CW Television Network executives shouldn’t be cross with Asians in the audience. Meaty roles on television are practically nonexistent for Filipinos. Josh Chan is the true underdog despite his unassailable attributes.
Rekindling an Obsession
Anyone who’s exited the 10 Freeway at West Garvey into the fragrant suction of the 110 stores of Plaza West Covina Mall would hardly call West Covina in Southern California, a sleepy bedroom community. Proud West Covinaites in the musical comedy remind newcomer Rebecca Bunch, played by co-creator Rachel Bloom, that their San Gabriel Valley city is only two hours from the beach. The realists claim four hours. Pshaw! The main attraction for Rebecca is Josh Chan, not the Pacific Ocean.
Ten years after a summer camp romance with Josh, Rebecca, a young Jewish lawyer, declines a half-million dollar partnership at a Manhattan firm to follow him to West Covina. Be warned that Rebecca denies this motive at least once every show. So far into the young television season Josh does not feel the same way about Rebecca.
Much of the early media coverage lauded “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as one of the few television shows created by women. But the multicultural nature of the show wasn’t lost on Aline Brosh McKenna, the other co-creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and writer behind the movies “The Devil Wears Prada” and “27 Dresses.” She was responsible for the decision to adapt Josh Chan’s ethnicity to the story.
The character was originally named Josh Chang. “The Josh character was conceived as a Southern California Asian bro,” says Aline. A wide range of actors auditioned to play the Southern California surfer-type dude. Vincent fit the part with only the minor adjustment of changing Josh’s last name from Chang to Chan based on Aline’s awareness that some Filipinos have Chinese surnames.
Once Vincent was cast, the next challenge was to present an authentic Filipino American character.
“Specificity is important,” emphasizes Aline. “As a show we try to honor and respect people’s heritage while at the same time being completely open in our casting. If the character’s background is meaningful we sometimes make a point of exploring it, but otherwise we just try to reflect the community in which the show is set.”
US Census data list Filipinos as the largest minority in West Covina with 10,689 residents in 2010. Some scenes were filmed on location.
An Authentically Filipino Writer
The inventive premise of a white woman obsessed with an Asian man was not meant to be a reality bender. “It wasn’t a radical political gesture,” Aline admits. “The idea of an Asian being a bro is funny here in Southern California. In a multicultural state there isn’t just one type of person for any ethnicity.”
She had some familiarity with the culture through Filipino classmates at her high school in New Jersey, but serendipity gave the one-hour show a real expert.
"There was a writer we were interested in who happened to be Filipino,” Aline says of Rene Gube. “Rene is a great writer and performer. The fact he is Filipino is great for us. It was helpful because we include a lot about Josh’s background.”
Though the show is known for flamboyant musical numbers, Rene resisted the impulse to ridicule Filipino culture by overdoing Josh’s heritage. There will be no colonial insecurities like manongs pinching noses to duplicate Danny Kay’s schnoz. Josh is American as well as Filipino.
“People from different cultures want to be recognized for being different yet want to be recognized as being part of America. I think it’s really fantastic that we fulfill both wants in our stories,” Rene explains.
Rene distills the dual natures within immigrant families. “In one episode Josh visits a Filipino priest at a Catholic church. You see two Filipinos on screen having a normal conversation that has nothing to do with their culture.” Rene notes, “I also play the priest.”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has made Rene extra sensitive to how Filipinos and other minorities are portrayed on screen. “It has made me aware of the responsibility I have as a writer of color to honestly represent a marginalized community on network television.”
Of course, Rene mines his Filipino background along the way. “I was surrounded by Filipino tradition and culture in my home,” he says of his upbringing in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Penasquitos. “Part of my cultural tradition was the importance of family and extended family so having large family get-togethers for Thanksgiving and other important events was very normal to me.”
Filipino Chocolate Meat
Dinuguan is quite normal to Filipino palates. In the Thanksgiving episode, the pork blood stew got perhaps too much time in the spotlight. “We made dinuguan twice for the scene,” relates Aline. “The second I saw the first dish I thought this is not right.” The stew had sat out too long and needed to be prepared again.
“I think the dinuguan looks very appealing!” comments Aline. “A lot of people tried it on set and loved it.”
Dinuguan debuts in the episode “My First Thanksgiving with Josh” to air 8 p.m., November 16, 2015 on the CW Television Network. Just don’t feel guilty for pulling for Josh to get the girl. Think of it as rooting for the home team even though it’s heavily favored.
Positively Filipino Correspondent Anthony Maddela covers Southern California. He works for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, writes fiction and likes birding with his family of four and the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society. Los Angeles youth might be interested in joining his daughter Charlotte’s Young Birders Club.
More articles from Anthony Maddela