“I need white people lunch,” exclaims young Eddie Huang midway through the pilot episode of ABC’s upcoming family sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat.” “That gets you a seat at the table, and then you get to change the rules.”
Having just moved to the suburbs of Orlando from the cultural enclave of DC’s Chinatown in the mid 1990’s, he was quickly ostracized in his new, mostly Caucasian school for his ethnic-looking lunch and felt like a true minority for the first time.
“I never realized how rough it was back then [to be a minority],” Hudson Yang, the young actor who portrays Eddie, tells us. “Eddie had to do weird and crazy things to deal with it.” The 1990’s were a much simpler time than today, and without the internet or social media to escape his bubble, Eddie desperately wanted to not only fit in, but also be seen as a force to be reckoned with.
This attitude runs parallel to the expectations the Asian American community has for the freshman sitcom, set to debut as a mid-season replacement with a two-episode premiere on Wednesday, February 4, 2015, and the third episode airing in its regular timeslot on Tuesday, February 10, 2015. Two Asian American-led shows were recently cancelled: fellow first year ABC sitcom “Selfie,” and TBS’ “Sullivan and Sons,” which lasted three seasons. While there are still a few shows out there with strong Asian American characters, “Fresh Off the Boat” represents the first time in 20 years that an all-Asian family has taken center stage in a network sitcom (the last being Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” in 1995). From the announcement of its pickup by ABC to the release of the first trailer, Asian Americans wondered if this was finally their chance to get a seat at the table.
“Fresh Off the Boat” has generated positive buzz leading up to its premiere from both critics and community members. Advance screenings of the pilot were met with praise, and even cynics left the screenings with wary optimism, including its own executive producer and subject matter, Eddie Huang, who recently published a strongly worded op-ed about the production process (though he did conclude with his own reluctant stamp of approval).
A lot of the praise goes to the cast, led by Randall Park, a long underrated comedic force recently thrust into the limelight for his role as infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in “The Interview” (and himself a Kollaboration alum), and Constance Wu, a relative unknown who may be the series’ secret comedic weapon. The show is also supported by a strong writers room, led by executive producer Nahnatchka Khan, whose last project was the critically acclaimed “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” and includes Kourtney Kang, who was a writer-producer on CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” Sanjay Shah, former writer-producer on “Cougar Town,” and Ali Wong, writer-actress-comedian (and past Kollaboration host).
“I’m not kidding when I say that we might have the most diverse writers’ room in television,” claimed Randall during a press junket. Taking a few moments in between takes to chat, Randall admitted that he does feel the pressure to do right by Asian Americans, especially as a Korean American playing a Taiwanese immigrant, but in the end, his goal is to tell a great story. In his defense, he’s been working hard to make sure that he does the part of Louis Huang justice. In fact, Randall has been taking Mandarin lessons to work on his scenes with Grandma Huang, the show’s other comedic secret weapon, as well as his own Chinese accent.
Accents obviously feature prominently in “Fresh Off the Boat.” Mr. and Mrs. Huang are both first generation immigrants in America, and while Randall and Constance are perfectly able to speak perfect English, for their characters, English was an adopted language. It’s to the show’s credit then that the accents are used as character traits and never as the joke, as many commenters feared after watching the trailer. Authenticity was a huge focus in portraying the Huangs, and showrunners Melvin Mar and Nahnatchka Kahn went to great lengths to keep an honest and relatable perspective while avoiding the trappings of stereotypes.
In the end, it’s the characters and the smart writing that really make this show shine. If the first two episodes are any indication, the show finds its footing right out of the gate and never lets off the accelerator, attacking touchy issues like the racial slur “chink” while also letting loose a few inside jokes (“Who knew Asians were into karaoke?”). Randall Park is in great form as Louis, the boundlessly optimistic patriarch of the Huang family, whose belief in the American dream has brought his family to the exotic suburbs of Orlando. Constance Wu, who many believe will become the series’ breakout star, is amazing as Jessica, the Stephen King-loving matriarch just trying to make the most of her family’s new situation. Hudson Yang brings his New York swag to the hip-hop loving Eddie Huang, and Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen absolutely kill it in their scenes as the younger Huang siblings.
The real, grown up Eddie Huang may have some misgivings about selling his family’s story to network TV, but the truth is he may have given Asian Americans the most precious gift of all, a seat at the table.
Fresh Off the Boat premieres Wednesday, February 4 with two episodes at 8:30/7:30c and 9:30/8:30c, and begins its regular time slot of Tuesdays at 8/7c on February 10.
Photos courtesy of DISNEY/ABC TELEVISION GROUP © ABC