Fresh Off the Boat, the new sitcom from ABC — and the first in 20 years about an Asian-American Family — is a sweet, amusing, and occasionally funny fish-out-of-water show set in the 1990s about a family of outsiders assimilating into a new culture in Orlando, Florida. The good-natured father, Louis (Randall Park) has opened up a country-themed steak restaurant (Paul Scheer is the host), the defanged Tiger Mother is a hard ass that has everyone’s back, and the nerdy younger sons have transitioned incredibly well.
The focus of the show, ostensibly, is on Eddie, a somewhat recalcitrant kid in junior high who is having difficulties fitting into his new, all-white environment. He uses his love of 90’s hip-hop music as a way to bridge the gap between his culture and America’s culture. He gets in trouble. His family comes to his defense. At the end of every episode, the family learns a lesson about blending in while maintaining their own identities.
I like it. It’s an inoffensive, harmless, and amiable family sitcom, not that unlike The Middle or The Goldbergs (and it’s far less about being Asian than Black-ish is about being black). I could see myself sticking with it and watching it for the three or four seasons it probably remains on the air (ratings for the debut were solid, and I suspect it will have a nice run on ABC).
But it’s also a really dishonest sitcom that does a disservice to its source material. It’s based on the memoir of Eddie Huang about his experiences growing up in Orlando as an Asian-American kid in the 1990s. His experiences, however, are reflected in the sitcom in only the most general, sanitized way.
In reality, Eddie Huang was viciously bullied by white kids growing up. He was an angry adolescent who would eventually grow up and deal drugs, steal from neighbors, and at one point, face down cops pointing guns at him (this, after he drove his car through a crowd of frat boys who were bullying him). His love of hip-hop was real, but it wasn’t cute. It helped him to cope with the alienation he felt in Orlando. His Dad was also a hard-ass who owned an AK-47 and once made Eddie kneel and bow to police officers after he was caught stealing. His Mom, meanwhile, was a real Tiger Mother so extreme that to depict her accurately would probably elicit accusations of racism on the show.
In fact, though Eddie Huang is heavily involved in the show (he does the voice-over narration), he has had some major problems with it, problems that Randall Park has had to help smooth over between Huang and the network. It hasn’t stopped Huang from being outspoken, however, and I suspect that — if the ratings continue to improve and the show continues to reflect an idealized sitcom version of the Huang family — that Eddie will continue to butt heads with the network.
But, as even Eddie Huang has conceded, you have to start somewhere, and maybe the success of Fresh Off the Boat is the first step toward a more realistic and honest depiction of Asian-American culture. After all, Tom Hanks never made out with anyone in the first major American film to deal with a leading gay character and HIV, and we have come so far now with shows about gay people that there’s even an unwatchable boring one about the mundane, day-to-day lives of gay men in relationships (it’s called Looking, and it will put you to sleep).
What I don’t understand, however, is why there needs to be a “stepping-stone” for a show about an Asian-American family? What is so daunting or challenging about Asian culture? There’s no religious fundamentalist objection. What are we trying to overcome culturally here? What the hell are we afraid of? I mean, Transparent won a Golden Globe this year; Laverne Cox was nominated for an Emmy and was on the cover of Time magazine last year. And we’re just now getting around to accepting a sitcom with an Asian-American cast, and we still have to sugar coat it?
It doesn’t make a damn lick of sense to me, but I will nevertheless concede that Fresh Off the Boat is a good “Randall Park” sitcom (and he and Constance Wu are magnificent), but it’s a terrible Eddie Huang show. It’s not an offensive show, but it’s not a challenging one, either, and while I will continue to watch it, it will probably never be a show truly worth talking about.