Brow Beat

Fresh Off the Boat Has a Jessica Problem

Constance Wu was its breakout star, but after Crazy Rich Asians, the show has lost sight of what made her character great.

Constance Wu’s character in a bathtub on the show.
Constance Wu as Jessica Huang in Fresh Off the Boat.
ABC

Constance Wu’s reign as this summer’s multiplex queen was brief and delayed, but ultimately indisputable. As the star of Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy that made history in more ways than one, Wu became the face of a bona fide cultural phenomenon whose surprise success cracked open Hollywood’s traditionally immovable doors for greater Asian American representation.

Wu’s is a fate that seems both destined and improbable; she’d already accomplished the same thing on television three years ago, when Fresh Off the Boat became the first Asian American–led network sitcom in 20 years, but lightning rarely strikes twice. Playing a childhood version of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, Hudson Yang is the ABC series’ ostensible star. But from the very first episode, it was obvious that Wu was Fresh Off the Boat’s biggest asset: its funniest line-reader, its most versatile actor, and off screen, its fiercest advocate for Asian American equality. It helped that her character, fan favorite Jessica, was the show’s most subversive voice. A Tiger Mom wary of mediocrity, Jessica embodies the perspective that mainstream American culture has little to offer her or her family. (Her definition of a “white lie”: “A lie that protects you from all the things that make white people soft.”) It’s an attitude I associate with a certain level of confidence and maturity. Teenage Eddie just wants to fit in. Jessica knows there’s no point in not standing out.

All of which makes Wu’s return to Fresh Off the Boat, currently in its fifth season, such a disappointment. The actress is as nimble as ever, but sometime last year, the writers seem to have forgotten what makes Jessica such a brilliant character. She still gets to throw flames, but now she’s forced to apologize for them, repeatedly. Her self-possession coarsened into self-absorption, Jessica has become yet another immature character in need of life lessons, alongside her middle- and high-school-age children. It’s a humiliating (and groan-inducing) turn, with insulting implications for the immigrant culture she represents.

Skewing significantly younger than ABC’s other inclusive, family-friendly fare (e.g., Black-ish and Speechless), Fresh Off the Boat has always had a mile-wide after-school-special streak. But that penchant has become a mission statement for the series, which now seems bent on teaching Jessica about the costs of her selfishness—over and over again. Take last year’s Christmas episode, in which Jessica attempts to cull the weaker singers out of her caroling group, only to get cut herself. By the end of the episode, she’s parented by her own preteen son: “Christmas isn’t about being perfect. It’s about everyone being together.” In an episode that aired in January, she decides to lie to her two younger children about Tara Lipinski winning gold over Michelle Kwan at the 1998 Olympics using this foolproof logic: “Evan and Emery believe in Michelle Kwan the winner. If they find out that they can work that hard and still come in second, they’ll never work hard again.” (In that episode, it’s guest star Nancy Kerrigan who instructs Jessica, “You just have to pick yourself back up and keep skating.”) In October’s season premiere, Jessica once again deceives her sons when her horror novel, A Case of a Knife to the Brain, flops. She has to, she informs her husband, Louis. Otherwise, the boys will see her as a failure and never respect her again.

In other words, Fresh Off the Boat has made Jessica into something that was unimaginable just two years ago: a petulant, off-putting idiot. And since Jessica was by all accounts the show’s most interesting character, her decline has correspondingly tanked the show’s watchability. It was only last year when the comedy’s pointed Season 3 finale launched a cluster of think pieces praising its “sly dissection” of the American Dream. That kind of relevance is hard to imagine for the series now.

But Fresh Off the Boat didn’t slide in quality in any old way. It plummeted by torpedoing Jessica, its closest incarnation of a willful and proud otherness. (Louis’ mom, who primarily speaks Chinese, is much older than Jessica, but her fanciful obsession with American pop culture renders Jessica the show’s main Old World ambassador.) The genius of the Jessica of the first three seasons, who eschewed what we most held dear, was that she was unexpectedly the show’s most relatable character. But now, she’s infantilized and pathologized—a wrong to be righted—and by extension, so is the culture that she represents. Fresh Off the Boat began by embracing both the assimilationists and the holdouts among the Asian diaspora—there wasn’t a wrong way to be an immigrant. But these days, it’s afflicted by its own suffocatingly narrow view of how to be Asian American.