Apr 22, 2015

TV Retrospective: "Fresh Off the Boat" - Season 1

It shouldn't seem so much like a gimmick to have a show like Fresh Off the Boat on a major network. However, that is what immediately happened in the wake of the first Asian sitcom when it premiered on ABC earlier this year. It also didn't help that creator Eddie Huang, whose life the series is inspired by, was occasionally coming public with complaints about its authenticity to his life. He has flipped his position on the show numerous times and eventually has settled on the reason that the show is inevitably significant, even if it just feels like another family sitcom. It is that moment when Asian culture was represented to a larger demographic not as a sidekick or a dangerous stereotype, but as a protagonist with issues that we all face... sort of (it does take place in the 90's). However, what makes it particularly noteworthy more than its depiction is its understanding of the immigration experience in America in ways that don't sacrifice jokes, which it should be more applauded for.
From writer Nahnatchka Khan (Don't Trust the B in Apt. 23), the story follows the life of Huang (Hudson Yang) as a child in the 90's whose only way of identification was to listen to rap music. As the series opens with him and his family moving to Florida, it doesn't skimp on getting to the core of the problems. Some of them were as simple as adjusting to new neighbors. Others involved being the token minority at school and overcoming discrimination. For a show with such heavy themes, it's impressive that this feels just as lighthearted as ABC's other jabs at diversity sitcoms such as Black-ish and Modern Family. Of course, the show never sacrifices heart.
Over the course of its 13 episodes, it was a show that wasn't explicitly about Asian culture being different from the white suburbs that surrounded them. It took moments to allow Huang to make actual friends, go to a Beastie Boys concert, have a girlfriend, and deal with his strict mother (Constance Wu). Yes, there is a specificity to their culture constantly present, but it doesn't serve as the specific conflict of its characters. Much like the show itself, it is about the people around them competing for business and trying to understand a really odd school system that doesn't mistreat them because they're Asian, but because rules are different from what they want. In one episode, the Huang family participates in a racial diversity play that is so free of offensive behavior that it has almost no substance. It is both about the sensitization of race and the identification that one must come to terms with.
Overall, the show does fall into the familiar and conventional nature of a sitcom with the stylized music choices, voice over, and a large sense of ending act breaks on a joke. It doesn't become too much of a problem, considering that Khan and her staff of writers know how to make well rounded characters. However, it doesn't elevate the material to something more authentic than an Asian family sitcom where they hit all of the same familiar beats. This may be the point of the show, but if one wants to judge quality by authenticity, this one is kind of lacking. It has the silly kids doing silly things and the overprotective parents that most shows have. The only catch is that they're exploring it from an immigrant perspective.
This isn't to say that anything is bad with it. The central cast does a stellar job and each have definitive personalities. Randall Park is especially a delight as a restaurant owner who constantly faces criticism from his wife (Wu). The dynamics are strong and the jokes benefit the often thin premises. Even Yang has a charisma that makes his reliance on 90's rap references seem less of a forced gimmick than a character trait. He is a character that feels lived in and despite being one of the few kids on ABC to openly listen to Ol Dirty Bastard and Ice Cube, he feels the most realistic. There isn't a forced cool kid vibe associated with the rap music. He simply has that rebellious spirit that kids should have, but without being overbearing. Yang finds a nice middle ground.
It is hard to say what this will do long term for Asian culture on TV. Even if the sitcom addresses the conflicting past of this trend, it isn't entirely sure if it will open a flood gate of new content. Even if the show loses its charm, it remains one that forces itself to feel important because of its singularity. The premise of the show is much like the results of TV networks. There has to be an acceptance at some point. Sure, the real life Huang may continue to denounce the show for as long as it survives, but for now, it is a rallying cry to show that yes, Asian culture can be represented on TV. It takes slow integration and soon it will be easier to distinguish varying races. The show has done a solid job of discussing the experience without becoming a laborious lecture. As a white male, I am unable to understand how authentic the show is, but it does make me more appreciative and understanding of a culture that I wasn't entirely familiar with.
Fresh Off the Boat is a show that may not seem special because it is surrounded by novelty family shows. However, it is one of those that will likely be in the history books regardless of its quality. It is one that will argue for the progressive opinions of Asian American culture and hopefully will have a silver lining as opposed to being a one off that didn't lead to bigger and better things. For the time that we have it, it remains a funny and unique show in that it explores immigration themes through the guise of a family sitcom, which isn't easy to pull off. It may not be as authentic as Huang wants it to be, but it at least isn't an embarrassing mess. It is a look for identity in between the laughter and solid performances, which is likely going to be the best approach long term.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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