The 14 Best AAPI Shows to Binge-Watch Right Now
From reality shows and comedies to documentaries and dramas, welcome to your new favorite watch list
This May, once again the month dedicated to the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) cultures, there is more reason than usual to be optimistic about Asian big-screen representation. Not only have Marvel's Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals recently made inroads in terms of AAPI superheroes, but the superb, madly inventive Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is in theaters now and stars a truly magnificent Michelle Yeoh, 59, hits something of a high-water mark. But maybe you don’t want to head out to the cinema right now? And maybe your tastes don’t begin and end with capes and universe-saving; what then? Here are 14 great AAPI-centric TV shows you can enjoy from the comfort of your own sofa instead.
WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MOOD FOR A COMEDY
The Chair (2021–)
Why to watch: The trials and triumphs of the new Korean American chair of the English department at an Ivy League university may not seem like the most exciting outline on paper, but add in Sandra Oh, some sparky chemistry with costar Jay Duplass and a script that bursts with inside-baseball wit about the politics and perils of academia, and you have a tasty little snack of a Season 1 (it runs only around three hours in total).
Whom to watch: It’s strange that it has taken the TV world this long to realize that Korean Canadian Oh, after years of endless Emmy nominations for her supporting work in Grey’s Anatomy, has actually been a lead all along. But now, after Killing Eve, she anchors this comedy-drama hybrid, carrying the tricky tone effortlessly with her trademark mixture of piercing relatability and note-perfect comic timing.
Watch it: The Chair, Season 1 on Netflix
What to watch next: If the short six-episode season leaves you wanting more characterful, amiable comedy, though one in a more familiar mode, the whole five-season box set of the lovable, sadly-now-ended Kim’s Convenience is on Netflix.
Never Have I Ever (2020–2023)
Why to watch: Since we last recommended it in May 2021, the second season of Mindy Kaling’s good-natured coming-of-age comedy has been and gone, a third is slated for release in summer, and a fourth and final season is already green-lit. It’s the perfect time, then, to catch up with the tender and tempestuous Devi, an Indian American Tamil teenager grappling with hormones, high school politics and how to be a good daughter to a loving but combative Indian mother.
Whom to watch: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is the show’s breakout as Devi, but equally important is Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Devi’s mother, Nalini, and whose face should be familiar from excellent 2015 HBO miniseries The Night Of (see “dramas” below).
Watch it: Never Have I Ever on Netflix
What to watch next: With Kaling becoming something of a one-woman TV juggernaut, you can either check back through all six seasons of her old show The Mindy Project on Hulu, or you can check out her new one, coming right up below …
The Sex Lives of College Girls (2021–)
Why to watch: Despite a salacious title that sounds like that of a campus-set 1970s blue movie, Mindy Kaling’s newest project delivers more sweetness than sleaze. Focusing on four college freshmen experiencing the new freedoms of life outside the family nest for the first time, its young-adult friendliness makes it a natural progression from the high school shenanigans of Never Have I Ever. And once again the more autobiographical elements, which revolve around Bela, the show’s Indian American character — an aspiring comedy writer battling sexism on the college-comedy circuit — emerge as the strongest.
Whom to watch: All four leads are appealing, but some of their story lines can feel a little generic and a little reliant on familiar archetypes. Which makes Amrit Kaur, who plays Kaling’s presumed avatar Bela, the standout, as her offbeat energy infuses her quirky, well-observed character with real charm.
Watch it: The Sex Lives of College Girls on HBO Max
What to watch next: All four seasons of delightful high-concept afterlife comedy The Good Place, an ensemble comedy featuring a diverse cast including Pakistani British actress Jameela Jamil and Filipino Canadian actor Manny Jacinto, are available via NBC.
