Fresh Off the Boat has a lot of hype to live up to when it debuts Wednesday night on ABC. Eddie Huang, the chef and author of the memoir that the sitcom is loosely based on, and who is credited as a producer, has been simultaneously talking up and questioning the show, praising the final product but also expressing understandable frustration with the network’s notes and interference. Combined with a load of early critical praise and the fact that it’s the first Asian-American sitcom since Margaret Cho’s infamous 1994 disaster All American Girl, that means Fresh Off the Boat is sure to draw more scrutiny than most of this year’s freshman programs. Fortunately, it’s a series that surpasses expectations in every way — as a family comedy, as a commentary on race, as an honest depiction of alienation, and, perhaps most importantly, as a genuinely funny sitcom.
Fresh Off the Boat is not a direct adaptation of Huang’s 2013 memoir. The book’s characters and setting serve more as a jumping-off point for the series, which begins in 1995, when Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his family move from Washington, DC to a suburb in Orlando, Florida so Eddie’s father Louis (Randall Park) can open up a steak restaurant. On the surface, it’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, with the family being thrust into a super-white suburban environment where they stand out, despite occasional attempts to fit in (particularly from Louis, the family’s biggest optimist, who buys in to the flawed idea of the “American Dream”). Rounding out the family are Eddie’s two younger brothers, Evan (Ian Chen) and Emery (Forrest Wheeler), who have been the most successful at assimilating into their new world, with girlfriends and gossipy friendships with blonde ladies; Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong), who can’t walk because her feet were bound; and mom Jessica (standout and scene-stealer Constance Wu).
It’s a family show — both about a family and perfect for the entire family to watch together — but it’s focused mainly on young Eddie, the Huang family’s outlier. He is outspoken, confident, and different, which makes him an engaging character to root for, especially when the show humorously examines his rap obsession in tandem with his status as an outcast among his peers, his family, and even sometimes his race. “If you’re an outsider, hip-hop was your anthem,” older Eddie narrates, “And I was definitely the black sheep of my family.”
The brilliant thing about Fresh Off the Boat‘s depiction of Eddie’s interest in hip-hop is that it manages to play it for laughs (such as an early scene where Eddie blasts “Big Poppa” in his headphones as his family gleefully sings along to “The Sign”) without taking anything away from the importance of the music to Eddie. The series can poke fun at the sight of an Asian kid in an oversized Nas or Public Enemy shirt, but it never makes fun of why this Asian kid feels more comfortable in these shirts than in anything else. The show’s soundtrack is full of great musical cues — combined with Black-ish, ABC is doing some good work when it comes to old school hip-hop; who would’ve placed money on this network? — that help tell Eddie’s story: the aforementioned “Big Poppa” scene, the episode where Eddie turns to Ol’ Dirty Bastard for advice. Rap doesn’t always save him, though: He bonds with a white classmate over his B.I.G. shirt, but that bond is quickly severed when the other student makes fun of Eddie’s Chinese food lunch and kicks him out of the lunch table.
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.