The show is months from even airing, and already, FOX's Dads is looking to be the most offensive show of the fall television season. At a Television Critics Association panel Thursday, the creators and stars of the show attempted to support its most racist jokes – which include Brenda Song's character being told to dress up as a sexy Asian schoolgirl while at work to wow some Chinese businessmen – but just ended up digging themselves into the dirt.
Dads stars Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi (why Giovanni whyyyy), who play two dudes who work together and are best friends trying to grapple with their own fathers, two old dudes that have come back in to their lives to bother them. It's produced by Seth MacFarlane and created by Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, which perhaps explains the origins of some of the humor if it doesn't clarify why it's happening in the first place. That particular joke involving Brenda Song goes further than just her dressing up in a very office-inappropriate outfit: she mimics the high-pitched giggle that female anime characters have and one of the fathers makes reference to how his son was turned on by her outfit, probably paving the way for a beautiful romance to blossom.
Song didn't speak until the end of the TCA panel (prompting the start of a very brief hashtag #freebrendasong), at which point she said that dressing in that way gave her pause at first, but because she was on the Disney Channel for so long, she expects people to be offended by her work. She described her character as "a go-getter" who "will do anything she has to" for her job and said that Asian stereotypes are something she makes fun of in her own life:
“I joke around all the time, ‘I’m Asian, I’m really good at math. I know so many people who joke about themselves, we’re just doing it on TV. For me for my generation, I grew up watching The Family Guy and The Simpsons …I get to do what I’ve been dreaming about since I was 7 years old. I can’t complain.”
This isn't the first time a character of Song's has elicited concerns about its sexist and racist implications. After her role in The Social Network, in which she played the girlfriend of one of founders of Facebook, Rebecca Davis O'Brien wrote that the film "lampoons Asian women":
We first meet Brenda Song’s character, Harvard co-ed Christy, when she throws her cleavage at newly successful (and, ohmigod, final club member!) Eduardo Saverin. A few minutes later, she’s giving him oral sex in a public restroom. Afterward, Christy and her friend sit uselessly on a couch while the men plot the expansion of Facebook. This isn’t the only time in the movie when two girls are drunk and irrelevant on a peripheral sofa.
Then, inexplicably and suddenly, Christy becomes mad with jealousy. Near the climax of the film, Christy lights a scarf on fire in Eduardo’s apartment, then turns and asks, doe-eyed, if he’s leaving her. What this scene contributes to the film’s development is beyond me—unless Sorkin is trying to explain why Harvard’s all-male final clubs won’t let women become members: We might all be vindictive pyromaniacs.
Song's role in The Social Network plus her role on Dads isn't a coincidence; it's due to the lack of available fully flushed-out roles for women of color in Hollywood. Some of the other disheartening jokes in the pilot of Dads are all also about sex and race; they include Vanessa Lachey's character getting confused for a maid because she is Latino, a joke about "Tiny China penises" and another joke about how you can't trust Chinese people ("There's a reason Shanghai's a verb.")
Seth MacFarlane's brand of humor seems to work well in cartoons like Family Guy and The Simpsons, not in real interpretations of fully-realized people who may have actually encountered this type of racism and sexism in their lives. What it doesn't work well in is in actual shows with people in them, not over-the-top, ridiculous caricatures. It's slightly understandable that the creators of Dads are upset and worried that they're getting so much heat for their show in particular; these jokes have been told before again and again on shows that have lasted for a long time. Two and a Half Men is an obvious example; here's an extended gag about this woman's very large breasts that goes on for more than three minutes, but 2 Broke Girls has done this to great success more recently. Also coming up in the fall, CBS's We Are Men doesn't look like it's going to be presenting any new interesting ideas about what it is to be a man based solely off this poster, but it also doesn't appear to be full of racially insensitive jokes.
It's likely that the real explanation behind this kind of content is that networks know that they need to do something to catch the attention of America – which means pushing the boundaries more than We Are Men does – plus, they're still greenlighting stuff that would have been okay ten years ago but is now just tired, boring and offensive.
This reasoning makes the most sense when you think about how FOX, after only reading the script for the pilot, ordered six episodes of Dads, probably less because it was good and more because of the people it came from who have a track record of making money and the fact that this is just the kind of content they're used to pushing out. But upon hearing that the critics don't like what he's selling, FOX president Kevin Reilly reportedly "begged" them at TCA to be patient with the show, saying, "Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot? I don’t." The only problem is that we shouldn't have a lot of faith that just waiting around will get us a bunch of new material from the same guys that are always hired, that will somehow magically be better than the old stuff they've already figured out we'll pay attention to.