Alibi V.24 No.7 • Feb 12-18, 2015 

Idiot Box

Immigrant Song

“Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC

“Fresh Off the Boat”
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For now, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” is notable for being the first Asian-American-centric show on network television in more than 20 years. (The last being Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All-American Girl.”) Of course that designation is only gonna get the show so much attention. At some point this sitcom is gonna have to sink or float based on its writing, acting and sense of humor. But with a credible pilot under its belt and some decent source material, there are indications “Fresh Off the Boat” might actually succeed.

The series is based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s autobiographical book of the same name. Set in the mid ’90s, the show centers around 10-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), a chubby, rap-loving, Chinese-American kid just trying to fit in. His goals are complicated, however, when his ambitious parents (Randall Park and Constance Wu) move from Asian-friendly Washington, DC, to lily-white suburban Orlando. Initially, of course, there are tons of jokes that revolve around his parents’ stereotypical accents and all their Caucasian neighbors assuming they don’t speak English and talking real slow. Hopefully, those jokes will fade with time; otherwise, the show is gonna spend a lot of time beating a dead horse. Fortunately, there seems to be ample room for growth.

Young Eddie, who dispenses wise-ass punchlines and wears an unending string of rap t-shirts, isn’t that great a protagonist. (The show’s sometimes abrasive “Wonder Years”-esque narration, provided by Huang himself, doesn’t help.) Tyler James Williams milked far more sympathetic laughs from a similar “fish out of water” scenario in the excellent “Everybody Hates Chris.” Fortunately, Eddie’s parents are around to serve as the show’s saving grace. Park (The Interview, “Veep”) and Wu (Sound of My Voice, “Eastsiders”) have a great back-and-forth chemistry. They share a lot of screentime together, and their timing is damn near perfect. Wu’s character in particular could have easily slid into “dragon mom” caricature. (In fact, the term is brought up several times.) She’s demanding and tough on occasion, but she’s also a strong defender of her children. Plus, she’s got the best comic observations in the show. Assessing an annoying group of suburban moms for the first time, she sagely speculates, “I think the loud one is their queen.”

[Constance] Wu’s character in particular could have easily slid into “dragon mom” caricature. (In fact, the term is brought up several times.) She’s demanding and tough on occasion, but she’s also a strong defender of her children. Plus, she’s got the best comic observations in the show.

There are moments when “Fresh Off the Boat” goes bold, directly addressing racism and cultural assimilation. But it’s airing on Disney-owned ABC, so the show always defaults to heartwarming and homogenized when things get too real. If the writing stays strong and the show figures out which characters to focus on, though, “Fresh Off the Boat” could end up being a sharp mix of cultural observation and quick punchlines.

“Fresh Off the Boat” airs Tuesdays at 7pm on KOAT-7.