ABC’s newest sitcom Fresh Off The Boat kicked off yesterday with a double header. The show is based on the memoir of the real-life Eddie Huang, who growing up in the 1990s was obsessed with hip hop and struggling to fit in. The pilot follows Eddie’s Taiwanese American family as they move from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area to the (far less diverse) city of Orlando, Florida.
If you’ve read any of my blog, you’re aware I think it sucks that minorities (and women, and LGBT people, and….) are underrepresented in fiction (I guess you really could’ve gotten that just from the blog title). And if you happened to read my article on the sitcom genre, you’re also aware I think the sitcom can be a gateway genre for more diversity in American consumer fiction.
You probably also really don’t need another lecture on Asian Americans onscreen. But hear me out:
It’s been more than 20 years since the last sitcom featuring an Asian American family. In 1994, ABC debuted Margaret Cho‘s sitcom All-American Girl. It was the first. And it was cancelled after just one season. Context: 1994 was the year Friends premiered, the year Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, the year The Lion King was released, and the year I graduated from kindergarten. Eddie Huang was actually still a child living in Orlando.
Progress for Asian Americans on television has been at a standstill for the majority of a generation.
Some controversy surrounded the show in the weeks before the premiere, between the name (a reclamation of a racial slur) and the highly-vocal real Eddie Huang, who wrote a viral piece harshly critical (albeit optimistic) of his own show. I highly recommend reading Huang’s full article. While I obviously don’t have the experiences necessary to fully emphasize with Huang, his raw voice and emotions (as well his skills as a writer) are refreshing – there’s no one else this honest in media.
The way race is actually treated in the show is complicated by the fact that it can be extraordinarily difficult explore this theme in a comedic setting. The adage “it’s funny because it’s true” breaks down really fast when stereotypes get thrown into the mix. (Is it actually true? Or do just racist people think it’s true? And if it is true, will everyone get it? And even if they do, is it crossing some line?) Black-ish is an example that generally walks that line excellently. Fresh Off The Boat, as Huang’s article vividly illustrates, leaves some room for improvement. However, when the show does rely on stereotypes for humor, it generally does so from the “inside” perspective of the Huang family rather than as outsiders looking in. The weird realities of white culture (read: Lunchables), not Asian stereotypes, are the butt of the joke. There’s also enough spandex-clad roller-skating neighborhood moms to make the show funny enough to have mass appeal (which is, after all, the goal of a sitcom) without relying on stereotypes.
The real potential for the show lies in the cast talent. The comedic chemistry between Randall Park (Louis Huang) and Constance Wu (Jessica Huang) is fantastic. You may remember Park from The Interview, while Wu is one of the funniest newcomers on television in a long time. Hudson Yang is adorable and impressively nuanced for his age as Eddie Huang, but it is the real Huang’s narration that truly sold me.
Did anyone watch? What were your thoughts on the way cultural stereotypes (or realities) were addressed?
Fresh Off The Boat airs on ABC Tuesdays at 8/7c.