The last time Asian-Americans were the focus of a sitcom, Nelson Mandela’s election ended the South African apartheid and “Pulp Fiction” had just been released. While ABC’s new sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” will technically be the second show to cross this barrier, Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” was barely a bump in the road of television, only lasting one season while giving millennials and those older their first real, but fleeting, taste of a show about Asian-Americans. As a result, “Fresh off the Boat” will be scrutinized for its handling of race issues and not for its technical quality as a show. While it’s not totally unfair to hone in on immigration and race, given that these are two of the show’s primary themes, the show should not just be examined for being a pioneer in these themes.
The show follows a format similar to that of “Everybody Hates Chris,” with some narration from the older brother Eddie Huang in explaining his family situation, while juxtaposing fun clips from the past into the story. Meanwhile, the premise is almost as basic, with the show being an account of Eddie Huang’s family based upon his memoir of the same name.
While the show seems to display some glimpses of potential, especially with its fun flashbacks and Constance Wu’s portrayal of Eddie’s mom, Jessica, its writing is not consistently good enough to make this a great show.
From a thematic perspective, the show broadly focuses on issues of growing up, racism and immigration. Sometimes the show is successful in being humorous while highlighting certain tropes of micro-aggressions and adjustments to a foreign culture. For instance, the inability to pronounce Eddie’s Chinese name makes for a funny scene, as does his mother’s inability to understand hip-hop. However, the writers also, unfortunately, make contrived attempts to integrate the themes that result in some cringe-worthy, cliche scenes. Two glaring examples of this occur in the end of the pilot. One is when Eddie’s father Louis Huang (Randall Park) gives a speech in the schoolyard about coming to Florida to work hard and reach their ‘American Dream’ in spite of being treated differently as foreigners. While this speech is appropriate to the theme of the show, it is out of character and problematically forced. Another cringe-worthy point in which the writers try to force the issue is when the African-American boy in the cafeteria calls Eddie a “Chink” and “even lower than” him. The comment is not a natural one because it was unprovoked and out of character. Pushing the issue did not have a positive comedic effect, but it put a burden on the actors who had to create an honest portrayal of the unnatural scene.
The show demonstrated that it does have the ability to emphasize issues of race in the Asian-American community while maintaining its identity as a comedy show, but the product as a whole was mixed. If the show is to be successful in the future, they should take a lesson from Cam and Mitch of “Modern Family.” When interviewed about the possibility of controversy and activism arising from portraying a gay couple in mainstream television, Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family” stated that his priority was “to make people laugh,” and hopefully through laughter they could help to break down stereotypes. There is absolutely no problem with tackling race issues in “Fresh Off the Boat,” and by all means they should, but to take a contrived approach would be a waste of Eddie Huang’s material. Hopefully, the writers create more of what they started with, which were honest moments of race issues that are first and foremost entertaining. The show’s main goal should be to entertain, and potentially derive further didactic value out of this entertainment.
The script-writing of honest moments rather than contrived moments actually leads to another issue that will be central to the show’s success: the acting, especially acting performed by child stars. While child actors are generally tricky to cast, Hudson Yang does do a good job as Eddie, and in general, the children are able to handle their lines well. As long as the writers are able to keep lines genuine without forcing big picture race issues into their dialogues, the quality of the acting should continue.
Additionally, Wu nails her role as Jessica Huang. This is not to say that Park does a poor job, but Constance is the more over the top source of comedy that is sure to drive the show through the first season as the show solidifies its identity. Wu hilariously captures some of the outrageousness that is a Chinese mother, from awkward misunderstandings of language to the motherly aggressiveness; thus far, she is the absolute best part of the show.
While at first glance, “Fresh Off the Boat” does not appear to be poised to be an overnight sensation, the show did demonstrate some serious potential to have some hilarious moments. So long as “Fresh Off the Boat” maintains consistently thoughtful writing that is not contrived, it has the potential to be a hilarious show that becomes the first to delve deeply into Asian-American issues.