It’s been said before and it will be said again: as the first sitcom about an Asian-American family in over 20 years (the last one being Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl), Fresh Off The Boat is important. You’d be hard-pressed to find any publication—or any viewer for that matter—that says differently. Hell, important might even be an understatement. The fact that it got made at all—while begging the question “why not sooner or more frequently?”—is a triumph in itself. But does such a loaded context mean it should be reviewed differently than other shows of the same style and caliber? It depends on who you ask. As positive as most of the reviews have been, most of them acknowledge that the series is over-the-top and maybe a bit too sugary in its treatment of Eddie Huang’s often biting memoir about his family trying to assimilate into American culture. And yet they forgive it for these things because, well, it’s important.
If you’re reading this review, you probably already know that Huang himself has openly bashed Fresh Off The Boat more than any TV critic—first in a humorous yet scathing rant for New York magazine, then just today in a more measured interview with Hollywood Reporter. And while he does come off as all too eager to bite the hand that feeds (he contributes voiceover a la The Wonder Years to every episode), he’s also accurate when he accuses the producers and writers of watering down his book, and thus, his life story. It’s not an issue of straying from real-life events as much as it is straying from the real-life tone. If you were to posit the importance versus quality argument to Huang, he would undoubtedly ask “Why can’t it have both?”
The solution to that challenge would be someplace like HBO, but Fresh Off The Boat unfortunately isn’t on HBO; it’s on ABC—good old, family-friendly, Disney-owned ABC, a network not exactly known for its grit. Granted, Huang’s memoir doesn’t quite veer into Angela’s Ashes territory with its depictions of financial hardship and domestic violence (although those things are both there), but it does have a refreshingly stubborn grasp on realism and nuance, two things that get lost in the first two episodes.
In the pilot, set in 1995, 11-year-old Huang (Hudson Yang) and his Taiwanese family are all yanked up by their D.C. Chinatown roots by Eddie’s father, Louis (an amusing, puppy dog-like Randall Park), so he can open up a Western-themed restaurant in Orlando, Florida. All of the actors—especially Constance Wu, who crackles with charisma and determination as Eddie’s mother, Jessica—tackle their roles with energy and just a dash of appropriate desperation as they try to settle into white-bread suburbia.
Sadly, all subtlety falls by the wayside as the plot kicks into gear and the characters get painted in the broadest strokes imaginable, usually obsessed with one goal that turns them into more of a caricature than a fully fleshed out human being. Take Eddie, the show’s protagonist and mouthpiece for the real-life Huang, for example. He’s obsessed with hip-hop and African-American culture, but it’s never clarified whether he’s posturing or genuinely clinging to something substantial—an art form that began on the outskirts of mainstream society—because no one else will have him. In the real world, I’m sure it’s the latter (grownup Huang is fairly vocal about his love of rap music), but on the show, it feels like the former. That’s because much of the humor comes from a middle-class Asian kid trying to spout street lingo. Just because kids do that all the time in real life doesn’t keep the gag from feeling dated and—through no fault of the actor—Eddie from being kind of annoying.
Then there’s Louis and Jessica, who seem solely concerned with white people liking them, whether it’s through droves of customers dining at Louis’ cheesy Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse or Jessica being invited to rollerblade with the other neighborhood women. Likewise, the white people try as hard as they can to be nice to those kooky Asians, but oh what strange names they have! Of course, that’s part of the show’s goal—to explore those differences and how hard it is to fit in in general. But when that’s being done through characters that act more like cartoons than people, a lot of the empathy and dramatic tension gets lost.
Thankfully, the pilot doesn’t punk out at its most crucial moment, a cafeteria run-in between Eddie and Walter (Prophet Bolden), the only African-American kid in school. Besides pegging Eddie for a poser for listening to hip-hop, he considers him a rival since he’s the school’s only other minority. It’s a complex situation that hits home because it plays out like it would in real life; that is, never for laughs, especially when Walter calls Eddie a “chink,” and we get to see new hurt and outrage on his face at a word he’s never been called before.
There are more of these true-to-life moments in the second episode, when Jessica starts home-schooling Eddie and his two brothers, Evan (Ian Chen) and Emery (Forrest Wheeler), because she’s worried they’re not academically challenged enough. For the most part, the storyline is packed with even more broad humor—my least-favorite moment being Eddie’s grandmother (Lucille Soong) bobbing her head to Snoop Dogg (sorry, but I will never, ever find the idea of old people gettin’ down to hip-hop even remotely funny), but it also gives us several tender moments where the kids see and appreciate their parents’ polar-opposite personalities. Where as Louis tries to level with a bunch of teens who he knows are trying to dine and dash at the restaurant, Jessica chases them down in her minivan. Both approaches are (sort of) valid, and having the children realize why their parents work well together is far more resonant than a series of bits showing how wacky we all are. With more realistic moments like this, moments that are focused on actual relationships, Fresh Off The Boat could grow into a sitcom that’s important in both its context and its writing.
- One more thing the show nails: its portrayal of 1995. I was just a little bit younger than Eddie Huang was then, and lived about 90 minutes south of Orlando, outside of Tampa. Rollerblades and Golden Corrals were everywhere, and I definitely remember a police officer warning us about LSD stickers.
- On the same note, I was glad ABC managed to secure the rights to actual hip-hop songs from that era, with Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, and others making soundtrack appearances.
- Always nice to see Paul Scheer pop up, and he was immensely endearing as Louis’ first and most loyal employee. The show really does have an all-around great cast.
- I’m hoping we get more scenes between Walter and young Eddie. As short as their interactions were, it was by far the most interesting relationship on the show.
- I’m excited to be following Fresh Off The Boat with you all, and am really rooting for this show. We’ll see what happens.