Review: ABC sitcom ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is a satire that works
“Fresh Off the Boat,” a bright new sitcom premiering Wednesday on ABC, is based on a memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang, the Taiwanese American chef and media personality.
Set in Orlando, Fla., in the mid-1990s, it’s doubly an immigration story. Eddie’s parents are Taiwan-born, but the whole family is in a kind of exile, having left Washington, D.C., a city with a Chinatown, for a city with a Disney World.
Among broadcast networks, ABC has made itself a voice of diversity, and “Fresh Off the Boat” sits companionably among its other newfangled old-fashioned family comedies. (For that matter, ABC has been a voice for family comedy.) Like “black-ish” and “Cristela,” it concerns, and in a self-critical way celebrates, being non-white in a white world.
Like “The Goldbergs,” it’s a memory show, set in the amusing past. Like “The Middle,” it’s set among people who, unusually for television, have to count their pennies. ABC was also the network of Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” television’s last Asian American family comedy, canceled after a single season in 1995, just at the time when “Fresh Off the Boat” begins.
Huang, who wears his anger proudly, has also been publicly enacting what might be called a journey to acceptance of a show that converts his sharp-edged, elbows-out family into a moderately argumentative, heartwarming television unit with parents who show their love, as the script has it, “through criticism and micro-management,” and kids who represent the usual variety pack of attitudes. Eddie will not be kicked out of as many schools or get into the sort of trouble Huang did; and we won’t see his father beating him with a rubber alligator, as in Huang’s book.
Progress has been made, certainly, from the blinding, near-total whiteness of TV’s first decades, to a kind of good-willed tokenism to the multiethnic ensemble you find today on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” But “Fresh Off the Boat” does what few television shows do now, which is to make race not beside the point. It sits inside a minority culture and looks with bewilderment and bemusement at the dominant one.
It is for the most part relatively mild satire of white ‘90s ways (roller blades, “Melrose Place,” Eric Clapton, Lunchables). But race is an issue returned to again and again and at times addressed in ways that are genuinely complicated.
Eddie (Hudson Yang, a ball of frustrated energy) lives for hip-hop and basketball and is drawn to African American culture as a model of outsider empowerment. He feels alien in his city, his school, his skin and his family.
“Why do all your shirts have black men on them?” asks his mother.
But in a scene right out of Huang’s book, he gets into a fight with a black classmate at his new school — the only other student of color — over the last rung on the ladder. “You’re the one at the bottom now,” the classmate tells him, using a familiar racial slur for Chinese.
None of this would matter if the show itself didn’t work; happily it does, and very well. “Fresh Off the Boat” may not be exactly the series of Huang’s dreams, or completely true to the life he has sold to show business, but it’s a consistently funny and even important one, with some lovely, nuanced performances.
If the show has been crafted to appeal to a mass audience — as mass an audience as a network can gather these days — it has not forfeited a certain impudence or embarrassed its leads by burying character in stereotype. To the extent that they are types, they are comic types, arranged for dramatic contrast.
Indeed, their dynamics are culturally transferable. Eddie’s father Louis (Randall Park) is a sweet-tempered dreamer, who tells the white host (Paul Scheer, subtly weird) he has hired for the Western-themed steakhouse he’s come to Orlando to run, “When you’re at Cattleman’s Ranch I want you to feel like you’re being hugged by a matronly woman with chubby arms.”
Mother Jessica (Constance Wu, especially good) is a self-styled realist who feels that her vigilance is all that keeps the family and family business from disaster. She counts the sprigs of parsley on a plate (“It is a garnish, not a salad”) and limits their customers’ use of pepper by plugging half the holes in the shaker.
“All you think about is money,” Eddie complains.
“Do me a favor,” his mother answers. “Go find a homeless man. Ask him if money matters. You tell me what he says.”
‘Fresh Off the Boat’
When: 8:30 and 9:31 p.m. Wednesday; moves to Tuesdays at 8 and 8:30 p.m. starting Feb. 10
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
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