"You think they're going to put two Chinese boys on TV?" is a question Jessica (Constance Wu) asks her young sons Evan and Emery in the penultimate episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat. She—a Taiwanese immigrant mother from 1995—delivers the question with disbelief and cynicism, but she’s also talking to an audience that's been watching those two Chinese boys on TV for weeks. It’s cute, it’s meta, and it’s hard not to read the line as ABC congratulating itself for having embraced the kind of diversity Jessica never believed possible 20 years ago. And yet it seems fair to allow the show a little bit of smugness as it comes to a close Tuesday, after a first season with respectable ratings and an overwhelmingly warm critical reception—arguably the best possible outcome for television’s second-ever sitcom to feature an Asian American family.
So what’s next? It's likely that next month, ABC will announce plans to renew the show for a second season. If (or when) it does, the question will be whether Fresh Off the Boat will continue to do more of the same kind of lighthearted, sitcommy storytelling—with stories like the show's young protagonist Eddie (Hudson Yang) running for school president, or Louis, the father (Randall Park), trying to sidestep his wife's controlling tendencies—or whether it'll raise the stakes. Having already proven its worth to audiences and critics, it's possible the show will take advantage of its enviable perch and head in the direction of even smarter, nuanced, and more progressive storylines. Unlike with All-American Girl, the first Asian American family sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat hasn't blown its chances: The show doesn't need to wait for another series to come along and improve on what it's done.
As with any show, Fresh Off the Boat's first season had its missteps, mostly stemming from its not doing enough to distance itself from the very stereotypes it sought to critique. Some shows (I'm looking at you, 30 Rock) have excelled at using two-dimensional depictions to create elevated commentary about issues like race, sexual orientation, or gender. In fact, many of Fresh Off the Boat's smartest moments involved pointing out bigotry or myopic thinking in order to subvert them. It didn't always work: In an episode titled "Blind Spot," Jessica realizes that her old college boyfriend is actually gay, and her ex-flame is rendered as a mostly flat stereotype in a "Gaysian" T-shirt. Other lapses included efforts to milk laughs out of Eddie's attempts to hit on older girls based on behavior he picked up from rap videos.
Plenty of television shows have started out as decent (or even mediocre or bad) only to transcend their earlier years in thematic complexity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer began its run as a clever and charming bit of television only to up the stakes in season two, moving past its initial focus on the anxieties of high-school life. Parks and Recreation's bland first year gave way to six of the finest seasons in modern sitcom history. The first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is far weaker than, say, its fifth, sixth, or seventh. (Deep Space Nine and Voyager follow a similar pattern.) A show as groundbreaking as Fresh Off the Boat shouldn't let the conventions of the network sitcom limit its subject matter or potential for incisiveness.
So much of the initial conversation (both handwringing and jubilation) about Fresh Off The Boat revolved around issues of representation and visibility. But visibility isn't such a lofty aim; it's simply a starting point for a medium that's inherently visual. With television, before you can talk about ornamentation like motifs, pacing, and story arcs, you first have to talk about who’s being seen and whose stories are being told. Even while recognizing the futility of trying to capture some universal Asian American experience, the prospect of seeing how Fresh Off the Boat would handle this responsibility was exciting. Equally exciting was the fact that it offered a rare opportunity for people to think and write about diversity on television as more than just an abstract goal (or a harbinger of some dreaded age of ethnic-casting quotas).
Before the show’s two-part premiere episode aired, Eddie Huang, the chef and writer whose memoir inspired the show, openly shared his misgivings about how the series had significantly watered down his life experiences. By the end of a long New York Magazine piece, he had somewhat demurred, acknowledging that it took "chutzpah" for the network to include the word "chink" in the pilot. And yet, weeks into the series, Huang took to Twitter, careful not to diss or dismiss the rest of the show outright, but claiming that it was helping to perpetuate an “artificial representation of Asian American lives.” Why even bother adapting his memoir at all, if ABC was just going to strip it of everything that made it special in the first place?
I had to say something because I stood by the pilot. After that it got so far from the truth that I don't recognize my own life.— RICH HOMIE HUANG (@MrEddieHuang) April 8, 2015
Why do sitcoms have to avoid real issues and instead appropriate the symptoms of our problems for entertainment? I don't accept this.— RICH HOMIE HUANG (@MrEddieHuang) April 8, 2015
Authenticity isn’t really the issue here. Huang might very well think that his memoir captured something real, if not raw and tragic, or that it could have added necessary nuance to a story whose creases had otherwise been vigorously ironed out. His frustration is understandable—that he suffered abuse at the hands of his parents isn’t just an autobiographical nugget, but part of a disturbing and mostly ignored trend of domestic violence in Asian American households. A show that instead chooses to further develop the familiar trope of the Tiger Mom might seem negligent, or willfully ignorant (though Wu's character is far from a screeching, unaffectionate harpy). But as E. Alex Jung pointed out at Vulture, “This is not a problem of content so much as a problem of the medium: If you have a show on ABC, it’s going to be an ABC show.”
In an ideal world (hopefully called “the future”), there’d be a constellation of voices, each adding dimension to the broad concept of Asian American-ness so that no single individual would need to carry the weight of speaking for millions of people, many deeply different from himself. Ideally Huang’s memoir would get to keep its illuminating specificity in the same way, say, Piper Kerman's Orange Is the New Black would. His story wouldn’t have to be stretched thin to mean much more (and simultaneously much less) than it was ever intended to because there would be so many other stories out there to choose from. It would be great to see Fresh Off the Boat take up this challenge if it locks in another season. But regardless, the series has paved the way for other networks to do even better in the years to come: to tell funnier, sadder, wiser, and ultimately more expansive stories about Asian-Americans.
And for all its flaws, the show realizes that. At the very end of the same episode where Jessica questions her sons' interest in acting, the family gathers in front of a television playing an episode of All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho. "No Asians on TV huh?" Emery asks her playfully. The significance of the nod at the earlier show needs no explanation. The moment is less about saying, "Look how much better things are now in 2015 than they used to be," and more one of gratitude: "We couldn't have done it without you."
@MrEddieHuang some asians are all "finally an A! after a B in 1994 and Fs after that." you're all "why not A+?" you're so asian. ha ha ha!!— Grace Chu (@gracethespot) April 9, 2015