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Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens (2020–)
Why to watch: Last year’s list included the first season of this sprightly, off-kilter, often surreal comedy based on the Queens background of the Chinese American Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), but since then Season 2 has also aired in its entirety and is arguably stronger still. Relaxing into unpredictable rhythms that seem to stem directly from the skewed perspective of its writer and star, the second installment follows Nora bumbling not just through 20-something life but, via various weird interludes, through the fabric of consciousness and even time itself.
Whom to watch: Sterling Season 1 supporters including BD Wong, Bowen Yang and Lori Tan Chinn as Nora’s irrepressible grandmother all return, but this time there’s the added enticement of Alan Kim, the cherubic kid from Minari (who also plays a majestic red-carpet game).
Watch it: Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens on HBO Max
What to watch next: Can’t get enough Awkwafina? Move on to her movies: Lulu Wang’s wonderful family drama The Farewell (available on Hulu) and the recent Marvel hit Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (up now on Disney+), which she basically steals.
Why to watch: The central quirk of PEN15, which casts 30-something writer-stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine as 13-year-old versions of themselves and surrounds them with actual 13-year-olds in middle school, sounds borderline unbearable. And yet it proves to be a stroke of genius in this very funny, no-holds-barred show, somehow accessing the awkwardness specific to that age but from a perspective that appreciates just how much teen angst exists in even the most together of adults.
Whom to watch: Konkle and mixed-race-Japanese Erskine met at NYU and so had been friends for a long time before they wrote this show together, which gives their interactions a naturally endearing chemistry that can’t be faked.
Watch it: PEN15 on Hulu
What to watch next: It’s still only in the pipeline, but Erskine recently scooped the lead role, opposite Donald Glover, in Amazon’s TV-show remake of the Brad Pitt–Angelina Jolie movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Young Rock (2021–)
Why to watch: The first season of Young Rock, which chronicles the rise and rise of everyone’s favorite American Black Nova Scotian Samoan ex-wrestler superstar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, made our list last year, but now the second season is airing, proving the quirky concept has legs (and what fine legs they are). Arguably, it loses some of the first season’s energy, but it’s still plenty delightful in its own way. Keeping the meta format, which switches between flashbacks and flash-forwards to Johnson’s (extremely plausible) 2032 presidential bid, Season 2 continues to deliver insights into the background of one of the most purely charismatic megastars in existence, and into the weird, wild world of professional wrestling.
Whom to watch: By now, the regular cast members have all established themselves outside of The Rock’s occasional appearances, but wrestling aficionados will be excited — and maybe ready to cast a hypercritical eye — on the cameoing actors in Season 2 who play the era’s WWF superstars.
Watch it: Young Rock on Peacock
What to watch next: If amusingly fictionalized real life is your thing, definitely take a look at True Story With Ed and Randall — also on Peacock — in which Ed Helms and Randall Park orchestrate (often hilarious) reenactments of real tales from the lives of ordinary people.
IF YOU’RE IN THE MOOD TO DIG INTO DRAMAS
Why to watch: With interest in Korean drama at an all-time high stateside, a prime candidate for your next K-obsession is Apple TV’s bona fide hit. Assembling an extraordinary slate of talent on- and off-screen, Pachinko is an exquisite adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel, which spans almost the entire 20th century and follows the intricate fortunes and criss-crossing relationships of a Korean family that emigrates to Japan and sets up a Pachinko parlor business.
Whom to watch: In amongst a Korean cast not (yet) as well known in the U.S., Youn Yuh-jung is one familiar face — the veteran actress won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Minari. And behind the camera, the pedigree only expands, with acclaimed filmmakers Kogonada (Columbus, After Yang) and Justin Chon (Gook, Blue Bayou) splitting the directing duties.
Watch it: Pachinko on Apple TV+
What to watch next: For more K-drama, though one a little lighter on the sumptuousness and heavier on the sentimentality, try Netflix’s Move to Heaven on for size.
