'Fresh Off the Boat' celebrates Chinese New Year, showcasing greater diversity on TV

ABC’s "Fresh Off the Boat," in its short run, has given viewers the requisite holiday-themed episodes -- Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But on Tuesday, the comedy, which chronicles a Chinese American family's journey in adapting to suburban Florida in the mid-1990s, is going beyond the hallmarks with an episode that centers on Chinese New Year.

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“The Year of the Rat,” written by Sheng Wang, finds the Huang family excited about traveling back to Washington, D.C., for a family celebration of the holiday. But in a twist of comedy fate, a date mix-up for their flight stymies the trip and they find themselves grounded at home looking for a substitute in Orlando. As one might expect, it wasn’t easy. (It should be noted, rat was the animal recognized in 1996. In 2016, it is the monkey.)

"I had a distinct moment when we were filming this episode and I was like, 'Wow, this is probably unprecedented,'" Randall Park, who stars as patriarch Louis Huang, told the Los Angeles Times at a recent screening of the episode. “Of any show of the over 400 shows on TV, we’re one of the few shows that can do this. And I think that’s important. It’s another positive aspect of having more diversity of TV -- you can explore these traditions that have always existed on the fringes of mainstream American culture.”

Park is Korean American and said his exposure to the holiday was limited to once being in San Francisco’s Chinatown when it was being celebrated. “Doing this episode was really a great learning experience for me and I hope for our audience as well.”

As the first network sitcom to focus on an Asian American family in more than 20 years, "Fresh Off the Boat" is able to explore the significance of the holiday and traditions (e.g. red envelopes containing money, cleaning one’s home or cutting one’s hair before the New Year) in a compatible way, Wang said.

“It started out with so many elements,” Wang said. “We were going to try to introduce another Chinese family that they might have come across at a Costco.  There was going to be a karaoke element.”

Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan interjected: “There were so many permutations because we wanted to get it right. This is something that hasn’t been represented in a meaningful way on American TV and we wanted to make sure we really hit the marks on it. For us the trick was how do we get them to celebrate this holiday in this world that we created in Orlando.  We didn’t want to lose this world that we exist in every week.”

Khan said plans for dedicating an episode to focus on the holiday began once producers learned there would be a second season. And there is hope to bring it back.

“For as long as we are on the air, I would like this to be a part of our storytelling,” Khan said.

“Fresh Off the Boat” isn’t the only series in recent years that has tried to venture outside of the traditional TV holiday and cultural fixtures. The CW's “Jane the Virgin” gave viewers a flashback to Jane’s quinceañera, a Latino tradition of celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday.  

Wang is just hoping the episode brings some awareness.

“It wasn’t something I had as a kid,” Wang said of the episode. “So for Asian kids to see something that they’re familiar with on TV, if that helps them feel validated, to feel less alone and less other, that’s a great thing to be a part of.”

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