Save Partner Track

This blog post includes minor spoilers.

Kitty Latin

Ars Gratia Artis! roars MGM Studios’ famous big kitty. The Latin phrase translates to “Art for Art’s Sake” – a work of art has value just because it exists as the expression of its creator. I can appreciate that, but I’d prefer Ars Gratia Transformationis, “Art for Change’s Sake” – works of art are even more beautiful when they provoke viewers and listeners to self-reflection and growth, changing themselves and making change around them. Many a TV and movie studio presents itself as a champion of one or both of these virtues.

Yet I can’t help but think that if studios, networks, and streaming services were being really honest, they would confess that they’re most driven by Ars Gratia Pecuniae, “Art for Money’s Sake.” Ultimately, though they may talk about creating art that touches lives and impacts society, when push comes to shove, that gives way to the bottom line – profit.

Now, I get that cancellations have to happen sometimes so that even more powerful art gets made. In fact, once every year or two, a TV series that I like gets canned by the network powers that be. It’s disappointing, but I get it – it’s part of the business side of broadcasting.

But for only the second time in my life, a series cancellation hasn’t just bummed me out, it’s left me feeling truly gutted, disturbed, and unsettled for days. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my strong reaction to the axing of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger a few years ago. Well, it’s happened again, this time to Netflix’s Partner Track, based on the amazing 2013 novel of nearly the same title by Helen Wan. I was absolutely dazzled when I read it back in 2014:

As the saying goes, I simply couldn’t put it down. I tweeted that to Helen at the time:

And as the scenes of the novel played out on the silver screen in my head, I just knew it had to be made into something live action:

I’ve said the same thing, over and over, to other people when I’ve recommended the book to them, which I’ve also done over and over.

Then just a few months ago:

The news about the show’s development had been out for a year, but I’m a lot more detached from pop culture than I used to be, so I picked up on the announcement late. Living the hectic life of a school teacher will do that to a person.

Then a bit more than a week ago:

Eight years after being blown away by the novel, I finally got to see its onscreen version –  the first ever hour-long series from a streaming service to feature an East Asian American lead character! But just minutes after I posted that, I saw online the news that the show had been canceled a few weeks prior. 

“W … T … F???” I said out loud, and not just the first letters.

Like I said, gutted.

The heart of Partner Track is the trio of besties (left to right) Rachel Friedman (Alexandra Turshen), Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho), and Tyler Robinson (Bradley Gibson). They were law school classmates and now work in different departments at one of New York City’s most powerful firms, Parsons Valentine and Hunt. Though Ingrid is the primary protagonist, all three are fully-rounded characters with their own compelling storylines. All three actors are truly outstanding. 

Art for My Daughters’ Sake

As a feminist Asian dad, Ars Gratia Transformationis means I view every artistic work through two lenses. First, is this production something that will be good for my daughters to watch? Will it help them to feel seen as Asian American girls? Will it further solidify their sense of empowerment as they prepare to step into young adulthood? Will it inspire them, or perhaps offer them a measure of comfort and even healing?

Asking this question of Partner Track, the answer is undoubtedly yes! I say that even though my girls are not yet at the age where I feel comfortable letting them watch the series (rated TV-MA for language and sex). My older one, now 16 years old, is getting close to being ready; my younger one still has a while, since she’s 13. When they reach that point of emotional and social maturity, the show will not just be an entertaining series for them to take in; it will be a true blessing. I’m confident it will help them to feel seen; it will strengthen their sense of empowerment; and it will both inspire and comfort them! 

The second lens asks if a creative work helps to make the world a better place for my daughters and for other Asian American girls and women. With Partner Track, the answer is again a resounding yes! It’s waaaaaaay more than just another TV show; it’s one of those rare series that can transform the way people think about themselves and each other.

Ingrid really hits it off with the down-to-earth, philosophical scion of an extraordinarily wealthy family, Nick Laren (Rob Heaps), but she’s now working side-by-side with the charming, roguish Jeff Murphy (Dominic Sherwood), with whom she shared one unforgettable night of passion several years prior to the events of the show. Her relationship with green tech genius Z Min (Desmond Chiam) is constantly shifting and could lead to a deeper connection in the future. All three hunky dudes appear shirtless at one time or other in front of Ingrid during the series, with Z being the most ripped of all of them.