Master of None Presents: Moments in Love (2021)
Why to watch: The five-episode third season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s inventive, cinema-influenced TV show Master of None has managed a rare trick in migrating away from the comedy classification of last year’s list, as the show strays further from its original remit, which was a loosely comic fictionalization of Ansari’s experiences as a struggling actor of Tamil/Indian background. Season 3 sidelines his onscreen character (Ansari was in the midst of a real-life sexual coercion scandal) in favor of a Bergmanesque dissection of the marriage between Lena Waithe’s Denise and her wife, Alicia (Naomi Ackie), becoming a wrenchingly insightful drama — if occasionally a cuttingly funny one — about queer Black love in the modern world.
Whom to watch: Waithe has also come in for her share of controversy, but her performance here reminds us what a capable, deeply naturalistic actor she is, while Ackie shines especially in the episode dedicated to her character’s decision to undergo IVF treatment.
Watch it: Master of None Presents: Moments in Love on Netflix
What to watch next: The wonderful Korean American actress Greta Lee’s expanded role in Season 2 of dark comedy Russian Doll is just one of many reasons to catch up with this similarly wildly inventive, if tonally very different, Netflix show.
Squid Game (2021–)
Why to watch: If you’re one of the five or six people left in the world who hasn’t watched the biggest Netflix show of all time, welcome back from your coma! Joe Biden is the president, and we’re now up to version 13 of the iPhone. Squid Game, which follows a contest in which impoverished, desperate ordinary Koreans are lured into playing lethal versions of childhood games for a chance at winning millions, came at the exact right moment. A global audience already high on Korean sensation Parasite had time on their hands at the end of lockdown, while also being unusually well-disposed toward its fast-paced, high-stakes dystopian vibe, as an escape from the much duller dystopia we were all experiencing.
Whom to watch: Lead Lee Jung-jae was already a big star in Korea, but the many international accolades he has won for his portrayal of the shiftless but gradually more noble Seong Gi-hun, as well as his upcoming directorial feature film debut, Hunt, suggest he’s intent on making that stardom global.
Watch it: Squid Game on Netflix
What to watch next: For action and thrills of a more fantastical and mythical nature, you might enjoy Wu Assassins, which stars Indonesian martial arts master Iko Uwais, on Netflix.
The Penthouse: War in Life (2020–)
Why to watch: Sometimes you don’t want an improving, educational, culturally sensitive, highbrow drama; sometimes you just want a bit of quality trash. If that’s your vibe, the utterly ludicrous, guiltily watchable The Penthouse just might be for you. Set in an elite apartment building in Seoul whose inhabitants vie with each other for social advancement and for that of their kids, it’s full of twists and turns, dark betrayals and, um, intermittent bursts of opera singing.
Whom to watch: The younger cast members, especially Kim Hyun-soo as the troubled but hypertalented Bae Ro-na, are all excellent and very telegenic, but it’s the stunning Kim So-yeon as Cheon Seo-jin, the ice-queen villain of the piece, who is the most fun to watch and boo at.
Watch it: The Penthouse: War in Life, available (with commercials) with free sign-up to Korean entertainment streaming service KOCOWA
What to watch next: For a “reality” show that’s only a fluttering heartbeat away from The Penthouse in terms of daftness, hang out with some more crazy rich Asians with Netflix's Bling Empire.
The Night Of (2016)
Why to watch: We mentioned this fantastic one-off miniseries in last year’s AAPI month feature, but only in passing, and given the continuing rise of Pakistani British multihyphenate Riz Ahmed (a best actor nominee for The Sound of Metal and 2022 Oscar winner for his short film The Long Goodbye) it felt like the Steve Zaillian and Richard Price–scripted show was worth a proper entry. Following a young Pakistani American accused of murdering a woman in New York City, the taut, superbly shot eight-episode show is stellar evidence that this last decade or so has indeed been a golden age for television drama.
Whom to watch: Ahmed gives a beautifully subtle, ambivalent turn as Nasir, the wrongly(?) accused young man, but Poorna Jagannathan is delicately devastating as his mother, and John Turturro might just best them both with his unforgettable role as the scruffy, psoriasis-afflicted, no-hoper lawyer who takes on Nasir’s defense.
