Review: ABC's 'Fresh Off The Boat' is fresh off the bat
It's certainly not my story.
I've never been an 11-year-old son of Taiwanese immigrants moving from Chinatown in Washington, DC to the suburbs of Orlando.
"Fresh Off The Boat" can't be my story.
But I hope Eddie Huang would forgive my feeling that, at least to some degree, "Fresh Off The Boat" is absolutely my story.
In the early '90s, I was a 13-year-old son of Canadian immigrants living in Mississippi, going to a middle school in which I was one of a dozen white kids and the only Jewish kid. I didn't have to explain stinky tofu to my colleagues at lunch, but I assure you that my bagels were plenty confusing. I spent a lot of time being called Bud Bundy, because at the time, all of my classmates were watching a lot of FOX and the most prominent representation of young, white masculinity they knew was embodied by David Faustino.
So I hope Eddie Huang would forgive my feeling that "Fresh Off The Boat" is also somewhat my story, but I'd understand if he wouldn't.
"Fresh Off The Boat" is more important as a specific story.
People will talk about "Fresh Off The Boat" as the first Asian-American-centric comedy on TV since "All-American Girl," but that's selling short how unprecedented it is. The coming-of-age story is as foundational a structure as we have, narratively. I don't wanna get all "Bildungsroman" on you, but this is a primal storytelling vehicle and you've never seen it through an Asian-American lens on TV. And I'd be hard-pressed to think of more than a couple examples in American cinema.
It's in specificity that "Fresh Off The Boat" makes its bones and it's in favor of specificity that Eddie Huang railed in his now-famous Vulture column (which is funnier and more sharply written than 95 percent of all network TV pilots to air in the past decade).
But it's in its variable degree of universality that "Fresh Off The Boat" deserves to become another family hit for ABC. His protests aside, Eddie Huang's version of growing up as an outsider is specific and it's at least somewhat what's depicted in "Fresh Off The Boat" and it's an experience that only a very few people can share. And yet in his experience, I see a lot of my own outsider experience, which is pretty unique in its own right. We're all delicate snowflakes and we're never more delicate and afraid of being unique than we are in those formative years around adolescence; and even the pretty and popular people who were, in practical reality, not outsiders at all, still probably feel some connection to the outsider experience. [And screw those people, I say. Go watch your own darned shows about pretty people with perfect skin and good haircuts. And with that, I've "other"-ed the popular people, so they can relate to being outsiders, too.]
"Fresh Off The Boat" is significant for the vacuum it fills in a TV landscape that is belatedly being forced to realize that if you fill a vacuum you can make money.
But maybe you should just watch "Fresh Off The Boat" because it's funny.
Sorry I took so long to get there. Developed for TV by Nahnatchka Khan, "Fresh Off The Boat" is a landmark series and "Fresh Off The Boat" will be relatable to people who weren't Asian-Americans growing up in Orlando in the mid-90s, because in some ways we were all Asian-Americans growing up in Orlando in the mid-90s (except for the myriad ways in which we weren't).
The total number of people whose prerequisite for TV viewership is, "Is it important?" is nil. The total number of people whose prerequisite for TV viewership is, "Is it relatable?" is somewhat higher, so be reassured: Yes.
It happens, fortunately, that "Fresh Off The Boat" is also extremely funny, continuing an ABC family sitcom hot streak that includes the Emmy-winning "Modern Family," the underrated (by me, among other people) "The Middle," the improving "The Goldbergs," the still-working-toward-its-potential "Black-ish" and even things like "Suburgatory," which ABC killed slowly, and "Trophy Wife," which ABC killed aggressively.
Along with FOX's "Last Man On Earth," "Fresh Off The Boat" is one of the best new network comedies of the spring and both are probably better than any network half-hour -- allowing for "Jane the Virgin" genre wiggle-room here -- that debuted last fall.
Returning quickly to the premise: It's 1995 and Eddie Huang's father Louis (Randall Park) is moving his reluctant wife Jessica (Constance Wu) and kids (Hudson Yang as Eddie, Forrest Wheeler as Emery and Ian Chen as Evan) to Orlando. Louis is following his dreams of starting up a quintessentially American restaurant, the gloriously garish Cattleman's Ranch Steakhouse, in Orlando. Jessica wants to hold onto traditions. And Eddie? Well, he just wants to be fresh.
Note that the title of "Fresh Off The Boat" is not, in fact, racist, no matter what silly people in your Twitter feed might be saying. It's traditionally a phrase that has been used within ethnic groups to describe less assimilated members of the same ethnic group. But it's being reappropriated on several levels. The Huangs' transplantation isn't from Taiwan to the United States. It's from Washington to Orlando a journey which, while presumably boatable, is most conveniently taken by land. These characters are NOT fresh off the boat to America, but rather fish out of water being transplanted to a different out of water location, a diaspora within a diaspora.
