'Fresh Off the Boat' Showrunner: Why Period Comedies Need Awards Love, Too (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Michael Ansell/ABC
'Fresh Off the Boat'

"Emmy voters, do you know how hard it is to tell stories without having cellphones or texting to help us connect the dots?" writes Nahnatchka Khan, who argues that her '90s-set comedy deserves just as much acclaim as dramas 'Mad Men' and 'Downton Abbey.'

Recently, there's been a lot of media space devoted to the idea of television being at the forefront of shattering stereotypes. As a medium, it has broken barriers by taking people's expectations and subverting them, presenting characters and stories in a new and fresh light.

But I think it's time to go the other way with it — for the television community finally to embrace a well-known stereotype, acknowledging it for the truth that it is.

Emmy voters love period dramas. They love them. Can't get enough of them. A show about an advertising executive? Eh. A show about an advertising executive set in the 1960s? Have all the Emmys. A wealthy family consumed by drama and intrigue? Meh. A wealthy family consumed by drama and intrigue set in turn-of-the-century England? Have all the Emmys and all the BAFTAs.

Now let me be clear: I love both Mad Men and Downton Abbey; they are great shows and have been correctly acclaimed as such. A quick Google search reveals pages of well-deserved award wins and nominations. And I'm not mad at that, not by any stretch. In fact, what I would like to propose is that we extend that awards love — to period comedies.

Hang on, hang on, let me finish. Yes, it's true that the show I work on, ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, is a comedy set in the 1990s and, as such, would stand to benefit from this expansion of awards goodwill. That's it, I'm finished.

Emmy voters, do you know how hard it is to tell stories without having cellphones or texting or tweeting to help us connect the dots? I know TV shows were telling stories for decades before all those things were invented, but we're doing it now, after they exist. Don't we deserve props for that, a gesture of gratitude in the form of, oh, I don't know, a nomination for best sound mixing? Seems like the least you could do.


Khan with Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park.

Think about the restraint we're forced to exercise in order to not have every episode devolve into a series of '90s references. Obviously we want every other line to be a joke about "Dancing Itos" and "The Rachel" and Crystal Pepsi and Furbies and have Alfonso Ribeiro guest-star and do "the Carlton" before every commercial break. That's what we live for. It would bring us joy on the purest level. But we don't. We control ourselves.

It also helps that, as a family sitcom, we are aware that a good portion of our younger audience wouldn't know what the hell we were talking about. It would lead to a lot of questions for Mom and Dad, who don't watch TV with the kids to impart a history lesson. "If I wanted to answer a bunch of questions, I'd go to work," one of them would angrily say, turning up the volume on the remote. And now some kid is going to bed with no dessert and no answer to the seemingly innocent query, "Who are Wayne and Garth?"

I guess what I'm saying is that it's a balancing act, much like that movie based on that documentary about that guy who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers … a movie that was rewarded with the 2015 Satellite Award for best visual effects, incidentally. But instead of pulling it off just once, like he did, we do it every single week of the television season. Which, in network terms, is a thousand weeks long.

Let's end the awards disparity between period dramas and comedies. Is seeing Don Draper witness the assassination of Robert Kennedy any more important than seeing Louis and Jessica Huang set up AOL on their first internet computer? I think if you look in your heart, you already know the answer.

Khan is the showrunner of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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