Watch it: The Night Of on HBO Max
What to watch next: For more intelligent, grownup, cross-cultural drama — this time a gritty cop procedural — the self-contained Season 1 of last year’s recommendation Giri/Haji is still available on Netflix.
IF ANIMATION IS YOUR THING (OR EVEN IF IT’S NOT)
Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts (2020)
Why to watch: To be fair, as a future-set sci-fi fantasy adventure, produced by Dreamworks and appealingly animated by Korean production company Mir, the young-adult-oriented Kipo is not directly about AAPI representation. Yet even though this is a hypothetical post-apocalyptic world where animals have developed mutant powers and driven people to live underground, the cleverness of the show, and its significant heart, lies in its diverse voice casting and character design and its fearlessly casual treatment of some hot-button issues.
Whom to watch: Karen Fukuhara leads a star-studded voice cast that includes well-known actors such as Dan Stevens, Amy Landecker and Sterling K. Brown, but fans really embraced the groundbreaking treatment of LGBTQ issues as exemplified by gay character Ben (voiced by Coy Stewart) and his crush Troy (Giullian Yao Gioiello).
Watch it: Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts on Netflix
What to watch next: A blast from the not-so-distant past, Season 1 of 2009 Chinese kids’ animated series Jackie Chan’s Fantasia is available now on Peacock.
IF YOU’RE IN THE MOOD FOR A DOCUMENTARY/REALITY SHOW
Old Enough! (2022–)
Why to watch: This long-running Japanese TV phenomenon, recut into digestible segments of around 10 minutes long each for Netflix’s international viewership, caused a little controversy last month among those who read the headlines about toddlers being sent on errands alone and assumed it was a show about parental neglect and pushiness. In fact, while children as young as 2 are indeed sent out into the world to try to complete certain tasks, the show itself is much more a celebration of the resourcefulness of kids: The sheer pride and self-confidence they gain when they complete their little jobs is genuinely heartwarming to see. The winsome music and encouraging sports-commentator-style narration might grate after a while, but with episodes this bite-sized, and children this freaking adorable, it can’t overstay its welcome.
Whom to watch: The kids! They’re amazing! Whether carefully negotiating a road crossing or gently berating themselves for having forgotten part of their grocery list, this is riveting, strangely soothing TV.
Watch it: Old Enough! on Netflix
What to watch next: If this has you interested in wholesome programming based on Japanese lifestyle choices, perhaps you’ll dig Netflix’s Sparking Joy, in which decluttering guru Marie Kondo helps out three busy professionals struggling with their work-life balance.
Street Food: Asia (2020)
Why to watch: Perhaps because lockdown put the concept of traveling to the other side of the world beyond reach for so long, this 2020 show, which spends each episode in a different Asian country exploring the sights, smells and especially the tastes on offer from street vendors and hawker stalls, came at just the right moment. Allowing us to vicariously experience not just the food but also the very idea of being out in the world again, in busy, bustling cities among people sharing jokes and banter over deliciously fresh-cooked, no-nonsense meals, of all the many food-related shows around right now, this one might be the one to save your sanity while also inspiring you to attempt to recreate an astonishing variety of cuisines.
Whom to watch: Hard to say which country “wins,” but the street-vendor-turned-Michelin-starred Thai chef lovingly cooking yet another crabmeat omelet in a massive wok on an open fire is a perfect example of everything this show can be: fascinating, joyful, mouthwatering.
Watch it: Street Food: Asia on Netflix
What to watch next: Still hungry? Still want to get out in the world? The Chef Show, a cooking travelogue hosted by Jon Favreau and Korean American chef Roy Choi, is also available on Netflix now.
Jessica Kiang is a freelance film critic for Variety who also writes for AARP, Sight & Sound, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and The Playlist website.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 24, 2021. It has been updated with a new selection of shows to watch.