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CBS Made Wrong Call on Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park ‘Hawaii Five-0’ Deals (Column)

Season 8 of “Hawaii Five-0” will return to the special task force in the Aloha State — a state where 57.4% of residents claim some Asian heritage, according to the U.S. Census — without all of its Asian regular characters. Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, who have been integral parts of the cast since the show’s inception in 2010, will be leaving the series after contract negotiations reached an impasse. The issue, as was obliquely referenced in a Facebook post from Kim on Wednesday, was pay parity with white stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.

The actors’ departure highlights an ongoing problem for CBS: Despite being America’s most-watched TV outlet for 14 of the past 15 years, the network cannot claim to be fully representative of the audience it serves. Last August, then-CBS Entertainment chief Glenn Geller publicly acknowledged that the network needed to address the lack of diversity in its programming, both in front of and behind the camera. “We need to do better, and we know it,” he said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. At the time, all six of CBS’ new fall shows for the 2016-17 season were toplined by white men, and the network had no showrunners of color.  

In an indication of taking the issue seriously, the network launched a diversity casting initiative a few months later, and this fall has a new drama, “SWAT,” that both stars and is co-run by African-Americans. To be sure, these are baby steps — the network still has no female leads in its new shows, and only a smattering of female executive producers — but an effort has at least been attempted. 

This makes the confusion around Park and Kim even more counterintuitive. “Hawaii Five-0” was a seemingly effortless success story for the network — a show that both found an organically inclusive storyline and attracted regular viewers. (In addition to strong live ratings, “Hawaii Five-0” is a syndication moneymaker for CBS.) Kim and Park are technically supporting cast members to the leads, which explains some CBS’ hesitation in bringing them up to parity with No. 1 (McLoughlin) and No. 2 (Caan) on the call sheet. But pay bumps for long-serving actors on a successful show seems rather surmountable for a network as big as CBS. CBS by its own account said Wednesday it offered “large and significant raises” to both actors. 

And it should be said that at least one of the reasons Kim and Park are supporting characters is because “Hawaii Five-0” is a reboot of a series that debuted in 1968 — a beloved show, but one that so centered its white actors that it engaged in yellowface casting in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable by contemporary standards. The rebooted version has had an opportunity to address, reframe, and appreciate the original — and by and large it’s succeeded in balancing nostalgia with modernity.

But all that will be a little harder to do without both of its central Asian characters. In the show’s storytelling, Chin (Kim) in particular is the Five-0’s connection to Hawaiian culture — he speaks Hawaiian and recruits his cousin Kono, played by Park, to be a part of their team. Kim has reprised his character in crossover events on other CBS shows: “NCIS: Los Angeles,” in 2012, and “MacGyver” this March, where he was joined by Park’s character Kono. Kim and Park have been consistently featured in the show’s key art, which frames the show as one led by a quartet of characters — and because Caan negotiated fewer episodes per season, he’s even on the show less frequently than Kim and Park. Kim and Park are as much the face of “Hawaii Five-0” as Caan and O’Loughlin are, even if their call sheets don’t reflect that. CBS ought to recognize that — and invest in it.

In “Hawaii Five-O,” CBS produced a diverse cast and an inclusive narrative with commercial viability. This should be its ideal scenario. But now with the exits of Kim and Park the Eye runs the risk of torpedoing its own success story. Geller said that the network knew it needed to do better. Apparently CBS is still finding it hard at times to put its money where its mouth is.

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