Fresh Off The Boat has never been especially nuanced in its portrayal of gay characters. The gay police officer from “Success Perm” was into Miatas, the gay couple Jessica sold a house to in “Fajita Man” were effeminate and wore bright colors, and every last gay character we meet in tonight’s episode is anchored by some sort of stereotype—Jessica’s college boyfriend Oscar Chow loves Disney showtunes, a gaggle of gay men strut around in biker gear on the street, and a lesbian bar is packed exclusively with butch women eagerly looking for a fight.

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While these stereotypes, like all stereotypes, spring from some sort of truth, it becomes an issue when they’re the only tool being used to portray a particular group. Yes, there are lots of gay men who are effeminate, wear bright colors, and love showtunes. But there are lots of them who don’t embody these characteristics, and when a show only seems to be interested in painting gay characters in the broadest strokes possible, across multiple episodes no less, it feels a little insensitive and a little lazy. Granted, every gay person is portrayed as over-the-top to illustrate Jessica’s obliviousness to their sexuality, but even that joke feels tired. The whole lack-of-a-gaydar-thing was done on several sitcoms in the ‘90s, from Futurama to That ‘70s Show, and the conceit of it is a little gross when you think about it. Why should being able to tell if someone’s gay or not be an important skill to have?

The show does deserve a little credit for the Huangs’ positive treatment of Oscar. When they discover that he only dated Jessica to be around Louis—Oscar going as far to assume that he and Louis were the ones in a relationship—they view it as a mere misunderstanding, never showing the slightest bit of homophobia toward their friend. Likewise, Oscar never shows any resentment towards their marriage. Those are fairly progressive views for a bunch of characters living in mid-’90s Orlando, even if the story and Oscar’s characterization ultimately feel outdated—what little depth is there vanishes when he spends the majority of the episode prancing around in a pink kimono in preparation for an Aladdin Disney On Ice audition.

At least Eddie’s brothers finally score a noteworthy storyline, even if it’s entirely separate from the rest of the episode. While preparing for the science fair at school, Evan comes down with chicken pox, which prevents him from competing and sends him on a vengeful quest to pass his sickness onto Emery. In an opposite move, Eddie tries to contract the germs himself so he can get out of competing. The writers amusingly depict Evan and Emery’s rivalry as if it’s a horror movie, with the former appearing behind the latter in a foggy bathroom mirror like a grade-school version of one of Jessica’s beloved Stephen King novels. If anything, the show could have gone further with the horror conventions and in showing the brothers’ more competitive sides, as it’s a trait they seem to get from their parents, and one that often makes for the most interesting narratives (see “Showdown At The Golden Saddle”).

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Also, while the outcome of all three brothers banding together at the end to work on Eddie’s science project was nice, I wish it would have dovetailed more with the A storyline, beyond just having Oscar contract chicken pox right as we cut to black. Even in a lighthearted ABC sitcom, the B plot can often be a way to further explore or comment on the themes of the main thread. Fresh Off The Boat hasn’t really done that yet, even in its stronger episodes.

The problem could also be that tonight’s main plot didn’t have much to say thematically in the first place, except that sometimes Louis and Jessica can be oblivious to their surroundings. But we already know that about them. What about their children’s attitudes towards gay people? How do they feel about Oscar? We never really get to see them interact with their eccentric guest. This feels like a missed opportunity, and further proof that when Fresh Off The Boat has the chance to make a point, or at least depict someone with complexity, it often settles for a dumb joke.

Stray Observations:

  • I suppose you could argue that the Oscar storyline was commentating on the token “gay guest character” featured on so many ‘90s sitcoms. But it didn’t elaborate enough on any tropes for me to view it like that. What about the rest of you? Did anybody see it as a nicely subversive move on the show’s part?
  • For all my problems with “Blind Spot,” I did enjoy the concept of a lovedar and Louis’ lack of one.
  • I only mentioned it briefly, but the show’s depiction of a lesbian bar called The Denim Turtle was pretty awful. The bartender actually referred to Louis and Oscar as “spermbags.” Get it? Because all lesbians just hate men.
  • Tonight was a little heavy on the pop-culture references: Outbreak, Ghost, Dolly Parton, and loads more musicians and movies all received throwaway lines.
  • “Now gimme those sweet pox” is definitely one of Eddie’s funnier lines on the show so far.
  • “Well thank you for keeping my knee warm.”

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