Last season, Fresh Off The Boat didn’t always know what it wanted to be. In one corner was the real-life Eddie Huang, who, rather unrealistically, wanted the series to deliver all the uncomfortable family strife and racial tension found in his memoir. In the other corner was creator Nahnatchka Khan, who realized that the ABC sitcom was, well, an ABC sitcom, and that the show was never going to be anything close to harrowing. While that push and pull resulted in the occasional hard-hitting moment (see Walter calling Eddie a “chink” in the pilot) as well as some cringe-inducing stereotypes (see “Blind Spot”), there was no getting around it: Fresh Off The Boat was uneven.

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Luckily, Huang parted ways with the series last month, and lo and behold, the second season has been all the better for it so far. Don’t get me wrong—a lot of the improvement has to do with the natural progression of a sitcom finding its footing, but Fresh Off The Boat finally has a solid identity now that it’s dropped Huang’s half-assed voiceovers and stinky attitude to become that rarest of things in the world of network television: the family sitcom that also manages to be smart. And that’s something I never thought I’d say, as I originally supported Huang’s opposition to the show. But as time went on, his constant disapproval on Twitter started to sound pretty dickish, seeing as he’s the one who sold the rights to his book in the first place. What did he think was going to happen at a Disney-owned network?. Plus, from a pure quality standpoint, season one was always better when it was lighthearted. There are plenty of heartwarming sitcoms about Caucasian families, so why shouldn’t an Asian-American family have one, too?

“The Fall Ball” capitalizes on this fuzziness by keeping things simple. At its core, most of the episode is about Louis helping Eddie and his friends prepare for a school dance, not because they ask for his help, but because, after countless viewings of Pretty In Pink while working at a plastic-molding factory, he believes that every young person deserves a magical John Hughes moment. After bolting out of Cattleman’s Ranch the same way you’d flee work if a close relative dies, he’s teaching Eddie, Walter, and the rest of the boys how to dress with confidence and pull off dance moves not cribbed from Shaggy’s “Boombastic” video.

Louis’ mentorship of the boys ends up being genuinely life-affirming since he never tries to change who they are. When Eddie wants to wear a collared shirt with a sideways cap and basketball jersey to the dance, Louis lets him, because he knows that’s what will make his son feel comfortable in his own skin. The same goes for two of the kids showing up in identical bolo ties and Trent sporting some truly hideous frosted tips (Louis even pays for them). It’s a subtle way to drive home the time-tested family sitcom message of “Just be yourself” without resorting to a dad talk underscored by sappy string music.

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Louis’ love of Pretty In Pink also shows how smart Fresh Off The Boat is with pop culture when it wants to be. As much as the show sometimes just rattles off references from 1997, here we get an example of how strongly an American film can influence someone who’s not from here, and let’s face it, plenty of people who are from here. Even better, the influence is positive, a testament to pop culture’s ability to connect people from all different walks of life.

Writer Jeff Chiang sets up the episode’s secondary storyline as turning out much more acidic. Grandma Huang’s boyfriend has just died and left her some cash, which Jessica hopes to use to flip a house. This leads to her sucking up to Granny for much of the episode, which the old woman naturally sees through. But when she confronts Jessica about her deceitfulness, the two of them make amends and decide to go into business—and a bit more deceit when they pursue the wealthier Honey as a partner—together. Not only is their arc refreshing because it finally breaks Grandma Huang out of her annoying “hip old person who listens to rap” stereotype into something more honest; it also proves that a family sitcom can be sly and sweet at the same time. That may be a far cry from the show’s source material, but it sure makes for some entertaining—and emotionally resonant—television. And that’s equally as impressive as a memoir.

Stray observations

  • As you may have noticed, I’m not Shelby Fero. She’ll be away for a few weeks, so until November 10, you’re stuck with me! I reviewed the first season and am excited to be back in the FOTB saddle for a little while.
  • Also, apologies for posting this review so late. There was no advance screener and the Cubs coverage cut into the episode’s airtime here in Chicago, so I had to wait until it was on ABC’s website this morning to watch it. Future reviews will be posted in a much more timely fashion.
  • “Our romance was brief but joyful.” This is the exact moment I started liking Grandma Huang.
  • As Louis’ fellow factory worker, NBA superstar Jeremy Lin is a close second for the Most Ridiculous ‘90s Hairdo Award, right behind Trent.
  • Now that I think about it, were frosted tips a thing in the ‘90s? Confession: Most of my friends and I had them for exactly one year in high school, and that was in 2000/2001. I guess that’s not that far off from 1997, and we may have just been late to the party.
  • Hobo Melons should be a band name. A really bad ska band.
  • Major points to the show for using “Alive And Kicking” instead of the more obvious Simple Minds song for the school dance.
  • “She sends her Pogs to Africa. She’s classy.”
  • “Let me just push away these mosquitoes having sex and I’ll push my arm in.”

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