8 Asians

HUDSON YANG

*Watch Online/Download the pilot for free at Amazon Instant Video & iTunes*

My heart is still stinging from the cancellation of Sullivan & Son by TBS, so it’s entirely possible that Wednesday’s premiere (plus one extra episode) of Fresh off the Boat on ABC is merely a rebound infatuation by a recently jilted lover, but “Life is heavy, son,” says our narrator Eddie Huang, and “We have to make the best of it,” says his mother Jessica.

Making the best of it just got a little easier, because I’ve seen the first episode, and I’m all in with a season pass on my TiVo. Here are 8 reasons.

  1. Because Asian.
    Without getting too into it (because that’s not really what I’m about), I’d like gently to remind anyone who’ll hear me that the America I grew up in is loaded with Asians, yet the America represented on television seems to have just a few, a strange disconnect that my brain still can’t make sense of. And while Fresh off the Boat‘s 1995 Orlando seems exaggerated in its dearth of Asian Americans–Eddie appears to be the only Asian student in his whole school–I figure it’s a step. There’s one ramen restaurant in my neighborhood that’s not very good, but I eat there all the time because I don’t want there to be zero ramen restaurants in my neighborhood.
  2. Constance Wu.
    I don’t think I’ve seen anything Constance Wu has been in until just now, but she’s very good as Eddie Huang’s mother Jessica. She reminds me of a M*A*S*H-era Rosalind Chao, if Rosalind were to play a tiger mom, and she’s the best thing this show has going for it. Read: She’s freaking beautiful.
  3. The Wonder Years + The Middle = Fresh off the Boat.
    CONSTANCE YU, RANDALL PARKEddie Huang, our eleven-year-old protagonist, tells his story (via the real Eddie Huang’s voiceover narration) wistfully and nakedly, like Daniel Stern’s voicing of grown-up Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years. It mostly works, and where Kevin’s looking back had a tone that longed for more innocent times, Eddie’s has just a touch of Nineties-era Gen-Y cynicism, something that serves the show well. Add quirky characters, cartoonishly silly only-in-a-sitcom situations, and a sincere fondness for its own characters without getting sappy about it, and you get something flavored like The Middle that could still be unique in prime time if it’s allowed to find its groove and its audience. Also like these two esteemed shows, Fresh off the Boat is blessedly absent a laugh track.
  4. “This is for the Gs.”
    Where The Wonder Years had Joe Cocker and the Jefferson Airplane, Fresh off the Boat pays tribute to mid-Nineties hip hop. Music by MC Breed, Old Dirty Bastard, and Snoop Doggy Dogg gets prominent attention in the first episode. Somebody is putting a lot of thought into what’s on the soundtrack, and it’s a nice, credible mix. Viewers not into rap might find it a difficult adjustment, but I’d suggest giving it a try. This is some pretty good stuff, and it makes the show feel different from most things you see on TV.
  5. Subtitles.
    Okay, so maybe it’s been done before (Arrested Development, maybe?), but there’s a pretty funny running gag involving subtitles. Although it’s not a huge part of the show, it’s maybe my third-favorite thing about it.
  6. “Evan, Emery, and Grandma.  Whatever.”
    Randall Park as Eddie’s father Louis is well-intentioned but goofy, as are many of the jokes on this show, but Eddie’s younger brothers (Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler) and their grandmother (Lucille Soong) are really funny, too.
  7. The nail that sticks up.
    Without giving anything away (and because I can’t put my finger on it exactly), there’s a spirit of defiance and a theme of rebellion here in the pilot episode. Characters make decisions that look at first like conforming to expectations but then they either change course or stick doggedly to some part of those expectations that makes them suspiciously subversive. Eddie’s father moves away from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to open a restaurant, but it’s not a Chinese restaurant.  Eddie’s mother caves in on a disagreement about “white people food” for lunch, but does anything but cave in over another lunchroom conflict.  Eddie has a look that’s definitely his own, but his two little brothers looks eerily alike. And something happens near the end that’s as big an upraised fist at the establishment as the rap lyrics coming through Eddie’s headphones. Perhaps I read too much into things, but if I don’t, there might be some genius-level social commentary going on here despite some pretty sophomoric choices by the writers.
  8. Constance Wu.
    Seriously, she’s worth a double mention. I may have a new favorite. Vivian Bang who?

Final grade, this episode: The show has a lot of promise, but it goes for some unnecessarily creepy humor and caricaturish portrayals of non-Asian characters.  I get that we’re seeing things through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, so some exaggeration is appropriate and funny (as with the store where the “white-people food” is), but more often there’s nothing clever or smart about the “we’re not like them” humor. Because I’m sensing some potential for greatness, I have to be tough on it. B-.  

PS: Just kidding, Vivian. If you’re reading this, I will have a cold soda waiting for you at the bus stop.

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