Race and comedy rarely go hand in hand because it is a volatile combination that can blow up in one’s face. However, race and comedy, when done with due research and care, can be harmonious and educational. This is exactly what ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat has successfully done. Fresh Off the Boat tackles racial and cultural differences in a context of a family show. That statement might come across as serious and boring, but Fresh Off the Boat is far from either. It is unpredictably funny but not cloyingly sweet.
Fresh Off the Boat is based on Eddie Huang’s memoirs of the same title. It is about his Taiwanese family and how they struggle to be part of the American dream without forgetting their roots.
Fresh Off the Boat leads the audience to a short travel back in time, specifically to 1995. Louis Huang (Randall Park) moves his family from the comfortable and familiar confines of Washington, DC to the great unknown, also known as Orlando, Florida, to secure their financial future. Securing their financial future means opening a steakhouse restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch, an obvious rip-off of a popular restaurant chain in the area. His realistic wife Jessica (Constance Wu) staunchly opposes the Quixotic idea of owning and running a very American establishment but remains the dutiful better half. Their eldest child, 11-year old Eddie (Hudson Yang), keeps his protestations in check because boys his age do not have rights, especially with a mother like Jessica, the very definition of a tiger mom before tiger moms became a catchphrase. His younger brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Cheng), blessed with adorable faces and charm beyond their youth, are beside themselves with excitement.
The Huangs are not fresh off the boat to the United States of America, rather they are just fresh off the car from one state to another. Regardless of the liberty in the title, the Huangs find Florida as hostile as a new country to those, well, fresh off the boat. Florida is not as culturally diverse as their previous address, with Jessica and Eddie trying their hardest to fit in but just cannot. Jessica and her wild hair grudgingly make friends with a group of gossiping blond housewives in their block. Eddie, for his part, turns to hip-hop music and artists on his shirts as his security blanket as he faces the dreaded first day in a new school.
Louis, his curiosity and open-mindedness abound, embraces everything that is American. With his ever-present smile pasted on his face, he encourages his all-American staff to entice more American customers into their almost empty American restaurant. Emery and Evan continue to grow in their new surrounding, having girlfriends, getting grades* that are as undecipherable as Quantum Physics and hold sway in the neighborhood.
Most of the comedy in Fresh Off the Boat results from the Huangs’ effort, especially Jessica’s, to embrace Florida. Jessica’s stinky tofu and chicken feet stand out like sore thumbs in the world of perfectly cut, colored, flavored and boxed Lunchables, but it does not mean that she gives them up without baring her claws. Her barbed tongue can stand toe to toe against Lady Olenna’s of Game of Thrones and her murderous glare that is enough to melt The Wall in the middle of winter make Constance Wu’s Jessica the show’s most watchable character. Jessica is a strict but loving mother who expects excellence from her sons as well as from herself. She is a good singer who can belt out karaoke favorites while telling the wait staff not to eat the croutons, likes Stephen King books even though they give her nightmare, hunts the best bargain in town, and has a broken gaydar.
Eddie, for all his grand gestures, from his pimp entrances to his declaration of love, is fine. However, as the main protagonist of the show, he pales in comparison to Jessica. Sometimes, the charisma and cuteness overload of Emery and Evan, even with limited exposure, leave Eddie’s character in the gutter. It must be the smirk and the swagger that Eddie has. Smirk and swagger look cool on Hieronymus Bosch or Javier Peña but they make Eddie look like a juvenile douchebag. A semi-likeable juvenile douchebag.
Aside from cultural differences and family ties, Fresh Off the Boat reminds audience the things that mattered in 1995: Melrose Place was the fountain of discussion for bored suburban housewives, rollerblading was cool, Aqua Net was the go-to product for hair needs, and Shaquille O’Neal played for the Orlando Magic. It is fun anticipating when Shaq will grace the show and shock Eddie out of his wits (Scottie Pippen was a guest).
The Huangs do not say sappy “I love you” to each other, they show how much they love each other through “criticism and micromanagement”. Fresh Off the Boat is the same, it does not say the lessons learned each episode. Its great writing sneaks them in like a mother would sneak in diced vegetables in cookies and ice creams for her children. It is a brilliant ploy, and it works like magic.
*“And then an alligator sticker plus a cloud sticker equals an alligator with sunglasses sticker. Unless the cloud sticker is a raincloud sticker, in which case, it reverts back to a bear and a hat. Unless the bear’s hat is black, which indicates a very high level of effort. Which is then rewarded by a plus and minus participatory rainbow, of which there are three intensity hues.” – Emery and Evan’s principal explaining to Jessica the meaning of the boys’ card grades.
This is a review of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat – Season 1.
For related entries, please read Fresh Off the Boat – Season II, Fresh Off the Boat – Season II in Jessica Huang’s Words (Mostly), Fresh Off The Boat – Season III A (In the words of the Huangs) and Fresh Off The Boat – Season III B (In the words of the Huangs).