Early on in “Huangsgiving,” it’s revealed that the Huangs are having several characters from Fresh Off The Boat’s lesser (though still pretty good) first season over for dinner. And while I was excited to hear that Jessica’s competitive sister Connie and her husband Steve were on the guest list for the holiday, I wasn’t too thrilled that her college fling Oscar Chow would be in attendance as well. Last time we saw him, FOTB’s writers went to great lengths to portray him as the kind of funny gay friend that seemed to be a trademark of so many sitcoms in the ‘90s, a guy who spent most of his visit prancing around in a pink bathrobe while singing Disney showtunes. I commended the show for the Huangs’ positive relationship with Oscar and his lack of resentment towards their marriage (it was revealed he actually had a crush on Louis), but there was no getting around the fact that he was a walking stereotype.

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David Smithyman, who also penned Oscar Chow’s first appearance in “Blind Spot,” treats the character with much more depth here, giving him some quieter moments as Oscar introduces his boyfriend Michael to everyone and (somewhat begrudgingly) bonds with Marvin (who’s also over for dinner, along with Honey) over a game of football in the street. His appearance doesn’t even have that much to do with the central plot—he’s more there to add to the ensemble, to show a group of people from diverse backgrounds making meaningful connections on a holiday about that very thing. It’s a nice touch.

Even Connie and Steve, whose characters worked rather well last season, get a more subtle treatment in “Huangsgiving,” or at least a more naturalistic one, mainly because Smithyman and director Gail Mancuso aren’t afraid to amplify the couple’s desperation. They’ve always embraced a lame sense of oneupmanship, but it’s sadder when they’re still trying to impress everyone even as their personal lives are in more dire straits than when we last saw them. When Steve comes fishtailing around the corner in a mud-brown, falling-apart Geo instead of his sports car, it’s clear that things have changed. Sure enough, we find out that he and Connie are going through financial troubles and are on the verge of separating. Oh, and their son Justin has graduated from listening to post-grunge to listening to ska.

This all sets the stage for some holiday lunacy in the vein of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and countless other sitcoms, but “Huangsgiving” bucks tradition by focusing more on the chaos within its characters than the event itself. Things still go wrong, of course, but when they do, it leads to a deflation of spirit rather than property damage or everyone chasing each other around the dinner table. For example, when Steve, wallowing in his romantic sorrows, convinces Louis to down a whole bottle of Wild Turkey with him, Louis winds up hung over the next day—or, more specifically, passed out on the sidewalk with a half-eaten burrito on his chest—and forgets to put the big bird in the oven (his original plan of cornish game hens falls through when the birds get delivered alive). But it doesn’t lead to some huge fight—he just spends the rest of the day in a groggy daze as Jessica tries to save face and speed up the turkey-roasting with a hairdryer. That’s about as frantic as “Huangsgiving” gets.

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Instead, most of the laughs get drawn from quiet awkwardness. As Louis passes out on the couch next to his mother-in-law (the colder doppelganger to Grandma Huang), Steve attempts to win back Connie with an off-key rendition of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” on a ukulele. Appalled, she finds a way to make herself feel better and also get a leg up in her never-ending rivalry between her and Jessica by telling everyone about the turkey situation. That positions her as the hero when she drives to an appliance store to pick up a deep-fryer, although Jessica follows to confront her about stealing the holiday glory. Naturally, it comes out that Connie’s jealousy isn’t about the turkey or the deep-fryer or Thanksgiving in general, but her wanting attention for something more positive than her crumbling marriage and the other problems in her life. They apologize to each other, Jessica convinces Connie to stay with Steve, and the two head home to prepare dinner.

An unabashedly sweet ending wouldn’t feel quite right between the sisters, which is why Jessica can’t get resist getting in some last-minute barbs when she insists on buying the deep-fryer (“You have to be married to Steve,“ she tells Connie). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Connie did eventually leave Steve somewhere down the line. It’s those details, along with the awkwardness and series of tiny, more humanistic victories that make “Huangsgiving” feel slightly more realistic than many episodes of Fresh Off The Boat. We’ve all gone through holiday disasters—they’re just usually a lot less catastrophic than they are in most films and TV shows, and I don’t know if Fresh Off The Boat could have pulled off such a downplayed holiday special last year. It’s nice to see the series continually evolve in its second year.

Stray observations

  • Say what you will about ska, but I’d listen to it over Live any day of the week.
  • Eddie and Justin may never bond over music, but they finally find one thing they have in common: a love for ‘90s-slow downloads of nude female celebrities.
  • And when you can’t agree on Janet Jackson or Janeane Garofalo, you of course go for the natural compromise of Tracy Chapman, even if she’s fully clothed.
  • What would you prefer at Thanksgiving: deep-fried turkey or an individual cornish game hen? Discuss.
  • So many good quotes, so I’m just going to rattle off a bunch of them:
  • “Individual cornish hens: they’re the personal pizzas of the bird world.”
  • “I’m straight-edge ska now. Happy Skanksgiving.”
  • “Michael listens to NPR. Show him your tote.”
  • “I may seem calm, but it’s a calm anger which is a much scarier type of anger.”
  • “Thanks for introducing me to ska. I hate it.”

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