The first episode of Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. drops on Disney+ today and I couldn’t be more excited. The remake of the original Doogie Howser M.D. which debuted in 1989 is a morsel of goodness without bubbling over with cheese. It pays homage to the original which sparks nostalgia and warm fuzzies inside.
Peyton Elizabeth Leeplays the titular Lahela Kamealoha and is referred to as “Doogie” as a nod to the original series — they even mention it in the debut episode. Lee is magnetic and charms the screen. The Andi Mack alum is born to be an actor and she brings a joy to the screen as Lahela that is unmatched.
Set in modern-day Hawaii, Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. follows 16-year-old prodigy Lahela as she juggles a budding medical career and life as a surfing teenager who is trying to navigate her adolescence. With the support of her ‘ohana Lahela is determined to make the most of her teenage years and forge her own path.
Guiding Lahela (and also complicating things) is her career-driven mother Dr. Clara Hannon (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who’s also her supervisor at the hospital, her doting father Benny (Jason Scott Lee) who helps keep her connected to what matters most, her free-spirited older brother Kai (Matthew Sato), her gregarious younger brother Brian Patrick (Wes Tian) her best friend Steph (Emma Meisel), her surfer crush Walter (Alex Aiono) and her fellow hospital colleagues played by Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Mapuana Makia, and Ronny Chieng.
As a series, Doogie Kamealoha M.D. hits all the sweet spots and beats to make it a great watch. However, upon voicing this opinion, it will be met with scrutiny because of the representation of Pacific Islanders… or as some locals and Pacific Islanders might say, “misrepresentation”.
When I tweeted out my love for the series, it was met with some constructive criticism by some members of the Asian community (which I welcome) and one troll that I decided to mute. The main source of criticism of the show is the fact that Lee is not from Hawaii. In an age of authentic representation, this is a problem for many.
As an advocate and someone in the industry who helps bolster diversity, I admit this was blindspot for me. When the first two episodes were sent to me to screen, I had a smile on my face the entire time and the series just shined. However, when people started to point out to me the flaws in its casting of the lead it burst my bubble.
First off, this is definitely a conversation to be had. I understand. Secondly, I do want to point out that Jason Scott Lee was born in Los Angeles, but was raised in Hawaii. Mapuana Makia and Matthew Sato are both native Hawaiians while Alex Aiono is of Maori and Samoan descent. Yes, I realize they are not the lead, but it still presents a net positive when it comes to Pacific Islander representation — but I understand for many, it’s not enough.
This is no fault of Peyton Elizabeth Lee. She is great. She is doing what needs to be done. I still enjoy her and will continue to watch the series because she holds it together well and also, I am anticipating a cameo from the OG Doogie Neil Patrick Harris if a second season gets greenlit. Upon chatting with those who were raised and/or natives of Hawaii, some people care deeply about the PI representation on the show while others are indifferent. For the former, it makes sense.
Hawaii has been subject to a lot when it comes to colonizing. To this day, many people from the state feels like it is under U.S. rule rather than part of America. More recently, Hawaii is subject to a version of colonization as the governor begs tourists not to come due to the surge of the delta variant of COVID and a water shortage in Maui — but all that is a totally different conversation to dive deep into. Right now, we are talking about why people aren’t necessarily too fond of Doogie Kamealoha M.D.
Words mean things… and so do names. In this case, it’s “Kamealoha” which is clearly indigenous to Hawaii and since Lee isn’t Hawaiian, this is problematic to those from Hawaii. It’s like casting a Japanese person as a Chinese person or a Mexican as a Cuban or Lou Diamond Phillips in any ethnic role besides Filipino.
All of this boils down to authenticity and Hollywood has a grand tradition of casting without careful consideration. It’s a practice that’s needs to be changed — but since its been done for so long, the industry barely gives it any thought. We do see progress, but that needle needs to move more.
Not saying that Lee was not good for the role, but casting an actual Pacific Islander as a young woman whose surname is Kamealoha would have bolstered representation of a community that is often an oversight or lumped into the “Asian” category. If they could cast actors like Jason Scott Lee, Mapuana Makia, Matthew Sato and Alex Aiono, then it should have been just as simple to cast a PI teen in the lead, right? (Again, I am just speaking to this from the scope of representation. Please don’t think I am diminishing or dissing Peyton Elizabeth Lee.)
All of this talk about authentic casting is part of the journey of representation in film and TV. When there isn’t much representation of a certain marginalized group to begin, the moment there is an inception of a project or organization spotlighting said marginalized group it will be subject to dissection because of scarcity. From there, we learn. We grow. We saw it before with the colorism controversy in In The Heights and we are also seeing it with Reservation Dogs. Many users on Twitter criticize the acclaimed FX indigenous-centered series for the exclusion of Black natives.
We've starved years upon years for Native representation in media, and now that we finally have something more fitting and has become dear to our communities, it's hard for folks to accept that Reservation Dogs is an incomplete medium/narrative that actively excludes Black NTVS
— BloomingIndigeneity (@jordenrevels) August 31, 2021
I’m happy Reservation Dogs exists too and excited for Native Representation! But you can’t just brush off Black Natives concerns and speaking up about the problematic things we see. We aren’t a monolith y’all, Black Natives exist and have every right to say how we feel.
— Kam @ inking hell 🔥/ew a gemini ✨😩 (@spacejamkamart) August 31, 2021
Will I “cancel” Doogie Kamealoha M.D.? No. Am I aware of how the series has fallen short on PI representation? Yes.
It is still possible to enjoy a series and be critical of its shortcomings. Then again, this is Disney+ show. There is an upliftng joy that comes with it that isn’t necessarily putting cultural identity front and center. Although it is a part of it, the show isn’t diving into the depths of the issue. It’s about a young woman who’s a doctor that is navigating her teenage years. It’s not about a bunch of white people going to Hawaii and flexing their privilege and ignorance.
I think the issue with the show isn’t that she wasn’t born and/or raised in Hawai’i, it’s the fact that she is playing a character with an indigenous name but is half Chinese. You can belong to an ethnic group but never been there. They doubled down on the name and location but the same effort that went to finding Auliʻi Cravalho could’ve been done for this role, or just change the location to like South Florida or South California.