The final version of this post is on Slate‘s Future Tense blog.
The LAPD has assigned Bobby, a rookie, to a new squad—a ragtag group of young-ish people who have time-traveled from the ’80s and are undercover in the present day. In the first episode of Squad 85, Bobby meets the Chief, a white man who has been undercover as an Asian woman since 1987.
As a greeting, the Chief offers Bobby some tea.
“It’s a custom in my culture,” the Chief says.
“What culture is that?” asks Bobby, who is Asian-American.
“Asia, Bobby. Asia,” the Chief replies blankly.
Squad 85, whose finale was last week, is heavy on satire and sure to offend. That makes it a perfect fit for YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family), which is perhaps the most racially diverse TV network ever and a standout in YouTube’s premium channel initiative. With nearly 500,000 subscribers and 30 million video views, YOMYOMF is proving that diverse casting can deliver success, and that Asian-American viewers are just as marketable as any other group.
Justin Lin, who is best known as the director of several Fast and Furious movies, started YOMYOMF as a blog in 2009, and it debuted as a channel this year. Since this summer, the network has been churning out slick and funny series across genres, with help from stars like Jessica Alba and Community’s Danny Pudi. Outsourced’s breakout star Parvesh Cheena anchorsSquad 85, and even Margaret Cho has made an appearance.
“When I heard about the idea for Squad 85 it was a no brainer,” YOMYOMF founder Justin Lin said. “When I was approached to build a network on YouTube, it was very clear to me it needs to be built on the philosophy of providing opportunities for talented artists with unique point of views an arena to explore and use their passion.”
Independent and Internet-grown voices are at the heart of YOMYOMF. Ryan Higa and Kevin Wu, longstanding members of YouTube’s creator elite, co-founded the network and appear in its programming. The network’s most popular shows include Internet Icon, an American Idol-type show produced by Higa, and KevJumba Takes All, where Wu participates in silly competitions like taking the SAT with Web star Felicia Day, creator of the franchise The Guild.
The channel has a slate of sitcoms and dramas that would have a hard time making it to your TV screen. BFFs casts four high school girls as a team of heroes who “fight the power of Suck,” breaking through stereotypes of Asian women as passive model minorities. Dr0ne gives Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe) a visually dynamic sci-fi action show of his own. Danny Pudi stars inThe Book Club, which sends a team of nerds on a preposterous action-packed caper. The network even has a musical web series, Always You, featuring a soundtrack from YouTube stars like DeStorm.
By some accounts, it’s working. Dr0ne and The Book Club helped YOMYOMF rake in five nominations this month for the Streamys, the “Internet Oscars.” Currently, YouTube is determining what channels it will renew, and at least 60 percent of the more than 100 channels won’t make the cut. Analysts think YOMYOMF has a very good shot. While it doesn’t crack the top 10 in traffic, YOMYOMF’s focus on high-quality scripted entertainment is still rare for YouTube, which has been trying to move from “viral” videos to appointment viewing. And Asian-Americans remain an important demographic for YouTube.
If YOMYOMF gets renewed, it’ll be a vote of confidence for people who believe Web television should be different from traditional TV, a place where creators get more leeway to make decisions like casting than they would Hollywood.
“To the chagrin of my agent, I write colored folks as leads in most of my scripts, which make them hard to sell,” said Squad 85 creator and star Gregory Bonsignore, who is white.
With YOMYOMF, he says, “We got to tell our story, the way we wanted to. So it’s weird and specific and perfect and a mess, but it’s just as how we intended.”