I’m often optimistic to a fault. A Pollyanna. An extreme benefit-of-the-doubt-giver. Yet if I’d had to bet, I would have lost this one. I thought things were looking horribly grim for Fresh Off the Boat’s chances at a fall return.
First there was an uncharacteristic lack of advance late-season info about upcoming episodes. Disney-ABC’s media site, which usually has synopses, promo video, still photos, and behind-the-scenes photos for the next two or three shows, was unusually quiet.
I’ve reviewed for 8A each episode through the show’s run, something that requires a bit of planning. Suddenly without my advance info, I couldn’t find word anywhere about why the well was dry.
Then there was the abrupt ending to season 4. Heading into the 19th episode’s broadcast, FOtB‘s actors on Twitter congratulated each other on another fun season, with ABC hyping it as the season finale. This is after a 24-episode season 2 and a 23-episode season 3.
Then, because I was pathetically slow to connect them myself, the dots finally connected themselves for me.
Roseanne was coming back for a short, late-season run, complete with its original cast. On ABC. On Tuesday night. At 8:30.
In FOtB’s slot.
I didn’t watch the two-episode return because I was working on something else. The next morning, it was all anyone could talk about. Eighteen million viewers for Roseanne.
That’s fourteen and a half million more than FOtB drew for episode 19 the week before.
Okay. No reason to panic, right? I mean, there’s plenty of room on the weekly schedule for two sit-com families. I said it aloud, but even I didn’t believe it. My heart prepared itself to find something else to cheer for; my fingers to find something else to type about.
“What about music reviews?” I asked jozjozjoz one evening. “Maybe I could do that.”
Randall Park shot a video literally pleading for a renewal. Others chimed in. It was not looking good.
Then Roseanne Connor cracked a joke about Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, hitting a nerve like classic Roseanne. I wasn’t as insulted by it as many others, but I saw where people were coming from. Former FOtB writer Kourtney Kang laid it out very well in a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter.
Maybe in a world where unfair representation were merely a memory, the joke would have slipped past anyone’s notice. But America’s only major-network, prime time, Asian American sitcom family was teetering on the precipice, and Mrs. Connor was not only kicking it over with a privileged toe, but joking about it at a time when we’re especially sensitive to the way many in this country would use our Asian-ness to question our American-ness.
Was the mild controversy good for FOtB’s chances or bad? I hoped it put ABC in an awkward position, almost demanding that it bring the show back for another season if only to avoid the appearance of the Connors throwing the Huangs under the boat. I want to believe there are principles in play, but maybe it all comes down to 18 million and 3.6 million, and maybe affirmative programming action isn’t really a thing.
I’ll probably never know whether this was ever part of the conversation at ABC, but after leaving FOtB’s fans hanging for so many weeks, the news came out Friday. Season 5.
I’ll repeat what I’ve written many times (usually while reviewing a Dr. Ken episode). For all the big-picture reasons I want AA-centric shows to succeed, I don’t want them to get a free pass. I want the shows to succeed because they’re excellent, because there’s no reason for them not to be. While I was sad to see Dr. Ken fail, it did get a fair shot and never took full advantage of its opportunity. FOtB, however, despite slipping into a rut or two last season, is still creative, interesting, and (best of all!) subversive. Up to a point I’m not smart enough to define, these by themselves are a fair trade-off for a few million viewers.
Especially the subversion.
Now that it’s coming back, I’m begging the writers to go tapioca-balls-to-the-wall with creativity and subversion. It’s playing with its second life now. Fresh Off the Boat should go into each episode begging to be thrown off the air, the way season 1 Eddie would do. Better to blow it all up than to be turned away at the border.