In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC
Here’s a quick, fun little TV trivia question: when was the last time there was a sitcom about an Asian American family on TV? Or even an Asian-American*?
Have a guess. Go on.
Give in? It was in 1994 and it was Margaret Cho’s All American Girl.
There you go. Now you’ll ace it in the next pub quiz.
So that was 20 years ago. That must have been one hell of a toxic sitcom to have put US TV off Asians for 20 years. Or maybe it was something else that was responsible… However, it looks like the time is ripe for another stab at the genre.
As I may have noted once or twice, this season, ABC has been trying to up the diversity in its shows to appeal to underserved segments of the US population. So far, we’ve had black-ish, How To Get Away With Murder and Cristela, to name but a few. Coupled with that, we have the continuing efforts by all networks to have period dramas set in more or less every year since TV started. Given Fox got up to 1991 with Surviving Jack last year, it’s clear this season needed to advance things a few years to 1995, as can be seen from Hindsight.
Based on the book of the same name by celebrity chef Eddie Wong, Fresh Off The Boat – which involves no boats at all but sees an Asian-American family driving from Washington DC to Orlando, Florida to open a Wild West restaurant and trying to integrate into their new community – is both diverse and set in 1995. Which is possibly the main reason it’s being made.
And initially those are the nicest things that can be said about it, too. You could certainly, for the first episode at least, have also called it offensive, cliched, predictable, insulting, borderline if not actually racist, a Wonder Years knock-off and a whole lot else. But none of those things is especially nice.
So… diverse. And set in 1995. But that was about it.
And had I followed my gut instinct, I’d have dropped it like a hot potato straight after that. However, I noted that the showrunner/creator was Nahnatchka Khan, who also created Don’t Trust The B—–. This was a bit of a mess at first, but over time, became a whole lot better and eventually one of the funniest things on TV.
So I thought I’d stick with it for another episode. And while I can’t report that the second episode was an hysterical riot, it did at least make me laugh a few times. Which is more than the first episode did. Here’s a trailer – you may wish to report it to the Race Relations Board, though:
* No Selfie does not count
It’s the ’90s and 12 year old, hip-hop loving Eddie (Hudson Yang) just moved to suburban Orlando from DC’s Chinatown with his parents (Randall Park and Constance Wu). It’s culture shock for his immigrant family in this comedy about pursuing the American Dream. Fresh Off the Boat is based on Chef Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat.
Fresh Off the Boat stars Randall Park as Louis, Constance Wu as Jessica, Hudson Yang as Eddie, Forrest Wheeler as Emery and Ian Chen as Evan.
Fresh Off the Boat is executive produced and written by Nahnatchka Khan and executive produced by Jake Kasdan for 20th Century Fox Television.
Is it any good?
As with black-ish, when it starts to get specific and not just deal in stereotypes, Fresh Off The Boat can actually be quite good. The rest of the time, it feels like a Hate Crime being perpetrated on everyone involved.
Probably the only stereotype the show doesn’t enlist is “Asian therefore good at martial arts”. Otherwise, we have a Tiger Mom (“A Tiger Mom before there were even Tiger Moms”), an Asian kid into hip hop, Asians who are nerdy, Asians who like ‘odd food’, Asians who produce cheap knock-offs, Asians who are penny-pinching, Asians who are emotionally unexpressive, Asians who are good at maths, Asian men who are hen-pecked by their wives…
Argh. It’s horrifying writing them, let alone watching them.
We even get the family hiring a white guy to meet and greet at the restaurant in the first episode, because they’re convinced that a Wild West restaurant won’t get white customers if it’s run by Asians. They then produce a TV ad explaining all of this and inviting white people to come and be among people who are ‘like them’.
Once we get into episode two, things start to get a little funnier and a bit more typical of the somewhat surreal Nahnatchka Khan. Admittedly, we still have a two-plot structure, with Tiger Mom ruling with an iron financial fist over the restaurant (no free croutons, no more napkins than necessary, etc) while simultaneously trying to get her children some more academic work, as her son is now a straight A student because Orlando schools have lower standards. But this becomes less about Asians, more about the characters, and Khan sends up the scoring system at the local kindergarten magnificently in the final end-credits scene.
Compared to ABC’s other family comedies – and ABC does invite the comparison…
…it’s actually quite strong stuff, given how much those other shows now largely pull their punches, particularly the listless Modern Family. However, there aren’t the great characters of some of those shows and there still aren’t that many laughs.
But given the improvement in the second episode I’m at least going to stick with it for a while. If you want to watch it, I’d thoroughly recommend skipping the first episode, though. Just don’t watch that, whatever you do. Just don’t.