in television

Why did ‘Pickle Rick’ feature Susan Sarandon playing an Asian character?

I’m a huge fan of Rick and Morty and am watching it weekly as it enters its third season. Last week’s episode, “Pickle Rick,” was a great example of why the show is brilliant, deftly blending some outlandish sci-fi plotting and surprisingly incisive psychological observations. Film Crit Hulk has done a good job of breaking this down over at Birth Movies Death:

I watched “Pickle Rick” and then I had to go sit outside for awhile.

I just had to detach. And I took my time, too. I breathed in the cool night air. I looked at the handful of stars you can actually see through the glow of the Los Angeles sky. When your brain buzzes around a lot, sometimes you have to slow yourself down. And yes, my mind was racing, contemplating the sheer totality of what I had just seen. But more than that, it made me think deeply about my own limitations. For when you work in creative fields, you spend your whole life pursuing the notion of “a great idea.” No, that’s not just coming up with the raw nugget of cool ideas that are original or zeitgeisty, but more following through with developing them. Being sure that they capitalize on the tenets of drama, plotting, characterization, and ultimately tap into deep resonant meaning, all in the pursuit of making something truly great. And upon watching this latest episode of Rick & Morty, I was struck (as I often am with the show) with the pangs of helpless comparison. No, it is not a mere matter of jealousy, for that feeling only tends to come up when you fear that you offer no value and thus regularly exercise schadenfreude (cue the mass of writers who complain about other people’s deals, etc). Instead, the act of watching an episode like “Pickle Rick” is simply humbling.

As amazing as Pickle Rick was, it did leave me with one question: Why did Susan Sarandon play the Asian therapist, Dr. Wong, in the episode?

White actors playing minorities in animated TV shows is nothing new (See: The Simpsons, Bojack Horseman). But this instance stood out for me, both because I find Sarandon’s political viewpoints to be asinine, and because I don’t recall ever seeing an Asian character in Rick and Morty before. Why bother writing Dr. Wong as Asian if you’re just going to have her played by a white person? I was particularly curious about this since the episode is written by Jessica Gao, an Asian woman.

Turns out, there’s a decent explanation. In a YouTube Q&A after the show, Gao explains:

So when I wrote it, I specifically named her Dr. Wong because there haven’t been any Asian characters, and any time I can, I want to give an Asian actor who isn’t Kumail [Nanjiani] a job. So I wrote her as Dr. Wong, she’s drawn as Dr. Wong. We actually started auditioning the gamut of Asian actresses, and in the middle of auditioning these Asian actresses, we get word that Susan Sarandon wants to be on the show. She says she loves the show. The suspicion is, maybe her kid loves the show?

So we’re not going to say no to Susan Sarandon asking to be on the show. This was the very next meaty female role that was going to be on the show. Her voice is great. She’s wonderful, she’s great. But she’s not the Dr. Wong I pictured […] There were so many Asian women that could’ve done it.

All in all, an unfortunate situation. But I’m still glad folks like Gao are still trying to get those numbers up on behalf of all of us.

[Thanks to Twitter user Viereugen for bringing this video to my attention.]

  • SaulPaul

    Maybe Sarandon could have waited for another part? What’s her hurry?

    • David Chen

      Typically stars at that level only have very limited scheduling availability

    • doodler

      it took, what – 18 months? – to produce this season. We might all be nuke-dust by the time they have another female part that good (like Unity in S2). Of course, they could go the South Park route and have her voice a cat’s meow or something.

  • Dustin McFadden

    It’s a cartoon, one in which actually pointed out “Way racist name by the way” DURING the show. Also, did I mention that it’s just a cartoon? If an American Asian did voice that character, would you even notice a difference?