Ever since the first episode premiered back in February, there’s been a lot of debate about Fresh Off The Boat’s treatment of race. While most viewers seemed to praise the slightly uncomfortable but important storyline of Walter perceiving Eddie as a threat for being their school’s only other minority, many people were turned off by how quickly their rivalry was resolved. Then there were other folks who were fine with it. “Loosen up,” they’d probably say. “It’s just an ABC sitcom.”
In a knowing wink to that crucial plot element and the writers’ possible bungling of it, “Good Morning Orlando” sees Eddie reminding Walter that he was once pretty racist to him. And it comes during a scene that has little to do with race at all. As Eddie explains why he can’t hook up his friends with Alison’s—the two have been “dating” since the Fall Ball mosh pit, which, in the great tradition of middle-schoolers everywhere, means completely ignoring each other—he brings up each of their respective faults: Brian’s too short, Trent needs to wash that Browns jacket of his (his ‘90s equivalent to Linus’ security blanket) and Walter? Well, Walter’s racist, as Eddie bluntly puts it. Just as you think some serious tension is going to rise between the two friends, Walter shoots him an incredulous look, reveals that he and all the other guys have had girlfriends since the Fall Ball, too, and the story moves on. It’s somewhat of a sly tease from writer Camilla Blackett, a way to acknowledge how trivially Eddie and Walter’s feud was handled last season when it could have taken on more significance. At the same time, it pokes fun at those of us (myself included) who wanted it to play out differently than it did.
But the episode’s most obviously meta statement on the show’s handling of race comes in the form of Louis. After two local morning-show hosts (Ken Marino and Kathleen Rose Perkins) are entertained by his impressions of Donald Duck and Sylvester Stallone at Cattleman’s Ranch, they invite him onto Good Morning Orlando to promote the restaurant. This upsets Jessica, who views it as a perpetuation of negative Asian stereotypes. As she points out, Asians don’t get a lot of chances to appear on television or in films, and when they do, it’s important that they represent themselves intelligently, not with the naive idiocy of characters like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. That comparison cuts especially deep for Louis, as we discover through a couple of brief flashbacks. When several non-Asian friends ask him to say Gedde Watanabe’s lines, it’s clear that Sixteen Candles was an instance of John Hughes, one of his favorite directors in the world, letting him down.
The argument between Louis and Jessica is one of the smartest moves the show has pulled. For one, Jessica’s obviously serving as a mouthpiece for Fresh Off The Boat’s detractors—from audience members to some critics to Eddie Huang himself—who don’t think the show is representing Asian-Americans with enough complexity. As a result, it’s hard to tell immediately who we’re supposed to side with in the debate, especially since Jessica states her case with such convincing eloquence. It’s completely understandable why Louis listens to her, and the next time he appears on Good Morning Orlando, he’s on the defense. When the hosts ask him to do another one of his impressions, he snaps back with “I’m already doing an impression: a successful Chinese-American business owner who’s worked hard for everything he has.” It’s an overly aggressive statement that does nothing but make things awkward for everyone on the talkshow. Worst of all, it kicks off a tailspin of paranoia where Louis thinks everyone is spitefully laughing at him the same way Carrie White thinks her classmates are laughing at her at the prom. Suddenly, we’re left wondering if Jessica was even right in the first place.
Even she ends up being critical of Louis’ overly serious second appearance on Good Morning Orlando. When he protests that it’s what she asked for, she launches into a rant about how Asians should be represented as not only intelligent, but also funny (not too funny though), political (but not too political), interesting, pleasant, and tall. And at that very moment, it’s clear what the show is getting at. When Louis tells Jessica that “One person can’t be everything,” he’s also talking about Fresh Off The Boat itself. When the series goes too far in the direction of being a thoughtful, sometimes goofy family sitcom, people complain. And if it went too far in the opposite direction, into being a serious-minded, nonstop commentary on race, people would complain about that, too.
Funnily enough, ever since Nahnatchka Khan and her writers decided to fully commit to the family-sitcom route at the start of the second season, it’s allowed them to further explore the issue of race, as “Good Morning Orlando” proves. At this point, the show has perfected the misadventures of Eddie and his friends, so the writers are able to deftly weave through their various mishaps—figuring out who’s actually dating who, awkwardly shuffling around the roller rink, and a hilarious missed connection on the mall escalator—in a short period of time that leaves plenty of room for the Good Morning Orlando arc. Likewise, once Louis figures out that the hosts really do just have a genuine interest in his restaurant and his impressions—they love hokey comedy and so does he—he’s able to have an honest conversation about race with his wife. He’s also able to get back into the talkshow’s good graces by spicing up a boring on-location story about a gopher tortoise with a moonwalk. By the end, we have a near-perfect mixture of the smart and the silly. One person can’t be everything. But once that person (or show) recognizes that, maybe they can.
- Add Ken Marino to the list of great comedians who have made an appearance on FOTB.
- Speaking of Marino, Children’s Hospital is filmed in the same hospital as Scrubs, and we get a guest spot tonight from Sacred Heart alum Judy Reyes as the grave-faced reporter covering the gopher-tortoise story.
- Louis does a mean Donald Duck and a not so mean Rocky Balboa, probably because he stole the former from Evan.
- Some great ‘90s touches: a tube of Gak ruined by stray hair, the Wet Seal in the mall, and an advertisement for the forgotten Nicholas Cage/David Caruso/Samuel L. Jackson noir thriller Kiss Of Death, which probably would have been out on VHS for a few months in 1997. Movies took a ridiculously long time to move from theaters to home video back then.
- In keeping with the metafictional tone of tonight’s episode, Louis reminds us that in 1997, Bill Cosby was still considered to be a moral compass for America. Blech.
- Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t most kids have been wearing inline skates at the roller rink in 1997? I guess if you were renting them, you would have the old-school ones, but I remember most people bringing their own rollerblades.
- I’m pretty sure human skin isn’t toxic to gopher tortoises, but if you’ve ever lived in Florida, you’ve most certainly had to get out of your car and rescue one of the reptiles from a busy highway (or drive-thru).
- I really want to know more about Ned, the mysterious messenger for Alison and her friends.
- “Call me crazy but square pizza tastes less good.” Having been a Chicagoan for nine years now, I take offense to that.
- “Sometimes a guy doing an impression really is a guy doing impression.”