Take Out with Lisa Ling opens with a punk theme song by the teenage group The Linda Lindas that went viral last year for their performance of their song “Racist, Sexist Boy,” and the song succinctly describes the HBO Max documentary series: “Tell me a story / what’s it all about.”
That’s what I found Take Out to be: a series of engaging stories, sometimes loosely interconnected, all about the experience of Asian people in America.
HBO Max’s initial press release description had me expecting a series more narrowly focused on Asian restaurants, strip-mall take-out, and the people and families who run them. It said the show “follows award-winning journalist Lisa Ling as she takes viewers behind the counter and into the lives of the people and families who run some of America’s over 45,000 Asian restaurants.”
But Take Out is much more than that.
In tone, style, and approach, it’s similar to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s great Hulu series Taste the Nation. But while Padma’s show has a central thesis, focusing on how food that we think of as distinctly “American” food is actually immigrant food, Lisa Ling’s series is more expansive.
Its vignettes often focus on food or restaurants, but the subject matter is far more wide-ranging: from a beauty school to a burlesque dancer, the past and the present and the intersection of them.
There are threads of shame, racism, and trauma, but also community, connection, and the often unacknowledged contributions Asian people have made to the United States.
All of this is beautifully photographed and edited, with some fun music choices and montages.
The episodes are generally structured around place and the Asian communities in those places. It opens with people having a shrimp boil in southern Louisiana—people who are all ancestors of a Filipino man—and ends up on a boat with the mayor, who’s showing Lisa the first Filipino settlement in the United States, which is now under water, a preview of what’s coming to other communities in the United States and around the world.
The scenes sometimes felt a little disconnected from what follows, and I’d struggle to give an adequate summary of each episode. It’s more pastiche than predictable.
The second episode upends expectations; it’s titled “Lisa’s Story,” and takes a much more personal approach, with Lisa talking with her family and gathering them to eat in the restaurant her grandparents once owned.
I think that approach is a strength; the show and its editing don’t try to oversimplify or neatly package complicated stories, but just present them. If anything, I’d like to stay with some of the people and stories a little longer, just because I found them so interesting, though the 30-minute episodes do not feel rushed.
If you’ve seen Lisa Ling’s eight-season CNN show This Is Life with Lisa Ling or its predecessor, OWN’s Our America, the approach in Take Out with Lisa Ling will be very familiar.
As narrator and interviewer, she’s absolutely one of the best, listening and asking questions that center her subjects. And she offers observations like this one, which comes at the end of the third episode, and works as a summary of her experience and what the show offers:
“During my time in Little Saigon, I’ve learned from the Vietnamese-American community that the past is more than just prologue. The older generation is still living with genuine pain and trauma from losing their homeland decades ago. Many later generations wish to move beyond this trauma, but it still resides in them in many ways. However, like all Americans, their story is still being written. For a long time, it was being written by someone else. But more and more, they are the caretakers of their community: through the stories they tell, the memories they keep, and the food they make.”
Take Out with Lisa Ling
Take Out with Lisa Ling is a series of engaging, interconnected stories, sometimes about food but all about the experience of Asian people in America. A
What works for me:
- The title sequence and Linda Lindas’ theme song
- The cinematography
- Lisa Ling’s interviewing and narration
What could be better:
- Maybe a little more time with some people and places