A bumpy maiden voyage for ‘Fresh Off the Boat’
“Fresh Off the Boat,” the new family comedy on ABC, set out on its voyage with a relatively promising forecast. The show has been mostly well received by critics and stands as the first network sitcom about an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All-American Girl” premiered two decades ago.
The half-hour show features a predominantly Asian American cast, which includes Randall Park, hot off his stint as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in “The Interview,” as patriarch and restaurateur Louis Huang, Constance Wu as matriarch Jessica Huang, Hudson Yang as young Eddie, Forrest Wheeler as Emery, and Ian Chen as Evan.
The show centers on a feisty hip-hop-loving son of immigrant Taiwanese parents growing up in mid-'90s Florida and is based on the 2013 bestselling memoir of the same name by outspoken 32-year-old bicoastal chef Eddie Huang. The first two episodes, which touch on pop-culture assimilation (Eddie’s love of the Notorious B.I.G.) and cultural discord (his schoolmates make faces at his stinky Chinese lunches), aired Wednesday night.
“I never imagined I could play a version of the all-American dad on a sitcom,” said Park, who spent time with the real Louis in Orlando, Fla., to get a sense of who he was to the community. “I’m used to playing the coworker — a lot of coworkers — the neighbor, the police officer. It was always like the fourth or fifth lead on a TV show. It was never in the realm of my reality that I could be the main lead on a network TV show.”
But at what price? That’s where contention has arisen.
The program’s simple existence has made it susceptible to close examination, particularly among Asian Americans, many of whom have long felt invisible or shafted in their representations by mainstream media. But adding an extra spotlight on the fraught discussion has been the very man whose life story serves as the show’s foundation.
Huang detailed his battles in bringing the story from page to screen in an essay he wrote for New York magazine — in it, he voiced vexation with the show’s executive producers, Nahnatchka Khan, Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan. He also bashed the show-making process and the temptation to dilute some of the raw details of his story.
One clash centered on the show’s take on Eddie’s introduction to macaroni ‘n’ cheese, one of Huang’s favorite scenes in his book, because “it exemplified foreign white culture,” he wrote. Huang felt the setup in the show was sloppy in depicting it more as bad mac ‘n’ cheese rather than as weird and foreign. (The scene was ultimately cut.)
Some viewed the 4,000-word treatise as a refreshing spotlight on the kinks of the Hollywood system. And even though Huang, who narrates the TV series and is a producer, ended the piece on somewhat agreeable terms, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Huang was visibly annoyed on a recent day at the Vice offices in Venice (where he has a food-themed Web series) after receiving pushback from “Hollywood brass” over his choice of rapper Danny Brown to perform the theme song.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, we’re worried about what Middle America will think,’” Huang said, seated in an outside patio. “‘Maybe they’ll hear this theme song and tune out.’ You know what? If they tune out, ... them. You can’t get everybody.”
After more fulminations, he said he wished he had waited another year to adapt his memoir so that he could have signed a deal that would have given him writing power. He also predicted that those on the studio and network side of things would say everything was hunky-dory: “They’ll probably tell you, ‘Oh, we love Eddie. We love him.’”
Maybe not in so many words.
Earlier that day across town, Khan and Mar were on an enthusiastic kick with the show nearing its public debut. Seated in a quad area on the Fox lot (20th Century Fox Television produces the show), the two maintained a positive front when discussing Huang — showing that they were either used to his sensitive streak or were attempting to downplay any family dysfunction (or both).
“I view it this way: We want the same thing, we just have different approaches,” said Mar, who is Chinese American and who brought the idea of adapting the book to 20th Century Fox. “We come from similar backgrounds, but we’re completely different people. We’re like two brothers that constantly fight, but it’s all for a good thing.”
Khan, whose previous credit is ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23,” jumped in: “It’s been a struggle for [Eddie] to watch his life story go through this process. Him not knowing anything about how scripted TV works, certainly not network TV, has led to some grievances. But to watch him struggle with it and then see it come out and be really proud of the final product, I think that’s ultimately great.”
Because as much as Huang harps on his battle to keep the sitcom truer to its source material — even when he questions his level of involvement in a hypothetical second season — he is firm in saying that he has no regrets and that viewers should tune in; that sometimes one has to bend when making a broadcast show that has to appeal to a broad audience.
“I am proud of the show,” he said. “I’m not cool with what it took. It shouldn’t be this hard to tell the truth and be authentic for people of color. But you know what, we did something historic. I feel like that pilot is a really good episode of television. It’s groundbreaking. And for that 22 minutes, all this ... was worth it.”
He continued: “Sometimes I question whether I’m being too hard on them because I’m not of this place. When I put myself in [Khan’s] shoes, I’m like, ‘Man, that ain’t easy.’ And it’s also not her story. So there’s probably more of an inclination to do what she thinks is the smart thing to do just to get the show on.”
Strength in numbers
Currently at 5.5% of the U.S. population, according to census figures, Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing ethnic segment in the U.S. The numbers are more dramatic in some urban centers, such as Southern California — according to a 2013 report by the nonprofit legal and civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, Asian Americans, with a population of 1.5 million, now make up 15% of L.A. County.
