Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Time is Right For "Fresh Off the Boat"

I finally found the time to watch the first couple of episodes of "Fresh off the Boat," the new ABC sitcom that has been trumpeted as the first Asian-American family sitcom in two decades.  This has been a banner year for minorities on television, and Asian-Americans are getting a second shot at the spotlight after the sad demise of "Selfie" a few months ago.  Based off the memoirs of Eddie Huang, we follow eleven year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), his parents Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu), two younger brothers (Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen), and their Grandma (Lucille Soong) after the family's big move from Washington D.C. Chinatown to Orlando, to run a cowboy-themed steakhouse.
Eddie's background matches mine pretty closely.  We both had families with Chinese immigrant parents originally from Taiwan, American-born kids, and a family business to keep afloat.  While I wasn't a fan of rap or hip-hop music, I sat next to boys who wore Wu-Tang Clan gear at school, and while I didn't have a Tiger Mother, several of my friends did.  Stories were often swapped about the various tirades they subjected our school principals to.  I can vouch for the fact that all the Chinese spoken in "Fresh Off the Boat" actually is perfectly comprehensible Mandarin Chinese, though the accents vary.  And despite various exaggerations and simplifications, I think the show essentially got all the important stuff about growing up Asian-American in the '90s right. 
I should point out that I haven't watched any family-themed sitcom regularly in a long while, so it's difficult to make comparisons to other current shows.  The dynamic of the Huang family is similar to "Malcolm in the Middle" - outsider main character trying to fit in, multiple brothers, and an overbearing but ultimately loving mother.  A lot is made of being Chinese-American in an overwhelmingly white Orlando neighborhood, but the characters' basic archetypes are very familiar ones, and the Huang family is easy to sympathize with.  They aren't exoticized much - Jessica is the only one who speaks with a noticeable accent - and the show pokes fun at a few of the Caucasians neighbors and stereotypical American culture too.  You can tell that the real Eddie Huang had a big hand in keeping the show as grounded in reality as it is.  I think it helps that more TV is high-concept these days and a certain style of rapid-fire dialogue has come into vogue, making it easier to add the necessary qualifiers and disclaimers when the show tackles potentially touchy subject matter.
I'm very heartened at how accessible the "Fresh Off the Boat" is.  I understand that Eddie Huang had some major concerns over how his family was depicted - father too milquetoast, mother too acerbic - but I like that the creators have figured out how to make the Huangs fit into the template of the usual sitcom family while still remaining recognizably Asian enough that they could have been people who I knew growing up.  Twenty years ago, Margaret Cho's "All American Girl" placed her as the normal, American-born girl trying to deal with all the wackiness caused by her Korean family.  This time all the Huangs are treated as the normal ones.  They're just a different kind of normal than what's usually found in Orlando.  Is it the American viewing audience that has grown used to Asian-Americans in the media enough for this to happen, or is it Hollywood that has finally realized that creating more realistic portrayals of Asian-Americans can attract an audience?  Probably a little of both. 
"Fresh Off the Boat" isn't perfect, but it's a major achievement already.  I especially like Constance Wu as Jessica, who humanizes the Asian mother with impossible standards and makes her funny too.  Randall Park hasn't had as much of a chance to show off his comedic skills, but there's a lot of potential there.  I really, really want to see what this show will look like in a couple of years with multiple seasons under its belt and the initial jitters behind it.  And a little part of me wishes I could have grown up with Eddie Huang on television to commiserate with.

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