Even when stripped of some of the complexity found in Eddie Huang’s memoir, ABC’s adaptation of Fresh Off The Boat has succeeded wildly in subverting stereotypes. The Huangs and even secondary characters like Honey all appear to be one thing on the outside—the smart Chinese kid, his domineering mother, the ditzy trophy wife—only to reveal various new layers to the audience. There’s always more to them than we think.

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The same goes for Phillip Goldstein (a perfectly smarmy Albert Tsai), although in a much more negative sense. Where as someone like Jessica has a sternness that gives way to more positive traits such as humor and a love for her family, Phillip appears to be a golden child when, in reality, he’s a manipulative little shit.

The writers’ decision to make Goldstein an antagonist rather than an ally to Eddie is a smart one. When dealing in stereotypes, Asian or otherwise, it’s important to note that just as people can be better and more complex than we assume, they can also be a lot worse. It’s a lesson that does away with the race card and just portrays Phillip as another human being. And human beings can be assholes.

Of course, none of the adults—not Principal Hunter, Phillip’s adoptive Jewish parents, or even Eddie’s own mother—notice this at first. All they see is another Chinese kid in a mostly white community, which should make him a natural fit for being Eddie’s new best friend. This eagerness to see the two school’s two sole Asian students bond is both amusing and a little sad. Principal Hunter thinks it will make him a white savior in the eyes of the community (and, oddly enough, his recently estranged wife), and Jessica is thrilled to meet a student who fulfills all the overachiever tropes she wishes her son did. She practically swoons when she discovers that Phillip plays the cello (solo, not orchestra).

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But Eddie dislikes him from the get-go for his squeaky-clean attitude, which masks a deceitful nature that rears its head at a performance of Les Misérables, of all things. The only way Phillips’s parents will let him attend the musical is if Eddie goes with him, and the only way Eddie’s parents will let him attend a Beastie Boys concert is if Phillip does the same. The boys form an uneasy alliance, knowing that they have to agree to the other’s terms if they’re to get what they want. Predictably, Phillip ends up screwing Eddie by bolting after Les Mis, leaving Jessica to save the day by taking Eddie to the Beastie Boys herself after realizing she was wrong about Phillip.

The Eddie/Phillip rivalry ends up rather poignant, as it shows both white and Asian characters being inadvertently racist. Everyone’s so excited to see two minorities connect that they assume the two will get along swimmingly or, in the case of their phys-ed coach, they assume they’re best friends already. This adds a welcome comic sting to Eddie and Phillip’s relationship, and makes for what could be a fairly complex lesson on race and first impressions.

Unfortunately, this lesson gets rushed. After seeing his enemy Walter wearing a Beastie Boys shirt the next day, Eddie makes amends with him and they’re instant pals. The outcome feels natural, but the execution doesn’t. All of Eddie and Walter’s tension flies out the window immediately after they see each other wearing the same Beasties tour t-shirt, and they practically walk off hand-in-hand down the school hallway. Grownup Eddie spells it out further for us in his closing narration: “Sometimes the more meaningful way to connect to somebody isn’t always right in front of you.”

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Besides being a fairly cheesy line, it’s too fast and too tidy. We’ve already seen how much Eddie’s love of rap music pisses Walter off. I’m not saying they couldn’t resolve their issues, but I doubt Walter would grin ear to ear as soon as he sees they’re wearing the same shirt. He’d have to ease into it. He’d have to take the time to reevaluate his feelings about Eddie, and vice versa. It’s like their nasty fight in the pilot—one of the best scenes of the series—never happened.

This hasty resolution is a result of simply running out of airtime, as a great deal of “Phillip Goldstein” is dedicated to a pointless B storyline where we see the fallout from Mitch quitting Cattleman’s Ranch. As sad as I was to see Paul Scheer possibly leave the show last week, having him return tonight made me wonder why it happened in the first place. I had assumed it was a result of Scheer’s busy schedule, but I guess not—he appears to be on Fresh Off The Boat for the foreseeable future, or at least the rest of the season.

So we get almost half of tonight devoted to Louis getting frustrated with an actual cowboy (Parker Young) he hires to replace Mitch. Then we get Mitch acting like a jerk with his higher salary from The Golden Saddle before apologizing and eventually returning to Louis, but not before announcing to everyone at Cattleman’s that he and Nancy slept together at some point.

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Mitch worked as a character in previous episodes because he was so loyal and kind, lending a sense of humanity to the often madcap Cattleman’s scenes. But seeing him display such icky behavior feels out of place and a huge waste of time, especially since he reverts to his old self by the end. The show would have been better served had the Cattleman’s arc been trimmed or scrapped altogether in favor of drawing out the resolution to the Phillip Goldstein storyline. Eddie learning that jerkiness has nothing to do with race or first appearances is a nuanced one, but when it’s addressed by one throwaway line (a clunky one at that), it reeks of idealism rather than realism—after-school special rather than social commentary.

Stray Observations

  • Another thing that bugged me: the previous few episodes established that Eddie was gradually making friends, so it felt weird to see some of those same kids once again alienating him at the beginning. Maybe the episodes were aired out of order.
  • Unlike Jessica, I would absolutely love to receive Pop-Tarts in bed.
  • The Chronic, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and (censored) Doggystyle. Eddie has solid and comprehensive taste in rap.
  • Was it just me, or did Principal Hunter snapping the photo of him palling around with Eddie and Phillip feel just a bit too nasty?
  • Did Phillip remind anyone else of a slimier Minkus from Boy Meets World?
  • Interesting that ABC was able to secure the rights to the Beasties’ “Root Down” but not Les MisĂ©rables.

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