‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Wasn’t Perfect, but It Was Radical in Its Own Way
The family sitcom confronted Asian American stereotypes but struggled to live up to expectations
Sometime in 2015, a few months after Fresh Off the Boat premiered on ABC, one of my professors was asked by a student group to facilitate a discussion on the show. At the time, she was the school’s only faculty member in Asian American Studies, which made her the resident expert on FOTB, even if her research had nothing to do with it.
But there was a problem: In her office, she privately confessed to me that she didn’t quite like the show. She conceded that FOTB’s willingness to refute stereotypes — by first inhabiting, then humanizing them — was indeed commendable, yet she also found the series wholly unfunny. I disagreed with her take, but the conversation stuck with me. As a screenwriting hopeful myself, I walked out of her office wondering if this was to be the primary function of Asian American art: to sneak humanity into the trojan horse of a stereotype and pray that viewers will come away having learned a lesson.
As Fresh Off the Boat, the sitcom set in the ’90s and early 2000s and based loosely on Eddie Huang’s memoir, prepares to end its historic six-season run tonight, that notion now feels rote and rudimentary. Over the past five years, Asian American representation in Hollywood has vastly improved. In 2018, we got Crazy Rich Asians, a glossy Hollywood rom-com that shattered all expectations; the year after, we got The Farewell, an indie family drama that landed star Awkwafina a Golden Globe for best actress. Next year, we’ll get Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a Marvel movie with a primarily Asian cast. There have been some growing pains (see: Awkwafina’s blaccent and Constance Wu’s Twitter), and there’s more work to be done to better represent the vast spectrum of Asian American experiences. But it seems safe to say that within this expansive array of creations, many stereotypes have been disassembled. The idea that a film or series should be worthwhile simply because it addresses a stereotype seems too low of a bar.
Yet stereotypes were critics’ primary preoccupation with FOTB when it debuted in February 2015. Many reviews and essays — from Asian and non-Asian writers alike — wondered if the show was relying on the impressions that white audiences have of Asian people. There was a model minority in Randall Park’s Louis and a tiger mom in Constance Wu’s Jessica, and the kids were three different shades of nerd. (Even the name of the show was the subject of some debate.) On the flip side, there was the related worry — raised by Huang himself — that the show’s producers had defanged the source material, turning it into a generic sitcom. Huang didn’t mince words: He called the show “a reverse-yellowface… with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.”
The idea that a film or series should be worthwhile simply because it addresses a stereotype seems too low of a bar.
Looking back, I find these critiques to be unfair and expectant of too much. But they were also a reasonable symptom of a very particular fear: that the show represented a once-in-a-generation shot to get this right. Asian American viewers wanted it to be an accurate, authentic reflection of their own lives and thus pulled it in a million directions. On an aesthetic level, critics and creators wanted it to be funnier, bolder, and more specific. In the wake of Huang’s rebuke, even those who argued in the show’s favor seemed compelled to simultaneously ding it. “Yes, Fresh Off the Boat is glossy and artificial, but so is every other network sitcom,” E. Alex Jung wrote at Vulture. “Visibility isn’t such a lofty aim; it’s simply a starting point for a medium that’s inherently visual,” wrote The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz in a tepid review at the end of the show’s first season.
But, as with many shows, FOTB’s first season may have been more of a practice run. In its second and subsequent seasons, the show still had its repetitive moments — an issue faced by most network sitcoms — but there were also definite highs of weird and specific brilliance: when, in season two, Evan thinks about changing his American name because he finds his parents’ choice uninspired; or when, in season four, viewers are treated to an episode of near-complete Mandarin dialogue, as the Huang family competes to see who can go the longest without saying anything in English; or the stellar season three installment in which Jessica spikes with jealousy when Evan goes to church with friends in lieu of their usual Sunday trip to Costco.
Unfortunately, not many critics stuck around to see these flashes of comedic commentary. In the era of “peak TV,” critical attention for most shows understandably wanes after the first season. Each year it aired, Fresh Off the Boat found itself further from the center of discourse. My worry is that future generations of viewers will remember Fresh Off the Boat only as a historical marker — a prelude to the canon of Asian American pop culture — and not as a thoughtful piece with a distinct point of view.
One thing that stands out to me now about FOTB is its setting. The show takes place in Orlando, Florida, which isn’t the Singapore of Crazy Rich Asians or Changchun of The Farewell. According to 2010 census data, Orlando’s population was 3.8% Asian (it was even lower in the era during which the show takes place), making it a rather curious place to raise a Taiwanese family. The story that Fresh Off the Boat tells isn’t so obviously representative because its focus is not on the more famous Asian enclaves in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Rather, it’s about a family shouldering the burden of exposure and responsibility of representation in an unfamiliar territory, much like a lone Asian Americanist at an elite university.
The inventory of Asian American stories continues to grow, so viewers will likely gravitate toward offerings that feel more current than a family sitcom set in the 90s and 2000s.
In hindsight, I’m reading Fresh Off the Boat as a story about representation. Over six seasons, the series weaponizes the demands and limitations of the sitcom format to show us the absurdity of our expectations. One hundred and 14 episodes means 114 resets, each one showing us different versions of the Huangs and the multitudes they contained. Eddie, once a girl-crazy troublemaker, hits a growth spurt and becomes a Harvard applicant and an ally to a lesbian friend. Jessica goes from acerbic housewife and tiger mom to failed mystery novelist to dean of a private school. Evan (my favorite), a teacher’s pet on his way to being “doctor-president,” joins the local homeowner’s association and befriends all the neighborhood’s blonde housewives.
This appears to be the right time for the show to end. The inventory of Asian American stories continues to grow, so viewers will likely gravitate toward offerings that feel more current than a family sitcom set in the 90s and 2000s. As I bid farewell to the Huang family, I hope that Fresh Off the Boat is remembered not just as a stepping stone to better and more meaningful art, but also as something that took its own risks, even if they didn’t always seem so revolutionary.