Fresh Off the Boat: Capturing the Asian-American Experience At Last?
Fresh Off the Boat is a new TV series recently released by ABC. It is based off the memoirs of celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Any review about Fresh Off the Boat would be remiss without mentioning its significance: it's the first family sitcom to star an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s ill-fated All-American Girl . Within the media, Asian-Americans are usually reduced to being sidekicks and ethnic stereotypes. Often times, their accents are used as sources of humor. Fresh Off the Boat is the first step in trying to change that.
The show is fresh. The jokes are strong. It contains elements that are reminiscent of other shows and sitcoms. The bumbling dad and controlling mother tropes have been done before in many shows. Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t tread new ground here.
Eddie Huang, played by Hudson Yang, is the main character of the show. He’s a hip-hop loving Asian who has trouble fitting in both at school and at home. His troubles make up a good portion of the episodes. The real life Eddie Huang narrates each episode, in a style reminiscent of Everybody Hates Chris.
Randall Park, an experienced comedian and actor, takes on the role of Louis Huang, the patriarch of the Huang family. He plays the blundering dad, but underneath this, flashes of wisdom come through. Many episodes revolve around his love and admiration of the American Dream and his attempts to make his cowboy steakhouse successful. This is in direct contrast to the stereotype of owning a Chinese restaurant.
Constance Wu, who portrays the mother Jessica Huang, has become the show's breakout star. Jessica plays into some tropes of the strict mom, but has other characteristics that shine through. These characteristics include her love for Stephen King movies and her difficulty fitting in. She serves as a great foil for her husband. Where Louis believes people are fundamentally good, Jessica is always suspicious.
Eddie’s two young brothers, Emery and Evan Huang, are almost the same character. But, they still have more than enough time to establish themselves as the series continues.
It still feels like the show is trying to find itself within the first few episodes, which is far from unusual. Many shows end up stumbling along the way for their first few episodes before finding the show that they need to become. Of course, when it comes to Fresh Off the Boat, there is a more pertinent question at play here.
For years, Asian-Americans haven’t had any popular media where their stories could be told. Sure, they could play sidekicks or the ethnic comic relief. Such as Kato in The Green Hornet, despite being far more interesting than the Green Hornet. In the rare occasion that Asian-Americans were the main character, you can bet most people expected there to be some martial arts in the movie. Often times, such as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Asian characters aren’t even played by Asian-American actors. Yet, they are still used as a source of ethnic humor.
Fresh Off the Boat can be a game changer for a lot of Asian-Americans. Eddie Huang was initially angry about the portrayal of his family on the show. Since, he has jumped back on board, understanding that the show is now much bigger than just him. I was informed by many friends that they had made plans for viewing parties, and that they broke down crying when they watched the premiere. Finally their story was being told. Yet, not everybody had that same reaction.
This makes perfect sense. Asian-Americans do not come from one single origin. Some are first or second generation immigrants, coming from a multitude of different countries. Many others have had family here for over a century. Some grew up with Chinese packed lunches, and others ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Fresh Off the Boat simply cannot represent the struggles of the entire Asian-American experience. If they tried to make the show as generic and widespread as possible it wouldn’t be able to capture even a small part of the Asian-American experience. The show runners have decided to focus on one family, who happen to be Taiwanese-American. Through this, they are able to show parts of what it means to be Asian-American.
Expecting Fresh Off the Boat to deliver the entire Asian-American experience is like expecting a single show to deliver upon the entire African-American experience or the entire Caucasian-American experience. It is impossible.
The ultimate question for the show’s survival is if it can find its stride and can it keep it going?
Twenty years ago, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl got cancelled. There hasn’t been an Asian-American centered show until now as a result. Why did All-American Girl get cancelled? From the sounds of it, it wasn’t good. This happens all the time. Yet, unfortunately all Asian-American sitcoms have paid the price of Margaret Cho’s failure. If Fresh Off the Boat gets cancelled or is unable to find where it fits, it could very well spin the doom of future shows involving the Asian-American experience.
This is an unfair pressure to place upon Fresh Off the Boat, but it is a burden that the show has accepted by virtue of its existence.
All in all, Fresh Off the Boat isn’t perfect, but it seems like it is on its way to something great. I highly recommend sticking around for the ride. And with the way ratings are going, it seems increasingly likely that it will get a second season.
Fresh Off the Boat is on ABC Tuesdays at 8 PM/ 7 PM central.