Each week,I get a few laughs from Fresh Off the Boat and like a lot of people have given a lot of thought to how it’s possible that this is only the second sitcom in the past 25 years to focus on an Asian American family. The first, All American Girl, fronted by comedienne/actress Margaret Cho, did not last long and was probably the victim of the wrong timing. Many shows don’t find an audience, a voice or popularity – not because of their themes but because they just don’t find their footing in the right place or time. All American Girl was that show.
Fresh Off the Boat, focusing on a family of Taiwanese immigrants who move from Washington D.C. to Orlando, is the first show to try to take the Asian American immigrant experience mainstream on network TV. It’s got its stereotypes and sometimes falls back on racial/immigration-related tropes, which could be mined for cheap laughs or could serve a bigger purpose of highlighting those tropes in order to make fun of the stereotypes. Either way, the show usually transcends the awkwardness that could come of the stereotypes and if it gets the chance to have a second season, it might grow into something much more genuine. As an introduction to the kinds of things immigrants may face when they move and adapt to the United States, the show offers a glimpse into what it might be like. It being a half-hour comedy, it will look for laughs more than in-depth understanding or insight into immigrant life or integration. But the issues highlighted begin to show some key points – how immigrant parents struggle with how their children are more products of their new environment than the culture from which they came, how cultural clashes are inevitable, how an immigrant’s own perspective, habits and taste change.
Inspired by a memoir written by Eddie Huang, who has been highly critical of how the show handled the source material, it is hard to tell, if given the chance, whether the show will redirect itself to address some of Huang’s concerns. I wonder, reading some of Huang’s ire about the show, whether it is more a matter of the process and creative stifling from the network – what else could one expect from one of the big three? Can the show and the network come to a place where creativity does not clash with buttoned-down network demands? When you sell off the rights to your work, you can criticize but you have signed away creative rights. Right?
I think Huang could be right – not only that the show does not follow his own memoir closely (in which case maybe the show shouldn’t claim to be based on it) but also that the show isn’t really representative of the immigrant experience. But does that mean it is not valid? That it is not in fact fresh? Is it enough to start with just to get more diversity on the screen, even if the stories are more an overbaked caricature of that diversity? Could it be a stepping stone to something better to come?