Fresh Off the Boat Arrives Stale

Skeptical of the problematic title, I had low expectations
for ABC’s new comedy Fresh Off the Boat. But the show still compelled me to watch: Its 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and status as the first Asian-American family sitcom to air on network
primetime in twenty years made it seem worth checking out. I might be missing the point, but after viewing the pilot episode, I was only mildly
entertained.

Based on chef, restaurateur and author Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the show
follows hip-hop loving Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his Taiwanese family as they
make the big move down south from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban
Orlando, Fla., in 1995. His father, Louis, (Randall Park, who played the part
of Kim Jong-Un in The
Interview
), decides to pursue the ‘American Dream’ by opening up a new steakhouse restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch.
Eddie is not pleased with the relocation and feels like an outsider in his new, predominantly white community (“The only white people we saw in D.C. were the
tourists who got lost,” he says).

The Huang family realizes that the most effective way to
assimilate into their new environment is to be tough and embrace its
overwhelming whiteness. Louis hires a “nice, happy white face like Bill
Pullman” to be the host of his restaurant because he thinks he will attract
more customers. His mother, Jessica (Constance Wu), joins her all-white female neighbors
on their daily rollerblading exercise and pretends she doesn’t care that
Samantha carries a baggy of dog poop in her hand the entire time. 

While his two
stereotypically overachieving younger brothers have no problem fitting in at
their new school, Eddie is struggling. He even makes his mother buy him
Lunchables so he can sit at the table with the white kids, who previously made him leave their table because of the smell of his Chinese food.

It is refreshing that the show covers the realistic issues of
“racial bullying, the struggles of immigrant entrepreneurship and
inter-generational culture clashes” within the Asian-American community, as The Huffington Post’s Miliann Kang
mentions. Still, the jokes are too predictable, and there are far too many
static, simple characters.

The New York Times
Neil Genzlinger writes, “Since it’s a child’s reminiscences, Dad of course has
to be a doofus. […] But since it’s an Asian-American family’s story,
practically every Caucasian also has to be a doofus: the neighborhood women,
the principal, the employees at the restaurant. That’s a lot of doofuses, and
it makes for unfocused comedy.”

Amidst the sea of ‘doofuses,’ Wu as Eddie’s mother Jessica
was the only character who really made me laugh. In the scene where she
takes Eddie to the ‘Food 4 All!!!!’ Supermarket, she reminisces about the
Taiwanese markets back in D.C. that made her “feel so calm” as the scene cuts to
a much more chaotic setting of people pushing and shoving while
yelling in Chinese. Back in the present, Jessica is offered a free sample from a bowl of tortilla
chips; she assumes this means she can take the entire bowl, and she thanks the
store lady with a hilariously assured wave.

However, this is the only scene I genuinely enjoyed. The rest of the episode played it too safe and lacked originality. Wu, in an
interview with Time, made the point
that “because it’s network TV, and they want to appeal to a broad audience and
get their corporate sponsors and all that, they’re seeking a more universal,
everybody-is-pleased type of stance.” 

To me, this attitude goes against what the
show is trying to accomplish. Instead of creating a stronger, more accurate
representation of Asian-Americans in television, it is simply giving in to Hollywood’s age-old desires.

Even Huang, the creator of the show, has publicly
expressed his dissatisfaction with how it turned out. He said on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, “[Hollywood]
wants to tell universal white stories with yellow faces, black faces, brown
faces, but they tell the same universal story.” He went on to explain that this is a “strange way to make artwork.” 

Thus, the show’s success seems to be due to the fact
that it feels like all the other family sitcom shows we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, the show’s creators did not take advantage of this exciting new opportunity for Asian Americans to establish
proper recognition in the media.

Will Cafritz PZ ’16 is majoring in media studies with a concentration in film/video. He is from Washington, D.C., and has dual citizenship in Switzerland.

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