ABC has a new comedy in its lineup Wednesday (Feb. 4) in “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about an Asian-American family moving to Orlando in the 1990s to open a restaurant. The show airs at both 8:30 p.m. ET/PT and 9:30 before moving to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Feb. 10.
The show is based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name and ahead of the premiere, Huang wrote an op-ed about seeing his memoir come to life on TV. In the piece, he does praise ABC for putting an Asian family on TV and perhaps starting a conversation, but he also says that his story has become “an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell
dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian
Having read the memoir, he’s not wrong.
The first three episodes of the series do contain elements taken directly from the book, such as 12-year-old Eddie dealing with being called a “chink” at school by another minority student or demonstrating what a good boss his father Louis is at his restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch steakhouse.
But for the most part, the show looks nothing like the memoir, and that’s a shame, particularly in the way the writers have drawn Eddie’s parents so broadly. They are sitcom caricatures, and while Eddie’s mother, Jessica (Constance Wu), bears a passing resemblance to her book counterpart, Louis and his parents’ marriage do not resemble real life at all. Louis is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky man who has to deal with the sitcom trope of the overbearing wife, which is ironic considering the several passages in Huang’s book that talk about the “emasculated Asian male” in American pop culture.
In reality, both Huangs (not just Jessica) were really tough on their children and on each other, while scrimping and saving to eventually have the means to move to a wealthy subdivision. Their lives looked much more like “Roseanne” or “Married With Children,” which, as Huang points out in his essay, is what he was hoping the television show might be like.
But it’s more like ABC repackaged “The Goldbergs.” Instead of Jewish in the ’80s, it’s Asian in the ’90s.
That’s not a criticism of either show — “The Goldbergs” is a funny show, and so is “Fresh Off the Boat” at times. But having read Huang’s book, it feels like ABC missed the boat on what could have been a strong series about one family’s real experiences as Asian-Americans.
The memoir is full of rich stories about not only Eddie’s childhood, but also the contrast in his parents’ upbringing, who are from different areas of China. It draws Louis as a deeply flawed man who ran with a rough crowd in Taipei and knew he needed to get to America so his children would have the freedoms he never had. It draws his mom as a fierce and highly intelligent woman who loves her children immensely but was kind of forced into her life by meeting Louis and getting pregnant at a young age.
The source material is there for provocative look at a culture rarely examined on television, but instead Louis is glad-handing at the restaurant and kowtowing to his wife while Jessica is a fanny pack-wearing tiger mom.
Maybe, as Huang says in his essay, “Fresh Off the Boat” is acting like a Trojan horse — “Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until
they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy.”
One line in his memoir that was particularly striking was when Huang writes, “There’s a different between bastardizing an item and giving it room to breathe, grow, and change with the times.” He’s speaking about food in that instance, but the same could be said for getting his memoir onto TV screens with caricatures and broad jokes, then letting it morph into something that more closely resembles his actual experience.
However, it doesn’t feel as though the characters from the first three episodes are going to magically turn into the Huang family from the memoir. And that’s too bad, because a show about that family could have been really good.