Friday, February 27, 2015

American Dreams: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat

Randall Park and Constance Wu in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

Comedies are a tricky business: an always mysterious alchemy of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and like a good joke, possible to dissect but impossible to clearly explain. The family sitcom – from Family Ties to The Simpsons to Everybody Loves Raymond to Modern Family to this season's Black-ish – is perhaps a bit easier to break down. The family, like the workplace, is perhaps the closest thing to a universal experience we currently have. In the end if the relationships feel real and the comic nuances hit the right tone, it doesn't matter whether that workplace is a police station, a paper supply distributor, or a parks department in a small Midwestern town, nor if the family is white and upwardly mobile, Italian Catholic, Black, gay or straight, or even animated. Whatever their experience might be, viewers will find their own way into that world – and having done so hopefully laugh a little. But this balance between the known and the unknown is perhaps where most of the battles are won and lost. Err on the side of too familiar, and a new series simply feels unnecessary. Too unfamiliar, and well, even the most pointed and brilliant comedy will never find an audience to begin with.  

Earlier this month, ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, a new family comedy adapted from the 2013 bestselling memoir of the same name by restaurateur, and former Food Channel personality, Eddie Huang. The sitcom begins in 1995 – as 11-year-old Eddie, his parents, his Mandarin-speaking grandmother, and his two young brothers move from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to sunny and suburban Orlando to follow his father's dream of opening a restaurant. Eddie's parents Louis and Jessica are Taiwanese born, but Eddie and his brothers are American, born and raised – albeit within the shelter of an urban Chinese enclave. The "boat" they are "fresh off " of is in fact a minivan, though Florida might as well be a new continent for the Huangs. In full on Wonder Years mode, the real-life 32-year-old Eddie Huang provides a voiceover to many of these early episodes, giving the series a recurrent taste of some of the bite of his memoir, while also providing some insight into the young Eddie's struggles in his new environment. ("Remember: this was 1995, before the Internet. I couldn't just search, 'Asian kids who like hip-hop.' I had to figure out a way to fit in.”)

To get a few things out of the way quickly: Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American network comedy since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was aired and cancelled (also by ABC) in 1994, a full year before this nostalgic coming-of-age period comedy is actually set. On those terms, Fresh Off the Boat is both significant, and important. Those terms, however, don't tell us what perhaps is most urgent: is the new series funny, charming, and (apologies!) fresh enough to watch? Fortunately, the answer is a firm yes. Six episodes have already aired and all demonstrate that Fresh Off the Boat is likely the most promising new network comedy of 2015.

Constance Wu and Hudson Yang in Fresh Off the Boat.

Created by Nahnatchka Khan – the former American Dad! writer whose last outing was the ABC's surprisingly edgy, and unfortunately titled Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 – Fresh Off the Boat has a classic and contemporary feel to it. Perhaps it is simply that the mid-90s are a far less distracting era to set a story than the mid-80s (see: The Goldbergs), but credit likely goes to the writing, which is committed to relationships and story over empty nostalgic gestures. O.J Simpson, dial-up modems, and Public Enemy t-shirts are stage dressing, but never centre stage. The series has also demonstrated an attention to internal continuity that has already paid off, even so early in its first season, both in plot, as in Eddie's mother's growing dissatisfaction with staying at home during her days leading her to seek out a job, or even the still largely background reactions by Walter, the only other visible minority in Eddie's grade, whose repeated muttering of "This school is ridiculous!" grows funnier, and more pointed, with every iteration. (The young African-American Walter, played by Prophet Bolden, is also front and centre for the pilot episode's most provocative scene, where he and Eddie are clearly negotiating which should be the lowest man on the totem pole in this largely white school.)

The main cast is uniformly strong. Hudson Yang as the young Eddie has a screen presence which far outstrips his years, but it's Randall Park and Constance Wu as Eddie's parents who are perhaps the show's real stars. As Louis Huang, Park displays all the wisdom we used to expect from our sitcom dads of old, with only a hint of the buffoonish that has become normative for current TV fathers and husbands. Brought up under a disciplinarian father in Taiwan, Louis is a true believer in the American dream, even if his particular translation of it is sometimes cringe-worthy. (In the first episode, he is convinced that what his struggling Old West-themed steakhouse really needs is a white host greeting customers at the door – "A nice, happy white face, like Bill Pullman." But just as often his intuitive sense of American realities are spot on: "Sometimes you have to spend money you don't have to make it seem like you have money that you don't spend" or his comparison of the recent do-it-yourself fajita craze to being like "an edible IKEA chair.") Every time Park is on on-screen he shows us once again why he might have the best thing about The Interview. But it is probably Constance Wu and her portrayal of the hardnosed, street-smart and uncompromising Jessica Huang that is destined to be the series' breakout character. Whether she is threatening local teenagers or bargaining for Popsicles at the supermarket, Jessica is as powerful an embodiment of the first-generation immigrant as I think I've ever seen on American television. She, like her sons, is struggling to fit into her new environment – and especially the klatch of blonde, rollerblading women in their suburban neighbourhood ("The loudest one seems to be their queen," she observes.) – but she always demonstrates an unapologetic pride in herself, her family, and her background. One scene in particular stands out, which remains for me the funniest moment of the season so far, as well as the nucleus of everything that makes Fresh Off the Boat worth watching: after her youngest son loses his favourite stuffed animal to his wheelchair-bound grandmother in a reckless bet over cards, Jessica just shakes her head at the hysterical child, and with a wry sigh explains, "That's poker, baby. That's poker."

At its heart, Fresh Off the Boat is a story of people just trying to fit it, and there is perhaps no more universal story than that. (Who are these insiders anyway?) Young Eddie's age and position makes his own struggles the most self-conscious of the family – itself a nice reflection of what being the eldest child in an immigrant family means, as he's absorbed most of his parents' cultural and economic anxieties, while  inadvertently  shielding his frustratingly well-adjusted younger siblings from those very same stresses. But like all stories with universal appeal, it is born of and carried by particular experience, and most often, an experience of particularity; it is this feature of this story is at the core of what makes the series feel so innovative, and welcome. Fresh Off the Boat isn't merely a story worth telling, it is all the more importantly also one worth hearing.

Fresh Off the Boat airs on Tuesdays on ABC.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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