The reasons I believe this to be true are the same reasons another streaming service or network really needs to step up to renew the show. With the ability of mass media to touch millions of hearts and minds, this series can powerfully impact our society in a myriad of ways:

1. The series pushes back, in a delightfully clever way, against the infamous Model Minority Myth about Asian Americans. (Hereafter, I’ll refer to it as M3 – because I’m a math teacher.) Some Asian American stories undermine the M3 through characters that, from the very outset, rebel heroically against that still-pervasive stereotype. But in Partner Track, primary protagonist Ingrid Yun plays the M3 game quite successfully, embodying perfectly the blueprint for good little Asians. 

In high school, she works really hard and becomes valedictorian. Outside of school, she excels at ice skating and playing the cello, extracurriculars considered respectable, understandable, and non-threatening to middle- and upper-class society. She goes to Harvard, earns her law degree, gets a plum job at one of New York City’s most powerful firms, and advances quickly along the “partner track.” And as she does, she works her ass completely off, going way beyond reasonable expectations, giving up Thanksgiving with family (and her mom’s sweet and spicy turkey) in order to make her white male bosses and clients happy. That’s not to mention how she keeps her head down, never complaining as she endures painful microaggressions both racial and sexual in nature. She also dares not raise concerns to the white men over her about how they treat people of color, even praising their token, performative attempts at promoting diversity. She does all of this so well that she gets a literal award for it from her firm!

There are some terrific fashions in the show. Here, Ingrid dazzles in a yellow formal, even though her mom has told her that yellow doesn’t look good on her. Before Ingrid put on the dress, I had the exact same thought as her mom, since my wife says the same thing: “Yellow doesn’t look good on Asians.” (GIF from Tumblr site “Weird but F*cking Beautiful.”)

But right at that moment, the show’s strongest pushback against the M3 begins. In one of the most poignant scenes of the series, Ingrid tearfully confesses to her mom, “I have everything that I ever wanted, but it’s not what I thought it would be.” She has fulfilled the rich-white-men-know-best template for the Model Minority kid and finds it to be deeply damaging to herself and those whom she loves. Without becoming preachy or heavy-handed, Partner Track subverts the M3 and has enormous potential to challenge viewers’ conscious and hidden beliefs of how Asians should be.

2. The show promotes a positive representation of Asian Americans, cultivating an empathy that will overflow into real life. I believe that in general, the more we have positive representation of marginalized groups, then the more that viewers will relate positively toward them. Don’t believe me? Just consider how far the issue of marriage equality has swung in the U.S. In 1996, we had Democratic President Bill Clinton sign into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricted the definition of marriage to being between one man and one woman. It went so far as to allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states. Well, today, we’re on the brink of seeing Democratic President Joe Biden, who voted in favor of DOMA as a senator, signing into law a bipartisan bill to do just the opposite. Congress reflects public opinion, which has swung from 26 percent support for marriage equality at the time DOMA became law to, at present, 71 percent support.

Will & Grace was an NBC sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2006, but its enduring popularity was such that it came back for three seasons, restarting an incredible 11 years after it signed off the first time. In all, the 11 seasons of Will & Grace gave its fans 246 episodes.

I’m convinced that one of the main reasons for this is the growth of positive portrayals of the LGBT community in media. Shows like Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Modern Family generated empathy among viewers for their LGBT characters, and that overflowed to many viewers’ own relationships with real LGBT-identifying people. That certainly was true for me and a number of my friends; as kids, we absorbed the rampant homophobia of the 1980s and carried it into adulthood, hurting many LGBT people around us with our words, attitudes, and passivity toward the bullying and suffering they experienced. Positive media representation helped to break down our anti-LGBT prejudices.

So it will be with Partner Track, which will advance viewers’ attitudes toward Asian Americans in the right direction. Now, that sounds pleasant enough; good PR is always nice. But we shouldn’t fail to notice the vital timing of the show. We have a story centering an Asian American woman juxtaposed with the spike in anti-Asian hate during COVID, the worst of which was the mass murder of Asian women in Atlanta a year and a half ago. Anti-Asian hate speech, harassment, and violence must be countered with a long-term, multi-pronged strategy, and one essential element is positive media representation. 

