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?
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.”