Fresh Off the Boat assumes for its title an expression that has historically been derogatory and reclaims it for a more positive purpose, turning around the idea that immigrants are unwelcome and ill-equipped because they are unversed in the American way and instead showing how the attempts to navigate and adapt to a new culture without losing a sense of one’s heritage can remind us that “foreignness” is relative. Set in the mid-’90s, this family comedy appeals to a sense of nostalgia similar to The Goldbergs, but the focus is much more on the idea of cultural identity in any era. Although slow to gain momentum, by the end of the first season, Fresh Off the Boat is a decidedly funny show with quick-witted dialogue and poignant commentary on the comical, if uncomfortable, experience of cultural difference and otherness.
Roughly based on the life of chef and food personality Eddie Huang, the series follows the Huangs, a Chinese-American family who move from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to a white suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Florida to open a cowboy-themed, all-American restaurant and pursue the proverbial American dream. At the core of the series is the struggle to balance the desire to be included, to fit in, with the pride of holding onto a heritage that inherently makes one different, an outsider. Culture shock and cultural clashes are the comedic bread and butter of Fresh Off the Boat, as each of the Huangs copes with assimilation into American culture differently, some with enthusiasm, some with reticence, but all in ways that highlight the humor of trying to understand the unfamiliar and find acceptance despite being different.
The very premise of Fresh Off the Boat necessitates that it grapples with issues of race, and it admirably does so with great gusto, even if it is sometimes over the top. It’s a series that completely embraces stereotypes, but from multiple perspectives, both of one’s own heritage and of the unfamiliar. At first it’s kind of jarring to find yourself laughing at bits that capitalize on the cliché of the over-demanding Asian mother who gets upset when her son gets straight A’s because his school must not be challenging him enough, especially when juxtaposed with jokes regarding the strangeness of privileged white people: suburban moms with similar names rollerblading in a crew, in which “the loudest one seems to be their queen”, shopping in a grocery store that resembles a hospital more than it does a market, and eating meals that come inside a box. In a society that has grown to value or perhaps over-value political correctness, the frank treatment of our perceptions of cultural differences and the comical confusion that can result is rather refreshing.
The series centers on young Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), the self-identified “black sheep” of his family who must therefore deal with feeling like an outsider both among his peers and at home. In a The Wonder Years-style voiceover, the real-world Eddie Huang narrates the everyday events of this average Chinese-American family’s life from his unique perspective. Eddie looks to rap for people to relate to, explaining that “hip hop is your anthem when you’re an outsider.” The boy adopts hip hop culture as his own, and his sometimes awkward attempts at infusing it into his boisterous and bombastic personality do result in some charming humor, such as his ostentatious entrances, assisted by his grandmother (Lucille Soong) in her wheelchair, who serves as a rolling speaker system to announce his entrance whenever he has big news to share with the family. Eddie serves more as an anchor for the rest of the characters’ plots, though, a lens through which the viewers observe the other Huangs and the people in their lives.
Eddie’s younger brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), adapt remarkably well to their new lives, easily making friends and enjoying school. They serve as a stark contrast to Eddie’s experience, which is filled with strife and ostracism, but even more, the two boys are simultaneously unbearably and amusingly lovable. Their adorable, affable good-naturedness leads them to produce some of the most sweetly innocent yet surprisingly sophisticated comedic moments. Their attachment to each other and similar outlook on life that’s characterized by a mixture of maturity and thoughtfulness results in an endearing twosome with surprisingly effective comedic timing and delivery for such young performers.
Randall Park (The Interview, Veep) has a solid background in comedy, but his portrayal of the fiercely optimistic and big-hearted patriarch of the Huang family, Louis, is both charming and funny. His comedic ambitions, interests, and exploits help to drive the show forward, if in a more subtle way than his onscreen wife, Jessica, played by Constance Wu to much well-deserved critical acclaim. In many ways, the more soft-spoken yet tenacious Louis, whose enthusiasm for all things American knows seemingly no bounds, is a perfect counterpart to the strong-willed, sharp-tongued, exacting Jessica, not only as a couple, but also as a comedic duo.
Jessica’s unease in her new neighborhood parallels Eddies’ in his new school, yet she still makes a concerted effort to at least try to learn about her white neighbors’ way of life. Her attempt is admirable, and her response of bewilderment and exasperation is both amusing and understandable. When the ladies of the neighborhood get together to debate the finer points of the affairs in Melrose Place, Jessica’s initial reaction is a kind of confused indifference, affirming, “Yes, all those white people sound like they’re making lots of mistakes”. Ultimately, though, her continued attempts lead her to bond with her new best friend, Honey (Chelsea Crisp), over their mutual love for Stephen King, and eventually, she even discovers the joys of Melrose Place herself.
Jessica’s efforts to feel a sense of belonging do not, however, overrule her dedication to maintaining her family’s heritage, even going to great lengths to reintroduce as many Chinese traditions as possible in the season finalé. Her pride at the possibility of becoming the first Asian-American members at an exclusive country club swiftly transforms into horror in one of Jessica’s characteristic knee-jerk reactions when her neighbor comments on how the Huangs are “just like regular old Americans”. In the end, though, she cannot resist the American things she loves, “Melrose Place, rollerblading, macaroni and cheese. It’s so easy. You just add water. It’s cheese from water.” Jessica’s duality in the form of loyalty to her inherited culture and openness to her new culture reflects the experience of the entire Huang family, who seem to occupy a space between cultures that is decidedly normal for immigrant and first-generation families.
Fresh Off the Boat also hits the nail on the head when it comes to encounters with racism, including assumptions that the Huangs would have “more exotic” first names and that Eddie’s first language wouldn’t be English, and being cast out at school for having homemade and unfamiliar Chinese food instead of lunchables. What’s even more valuable about the show, though, is the fact that, while it gives Asian-Americans a long overdue greater presence in mainstream television, it does so in a way that is distinctly relevant to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The source of the Huangs’ differences from the people around them is not strictly rooted the fact that they are Chinese, as there are plenty of other reasons for their uncomfortable encounters, misunderstandings, and feelings of otherness than race alone.
Sometimes it seems the use of stereotypes in Fresh Off the Boat may go too far, sometimes for the sake of a joke that consequently falls a bit flat, but taking it too far is more forgivable than shying away from the issues of race and otherness, and what’s more important is that the firm grounding in the reality of feeling like an outsider can resonate with all viewers. In its first season, the show has found its footing as a sharp, smart, and quick-witted series that admirably brings to prime-time television in a direct and bold way a family sitcom that is undoubtedly funny but also represents the struggle to balance loyalty to one’s roots and openness to new cultural experiences that so many immigrant families have grappled with, and it does so in a way that all viewers can empathize with the frustrations of feeling like an outsider, all while laughing at ourselves when we see the admittedly silly and confusing nature of our own culture from an outsider’s perspective.
The DVD extras on Fresh Off the Boat: The Complete First Season are pretty inconsequential, which is a little disappointing given the supposed drama behind the scenes, particularly with regard to the real Eddie Huang’s criticism of the show as watering down his provocative memoir about the Asian-American experience. If only for Wu’s impeccable and hilarious performance as Jessica Huang, the season itself is definitely worth a watch, even if it is a somewhat stereotypical representation of Asian-American culture.
The important thing is that it does not discriminate. Fresh Off the Boat embraces stereotypes of all cultures, particularly what’s funny or confusing about them to others, in order to create a decidedly funny and relatable exploration of cultural identity in all its forms.