ABC comedy ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ portrays Asian American life with complexity, warmth

Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Randall Park, Hudson Yang and Constance Wu star as an Asian American family seeking the American Dream in ABC's new comedy "Fresh Off the Boat." ABC/Kevin Foley via Flickr Creative Commons

In the months leading up to its premiere, “Fresh Off the Boat” (2015 – present) was met with ambivalence. The trailer had a lot of elements to absorb: the neon, Candy Land-esque hues of the ’90s, the decade’s radio music and the fact that the show was the first Asian American family sitcom on primetime television in twenty years.

There were also multiple chances for the series to go awry. In the wrong hands, the portrayal of an Asian American mother might fall into the Tiger Mom trope, the father could be subject to an effeminate portrayal, and, in his obsession with hip-hop culture, the young main character could potentially be read as making a mockery of black culture, taking racial representations leagues backward.

Yet, thankfully, despite immense pressure to both represent and nuance the narrative of Asian American experience, “Fresh Off the Boat” manages to be rather self-aware of its responsibilities and, gradually, it finds its personality. Based on a memoir of the same name by chef Eddie Huang, portrayed in the show by Hudson Yang, the show chronicles Huang’s childhood move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando with his Taiwanese-American family seeking the elusive American Dream. Spearheading this journey are the idealistic Louis Huang (Randall Park), who wants to make it big with his cowboy-themed restaurant, and his wife, the ebullient Jessica (Constance Wu). Jessica is less than happy to leave D.C.’s Chinatown, where she would casually haggle for food in outdoor markets and flaunt her gorgeous raven locks, then untouched by Florida humidity. In tow are Eddie’s grandmother (Lucille Soong) and his two younger — and more socially accepted — brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen).

Indeed, the first few episodes of the series are clunky. Most of the jokes center on, well, making fun of white people. At school, Eddie’s peers drink Capri Sun, eat Lunchables and mistake noodles for worms. Back at home, Jessica encounters a legion of clone-like white moms who want her to join their ranks, but not before saying they’re surprised her name isn’t “more exotic.”

These jokes about ignorance can become tired and gimmicky, but here, they are well-placed. To open up with straightforward, if not overt, commentary on how people of color were spoken to in the ’90s — and, sadly, how they are still spoken to — is bold. This is, at first, spoon-fed comedy: Haha! the white people are going to ask where Eddie is really from. But when repeatedly packed into the space of twenty minutes, it becomes hard to digest. These jokes demand attention. They demand further contemplation. They call for action.

In one especially poignant scene, Eddie is deemed momentarily “cool” by his white peers because of his Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt. His black classmate remarks how strange it is that he sits alone while the other children, none of whom are black, form camaraderie over a black artist. And, in the end, he and Eddie — the only children of color — are turned against each other. The system is flawed, a Catch-22 for those who are in the wrong place, of the wrong race. “Fresh Off the Boat” is audacious enough to start this discourse right off the bat.

By last week’s sixth episode, the writing had become more self-assured. The show dialed back the jabs at whites and shifted its focus to discussing and complicating the Tiger Mom trope. This discussion progressed into an examination of the Huangs’ specific family dynamics both in tandem with and separated from their Asian American identity, including a scene with a new-and-improved “the talk” about how sex works and how it must be consensual.

The open communication that Jessica and Louis have with their children is something that has been a long time coming in depictions of Asian American families. There is no doubt that there is genuine love between Mr. and Mrs. Huang. The tough love Jessica gives her kids is only a manifestation of just that: love. Louis’ love is expressed by his continued work despite his repeated business failings; Louis continues working because he truly does want a better life for his family.

Many, including the real-life Eddie Huang, have expressed concern about hip-hop’s place in TV Eddie’s life. But as the show has aired more episodes, critics have written that the relationship between Eddie and hip-hop is one of solace; he turns to it when he feels like an outcast either at school among his peers, or at home, between his more academically and socially successful brothers. Thus, the show is not just about Eddie being Asian American; it’s about who he is in many contexts, in his multi-layered identities.

“Fresh Off the Boat” is still fresh, undergoing growing pains. It is awkward at times; some of the jokes fall short, and the audience still has not seen any development in the character of Eddie’s grandma, yet she is an adorable addition to the family dynamic. But this show is doing something important, and — dare I say? — something right.

“Fresh Off the Boat” airs Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.