They are also showing their strength as consumers. A 2013 Nielsen report projected that the buying power of Asian Americans, whose households on average boast incomes of $100,000 or more, would reach $1 trillion by 2017.
But Hollywood has been stingy in its portrayals. Among the emails that were leaked in the Sony cyber attack last year was one by writer Aaron Sorkin. In an exchange regarding the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book “Flash Boys,” whose protagonist is Asian Canadian, he pointed to a potential hiccup, saying: “There aren’t any Asian movie stars.”
“I thought it was very important that people saw that,” Park said. “I don’t think Sorkin was being racist, he was just stating what has been the norm in Hollywood. But the fact is there are a lot of Asian male actors who can be leading men in America. It’s just that they have to be found and given a platform. I feel a show like ours, if it succeeds, is going to help open those doors. At least I hope.”
Several shows, particularly in recent years, have prominently featured Asian Americans, such as Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” starring Mindy Kaling, and “Stalker,” featuring Maggie Q. Still, the percentage of Asian American and Pacific Islander characters dipped from 6% to 4% in 2014, according to a report on prime-time scripted series conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Adam Moore, SAG-AFTRA’s national director of equal employment opportunity and diversity, puts it more succinctly: “The demographic has been woefully underrepresented.” Part of the problem is that not enough colorblind casting is being practiced, he said. Unless a role specifies an ethnic character, chances are the default will be a white male or female.
That many Asian Americans are nervous about how “Fresh Off the Boat” will amplify or alleviate their concerns is understandable, Wu said.
“The type of fears and anxieties that have come up are really a good opportunity for Asian Americans to investigate the genesis of their shame and fears instead of trying to quiet the show that brings them out,” said Wu, who worked in classical theater before moving to film and TV. “Dialogue, however difficult, is crucial to progress. In order to create a voice for Asians within America, you have to allow the opportunity to happen.”
It’s something Cho said she wasn’t in a position to do with her 1994 sitcom. The show, in which she played a rebellious teenager in a traditional Korean American family, lasted only one season. It failed to win over critics and rubbed viewers the wrong way, particularly Korean Americans, who took issue with language inaccuracies and promoting stereotypes.
Of course, that goes with the territory. “Fresh Off the Boat” gleefully plays with cultural cliches — the mother is a fierce “Tiger Mom” who complains that school is too easy when one of her sons gets straight A’s; but it also looks at American culture through the perspective of newcomers: those amazing pre-packaged Lunchables that all the kids bring in!
Huang contacted Cho for advice early in the making “Fresh Off the Boat.” And Cho said she’s counting on to him to make things right.
“Now I’m really looking to Eddie to realize my dream,” the 46-year-old actress said by telephone. “I was just a kid, and I didn’t know how to have integrity because I didn’t know what integrity was. And I didn’t have anyone to help me. My hope is that the audience will see the show for what it really is — a needed addition.”
Diversity at ABC
“Fresh Off the Boat” is part of ABC’s aggressive push to diversify its slate, alongside freshman comedy entrants “black-ish” and “Cristela.” Samie Falvey, the network’s executive vice president of comedy development, said telling the story of an immigrant family is something ABC has been interested in exploring since she joined the company.
“It’s the overnight-success story that took eight years,” Falvey said. “We thought an immigrant family story would be another way of doing a modern American family show. It was only after we had traction for our family shows on our Wednesday night block that we became really aggressive about trying to find something that fit.”
There are 12 people on the writing staff — including Khan, who is of Persian ancestry. She said “half of the staff are of diverse ethnicities,” including Chinese, Korean, Indian and African American. “It was really important to have those voices in there,” Khan said. Huang, as is his wont, demurs. “I don’t respect the writing in that writers room. I don’t think it’s great. But the thing is, I do respect the result. They got us on.”
After a test run with the network’s Wednesday comedy block, the show moves into its 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot this week — leaving it without a lead-in and up against CBS heavyweight “NCIS.” And drumming up viewer interest hasn’t gone without missteps.
The show’s official Twitter handle drew complaints after it posted a promotional ad that depicted various ethnicities as distinguished by their hats. The network deleted the tweet — but the twitteratti had already erupted.
A question posed by a journalist at last month’s Television Critics Assn. press tour illustrated the clumsiness that can shadow discussions about immigrant cultures.
“I wanted to ask the question: I love Asian culture,” the reporter said to the cast and crew. “And I was just talking about chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”
“I felt bad for her, because she was well intentioned,” Mar, whose other credits include Fox’s coming comedy “Weird Loners,” said of the reporter. “But that’s where the conversation is — ‘Oh, I like Asian people. Oh, I like chopsticks.’ I think something like this coming out, it’s so important just in the fact that it’s on TV, because there is a sense of validation in just seeing someone that looks like you on the screen.”
The challenge comes in making a lasting impression, and the producers are certainly ambitious. “We want to create a world that will withstand the test of time,” Khan said. “We want people to talk about the Huangs the way they did the Huxtables, the Keatons, and now the Dunphys.”
‘Fresh Off the Boat’
When: 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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