‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Is Still One of the Freshest Shows on TV
The ABC sitcom is still a boon in a landscape where too few meaningful Asian-American stories make it to the screen.
At the time of its premiere in 2015, much was made of the fact that Fresh Off the Boat is the first American sitcom to feature an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s short-lived All American Girl. Now, as it goes into its fourth season, it’s still alone in the representation that it offers, and it’s a testament to how good the show is that the Huang family’s charm doesn’t smother its take on the immigrant experience; rather, the two are inextricable. The show is a boon in a landscape that doesn’t seem to have improved since it first began airing—take the exit of Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park from Hawaii Five-0, or the recent controversy over the Hollywood Ghost in the Shell and the upcoming Hellboy. But, luckily, it’s just as fresh as ever.
The Huang family ended last season in a state of upheaval. Louis (Randall Park) brought Michael Bolton (yes, as in the singer) on as a partner in his restaurant. Meanwhile, Jessica (Constance Wu) moved the family into a new house after figuring out that the reason her youngest son, Evan (Ian Chen), couldn’t get into private school was not because he isn’t qualified (if anything, he’s overqualified), but because their family rented instead of owning property. The move led to a rift between Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his friends due to the distance, and tension throughout the family as they’re “house poor”—that is, they could afford to buy the house, but not necessarily to live in it.
Still, the move was for naught; when middle child Emery (Forrest Wheeler) discovered that Evan’s new school blazer might have been made by child labor, the resulting complaint to the superintendent got Evan kicked out. And, as it turned out, they could afford to live there, Jessica just worried that getting used to comfort might leave her children with nothing to strive for. After all that kerfuffle, the Huangs moved back to their old house—only to discover that the landlord had already found a new tenant.
On paper, these are all fairly rote sitcom story beats. But Fresh Off the Boat is better than that. The move, the school system, the restaurant—each facet of the story connects back to the American Dream as it pertains to the non-“traditional” American family, not to mention discussions of class that are rare to find anywhere on TV or in film.
The Season 4 premiere does something similar: The episode’s centerpiece is the tension that springs up between Jessica and her friend Honey (Chelsey Crisp) as the Huangs crash at her place while they figure out their living situation. Again, it’s a familiar trope—house guests overstay their welcome—but it goes deeper than misunderstanding: It’s a cultural disconnect. Honey is Southern; Jessica is Taiwanese. Their ideas of expressing gratitude and extending hospitality just don’t dovetail, but when tensions finally boil over, it turns out they share the same feelings at heart. Despite their differences, they’re still family to each other.
Fresh Off the Boat specializes in this kind of exploration of otherness without ever making it seem alien. Jessica’s quirks are aligned with Honey’s rather than being made “exotic” because they’re not born out of American culture. Rather, the strangest thing about the episode is Michael Bolton’s cameo.
The fourth season is also notable for introducing a queer narrative. At the end of the season premiere, Nicole (Luna Blaise), Honey’s daughter and one of Eddie’s friends, tells him that she thinks she might like girls. While it’s not clear how this will play out over the course of the season—Nicole is older than Eddie and as such doesn’t figure as much into his narrative as his friends of the same age—it’s a moment that’s handled with care rather than played for laughs. The only comedic aspect to the scene is Eddie’s initial misunderstanding; when she tells him that she has something to confess, he immediately assumes that she’s about to confess a crush on him. When she tells him what’s on her mind, it comes as a shock, but any pause he has dissipates in the next moment. The show uses Eddie’s ignorance as a learning opportunity for the audience as well as for him—Nicole assures him that nothing’s going to change. She’s not going to change her hairstyle, she’s not going to wear different clothes. She still is who she is.
Maybe it’s a little heavy-handed as an approach, but it’s still more discussion than is usually warranted or represented on network primetime, and it’s telling that the show’s focus on an Asian-American family doesn’t mean it can’t offer a voice to others as well. It helps that showrunner Nahnatchka Khan seems to have cottoned onto something that many other shows haven’t: Experiences are exclusive to the people living through them, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the realm of relatability. Stinky tofu may be unique to Chinese cuisine, but the terror of bringing any smelly food to school should hit home with any first-generation child, and Eddie’s attempts to impress his friends (not to mention his crush-induced anxieties) are universal. In that regard, Fresh Off the Boat is still one of the freshest shows on TV, and even four seasons in, it shows no signs of slowing down.