Thursday, February 5, 2015

Pilot Review: Fresh Off the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat (Tuesdays at 8:00 on ABC)

A show like Fresh Off the Boat should be heralded simply for existing. Believe it or not, the last time a series aired on broadcast television with an entirely Asian American cast was over twenty years ago; Margaret Cho's All American Girl aired for nineteen episodes on ABC in 1994 and 1995, and it resulted in a strained attempt at integrating the Korean Kim family into an almost entirely white landscape. The problems that arose from that series (a lack of original plotlines, relying on stereotypes for laughs, and objectification of the leading characters) are strangely still mostly present in the pilot of Fresh Off the Boat, resulting in a strange, uneven, uncomfortably old-fashioned kind of show.

Based on a memoir by chef Eddie Huang (who also provides voiceover narration), Fresh Off the Boat follows a Taiwanese family as they move from Washington, D.C. to suburban Orlando, Florida in 1995. Patriarch Louis (Randall Park, The Mindy Project) is finally realizing his dream of opening a Western-themed, all-American restaurant called the Cattleman's Ranch Steakhouse. His ball-busting wife Jessica (Constance Wu, in a glorious turn) and three children follow, all adapting at varying degrees of success to life outside of their ethnic comfort zone. Eleven year old Eddie (Hudson Yang) is the black sheep of the family because he doesn't behave himself at school and loves hip hop; younger brothers Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) fare better at assimilating.

For all intents and purposes, Fresh Off the Boat is a fairly standard fish-out-of-water story. The pilot focuses almost exclusively on finding laughs in stereotypes, like how all Asian people have long, unpronounceable names and all white women are catty gossips. And when writer Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad!, Don't Trust the B...) isn't beating that dead horse, the rest of the jokes are based on white vs. Asian dichotomies. "White people" like this, "Asian people" like that. "White people" eat this, "Asian people" eat that. It's very much an us/them feeling, and how quickly Eddie wants to be just like his white friends is disconcerting. It reminds me of Amy Tan's short essay "Fish Cheeks," when her mother says, "You want to be the same as American girls on the outside... But inside you must always be Chinese. You must be proud to be different. Your only shame is to have shame." Jessica gives Eddie a similar speech while they're shopping for Lunchables, but Eddie seemingly doesn't take it to heart. He wants to dress like an American, eat like an American, and listen to American music. He doesn't have much interest in his own culture, and neither really does Fresh Off the Boat. Rather than acting as a lens into the Asian American point of view of the culture clash of the mid-to-late 90s, it's just another family sitcom that gets its laughs from drawing racial lines. There are smarter moments, like Jessica and Louis backing up their son when he's threatened with suspension for fighting, since he was merely defending himself against being called a "Chink," that hint at the show having a heart, but they are few and far between in the pilot. Things improve noticeably, with a good deal of the racial humor gone, by episode two. The characters become more than just the stereotypes they espouse (Jessica, for example, becomes more than the overbearing mother obsessed with academics and actually shows some humanity), but it's still not really laugh-out-loud funny writing.

The acting, on the other hand, is top notch. Constance Wu is delightful; Hudson Yang is charming and never smarmy or winky like many child actors can get; and Randall Park is totally sincere. He and Wu play opposites: Louis wants to assimilate completely into white culture and completely embraces the family's new home, while Jessica can barely be bothered to try. She's proud of her cultural heritage and doesn't know how to balance it with the very "white" life she is now expected to lead in the suburbs of Florida. All of that (as well as a razor-sharp tongue) come through in Wu's performance, which is easily the show's highlight. The 90s setting is also used to great effect. It's always obvious that we're in 1995, from the music and food references (I mean, seriously, Lunchables... I had delicious flashbacks) to the moms in the neighborhood getting together to rollerblade, but the creators never smack you in the face with it. It's a stark contrast to The Goldbergs, which is pretty much just one long joke about how awkward the 80s were.

There's the kernel of a really strong, really important show in Fresh Off the Boat. It dances with depicting true Asian American culture, much like Huang's book did, but it never goes full out. It still relies too heavily on stereotypes and one-note characterization. The scene directly addressing xenophobic language is a homerun, in terms of storytelling and setting the tone of the show, but it's skirted over too easily by episode's end and into the second episode. Those types of stories, about how difficult integration can be when you're cut off at every turn by ignorance, are more along the lines of what Fresh Off the Boat should be doing. There clearly is comedy in that, because it's probably the pilot's strongest moment... why, then, resort to drawing lines between Asians and whites for laughs?

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