In “Success Perm,” tonight’s second episode of Fresh Off The Boat, Eddie can’t wait until his cooler, slightly older cousin Justin (Lance Lim) comes to visit with his family. But Eddie’s excitement deflates as soon as Justin steps out of the minivan wearing a flannel shirt and glum face—the relative who introduced him to hip-hop is now into grunge. As funny as it is to see Justin casting mopey platitudes into the sunny Orlando air, his interactions with Eddie are startlingly accurate. In 1995, there was a line in the sand when it came to male adolescents and their music. You were either a rock kid or a rap kid. You couldn’t like both. You just couldn’t. I myself had a friend who got me into punk, ska, and skateboarding, only to see him denounce those very things after two weeks in a new school. He even called me up to let me know—in a voice like he was telling me my dog had gotten run over—that he wasn’t into Skankin’ Pickle anymore. The rivalry between Eddie and Justin’s parents, not Eddie and Justin, is actually the main arc of “Success Perm.” But I bring up the latter because it reminded me of the aforementioned distance between a friend and I, a time when I felt uncool and, let’s face it, a little dumb.
I’m not saying Fresh Off The Boat is a show about me—it is and always will be a series focused on the Asian-American experience—but it could be a show for me. It could be a show for everyone. And I suspect that’s part of what Eddie Huang, even when grumbling over ABC’s changes to his memoir, is going for: even though this is one particular story about one particular family trying to fit into a new environment, sometimes their experiences are the same as everyone else’s. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes their struggles relate directly to race. Sometimes they don’t.
I criticized last week’s episodes for not having this kind of diversity in their conflicts. Almost every scene seemed to feature the Huangs going slack-jawed at how cartoonishly oversaturated and crazy Orlando, Florida is. But with the standard exposition and early fish-out-of-water moments out of the way, Fresh Off The Boat now seems able to broaden its scope a bit and delve deeper into some of the stereotypes it’s already established.
In “The Shunning,” for example, Jessica finally forms a genuine friendship with one of the neighborhood women. That would be Honey (Chelsey Crisp), who, despite not looking all that different from her neighbors, has a good heart and an affinity for Stephen King. But when she and Jessica bond over The Master of Horror, Louis becomes worried, as—according to Evan, who, like Emery, is fitting in so well he’s getting invited to local gossip sessions—Honey is despised by the other women for being the trophy wife of the much older Marvin (an always welcome Ray Wise). Never mind that their love appears to be real.
Likewise, Jessica and Honey’s closeness feels true and surprising because it’s sparked by something not expected from either of their archetypes. Pop culture has conditioned us to think that they’d bond over a writer like Nicholas Sparks, but no, their rapport centers around the film adaptation of Dolores Claiborne and saying goodbye to each other with the creepy “Tony” finger gesture from The Shining. Even when Jessica temporarily joins in on ostracizing Honey at a Daytona 500 party to fit in with the other women, her eventual apology hinges on a Carrie reference.
But where as “The Shunning” further deals with the Huangs seeking acceptance from the non-Asian people around them—whether it’s Jessica succumbing to peer pressure or Eddie trying to impress his schoolmates by getting a hug from Honey— “Success Perm” opts to show some of that same disconnect within their own extended family. Jessica’s relationship with her presumably more well-off sister, Connie Chen (Susan Park), has always been one of rivalry, which gets brought to the forefront when Connie arrives with her husband Steve (Charlie Soong Lee). In addition to Connie having gotten breast implants, Jessica, Louis, and Steve have all permed their hair—a symbol of wealth within Asian communities, as adult Eddie tells us in the narration.
The oneupmanship only escalates from there, as Louis lamely shows off his restaurant’s inactive fax machine and the sisters compete to find bargains that will impress their mother (Shu Lan Tuan). In typical sitcom fashion, it’s ultimately revealed that Connie and her family don’t have as much money as they let on, and that both the Huangs and the Chens suffer from a rabid, perhaps unhealthy need to impress those around them. The subtext, of course, is that this stems from the pressure put upon Asian-Americans to succeed in this country, a hypothesis you could argue drives a great deal of the characters’ actions in Fresh Off The Boat.
It’s worth pointing out how unconventional and evolved this kind of a revelation is for a network comedy. And yes, Fresh Off The Boat does still feel like a network comedy—the ending moments of familial harmony are reached a little too quickly, and there are some other storytelling flaws as well. A potential romance for Eddie at the end of “The Shunning” gets set up to be the main arc of the next episode, only to not get referenced again at all. More glaringly, a broad depiction of a gay cop becomes a vehicle for a Miata joke we’ve seen before. But these missteps are inherent to most sitcoms, and, unlike last week, their broadness gets trumped here by the more nuanced storytelling. If things keep going in this direction, Fresh Off The Boat might continue to appeal to the outsider in all of us, regardless of race, class, or music preference.
- I was glad to see Jessica reading a first edition of Cujo. Take it from a lifelong King fan—nothing beats those first-edition covers.
- For the record, Cop and 1/2 was filmed in and around Tampa, not Orlando. Sorry, but I’ve got to stand up for my hometown.
- I almost cheered when Honey moved Eddie’s hand away from her butt when he was hugging her. Letting him go that far would have cheapened her character.
- Note that Justin’s love of grunge evolves from Nirvana to the much more sensitive—and much lamer—Live.
- Speaking of which, was that a cover version of “Lightning Crashes”? It sounded like it, and yet it would also surprise me if ABC could secure the rights to so many great hip-hop songs, but not Throwing Copper.
- “This is my boss-in-law, Steve.”
- “You may be living a fancy lifestyle with your ta-tas and Miatas…”
- Critics only received screeners for the first three episodes, so next week’s review will probably go live around the same time as this one—about two or so hours after the show ends.