TV Recap: Fresh Off the Boat (Series Premiere)

Written by Aaron Sarnecky

fresh-off-the-boat

Pilot and Home Sweet Home-School Plots

Based on chef/TV personality Eddie Huang’s book of the same title. In 1995, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida with their three sons. In Orlando, their son Eddie (Hudson Yang) finds it hard making friends in school. Jessica awkwardly mingles with the neighborhood women while Louis attempts to get his new Western-themed steakhouse up and running.

In the second episode, after Eddie forges a good report card, his mother insists on tutoring him with more rigorous work. Back at the steakhouse, Louis eases up on his employees in hopes that it will create a happier atmosphere. The plan might work, as long as hardliner Jessica doesn’t find out.

Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D'Amico
Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D’Amico

It’s not as bad as you might expect. Let me open with that. Many people going into Fresh Off the Boat are going to dread any talk about race, a hot button issue in America and the world in general. Luckily, most of the uncomfortable jokes were made in the promos weeks before. Still, in the first half-hour, you could make a drinking game out of every time someone talks about acting less Taiwanese and more ‘like white people.’

Fresh Off the Boat is structured like many other comedies that have preceded it. You have the clueless parents Louis and Jessica, the rebellious youth Eddie, and the slightly eccentric grandparent, Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong). It’s par for the course, especially when you consider that in the second episode Louis is shown to be afraid of his wife. It’s ironic that an ethnicity largely ignored in the TV landscape is shoehorned into the same tired tropes of other TV families.

There is a little fun to be had with the characters, however, particularly with Eddie. For whatever unexplained reason, Eddie obsesses over black culture, specifically hip-hop and basketball. It’s strangely enjoyable to hear a little 11-year old boast about how he likes Notorious B.I.G. It’s also where he oddly finds some common ground with some white classmates, which given their age and race, makes little sense. Maybe I’m just blinded by nostalgia when I hear little kids talk about Shaquille O’Neal.

Photo Credit: ABC/Jordin Althaus
Photo Credit: ABC/Jordin Althaus

The common ground isn’t all that solid, however, as the other kids mock Eddie for his Chinese noodles, or as they say, worms. Surprisingly, this is where the show finds most of its strength. Little kids can be mean and can say racist things they hear from their parents, as best illustrated when a boy, insisting that Eddie has taken his place at the bottom rung, calls him a “chink.” The hush over the cafeteria is a bit cliché, but the impact remains the same.

Eddie gets in a fight with the boy. It is not shown but later described instead for comedic effect – sadly, it doesn’t really work though. There is some satisfaction, however, as Jessica and Louis both stand up for their son when they talk to the school principal. And with that, the first episode actually ends on a high note.

This is unfortunate, because the next episode, ‘Home Sweet Home,’ undermines the first. In the first episode, Eddie’s brother Emery (Forrest Wheeler) seems to have no problem making friends at school and even has a girlfriend (all in the course of one day.) Eddie doesn’t and his brother explains it’s because Eddie “wants it too much.” This narrative misstep might have been excusable if they didn’t repeat it immediately in the following episode, with Eddie having made a friend with no explanation given. That must have been some good advice! They do suggest Eddie and his friend both like sports, but the ease still contradicts the previous episode.

Photo Credit: ABC/Jordin Althaus
Photo Credit: ABC/Jordin Althaus

The second episode also undoes some of its efforts to make Jessica likeable, as she is portrayed as a dictator in her house, pushing her sons to work harder because she thinks getting straight “A”s means school isn’t hard enough. Obviously the show is tapping into the strict Asian parent stereotype. Still, even though Jessica can be unlikeable, most of the real humorous moments of the series comes from her, largely from her jumps in logic or misunderstandings. Her assertions that things lead down the slippery slope to homelessness stand out. They can be hit or miss, but at least they provide more humor that her husband’s character does.

Louis seems to be the character the writers are trying the hardest to make funny. He seems like a nice guy, acting chummy with his steakhouse guests and employees, but there not is much to laugh at. He just falls into the archetype of the immigrant who believes in the American dream to a fault and only understands America through stereotypes. Crazy things will have to happen at his steakhouse for him to become funny.

And that really goes for the whole show. It might have the ingredients for a funny show somewhere. The ‘90s pop culture references are a nice aspect, but they will only appeal to those old enough to appreciate them. The show’s success truly lies in how it touches upon race. Perhaps it’s best to subtly mix in the serious while also subverting stereotypes. But right now, it’s not there.

Rating: 6 out of 10 (Average)

Fresh Off the Boat Airs Tuesdays on ABC.

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