This image memorializes those killed in the Atlanta murders. It was created by Hansoom, a Korean artistic project. See their Instagram here.

To put it simply, America desperately needs Partner Track! It has arrived on the U.S. media landscape at exactly the right time, telling a story that undermines the mindset behind a wave of violence against Asians not seen here in decades. I do not exaggerate – this series will help to make our society safer for Asian folks.

3. The show depicts an Asian American woman with sexual agency, dating whomever she wants. The primary love triangle involves Ingrid and two white men – Nick Laren, the down-to-earth, philosophical, and extremely kind scion of an extraordinarily wealthy family, and Jeff Murphy, a charming rogue of a colleague who has just transferred to Ingrid’s New York City office from the U.K., where he had a one-night hookup with our heroine six years ago. Ingrid dates mostly white guys, as her friend Rachel implies in Episode 2, saying to her, “I’ve dated more Asian guys than you; that’s a fact!” But there’s also a hint of possible romance in the future between Ingrid and green technology genius Z Min, the buffest Asian male character I think I’ve ever seen on any show.

Lots of fans are shipping Ingrid and Z. “Lots of fans” would include me!

Again, Partner Track tells a story set against a real-life backdrop of violence. Specifically here, I’m referring to the torrent of online vitriol from Asian men who harass Asian women for dating or marrying non-Asians. It sounds absolutely absurd, but it’s more than just bros talking crazy because they feel insecure. The widespread verbal and emotional abuse of Asian women over the last decade on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit has been very real and extremely dangerous, resulting in even doxxing and threats of rape and murder. Arden herself has taken a lot of crap for simply playing the role of an Asian woman who dates mostly non-Asian men.

Who the f*ck is any man to tell a woman who she’s supposed to love and who she’s not? And specifically in this context, Asian men don’t have the right to demand the attention or affection of Asian women. If an Asian woman wants to love a non-Asian person, she’s not a race traitor, much less someone who undermines the standing of Asian men in our society. 

Again without being too obvious about it, this series pushes back on those who, seeking to possess Asian women, demonstrate that they don’t understand anything about love at all. Like I said a moment ago, this country really needs Partner Track!

The Yun Family: Dad (Jo Sung, whom you may have seen with Arden in the web series version of Ktown Cowboys), Mom (Esther Moon, whom you may remember from Minari), and not-so-little sister Lina (Lena Ahn).

4. The series models for Asian Americans how they might effectively confront two of the thorniest challenges in daily life – conflicts with well-meaning parents over life choices and plausibly deniable racism from entitled white folks. Ingrid has to figure out how to honor her immigrant parents’ sacrifices and ways of showing love to her, while at the same time expressing her strong disagreement with the steps they want her to take to have a happy and secure life. She and her friends have to deal with their entitled white male colleagues, especially Dan Fallon, the obvious front-runner in the who’s-the-biggest-jackass-in-this-story competition for most of the series. Dan (Nolan Gerard Funk) becomes quite outspoken about how people of color need to stop being so sensitive about race. Such comments are recognized by the people of color and even some of the white folks in the room as clearly being racially demeaning attacks. But his remarks are carefully worded so that many of his white peers and bosses find him funny – and right.

Financial Reality Bites

There is so much more that’s outstanding about this series. The acting is amazing; so many of the cast performances were superb! I was particularly taken by how Arden (as Ingrid) and Bradley (as Ingrid’s gay, African American bestie) code switch. (If you’ve never heard the term, code switching refers to how people switch their manner of speaking, their type of gestures, and their overall demeanor based on whom they are relating to at the time.) In addition, the writing is brilliantly skillful, weaving together parallel story lines and having them pay off with spot-on synchronicity. And even though I would never be able to live in New York City due to the constant movement and energy of a zillion people, vehicles, lights, and sounds, it’s obvious that the show is a love letter to the Big Apple, much like Sex and the City. In fact, there are times when the city seems less like a backdrop and more like another character in the story, something many viewers who love New York will probably find delightful.

