Fresh Off The Boat; Into Your TV

Even with the slight unease that the show’s title invokes in some, Fresh off the Boat arrived in undeniable force to the American airwaves this week. Close to eight million people tuned in and got a glimpse at an honest to God novelty in mainstream media: a distinctly Asian American show, the first one of its kind in over 20 years. This is where we insert jokes about how a black man got into the White House before we got another half hour block allotted to us by a major television network…and then another one about Detox still hasn’t dropped.

Look, I’ll be honest with you — I wanted Fresh off the Boat to succeed as soon as I found out about it. I really, really did. With so few significant roles for us to begin with, I’ve always been both hypercritical when it comes to Asian Americans in media, celebrating gains of any kind while bristling — okay, complaining loudly — about flat, stereotypical characterizations. In my mind, I had already readied myself to expect something tokeny at best, and to be okay with that. Fresh off the Boat getting on the air was a win in itself, and if it ended up being halfway decent, that too, would just be a bonus.

But by about five minutes into the pilot, I realized I wouldn’t need to grade the show on a curve or award it a participation ribbon just for showing up. As Constance Wu (whose accent bothers me less than some people I’ve talked to) and Hudson Yang quipped on screen about the difference between American and Taiwanese supermarkets, it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t just a good “Asian American” sitcom — it was a good sitcom, period. The time tested formula in this category is to show some blend of sharply written humor and heart, but even with just two episodes under its belt, Fresh off the Boat has already flashed a third element in spades: it refreshes common sitcom tropes through a semi-unique backdrop and cast whose stories have never really been explored before, and telling those stories without necessarily exoticizing or Othering.

It’s a careful line to walk, but one that the show has navigated with great promise so far, the same way that Blackish does. At the end of it all, the Huangs are never really supposed to be seen as anything but just another family, and they’re presented that way. There are some surface level differences, sure, but at the core, this show bridges the gap and crosses shores by showing the Huangs as people trying to make it through, just like any other before them.

No, Eddie Huang’s hip-hop backboned, stranded-in-white-suburbia experience isn’t the one shared by all Asian Americans, nor should anyone understand it to be. Me? I watched it and felt heartened, reaffirmed, and right at home with all of it, identifying completely with having immigrant parents struggle to understand hip-hop culture. Had I been 13 or 14 years old in 1995, there’s a good chance I would have been rocking a Nas shirt of my own, bumpin’ Illmatic or Ready to Die in my little Sony headphones.

That’s just me, though.

Some of my friends connected more with the after school programs, the grades, the jokes about haggling in the market, because those were the parts that spoke to them, and that’s fine too. This show doesn’t aim to be the defining Asian American experience, nor does it try to be. It is an Asian American experience, an Asian American story, an Asian American narrative — the likes of which have rarely been heard by the world at large, and that’s plenty big in itself. That alone makes it important, but I probably wouldn’t be gushing about it the way I am if it wasn’t also a pretty damn good piece of television, too.

It is, and I can’t wait for the next episode to make landfall.

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