I’ve heard several people complain that, in its second season, Fresh Off The Boat hasn’t explored the Huangs’ Chinese heritage as much as it did in its first season; that the show has become less about being Asian-American and more about being a generic ABC sitcom. I respectfully disagree. While there’s no point in trying to convince someone whether or not Fresh Off The Boat is funny, the show’s undeniably still about Asian-American identity by virtue of being about an Asian-American family. Period. Just because the characters are Chinese doesn’t mean that every last bit of dialogue has to center around being Chinese. Sometimes it can, and when it does, it’s able to address topics that many other shows can’t. Other times, however, the series is content to just be a good sitcom, drawing from tropes we’ve seen from many lesser shows in the past and doing them better.
On “Rent Day,” that trope is the little white lie that gets out of control, a plot device that, while certainly not exclusive to network family comedies, has also popped up on so many of the major ones the past few decades, namely ABC’s TGIF lineup. Character tells lie, character has to keep lie going, character has to come clean, character learns lesson. That’s more or less the formula “Rent Day” follows, but the episode stands out for its lessons being so anticlimactic. After a byzantine mystery involving the disappearance of Louis’ Casio Calculator watch, it’s revealed that all of the Huang men have been deceiving each other. In order to show that he’d be able to take care of his own potential Timex Ironman watch, Eddie has to look over his father’s timepiece for a week. When Louis sees it sitting out while Eddie’s in the shower, he takes it back to prove a point to his son, but then loses it himself. They’re both afraid to be honest with each other about the missing accessory, and to make matters more complicated, Evan and Emery are doggedly searching for the Casio on their own.
Wanting to prove their worth to the others, all three parties end up buying a new watch as an indiscreet stand-in, thus implicating themselves in the process. But where a show like Full(er) House or Family Matters would feature a gooey scene of Louis explaining the importance of telling the truth to everyone while weepy synth music plays in the background, Fresh Off The Boat’s final statement is more downtrodden, though still amusing: Everyone lies even though they shouldn’t, and there’s not much one can do about it. The episode appropriately ends with all four members of the male cast sitting in the living room, dejected over their secrecy.
Jessica’s storyline also deals with her fibbing, albeit with more drastic consequences. Her lie concerns the investment property’s renters (Allison Scagliotti and Freaks And Geeks’ John Francis Daley), two new-age squatters who are irritatingly calm about signing a lease they have no intention of paying. A legal loophole explained to Jessica by Officer Bryson prevents her from just kicking them out, and although her increasingly bizarre methods of making the situation work—encouraging the couple to go back to law school, shutting off their utilities, sicking a cat on their chickens—are entertaining, she could have saved herself a lot of trouble if she had just been honest with her business partners. But rather than admit she screwed up by letting the couple rent, rather than tell Honey and Grandma Huang that the squatters’ rent check bounced, she becomes obsessed with her all-out, ultimately ineffective war. Like the rest of her family, she’s a victim of her own pride.
She finally does do the right thing by admitting her missteps to Honey and Granny. But even when Honey brightens the mood with an Oprah metaphor and tells the other two that this is just a misstep, the optimism feels short-lived. Not long afterwards, Jessica is already strongly pushing them towards their next business venture: condos. Her new idea doesn’t involve lying (yet), but the looks of trepidation exchanged between Honey and Granny hint that their friend still has as long way to go. She’s still jumping from hasty business decision to hasty business decision.
Such a lack of sentimentality in the outcomes of both storylines is tricky—the show wouldn’t work as well as it does if it was completely cynical. But it does work well when the progress is kept small; when the characters don’t learn a life lesson, but experience an emotion—even a negative one—that could contribute to a life lesson down the line. We’ve seen this story on many different shows many different times before, but never with quite so much humor and pragmatism. We’ve never seen it through the eyes of the Huangs, a family whose thirst for success often gets the best of them.
- Between tonight and “Jessica Place,” Fresh Off The Boat excels when its characters have to solve mundane mysteries.
- Did anyone out there own that model of Timex? Is that even an actual model of Timex?
- That’s Patrick Fischler who Jessica chases out of the house so she can steal his idea of renting out homes. That cookie should have been a bag of Utz potato chips.
- Lots of ‘90s winks tonight. In addition to the watches, Louis retreats to the pantry to cry in seclusion after watching Babe. Can’t say I blame him.
- If being borderline sociopathic law-school dropouts wasn’t enough, the squatters have tried to make money off of drug testing: “When I said we were in medicine, I meant technically the medicine’s in us.”
- “I know it’s confusing. The word ‘bounce’ feels so positive—like ‘Tigger.’”