Critic's Notebook: 'Fresh Off the Boat' and the Asian American Entertainment Revolution
2:52 PM PST 2/21/2020
header-image

Even as the ABC series slipped in quality, it was instrumental in helping launch a boom in big- and small-screen Asian American representation.

Without Fresh Off the Boat, the current Asian American boom in Hollywood wouldn't — couldn't — look like it does today. When the ABC series debuted as a midseason replacement in February 2015, it was the first Asian American family sitcom since the cancellation of Margaret Cho's All-American Girl after one season two decades prior.

After six seasons and more than 110 episodes, Fresh Off the Boat says its own goodbye tonight (Friday, February 21) with a second distinction: being the rare family-friendly network sitcom to launch not just several careers, but a wholly unprecedented sea change in the entertainment industry. Perhaps the show's softie heart would swell with parental pride at the fact that the revolution Fresh Off the Boat started doesn't need it anymore.

I wrote my personal eulogy for the sitcom back in 2018, shortly after the Season 5 premiere, and shortly before I regretfully quit watching. From the very start of the series, it was clear that Constance Wu — with her impeccable comic timing and wonderfully unpredictable line readings — would be the breakout star. Loosely premised on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir of the same name, Fresh Off the Boat was designed as a coming-of-age comedy, but the writers clearly relished the hilariously subversive perspective of its most recalcitrant, America-skeptical character, Wu's tiger mom Jessica Huang.

But around the fourth season, Jessica became the show's petulant brat needing growing up — a mother of three school-age children who regularly taught her life lessons. It no longer felt like a show about negotiating cultural differences and, in the best of circumstances, being able to see the faults in American culture through an Asian, racialized or immigrant lens. It simply became about a very annoying woman who, for the most part, happened to be Asian American.

Fresh Off the Boat likely hit its artistic peak in the two-part Season 3 finale, when the Huangs briefly move into a mansion they can barely afford on the rich part of town, where they have no friends and can barely keep the lights on. It was an incisive critique of the costs of the American Dream, as well as the culmination of a pattern of thoughtful issues-driven episodes that dove into Asian American experiences (like the pressure to be "respectable" in white-only spaces or the fraughtness of choosing an American name as an immigrant to accommodate others) discussed practically nowhere else on TV at the time.

Fresh Off the Boat certainly had progenitors, but it handily and occasionally movingly made the case to an audience of millions why Asian Americans have our own unique stories to tell. At the same time, its youthful, emotionally tidy genre conventions spurred writers, directors and actors — not least of all the real-life Eddie Huang, who initially railed against the series that bore his name — to pursue the kinds of narratives that better reflected their experiences and/or sensibilities.

Today's Asian American boom likely would have happened at one juncture or another, but it is genuinely remarkable how many Asian American projects — and how many different kinds of Asian American representation — have come out of Fresh Off the Boat. To briefly play Sliding Doors, if ABC had never taken a chance on Fresh Off the Boat, it's harder to imagine Crazy Rich Asians being greenlit with nary a recognizable star, especially one like Wu, who had garnered much good will in the show's early seasons by advocating for Asian American issues off screen as well. Crazy Rich Asians went on to launch future Paul Feig muse Henry Golding and eventual Golden Globe winner Awkwafina — and while Lulu Wang has stated that the latter came on The Farewell team's radar well before Crazy Rich Asians, the rapper-turned-actress' scene-stealing turn in the record-breaking rom-com could only have helped the smaller arthouse drama, and led to her own (much raunchier) family sitcom on Comedy Central, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens. And if an experienced lead actress like Wu hadn't been around for Crazy Rich Asians, the industry's abominable trend of whitewashing Asian protagonists might well have continued for Hustlers.

Fresh Off the Boat also boosted the career of Ali Wong, who has become, with just two Netflix specials, arguably the most acclaimed Asian American comic ever. (In Baby Cobra, her first special, the visibly pregnant but decidedly family-unfriendly Wong devotes a segment to the discomforts of going to the bathroom at work as an early Fresh Off the Boat writer.) Wong's vaulting into stand-up's top tier paved the way for last year's cultural phenom Always Be My Maybe, an unofficial Fresh Off the Boat reunion between the former writer, star Randall Park and creator Nahnatchka Khan that borrowed liberally from the series' 90s nostalgia and offbeat sweetness.

For a series based on a chef's autobiography and regularly set at a restaurant, food has played a relatively minor role on Fresh Off the Boat. But the show has certainly paved the way for Asian American foodie culture to take center stage, allowing Asian Americans — many of whom have grown up having had their home cuisines disparaged by the larger culture — to spotlight and call out the racial dynamics endemic to food discourse. Always Be My Maybe is far from unassailable in its framing of authenticity and immigrant cooking, but there's no doubt it struck a nerve among audiences by channeling the sense of home that many Asian Americans associate with their ethnic cuisines. Huang himself went on to host a food travel show called Huang's World on Viceland, and soon after chef David Chang debuted his own food shows Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner on Netflix.

It's entirely possible that plenty of Asian American progress would've happened in the Sliding Doors version of our universe where Fresh Off the Boat never made it onto the air. (The above is hardly an exhaustive list of all the Asian American projects of the past five years.) And perhaps in another five or ten years, we'll have a better sense of how the show's influence, and the particular branches that grew out of it, have hampered or distorted the growth of Asian American pop culture. (It's easy enough to see already how artists and writers of East Asian descent dominate this movement.)

But there's no denying that, even as Fresh Off the Boat gradually lost sight of its original strengths and intentions, it was an inimitable incubator of industry-redefining talent. Not too shabby for a midseason replacement.