The major story of this network television season has been diversity. The biggest hits of the year—the only hits, really—have been shows starring black actors, namely ABC’s Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder and, most recently, Fox’s Empire, the ratings for which are currently flouting the rule that what goes up must come down. A cynic might observe that it’s only after the networks began combusting, desperately looking for any thing to save themselves, that they really committed to diversity as a programming strategy. But even a cynic can’t doubt the intensity with which a drowning industry will cling to a life preserver. The commercial and critical success of these shows—as well as the critical success of the CW’s Golden Globe–winning, bilingual Jane the Virgin—ensures diversity will be here at least through the coming pilot season, and, hopefully, much longer. If that has as much do to with capitalism as it does progressivism—well, that’s how capitalism is supposed to work.
A more idealistic sort would notice that the aforementioned shows all happen to be pretty damn good. They might even observe that having a rare-for-television perspective could be part of what is making these shows so good. A TV series with a point of view will almost always be better than the latest mushball with a high-concept tagline, especially given that even the sharpest show will get worn down by the grindstone that is the network TV pilot process. There is no better proof of this than ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, yet another damn good, diverse network sitcom that premieres this Wednesday night and remains funny, charming, sweet, and subtly provocative despite—according to no less an expert than the subject of the show itself—having had some of its edge sanded off.
Fresh Off the Boat is based on chef and iconoclast Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up Asian and obsessed with hip-hop in 1990s Orlando and has been adapted for ABC by Nahnatchka Khan, the creator of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. It is the first sitcom to star an Asian actor since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was canceled in 1995, the same year Fresh Off the Boat is set. In the intervening two decades, Asians have remained one of the few racial groups that Hollywood thinks it is still culturally acceptable to mock. As the show begins, 11-year-old, American-born Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), his two brothers, and his grandmother are being transplanted from Washington, D.C., to Orlando by his Taiwanese-born parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu), because Louis has opened a struggling steakhouse there.
The Huangs find themselves living in a largely white suburban community, running a restaurant that serves a largely white clientele, and attending largely white public schools. As a family, they are different from most of the people around them. But within the family, there is difference too. Louis is a nice-guy optimist; Jessica is a realist surrounded by an endless litany of American absurdities. Eddie’s brothers seem to blend in seamlessly, and Eddie—well, Eddie is an Asian American kid, born to Asian immigrant parents, who is so alienated by the dominant white culture that the only way he can relate to it is through hip-hop and other signifiers of black culture. “If you’re an outsider,” an older Eddie voice-overs, “hip-hop is your anthem.”
Fresh Off the Boat blows up the idea of a racial binary to contend instead with something more complicated: a world where Asian, white, and black identities are constantly rubbing up against each other. Huang, in his criticism of the show, has said that it performs a kind of “reverse yellowface,” telling boilerplate American sitcom stories via an Asian cast, and it’s true that the show handles racial dynamics so smoothly that you may feel like you are watching something you may have seen before. Maybe The Wonder Years as interpolated by an 11-year-old with swagger and weariness beyond his years; a family sitcom that pairs nicely with Modern Family or Black-ish; or an Asian-inflected take on living in the ’90s, à la The Goldbergs—but still, you really haven’t seen an 11-year-old Asian kid have his grandmother cue up Snoop Dogg so he can deliver his good grades to his mother with a celebratory pimp walk.
As with Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat contends with race matter-of-factly: Racial dynamics are not the subtext, but the subject. Louis becomes convinced that the only way to boost sales at his flagging restaurant is to hire a white spokesman who will provide customers with a reassuring white face. He’s not angry about it—as if he doesn’t know America is racist—just tickled he might have a solution to his restaurant’s financial difficulties. After Eddie gets those straight A’s, Jessica becomes convinced the school isn’t hard enough and decides that Eddie and his brothers need additional, rigorous tutoring, a riff on the Tiger Mom that foregrounds just how much Jessica wants the best for her children. (Less explicably, the show insists on providing momentary flashbacks to Jessica’s life in Washington—which she misses terribly—that all involve large groups of Asian people shrieking at one another.)
Most remarkable of all is Eddie’s encounter with a racial slur. In the pilot, Eddie walks into the lunchroom and sits with the only black kid there, before connecting with a white kid over a shared love of Biggie. That burgeoning friendship falls apart as soon as Eddie opens his lunch, which the white kid ridicules as disgusting and nasty-smelling. Eddie becomes convinced he needs “white people food” and lobbies his mother to take him to the supermarket to get him Lunchables. Swaggering back into the cafeteria with his new, entirely processed lunch product, he goes to put his meal in the microwave, only to have the black kid cut him in line and say, “You’re at the bottom now; it’s my turn,” before calling him a “chink.”
This incident comes straight from Huang’s memoir. Huang, writing in New York magazine about the experience of making the show, vividly describes the process as a series of soul-sucking compromises and concessions to stereotype, in which his memoir was neutered over and over again to make it more palatable to the broad audience. He is far more scathing of his own TV show than I have been: He’s not grading network sitcoms on a curve. But Huang describes watching the scene of Eddie getting called a name as revelatory. “It was the most formative moment of my childhood; the first time someone ever called me a chink, held in a two-shot. Two kids of color forced to battle each other at the bottom of America’s totem pole on ABC,” he writes. It’s not the sort of thing Huang, or anyone else, is used to seeing on television: 11-year-olds of color infighting because of the social pressure to please other white 11-years-olds.
The fact that the scene gets seriously cutesified afterward, when Eddie’s parents threaten to sue the school because “It’s the American way, right?” doesn’t reduce it. Wrapping things up neatly is, after all, the way of American network sitcoms. So long as what they are wrapping up is as unruly as certain moments in Fresh Off the Boat, audiences are getting better TV as a present.