BY INKOO KANG
(Heavy spoilers for the pilot; very light spoilers for the second and third episodes.)
There's more than one way to start a revolution. You can get high off your own sense of righteousness and authenticity, as celebrity chef and Fresh Off the Boat memoirist Eddie Huang recently did by calling one of his Asian-American collaborators an "Uncle Chan" in the press. Or you can distill the message and adapt its packaging for a mainstream audience, hoping to spark new conversations instead of shouting everyone else down, as Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan has been doing with her quietly revolutionary network sitcom.
Fresh Off the Boat is based on Huang's pre-teen experience of moving from a Taiwanese-American community in Washington, D.C., to a whiter-than–Wonder Bread suburb in Orlando in the early '90s. But the ABC series is as much the work of the Vegas-born, Hawaii-raised Khan, who brings her sly comedic sensibilities, unexpected heart, and love of unapologetically idiosyncratic female characters to her retelling of Huang's story. The creator of the ABC cult hit Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, Khan was also a staff writer at Fox's Malcolm in the Middle and American Dad!, two other comedies that riffed on the family-sitcom formula.
Fresh Off the Boat is probably the most traditionally structured of all those shows, with an Everybody Hates Chris–like narrator (voiced by Huang) implicitly reassuring viewers that things eventually turn out OK despite the challenges his 11-year-old self (played by capable newcomer Hudson Yang) undergoes. The nuclear-family setup is about as square and as familiar as single-camera gets — but, of course, Fresh Off the Boat looks like no other show on TV because of its all-Asian-American cast. (It's the first show to feature such a cast since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was canceled after a single season 20 years ago.)
Khan's pitch for adapting Huang's memoir had several networks interested, but she ultimately decided to go with ABC in part because of "the diversity that they were committed to" — a programming priority that has yielded the freshman shows Black-ish, Cristela, and How to Get Away With Murder — all solid ratings performers for the network.
Fresh Off the Boat's adroit balancing act between universally appealing storytelling and a particular Asian-American point of view (which aren't mutually exclusive, of course) is exemplified in a lunchroom scene in the pilot, when Eddie is rejected by a group of white boys for his "stinky" Chinese lunch. "That's in the memoir," Khan recalled. "Reading that, I knew it was going to be in the pilot. It spoke so much to me. ... I was Persian-American, but I hated bringing Persian food to school. I just didn't want to stand out in that way. I wanted to be like everybody else."
But assimilation isn't the point of Fresh Off the Boat, nor is a simple dichotomy between white and yellow. Eddie gets his mom, Jessica (Constance Wu), to buy him some inoffensive Lunchables to fit in with the other kids, but that doesn't save him from getting called a "chink" the next day at school.
"It was a black kid [named Edgar] who called Eddie that racial slur," Khan says. "That's how it went down in the memoir. I think it was important to maintain that kind of reality. ... We set up the blond kid; you think that's going to be the bully. And then when you come out of left field with this [African-American] kid, who won't be on the bottom rung of the social ladder anymore and can move up by picking on somebody who he sees as weaker? That's just more nuanced to me, more interesting."
Significantly, Edgar is a loner at school who seems to be shunned by his white classmates. The coincidental similarity of the names Eddie and Edgar help illuminate the dense thematic complexity of this fairly brief scene: that both kids are targets of racism, but experience racism differently; that they feel forced to duke it out with each other so as not to land at the bottom of the school's social totem pole; that America's racial dynamics have to be widened from the black-white bifurcation they're too often framed in; that Eddie's love of hip-hop, advertised by his oversized Biggie tee, doesn't necessarily make him relate better with his black classmate. It's an ambitious set of ideas for any pilot, let alone a half-hour comedy aimed at families.
The scene is also illustrative of the Asian-American position that the series asserts: not white or black, but certainly...racial. "The underlying subtext of race is always present," says Khan of the show. "The [characters] are people of color and it is always present. Sometimes it gets thrown in your face, like in the pilot, and sometimes it doesn't, but it's always going to be around."
As for the tension between Eddie and Edgar, "that's something that I'm really excited to see, how that relationship plays out over the course of the thirteen episodes," says Khan. "That character comes back into Eddie's life, and we get to play more with the relationship between the two kids. There's just so much more nuance to explore. It's a pretty cool thing to watch unfold."
Fresh Off the Boat also pays tribute to one of the more bizarrely under-represented aspects of American culture: the role of hip-hop in the Nineties coming-of-age experience. "Each episode will have multiple hip-hop songs, but it will have one hip-hop song that sort of 'defines' it thematically," says Khan. "It's really important because for so many kids, especially in the suburbs, especially in the mid-Nineties, this [music style] was their anthem. These were people who took being an outsider and kind of raised it up, like a cry of support, and embraced their difference." It's largely Khan's sincerity that makes Fresh Off the Boat work as well as it does, though she and her writers are careful to include light but important critiques of the casual sexism that Eddie learns from music videos and tries on for size in the second episode.
The second meaning of "fresh" in the hip-hop context also implies that, despite Eddie's wanting to fit in at school, the Huangs were already pretty fly when they landed in America. Eddie's dorky (but not dumb) dad, Louis (an excellent Randall Park, who played Kim Jong Un in The Interview), is just as eager as his oldest son to be accepted by the neighborhood, if only to boost sales at his failing restaurant. The peppy, perky Louis represents the immigrant's striving for the American Dream, but the show has a lot of fun with his misunderstandings of the culture he's trying to join. Hence the overcompensatory name of his restaurant: Cattleman's Ranch Steakhouse.
But the star poised to break out is undeniably Wu, who plays the scowling cynic to Park's grinning optimist. Wu's Jessica feels like a character we've simply never seen before, a Tiger Mom who's hilarious and sympathetic and deeply kind in her own way. When Eddie brings home straight A's in the third episode, she bypasses familial pride completely and heads directly into complaining that the school isn't tough enough.
"I love strong female characters," Khan says. "I love women who don't apologize. Sometimes Jessica goes overboard and takes wrong turns, but it's always coming from that place [of] not impressing anyone but herself. And [Wu] just elevates everything that she's in. You write the line, it makes you laugh, and then you hear it and you're like, 'Whoa! It's not even the way I heard it in my head and it's a thousand times better.' " The actress's comic delivery is so spectacular, in fact, that she's able to incorporate her phony, otherwise cringe-worthy accent into a sing-songy vocal performance that shouldn't work, but is utilized to knock every joke out of the park.
Huang's criticisms of the show are true in one way. Fresh Off the Boat shouldn't be read as an accurate depiction of the Asian-American experience, in the same way that All in the Family, The Golden Girls, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are no more faithful depictions of white Americans' lives. It's certainly strange to see Park and Wu lean in for a kiss at the end of a scene, even if it only happens once per episode, since Asian immigrant parents do not lock lips in front of their children. But Khan and her writers delicately and hilariously portray the lives of a specific Asian-American family — and the rich inner life of a confused kid who'll one day find his place in the world.
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Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays on ABC.
Inkoo Kang is the TV Critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.