Fresh Off the Boat is undeniably about race, but that’s not the only subject it tackles. Much like Black-ish and Cristela, the show incorporates race into its storylines while also discussing other topics, effectively toeing the line between racial commentary and old-fashioned family sitcom — though you can sort of get the feel from these episodes (and Huang’s Twitter account) that the writers would love to do more of the former. ABC hasn’t fully Americanized the sitcom, but it definitely has a universal feel.
There’s a running theme of alienation throughout the first three episodes of Fresh Off the Boat (two of which are premiering Wednesday night, before the show settles into its regular Tuesday slot next week). Eddie is alienated from his white classmates, and even from the other minority student — the only black kid in his class, a boy who allows Eddie to sit with him before Eddie defects to the white table (something that could be taken as betrayal). He later calls Eddie a “chink,” marking what I’m sure is the first time a sitcom has launched with that plot. Eddie is also alienated at home: “Why are you so American?” his mother asks, confused by her son’s rap T-shirts and why he wants Lunchables to bring to school.
But Eddie isn’t the only one. Louis, optimism and all, is having a hard time bringing customers to his restaurant. He believes it’s because people find it odd to walk into an American steakhouse and see an Asian person, so his solution is to find a “nice, happy, white face like Bill Pullman” to publicly represent his restaurant. (He goes with guest star Paul Scheer.) Eddie’s mother Jessica has it even worse. She is baffled by the group of rollerblading white women (“The loudest one seems to be their queen,” she observes) and has a hell of a time fitting in with them, especially because of their clueless, offhanded micro-aggressions. “I watched a documentary about China in college,” one remarks proudly. Later, she watches Jessica cut equally sized pieces of cake at a party and “wisely” observes that she knows how to do this “because of Communism.”
Jessica Huang is a tricky character, one that can be considered a “Tiger Mom” and runs the risk of being criticized as a stereotypical overly strict Asian matriarch. In one episode, upon seeing Eddie’s straight-A report card, she decides he’s “too good” at school and that he needs extra, harder education. But the skilled writing (Nahnatchka Khan, of the gone-too-soon Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, is proving to be a force in the TV-writing world) and some strong acting from Constance Wu saves Jessica, making her one of my favorite new characters in sitcoms. Wu has an irresistible delivery, whether she is scolding Eddie, confusedly staring at the brightly lit grocery store, or reminiscing about the good ol’ days of screaming at her friends. She effortlessly nails every emotion with subtle expressions and gestures that drive the point home (take careful note as she confidently spinns her finger while threatening the principal).
Then again, every actor on the show is giving it his or her all, and it shows — in Park’s beaming smile, in Yang’s perfectly adolescent delivery of “How you livin’?” when hitting on an older woman. Maybe that’s because they (and the show’s writers) are aware of how rare it is for a sitcom about any racial minority to make it onto a network schedule, let alone an Asian-American one, and want to ensure that Fresh Off the Boat not only sticks around but paves the way for other shows like it.
In Eddue Huang’s memoir, he writes, “Timing is everything. Soup dumplings, sitcoms, one-night stands — good ones leave you wanting more.” Fresh Off the Boat is just that: timed perfectly with television’s push to include diverse narratives, and good enough that you’ll want to keep watching.