At the very least, the title is meant to make you examine all cases of cultural transplantation and assimilation. And that's before you get into the '80s and '90s hip-hop usage of fresh, which would seem to validate or celebrate difference. So let's just get this out of the way. The title of "Fresh Off The Boat" isn't racist or xenophobic or literally anything negative. But the fact that we need to have this disclaimer suggests it may not be a great title. As I've been saying since spring: If your title puts up a barrier that dissuades even a single viewer from watching your show, even if that's probably a reflection on that individual persnickety viewer, it's still bad business for a fragile show that isn't going to be able to sell itself on big-name stars or anything.
"Fresh Off The Boat" got a little boost from the tumult around "The Interview," which put Randall Park at the center of promotion/controversy and made it courageous to praise his performance as Kim Jong Un. ABC hasn't really been using "The Interview" as a promotional hook, though, and that's probably OK since after watching three episodes, Park is probably my least favorite part of the "Fresh Off The Boat" ensemble. That's only a minor slight, because Park's Louis is amiably and broadly funny, but he hasn't been given much opportunity for nuance to develop. There are questions about what drives Louis' restaurateur dreams that haven't been explored in the initial episodes, but could be advanced later. For now, the Louis beyond the smile and exaggerated chipper demeanor has yet to be exposed.
In contrast, my initial reading on Constance Wu's performance was that she was maybe reading too broad and verging in the direction of tiger mom stereotypes, relying too heavily on an exaggerated accent to push punchlines. Either that initial read was wrong or I was able to see new shadings in subsequent episodes or else the writers just got a gander at Wu and began to realize how good she is, but in the two additional episodes I've seen, she just gets better and better. In some cases it's as simple as the writers realizing how great Wu's voice is and giving her reasons to sing comedically, but looking back on the episodes I've seen, I'm just remembering one great Wu moment after another, whether in her first experience of a Western super grocery store or her attempts to manage the steakhouse or her more sympathetic buddings of friendship with an outcast neighbor. It's interesting how frequently ABC has gotten breakout performances from the actresses in these easy-to-compartmentalize "mother" roles and I'd say that Wu is in the same class as Wendi McLendon-Covey on "Goldbergs" or Toks Olagundoye on "The Neighbors."
Another thing ABC has done very well is casting kids. "Modern Family" has sometimes fatigued with its adult performers, but the writers are constantly finding things to do with Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez, not-a-kid-anymore Sarah Hyland and the initially iffy but surprisingly useful Aubrey Anderson-Emmons. "Trophy Wife" should have made stars out of Albert Tsai and Ryan Lee. Fans of "The Middle" can't say enough about Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer. And "Black-ish" has worked in large part due to the juvenile cast.
So too, "Fresh Off The Boat" has done well by its younger ensemble. If you've seen Eddie Huang in real life, you'll appreciate how well Hudson Yang conveys his swagger, while still situating it at a time of youthful insecurity. The character says and does some wacky things in support of his shifting and developing identity, but Yang makes it play as likable pint-sized posturing. I also liked the unforced moments from Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler, but I have an awkward confession: While I can tell Chen and Wheeler apart as actors, I can't distinguish yet between Evan and Emery as characters. For now, I'm going to attribute this to slowly unfolding writing, rather than racism on my part. They're both funny, just maybe I'll be able to tell you distinctive things about Evan and Emery by the end of the season.
Huang has implied (or, rather, "pronounced") that "Fresh Off The Boat" has watered his story down a little and I don't wholly disagree. When it comes to Eddie's hip-hop experience, decisions may have been made based on laughs or generating a phenomenal soundtrack -- that part works -- rather than historical accuracy or any meaningful gangsta credibility. [Huang may want to look to ABC’s “The Goldbergs” for an example of how fungible historical authenticity can be and revel in the fact that at least his show is still set in a single, clearly defined year.] There's also a sense that in other-izing suburbia rather than generating organic laughs from its main family, "Fresh Off The Boat" is trying to be relatable, but occasionally just mimicking "The Neighbors" or "Suburgatory," which made a lot of the same jokes.
There are ways that you can feel ABC's comedy team trying to fit "Fresh Off The Boat" into its brand, but as I've already said: This isn't a bad brand to be part of at the moment. As it stands, after three episodes, "Fresh Off The Boat" has a winning cast and a fair amount of heart and most of the laughs the initial episodes generate -- and it does generate a handful of real laughs, which isn't always the case with new comedies -- are laughs that only could have come from this family, from this cultural makeup and from this group of stars and characters.
That's a heck of a start.
"Fresh Off The Boat" premieres on Wednesday, February 4 with episodes at 8:30 and 9:30. It moves to its Tuesday 8 p.m. home the following week.