But of course, the proverbial elephant in the room is the profit-driven nature of the entertainment business – Ars Gratia Pecuniae. I’m writing this, hoping against hope that someone with influence at a non-Netflix streaming service or network hears one or more of my arguments for saving Partner Track. Why would that someone try to save the show, beyond the altruistic reasons already enumerated, if it’s not going to make for good business?

I will argue that the reason this show didn’t do better from a ratings standpoint (or however Netflix gauges success) wasn’t the cast, the story lines, the source material, or anything else about the series itself. The thing that most hurt the show, in my layperson’s opinion, was inadequate advertising.

This mistake seems quite glaring, actually. I spent a lot of time scouring the Internet for promos of the show, and I was stunned to find that so much of the promotion of the series fell on Arden herself. Over and over again, Arden was having to make solo appearances on entertainment news shows and YouTube webcasts, of which she did a ton. Only a few times did I find video of her and one of her co-stars in the same interview, and only once did I find video of her and two of her co-stars in conversation with channel hosts; all were on YouTube channels with relatively modest subscriber numbers. The only major network interview that I found was one that she did for the Today Show (above), and that one came more than seven weeks after the series was released on Netflix. I didn’t find video of her or anyone associated with Partner Track appearing on one of the evening talk shows, like those hosted by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, or Jimmy Kimmel. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not at all criticizing anyone associated with the show, whether producers or cast, on this. It was obviously not their fault that the viewership numbers came in below Netflix’s expectations, and clearly, Arden herself poured out her heart and soul as she did a zillion promos, an exhausting labor of love for the series.

But where the hell was the support from Netflix for the show, beyond its own publicity websites? The series has a wealth of dynamite visual material for ads and talk shows; in fact, it reminds me a lot of the first season of Grey’s Anatomy. The first episodes of both Grey’s and Partner Track focus heavily on the lead characters, Meredith and Ingrid. But soon afterward, other central characters’ own story lines take shape and take off, and sometimes, those are the ones that viewers tune in for. Interestingly, there’s one highly similar plot point for both Meredith and Ingrid – the first episodes of their respective series see them reunite unexpectedly with colleagues with whom they’ve had a one-night stand. (Remember Patrick Dempsey as McDreamy?) ABC promoted that awko-taco situation like crazy, and people tuned in.

Desmond, Rob, Arden, and Dominic at the premiere party for Partner Track. Why didn’t Netflix simply arrange for the four of them to appear on a talk show together? It could have even had them play a short version of The Dating Game or something, and it would have generated a ton of buzz!

And just like Grey’s, Partner Track would have benefited tremendously from getting multiple members of the cast, and even the entire cast, together on morning and late night TV talk shows. Potential viewers who wouldn’t be drawn to the story of a young Asian American woman juggling her law career and relationships might tune in to see three Millennial best friends try to survive and thrive in New York City. That, of course, would have happened if Netflix had arranged for Arden, Bradley, and Alexandra Turshen (Rachel) to all show up on Today together. Or some viewers might tune in to see hunky thirst traps in a love triangle go shirtless on screen. That would also have happened; all it would have taken is Netflix getting Arden, Rob Heaps (Nick), Dominic Sherwood (Jeff), and Desmond Chiam (Z) to do an interview together (shirts on, of course).

Another common-sense promo would have been to get daytime national talk shows to do a piece on the great fashions of the series.

But that’s not what happened. Good promotion helped Grey’s to get off to a good start; that could have been true of Partner Track, too. Yes, Netflix ponied up resources for the series, and yes, it even encouraged its writers room to start thinking of Season 2 ideas before Season 1 even came out, according to Deadline. (I’m not linking to the article because it has major spoilers for the series.) But Netflix’s bewildering evaluation and publicity processes have struck again. And ultimately, the streaming service’s legacy will be that it pulled the plug on a much beloved, socially vital show.

The good news is that another streaming service or network can renew the series, give it some common-sense promotional backing, and then watch the ratings and profits roll in! If you have a position of influence at such a company, and you, too, are hit with a reaction of “What the hell were they thinking?” in response to Netflix’s decision, then please, please, please save Partner Track!

If you’ve got a voice at a streaming service or network, please make the calls, because America needs this show! Left to right: Matthew Rauch (as Ingrid’s driven, exacting boss Marty Adler), Arden, and Dominic.