ABC’s new comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” features a predominately Asian-American cast telling the story of an Asian American family — a rarity in network television. Just how rare is it?
The show is the first time a major network has aired a sitcom with an Asian cast since ABC cancelled Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” in 1995. In other words, it’s about time.
“Fresh Off the Boat,” which airs Tuesdays on ABC, is based on the childhood experiences of outspoken New York restaurateur and media personality Eddie Huang. Set in the mid ’90s, the show follows an 11-year old Asian-American hip-hop fanatic who moves with his family from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the suburbs of Orlando, Florida.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta during the same period, I tuned in with bated breath. I was excited because for the first time in my 22 years of watching American television there was a show telling the story of my childhood.
As “Fresh” joins ABC’s diverse lineup of family sitcoms that includes “Black-ish,””Cristela,” and “Modern Family,” we finally have our seat at the table.
For a group of people relegated to playing the friend, the accountant, or the fry cook, to have a family full of fleshed out Asian American characters is nothing short of groundbreaking.
As far as ABC is concerned, this is a move that makes sense. The Asian American population is one of the fastest growing in numbers and in affluence. “Asians have money,” Huang, who also serves as the show’s narrator, recently told TV journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour. “You want their money, make things for them.”
When Jeremy Lin made his improbable rise to stardom in 2012, those who cheered the loudest for and spent the most money on the basketball star from Palo Alto, California were not the billions of people in China and Taiwan, they were his fellow Asian Americans.
For people like myself, Lin’s life story is much more familiar than that of previous stars like Yao Ming.
And here’s what worries me. The ABC comedy could easily end up one massive cultural dumpster fire.
As likely as “Fresh Off the Boat” turns into the Asian “Wonder Years,” the show could just as easily descend into the pit of mediorcity and anonymity — a fate the befalls many mid-season replacements.
Because there have been so few shows with Asian casts, the networks simply aren’t equipped to handle the cultural nuances of the community. Even Huang himself wrote that he felt discomfort in the way ABC has shaped his story in a 15-page long essay published in New York Magazine.
Although Huang eventually came to grips with the show’s creative process, the essay planted some seeds of doubt in my mind. This is our first shot at a show of our own in 20 years, and if this tanks, who knows when we’ll get another shot.
However, as I made my way through the series’ first two episodes, my fears proved to be unfounded.
The dialogue is crisp and the comedy is edgy. For the most part, “Fresh” stays away from falling into the broad cultural stereotypes and instead focuses in on the experiences of this particular family.
And as the “Fresh Off the Boat” took on the specter of racial epithets just 20 minutes into the pilot episode, show creator Nahnatchka Khan proved she is certainly fearless.
Scene after scene, it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what it can be like growing up in an Asian-American family.
There’s a moment early in the pilot where Eddie, played by a charismatic Hudson Yang, feels out of place in the cafeteria with his homemade Chinese noodles while his classmates are enjoying their Lunchables. He feels like an outsider and then heads home to plead with his mother for food similar to his classmates.
In another scene, Eddie returns home to change clothes before a pickup basketball game only to be intercepted by his mother at the front door with a massive book of extracurricular homework.
Ask any Asian child and it’s pretty commonplace to get handed a 1,000-page book of maths problems when you’re just steps away from the freedom of the playground.
As much as the show is centered on Eddie, Constance Wu steals scene after scene. Wu’s portrayal of Eddie’s loving and outspoken mother Jessica is simply sublime. The script gives her plenty of room to operate, and she takes full advantage of it by unleashing one-liner after one-liner.
However, Wu’s in-your-face portrayal of Jessica may also be a double edged sword. As funny as her one-liners may be, the show runs the risk of pushing the character past the point of a tough, but loveable parent straight into the realm of the stereotypical tiger mum.
Randall Park, fresh off of his role as Kim Jong Un in “The Interview,” plays Eddie’s father Louis who serves as the perfect foil for Wu’s no-nonsense Jessica.
Ultimately, “Fresh off the Boat” is about the trials and tribulations of fitting in at home and in society.
For Eddie, the struggle is as much about being an Asian kid in American society as it is about being an American kid in a Chinese household. It’s a cultural tug-of-war that’s a hallmark of the immigrant experience in general and not just for Asian Americans.
In fact, the comedy derived from this type of cultural interaction has been the heart of countless tv shows of the years. “Fresh Off the Boat” finally allows viewers to experience this comedy from a new and different perspective — one that 18 million Asian Americans should find refreshingly familiar.
“Fresh off the Boat” airs Tuesdays on ABC at 8:00 p.m.
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