First Impressions of Fresh Off The Boat

Written February 2015

You can read all the reviews from media outlets, the tweets, or the other essays debating the significance of the show, based off of Eddie Huang's memoir growing up Taiwanese-American in Orlando, Florida. You can (and should) even read Eddie Huang's own essay, which includes anecdotes and personal opinions on the process of and conflicts involved with creating the show. Or you can read this long-form perspective from a young Asian-American who creates/critiques and lives/breathes media, who attends UIUC with many other fellow Asian-American friends. Recent conversations with such friends inspired this review:
ABC's "Fresh Off The Boat" caters to its primetime audience with ease -- using other family-friendly network shows such as "Modern Family", "The Middle", "Black-ish", and "The Goldbergs" as templates, a good portion of the show's situational humor seems to appeal to a broad audience. Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) plays Eddie's mother, the unofficial head of household and the most honest, badass character on the show -- my favorite moments are when she tries to fit into a new friend group comprised entirely of stereotypical housewives. The rest of the family carries equal entertainment weight, but the heart of the show stems from the strong-willed Mr. and Mrs. Huang. Most situations and issues specifically meant to depict the Asian-American experience are highly accurate, and therefore even more entertaining.

To a certain degree, however, there is collective agreement that the Huang's experiences in "Fresh Off The Boat" are almost too relatable -- traumatizing, even, when they bring back specific memories of growing up Asian-American. For some, it's difficult to laugh when being forced to re-experience micro-aggressive insults, even direct insults (Eddie gets called the C-word in Episode One), childhood punishment, and other moments on screen. To have these experiences whittled down to minutes or seconds for either comedic or dramatic effect -- some are quick to claim overreaction, but as first, modern on-screen representations, these moments do not pass lightly for others.

Of course, the experiences that "Fresh Off The Boat" portray do not apply to all Asian-Americans. Personally, I'm happy to have been raised by fairly lenient, cultured, self-aware parents who were usually more encouraging than forceful. While I've been familiar with every cultural reference on the show, some personal experiences are lost. For example, Filipino-Americans didn't have an equivalent to Chinese Learning Centers (Catholic school, maybe), but afterschool math homework with my dad was a torturous three hours per evening and additional learning was continually enforced outside of school (I'm thankful for some of it, but only for reasons of pride). I enjoy that "Fresh Off The Boat" maintains Eddie's burgeoning love and idolization of hip-hop, a music that gave him self-confidence when growing up -- because that's what rock and punk were for me (though I'm a little insulted that they made his Nirvana-loving cousin all sensitive and lame -- but at least it's realistic).

The main downfall is that, in order to establish these characters and experiences in mainstream media, stereotypes are inevitably employed, among concerns that inaccurate representation is fueled even further. Huang himself claims to have come to terms with the simultaneously differentiated and universal aspect of the show and maintains that the show is imperfect -- not the "great, historic Asian-American television show and [...] everything we ever wanted" -- but the "first wheel", the beginning. It's a long road to get to the point of "Orange Is The New Black"...even "Community", "Brooklyn Nine-Nine", "How To Get Away with Murder", "Shameless" (my #1 and the most underrated), even "New Girl" (the only other show I keep up with), but at this point, representation is what matters.

Despite the fact that the show's actors will be able to find even greater future career opportunities as a result of its success, despite the fact that the show's success would lead to the creation of even better shows and media representations of myself, my friends, and my family, "Fresh Off The Boat" is worth watching because it's funny, entertaining, and it roots for the outcast. I want it to be that way, to be able to stand on its own without the necessary attachment of sociocultural discussion. As of its second week, "Fresh Off The Boat" was the highest rated Tuesday night comedy on television -- here's to hoping it maintains the broad viewership and success that it deserves.


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