The TV episode tells a much different and more family-friendly story. In “Very Superstitious,” Eddie accidentally trips over a cord and breaks his arm, through no fault of his parents. At school, he tells lots of childish, unbelievable lies about how he got the injury, in order to impress his classmates and win a school election. The school becomes suspicious of the lies, and Child Protective Services visits the Huang household. It’s all misunderstandings and overly sensitive guidance counselors and silly hilarity, a scenario that’s almost the opposite of how the incident is described in Huang’s book. The reason for the change is understandable — Fresh Off the Boat is an ABC family sitcom, not a dark dramedy on FX or Showtime — but Huang’s quick Twitter reaction the night the episode aired was equally understandable. Watching very specific, very upsetting and formative incidents from your childhood weakened into sitcom-esque jokes must be frustrating. Unfortunately, though, that’s how television works: a specific story is tailored to appeal to a universal audience.
But does this weakened adaptation take away from the basic message and themes of Fresh Off the Boat? Maybe the most important thing about this series is that it exists, and that, for the first time in 20 years, there is an Asian-American sitcom on network television — as well as that it’s good, and people are watching it. The show could, presumably, open the door for more Asian-American (and also more minority-driven) narratives to exist on TV in the future. And while Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t exactly reflect the hyper-specifics of Huang’s childhood and experiences, it has reflected larger parts of Asian-American culture and done so in a way that’s not condescending or pandering.
It’s also true that Fresh Off the Boat might have been able to go darker, and more accurately portray Huang’s life, if it had ended up on a cable or premium network. But in that case, it probably wouldn’t have reached as large an audience or captured national attention in a way that could result in more shows like it on networks of all kinds. When I spoke to Eddie Huang in December about this season’s influx of diverse TV shows, I asked whether he would’ve preferred to see the show air on a cable network. He said no (though, to be fair, this was before he’d seen much of the first season) because he was aware that this bigger, broadcast show could lead to better adaptations down the line — ones that are more refined, more specific, and more true to his own experiences.
To watch and love Fresh Off the Boat, as I’ve done all season, is to accept both, dueling versions of Eddie Huang: the real, raw version that’s told through his voice in the memoir and the nicer, primed-for-network-comedy version that exists within the television show. Both are voices worth listening to.