My family doesn’t watch much network TV, but that may soon be changing with the premier of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. I’ve waited 20 years to see a show that even vaguely resembles my own on the screen. And now, the sitcom based on celebrity chef and TV personality Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat features a Taiwanese immigrant family… named the Huangs… in prime time.
Image Credit: ABC
Opening with a riff from Notorious B.I.G.’s Big Poppa — instead of say, chop-schticky chimes — it’s apparent from the get-go that Fresh Off the Boat is going to portray an image of an Asian family that’s going to go against a lot of preconceived notions. The show centers around the experiences of the 11-year-old Eddie in the 1990s. In the pilot episode, which airs Wednesday, February 4 at 8:30 p.m., the Huang family has just moved to Orlando, Florida from Washington D.C. Chinatown. Along with Eddie, the ornery oldest son obsessed with Shaquille O’Neill and rap music, there’s Louis, the entrepreneurial dad who’s just opened a wild west themed steakhouse; Jessica, the skeptical and smart-talking mom; plus Eddie’s two younger brothers and his Chinese grandma.
There’s a lot riding on this season of Fresh Off the Boat, as it’s been fodder for discussion for months on the Asian American Internets. The last time there was a network (or really, ANY) TV show all about an Asian family, Bill Clinton was in his first term and Margaret Cho was starring in the one-season sitcom All-American Girl. And even with many Asian Americans on the team — including producer Melvin Mar and lead writer Nanatchka Khan — Eddie Huang still struggled with the network team to find the sweet spot between his brand of edgy, ethnic voice and the middle American kind of humor popular with network audiences. In case you’re not familiar with Huang, let me fill you in. I’ve been following Eddie Huang since he was a struggling restauranteur/blogger, famous for posting a scathing letter from his mother in reaction to a drubbing of his first restaurant in the New York Times. His blog and his book are brash and borderline sexist, but they show that all Asian Americans don’t fit the model minority stereotype.
As Huang wrote in New York Magazine last month:
“We all know that universal demographic doesn’t exist; even at the level of the person, the network’s ideal viewer doesn’t exist, much less know what it wants. This universal market of Jos. A. Bank customers watches cornstarch television and eats at Panda Express because that’s all they’re being offered. I didn’t need the show to be Baohaus or Din Tai Fung; I would have settled for Chipotle.”
Later in that article, he credits Margaret Cho with coaching him through the process of standing up for his voice and vision. In fact, the cast of “Fresh Off the Boat” is deeply intwined with Asian American pop culture. Young Eddie is played by Hudson Yang, the 11-year-old son of former A Magazine publisher and Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang. Dad Louis Huang is played by Randall Park, most recently famous for his portrayal of Kim Jong-Un in The Interview.
After previewing the first two episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, I have to say they succeeded in finding a really good mix, like The Wonder Years injected with humor from skit night at Taiwanese youth camp. What I love about Fresh Off the Boat is how it portrays the often awkward position of being Asian in the increasingly complicated matrix of race in America. The cultural misunderstandings are not just East meets West, although there’s plenty of that, from the teacher mispronouncing Eddie’s names to Mrs. Huang’s efforts to share authentic—albeit stinky—Taiwanese food with the neighbors. The first episode there’s also the tension as Eddie walks into the school cafeteria for the first time and has to decide whether to sit with the lone black boy, Walter, or with the popular white kids who call him over — then tease him for his “smelly” Chinese lunch. The tension comes to a head in the pilot episode with a showdown between Eddie and Edgar about who’s at the bottom of the middle school pecking order.
To be completely honest, the show is slightly painful to watch, bringing up memories of being the only Asian kid in the black and white world of my Midwestern elementary school. The accents of the older Huangs feel a little forced (I’m told they work their way out as the season progresses). Words such as “chink” and “ding dong” are thrown around in the script, not surprising given the real-life Eddie Huang’s penchant for reclaiming those slurs—he refers to himself as a “Chinkstronaut”. It may also make white viewers squirm in their seats; the Orlando housewives remind me of Miss Hillie’s coffee klatsch, only with spandex and roller blades. I'm hoping that the female characters, especially mom Jessica, continue to be as complex as the males.
Tune in to Fresh Off the Boat when it premiers with a double-header Wednesday, February 4 at 8:30 p.m. and at 9:30 p.m. Watch Fresh Off the Boat in its regular time slot, 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays beginning February 10.
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.
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