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In a season when ABC has already found success being both funny and diverse with its programming — Black-ish in particular — it strikes again with Fresh Off the Boat, one of the better freshman broadcast sitcoms in a while. Now, if the show could just get out of its own way — or, more accurately, if the people surrounding it could — then maybe it can find the audience it richly deserves.
The series, based on the book of the same name from Eddie Huang (pronounced “Wong”), stepped in it right before facing critics at the Television Critics Association press tour in January when Huang’s long rant about the show ran on the Vulture website. Though Huang managed, after some awkwardness, to extricate himself from the controversy (in the article he slammed numerous elements of the show before ultimately saying he was fine with it), it wasn’t the wisest decision to make things so murky when the show was generating favorable buzz (and he was there to represent it, favorably).
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Then, just about a week before its premiere (Feb. 4), an advertising campaign derided as racist popped up and was quickly pulled down. All of this gives off the whiff that maybe ABC doesn’t know what it’s doing or the show is in trouble when, in fact, the series (developed at 20th Century Fox) is winningly hilarious in many spots and has enormous and evident potential. On top of that, Fresh Off the Boat is that rarest of things — a show with a vast Asian cast. Like Black-ish before it, the series scores not just for being diverse or effectively studied in talking about and spoofing race, but by being genuinely funny despite how people might initially pigeonhole it.
It’s funny because it’s funny.
Lately that’s been a very difficult thing to harness (witness NBC ceding Tina Fey‘s superb Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netlfix because, ultimately, it didn’t think it could launch the series to a major audience). Making comedy is hard — everybody in the industry knows that. So when a series comes out fully formed like Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The CW’s Jane the Virgin, you cheer for it because of how hard it is in this current TV environment to stand out.
All of this is true for Fresh Off the Boat, which is written by executive producer Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23), who took Huang’s book and brought out its comedic racial issues. It’s about how Huang’s family moved, in 1995 when Huang was 11, from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando. The series focuses on the Huang family’s misadventures, as eternally optimistic father Louis (Randall Park) uproots his family so that he can buy the Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse in Orlando and dream bigger than he ever could back in Washington, working for the family of his suspicious and cynical wife Jessica (Constance Wu).
So the couple takes their three boys, Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) to start a new life in a lily-white suburb where the local school (at least in Eddie’s grade) only has one African-American student — who is happy to see Eddie so that he’s not the lowest person on the school’s totem pole.
Trying to fit in, if not completely assimilate, while their father’s dream of restaurant ownership takes some tough early turns, is a lot of fodder for Fresh Off the Boat.
But the series works almost immediately for a number of reasons — the foremost being the breakout, star-making performance of Wu as Eddie’s mom. Wu’s hysterically harsh strictness — way before the Tiger Mom phenomenon, as Huang notes in the show’s narration — is delivered with an impressive range that covers the blatantly angry, the dubiously befuddled, the disapproving but supportive and the flat-out odd. Wu manages to take funny lines and make them three times funnier with her delivery. She benefits from the show’s now-familiar flashback style of having someone fondly remember a scenario and then have that scenario replayed briefly for comic effect (see also: Family Guy).
Faced with a brightly lit supermarket, with its aggressively positive signage (“What is this store so excited about?” — a line 10 times funnier than it appears in print, thanks to Wu), Jessica laments her new situation: “I miss the Taiwanese markets back in D.C. — they made me feel so calm” (cut to her screaming in the market and fending off others with vegetables).
“Are you all sisters?” Wu/Jessica says to a gaggle of rollerblading moms who she’ll valiantly try to befriend. Wu holds the show together by being tough but loving — like when Eddie complains that her home-cooked food (which he loves) is being mocked by the white kids eating Lunchables, thus keeping him from being accepted because he doesn’t have a seat at their table of power.
The hip-hop—loving Eddie (played warmly and effectively by Yang) is obviously just a kid trying to survive childhood, no matter his race. His little brothers are both fitting in better and are mom’s favorites (credit Wheeler and Chen for being funny and sweet without ever being cloying and annoying). Eddie’s misadventures tap into that Wonder Years vibe that fellow ABC comedy The Goldbergs does so extremely well.
The unsung hero in this cast may well be Park, who imbibes Louis’ jubilant embrace of this country, its people and potential with both believability and pitch-perfect comic timing, so that Wu can be off doing her thing and Yang can do his. If we don’t like Louis, we probably don’t get into Fresh Off the Boat, and Park’s ability to embrace and send up white culture is a seamless thing of beauty. (As Louis explains to Jessica, maybe the problem with the restaurant’s lack of customers is they need to see a white face greeting them, not an Asian face: “Oh, hello white face, I am comfortable,” he explains to Jessica, who must take on a different role at Cattleman’s Ranch. “Nice happy white face like Bill Pullman.”)
Fresh Off the Boat finds jokes in plenty of other, non-racial issues, and that’s often the bonus that gives you confidence this is a show with legs. Eddie’s neighbor is a kid with an absentee father, and Khan and the writers take that joke and make gold from it: In one scene, the kid is talking about eagerly awaiting his report card, which he’ll hide from his mother, and also hoping that his dad will send a birthday card, even though it’s three weeks late. When the mailman produces only the school report, the kid asks for more: “Buddy, we talked about this — I would have led with the card. I’m pulling for you.” Later Eddie convinces the boy to play basketball when the kid had plans to scour sporting events on TV to see if he could see his dad’s face in the crowd.
On a number of issues, Khan and company have shown a deftness for call-back jokes that work better every time they are readdressed.
That’s the kind of expanded reach that Fresh Off the Boat (like Black-ish and The Goldbergs) has and needs. This is a comedy first and foremost. The laughs can’t always come from the same source (like race stuff). Wu wonderfully and comically milks a scene where her younger sons get report cards without grades from a school that believes “competition is unhealthy.” Trying to read the rainbows, stars and leprechauns for a hint of how they’re doing, the joke plays out over several different scenes (“Two clouds — that seems bad!”) and never flags. Clearly this is a show with more than one concern or one joke.
Having watched the first three episodes (two of which air in ABC’s coveted Wednesday night slot before moving to Tuesday’s where the show kicks off the night, without much direct sitcom competition), I’d say ABC’s foray into the stories of people of color is paying off. And that Wu, like Gina Rodriguez on The CW’s wonderful Jane the Virgin, should be a magnetic force that keeps bringing viewers back.
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