At the young age of 32, food personality and chef Eddie Huang has already been saddled with a myriad of labels. He’s been known as a risk-taking entrepreneur, a brash businessman, and a foodie with his hand on the pulse of cuisine’s cutting edge. But one thing he’s never been called is “safe,” which is why it might be surprising to think a TV show based on his upbringing as an Asian-American who moves to a predominately white neighborhood would be exactly that. However, what’s even more unexpected about ABC’s new comedy Fresh Off the Boat is that it also could be on its way to becoming one of the most honest and important television sitcoms in years.
By merely existing, the series gets a few points. Not since Margaret Cho’s ABC series All American Girl (1994) has network television provided a platform for the Asian-American experience. Now, all Fresh Off the Boat has to do is take advantage of the opportunity by telling its story honestly and by generating laughs without leaning on cheap, culturally damaging stereotypes. Huang tells The Hollywood Reporter that he gives it a “B” overall.
After just four episodes, it seems Fresh Off the Boat – created by Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23) and based on Huang’s memoir of the same name – is staying on the right side of that fine line – most of the time. While its premise begs for stereotype-based humor, Fresh often avoids it in favor of laughs earned from authenticity and likable characters. Charming performances from Randall Park (The Interview) and Constance Wu (Sound of My Voice) as Louis and Jessica Huang, in particular, give the material a noticeable lift when the jokes on the page are lacking.
Of course, the series does boast its fair share of fish-out-of-water jokes revolving around culture shock – especially in the first couple of episodes as the Huang family attempts to assimilate into a virtually all-white section of Orlando, Florida. However, where other series would be playing off generic ethnic stereotypes alone, the humor of Fresh Off the Boat – even in its laziest moments – is at least buoyed by the honesty of the source material and real-life experience.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the comedy to begin trading in clichéd and rather obvious observations of ethnic differences for grounded and universally relatable humor about family, parenting, school bullies and the youthful pursuit of fitting in with the crowd. It also doesn’t take long for Eddie (played by newcomer Hudson Yang) to shine through as a true individual. As a kid with hip-hop swagger and unyielding confidence, Eddie defies the stereotypical Asian-American caricature Hollywood has fed audiences before; yet his need for acceptance and battles with his uncool parents still remind those audiences of what the American journey through adolescence was like. Here, we get a portrait of a real character based on a real person.
Yet for all the positive strides the show seems to be making, and with how open and transparent it seems to be with its audience, Huang himself has criticized the adaptation of his memoir for watering the story down to appeal to a broader audience. As the creator of the material, he certainly has a right to be protective of it, but as we know, the development process can require sacrifices in order to appeal to a wide audience and survive (especially midseason). When the network comes in, potentially polarizing jokes are often softened, some story details are simplified, and some trendy and timely references are synergistically incorporated. No adaptation ends up 100 percent faithful to its source and compromises are always made, but this can be a good thing too. By aiming down the comedic middle and playing it safe – like some of its ABC counterparts – Fresh Off the Boat can actually become more accessible, more approachable, and thus more relevant in the vast television landscape. And in doing so, it shouldn’t have to sacrifice much of the original story’s authenticity or be dishonest in its approach.
That said, there are some aspects of Huang’s book that a new network comedy like Fresh is just not ready to handle. If Huang had his way, we’d be seeing an episode about domestic violence this season. While that storyline would certainly be true to his own experience and to the source material, it would also be a pretty heavy subject for a rookie show that is still finding its footing. There is certainly an important discussion to be had on the topic, and it should by no means be swept under the rug, but keeping it real doesn’t mean rushing haphazardly into a subject that demands to be handled by a delicate hand and a measured approach. Fresh can still be important and still resonate; it just needs to take the necessary steps to get there and earn the audience’s trust along the way.
In fact, for a relatively safe comedy, it has already taken one brave step to cultural and social significance. In the pilot, Eddie physically defends himself after being verbally attacked with a racial slur from a classmate. Instead of reprimanding him, his parents stand up for him and question the school principal’s decision to punish Eddie for fighting and not the other boy for hate speech. To tackle the issue of racial discrimination in such an honest way in its first episode shows that the comedy has some guts, along with good intentions.
If Fresh Off the Boat continues to stay true to itself by portraying its characters in an honest and real way – while providing a glimpse into the Asian-American experience that hasn’t been seen on TV before – it could become groundbreaking. However, for the time being, we can only appreciate it for what it is – a refreshingly honest and often charming family-friendly comedy. And as the series continues, we can only hope that it refrains from taking the lazy stereotype-laden route to mediocrity and cultural irrelevance. That would certainly be a shame, considering Fresh Off the Boat has a rare opportunity to actually offer something fresh.
Fresh Off the Boat continues next Tuesday with “Persistent Romeo” @8pm on ABC.