ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: A ‘Fresh’ take on the Asian American sitcom


Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen photo by Jordin Althaus-ABC – © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

“Fresh off the Boat,” the first sitcom with an all-Asian American cast since 1994’s “All American Girl,” is kind of like rocking a perm or making a martini, in that there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. The right way, is to just watch it as you would any other network sitcom and enjoy it as such. The wrong way, is to watch it the way I did — constantly on the alert for anything offensive, feeling somehow personally accountable when something was unfunny, and then trying to imagine how people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds will process the antics onscreen. That’s not to say the show failed some Asian American media representation test — quite the opposite. It’s more that it’s doing a disservice to the very talented people who created the show and to oneself as a viewer.

Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen  photo by Jordin Althaus-ABC - © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen
photo by Jordin Althaus-ABC – © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, to some degree, watching the show in this way is inevitable. The fact that Asian faces and Asian American stories are so rare on network TV makes the show something of an event for the community. It puts a lot of unfair pressure on the show to “get it right” and somehow tell everyone’s story, (which, of course, would also mean telling no one’s story).

Fortunately, the show doesn’t really attempt to do that.  It tells the fictionalized version of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s family, who move from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to the suburbs of Orlando, Fla. to open a steakhouse. At the same time, though, it’s also telling the story of a typical sitcom family. Randall Park is Louis, the goofy dad, Constance Wu is Jessica, the take-charge mom, Hudson Yang is Eddie, a kid who doesn’t fit in, and the nominal main character. Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen are the cute younger brothers. Lucille Soong plays Grandma Huang. 

Overall, the show is really good. Despite some jokes not totally landing, and an unfortunate tendency to play Eddie’s interest in hip-hop for laughs, it’s largely really engaging. The cast is outstanding, (and it features some of my favorite funny white people, Paul Scheer, Maria Bamford, Ray Wise, in bit roles). Wu has, deservedly, been getting a lot of love online for her performance as the mom. But Park’s performance is the one that really sticks out in my mind. Beyond his nice-guy smile and voice, he conveys a subtle sense of pride and frustration bubbling beneath the surface in almost every scene. He and Wu could do some really great dramatic work together, at some point down the line, once the show has found its footing a little more. And if anything, that’s my only real criticism of the show. It has the ingredients of something really great. Between these actors and the source material, Eddie Huang’s hilarious, incisive, and heart-wrenching autobiography, you have something that could be truly unlike anything we’ve seen on TV before. A show with a theme song by Danny Brown deserves to be a little less safe.

But at the end of the day, “Fresh off the Boat” is limited by its medium. It’s a sitcom. It’s shot like a sitcom, it’s edited like a sitcom, and it’s scored like a sitcom. You get a lot of medium framed shots that put you far enough away from the actors that you don’t totally lock into the characters’ subjective experiences. But not far enough away to create any sense of loneliness or raise in your mind the possibility that the characters are not important, in an existential sense.

Some years back, critic Chuck Klosterman, I believe, argued that sitcoms ultimately have an implicit message that “everything will work out.” That genre baggage, more than anything the show does specifically, gets in the way of the audience genuinely investing in the characters, as that really requires that the audiences belief that things might not work out for them. The pain of not fitting in, of being poorer than everyone else, is potent. As is the threat of losing your dreams, your financial stability, and your partner’s esteem if your small business fails. But we, the audience, know that a sitcom wouldn’t really do that to us.

The show does sometimes push at its own edges a bit. It features wacky moments that lose all pretense of realism — for instance, when Jessica runs down a group of dine-and-dashing teenagers in the family mini-van, or a TV commercial shoot for the restaurant that has Paul Scheer’s character advertising his “comforting whiteness” as a selling point for the restaurant.

It also has scenes that go for an emotional gut-punch, like when Eddie gets called a “chink” by the only other person of color at the school, or when his parents stick up for him soon after. They point to room to grow in interesting ways. And if we judge by the latest episode, it may be doing just that.

I found “Success Perm,” the most recently aired at the time of this review, to be the best so far. In it, the family receives an unsolicited visit by Jessica’s sister Connie (Susan Park), her husband Steve (Charlie Soong Lee), and their son Justin (Lance Lim), prompting a panicked attempt to temporarily create the appearance of unbridled success with the illusion of spare bedrooms in the house, a packed-to-capacity restaurant, and killer perms. From the first minutes, this episode is hilarious. First, it introduces a couple of characters that are both really funny and over the top, but somehow also really genuine. They’re sort of caricatures, but they’re caricatures of people who have never been represented on mainstream TV before. (Plus, they set up some really good ‘90s jokes).

C.S. Lee’s Steve, for instance, drives all the way from D.C. to Florida separate from the rest of his family so that he can show off his Miata to Louis (and he emerges from said Miata with his own perm, exclaiming, “who ordered Chinese!?”). Connie drips venom with every word and spends a ridiculous amount of effort openly competing with Jessica on who can find the better bargain.

“Success Perm” also has a sense of genuine stakes. The fact that Steve’s business is not doing well is normally played for laughs, and it is here too, but it also creates the threat of genuine humiliation in front of people the family cares about.

The episode is also notable for not featuring any attempts to fit into the white community as a plot point. We just get to see Asian people being awful to each other for 30 minutes and it’s a lot of fun. And I think, by focusing almost exclusively on Asian characters for the entirety of the half-hour, it actually does more politically. By not making a statement about race, the show kinda does make a statement about race — that Asian people have lives beyond trying to relate to white people. At the same time, race is always there in the background, much as it is in real life.

The episode also features a hilarious turn by Eddie’s older “cooler” cousin, Justin, who has traded his interest in hip-hop for an interest in grunge rock, and now looks down on Eddie for his obsession with Tupac. On the one hand, the dynamic is universal. We can all understand the pain of being rejected by an older relative who you look up to. But there is, in the background also a specific issue being raised, the way black artistry is perceived as lesser than white artistry (increasingly relevant today). I remember vividly, growing up in the ‘90s, kids either listened to either hip-hop and R&B or “white people music” (pretty much anything with a guitar, particularly an electric guitar), not both. People, then and today, often argue that music by artists like Nirvana is more deep, complex, and authentic than hip-hop (I think this perception is largely because it’s truer to a white experience). At the end of the day, I’ve grown to love Nirvana. But ‘Pac will always have a piece of my heart in a way Kurt never will. In the show, Eddie makes that same choice. And while there’s nothing heavy-handed about it, his choice, and the show’s, matters politically. If we can get more of that, “Fresh off the Boat” could be as fresh as the book it was named for.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at nichibei.org.


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