIEW IT / THE RANCH

  • Netflix

    3/5 stars

    DR KEN

    Sony Channel (StarHub TV Channel 510, Singtel TV Channel 316), premieres on April 13, Wednesday, 8.20pm

    2.5/5 stars

Credit should be given to the producers for attempting to depict a milieu rarely seen on TV and for being willing to experiment with darker-hued comedy in examining the fractious relationship between Beau and his sons, as well as between Beau and wife Maggie (Debra Winger), a romance no less complex for being in its twilight years.

The writing also lands the occasional observational zinger about small-town mentality (a weekend trip to Omaha is a big deal) and the perils of American football (Colt struggles, naturally, to remember how many concussions he suffered on the field).

But the rest of the comedy is passable at best, with far too many uninspired jokes padding things out, whether it is bro-y wisecracks about bedding pregnant women, misogynistic ones about Colt being too feminine or the recycling of Kutcher's overused himbo persona from That '70s Show.

And in painting what is obviously meant to be a sympathetic portrait of America's heartland, the writers often strike a discordant note - for example, when Beau rants about climate change ("a bucket of cr** Al Gore made up to sell books") or the moon landings being faked, and his sons recall how upset he was when President Barack Obama was elected and managed to produce his birth certificate.

It is unclear whether you are supposed to be laughing with these people or at them (or, if you believe the birth-certificate business was racially motivated, be simply appalled).

If the goal is to keep it vague and court viewers on both sides of the political divide, it is probably the savviest thing the writers could do, but also, frankly, rather cynical.

Tonal inconsistencies also afflict Dr Ken, which is something of an odd beast as well.

The bar for Asian-American sitcoms has been set high in recent years by acclaimed series such as Master Of None and Fresh Off The Boat, both of which have skilfully mined the minority/immigrant experience for laughs and insights.

Unfortunately, Dr Ken comes up empty-handed on both counts.

While Jeong is a gifted comedian, his madcap improvisational genius - which produced some of the finest moments of R-rated comedy in The Hangover movies - seems ill-suited to a broad, family-friendly comedy. As a result, Dr Park becomes unintentionally schizophrenic, given to completely random acts of buffoonery, physical comedy and pathos.

Other than this, the show is largely unremarkable. Its only ambition appears to be cramming as many tropes as it can into 20-odd minutes in each episode: the clueless dad who keeps messing up, his sensible and long-suffering wife and their precocious, wise-cracking kids.

There are few references to the characters' Asian backgrounds and when it happens, the joke is either toothless or obvious - for instance, when someone does an impression of a heavy Korean accent.

Yet it feels like there are the building blocks of a much better show here. There is the excellent supporting cast led by Nakamura and the adorable Tsai, plus some nice swipes at the arrogance of doctors and the absurdities of the American healthcare system.

Jeong played a version of this same character - the misanthropic doctor - in the movie 2007 Knocked Up, where he was Katherine Heigl's obstetrician. He was toned down, dry as a bone and hilarious, and there is no reason why the same could not be done here.

As for providing more culture-specific comedy, Jeong and the show's other creators have said they are trying to normalise the depiction of Asian Americans and have justified their choices accordingly.

An admirable intention, perhaps, but when you see what a series such as Fresh Off The Boat can do, it seems like a missed opportunity. And right now, Dr Ken needs every laugh it can get.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Fresh situations, little comedy'. Print Edition | Subscribe