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By Rory L. Aronsky | January 11, 2006

At first, “All-American Girl” looks like a good gamble, but this was also a sitcom with a storied history. As Margaret Cho mentions in one of the audio commentaries and a featurette included in this new DVD set, she was forced to lose weight at the behest of ABC because they thought she was too fat to play Margaret. Considering Ralphie May’s rant about being told by a studio executive that he was “too fat to be fat”, he got off easy. The effect remains of executives in 1994, clueless about portraying what was pitched, afraid to just let it happen, not wanting to offend those who watch. This show stems from the typical family-based format of countless sitcoms over the years, with the only differences being that this one stars the brash Cho as the brash Margaret Kim, and includes her Korean-American family, from her mother Katherine (Jodi Long) who wishes to uphold sacred values, even if that includes trying so hard to choose her daughter’s suitors, and her father Benny (Clyde Kusatsu) who reliably, and sometimes reluctantly, supports Margaret in what she does. Her brother (B.D. Wong) is the eldest upstanding son of the family, an anesthesiologist, while her younger brother (J.D. Quon) is simply there, even a bigger mystery. He doesn’t contribute anything, much like Ashley Johnson as his friend Casey. In fact, one of the fun games to play when boredom strikes is to spot the changes. Johnson disappears towards the end, an obvious casualty of network confusion. It was groundbreaking in being the first show to prominently feature an Asian-American family, but that’s its only prestige.

And of course, Margaret has an ever-present pair of friends, uncannily constructed as if the network was looking hard into its crystal ball of demographics. Ruthie (Maddie Corman) is an occasional blonde ditz, and Gloria (Judy Gold), is tall and outspoken, a perfect companion to Margaret. What the network most likely saw in the two friends was a way to dilute Margaret, and give viewers a chance to breathe after her interactions with her family. Therefore, Ruthie is a softer personality and Gloria’s say-whatever-I-think attitude is played for laughs. Today, Ruthie and Gloria are mild. What execs worried about back then doesn’t look like much today.

This is all set in San Francisco but as with many sitcoms, it really doesn’t matter once there’s a cut to the set from the location stock footage. It’s also not grasped here that in order to be a good sitcom, there can’t be any of those “sitcommy” moments such as in an episode where Benny is haggling over whether to let a rich golf course owner marry his mother (Amy Hill). Margaret comes in, hears the entire story, tells her father that it sounds like he has a hard decision to make and then blurts out a curt “Night!” before going back upstairs. As fast as these shows are filmed, there should still be a sense of spontaneity, something that keeps it all grounded, not floating in the minds of network writers who don’t see the concept and will never contemplate a proper execution. In fact, in reminiscing over the show with Hill (whose ‘Grandma’ was all I remembered from years ago before seeing the episodes again), Cho remembers an Asian executive who did fight hard for the show, but was merely a voice among other voices who made claims of auditioning and rejecting actors for not “looking Asian enough”. In a sporadic study of that land of Hollywood, of its inhabitants, of the eccentricities detailed by writers who are likely happier making a living on the outskirts, I can frighteningly understand that line of thinking. It’s there and it’s real, and even Cho believes in a later commentary that they might have stood a chance had they been on HBO. She also disowns the writing as not being based on her stand-up comedy at all, and even the shooting of the pilot sounds uncomfortably surreal. She at least participates in this release for posterity, to set the record in concrete, from her and Hill’s perspectives. That’s most honorable, especially with how some of these episodes are, where I’m sure most actors would be too embarrassed to even consider talking about the pain.

“All-American Girl” only gained footing when there was material exclusively outside what had already been created, stand-alone episodes in a sense, with the very best of the series being a guest appearance by Quentin Tarantino in “Pulp Sitcom”, that playfully mimics “Pulp Fiction”, ranging from Desmond (Tarantino) sitting across from Grandma Kim, explaining where he got her “Watchman”, to him plunging a meat thermometer into a turkey, to him and Margaret dancing at the Fantasy Diner. It’s the only time there’s ever any feeling in what’s going on and that’s the ultimate proof that no one really knew what they were doing. The actors were only actors in this production, just saying the words and acting according to how they were directed, plus I’m convinced that director Terry Hughes must have been frustrated at some point too. But just wait until the last episode, which completely erases the family and replaces them with three male roommates, including Diedrich Bader who at least found comedic glory with “The Drew Carey Show” and then “Office Space”. This episode has to be on numerous top 10 lists as one of the worst ever made for television. The two stories in Bader’s episode involve the search for a rat exterminator, leading to one of the roommates trying to find the rat and protect it, and another trying to pay the phone bill so Margaret can find out if she was hired for an assistant-to-an-assistant position at a record company. The bar where everyone should have been drinking even has one of those sitcommy names, The Goat’s Head. Even Vicki Lawrence, as the lady at the phone company, is slumming here, and Grandma is the only original character besides Margaret to survive that bloody slicing-and-dicing, because of her popularity.

When it comes to movies and TV shows that I saw years ago and see again, I often wonder if I was dumb and blind the first time I saw some of them. “All-American Girl” is perfect proof of that because what worked years ago can be attributed to not knowing much about movies and television, or at least not paying much attention to the finer details in what makes comedy work. Shout! Factory remains a top-tier label because of its fascination with hidden pop culture tidbits, and this set is certainly there for curiosity seekers, but the show has not lasted after all these years. It’s what sitcoms should never do to garner laughs.

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