From The Hip

'Fresh Off the Boat' is the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years, but will it be any good?

Based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, 'Fresh Off the Boat' may change the role of Asian Americans in television

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 8:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 1:43pm

Asian Americans haven’t been the focus of a US sitcom for 20 years, but that's about to change with Fresh Off the Boat, an upcoming series from the ABC network.

Based on the memoir of colourful celebrity chef Eddie Huang, who’s worked as a standup comedian, part-time marijuana seller and owner of the BaoHaus bun shop in New York, Fresh Off the Boat aims to provide a new perspective on the American Dream.

The programme, currently scheduled for release in 2015, is a semi-autobiographical glimpse into the lives of Huang’s Taiwanese American family as they move in the mid 90s from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the predominately Caucasian suburbs of Orlando, Florida.

Watch: Fresh off the Boat Trailer

Even though the show won’t be aired for several more months, Fresh Off the Boat has already become a hot topic for Asian Americans, simply because its been two decades since an East Asian family headlined a major network sitcom.

In 1994, All-American Girl starred comedian Margaret Cho and was poised as a revolutionary programme that would depict the typical Korean American experience, but what was launched with good intentions transformed into a failure thanks to executive meddling and an inability to straddle the line between sharp cultural satire and offensive racial pandering.

(Case in point: In a misguided attempt to make All-American Girl “more appealing” to nearly 19 million US citizens of Asian descent, the show’s executives hired a consultant to coach Cho on how to be “more Asian”. As if a Korean American girl who grew up in San Francisco really needed this.)

Needless to say, All-American Girl was cancelled after one season, and no series with Asians as frontrunners has been produced since.

Currently, Asian actors are by far and large the unsung fellows always standing in the backlines of any major US production, and even when they’re cast in main roles, a la Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson in CBS’ 21st century Sherlock Holmes update Elementary, they’re usually playing as the sidekick of a white main character.

All of this indicates that in the risk-averse minds of US TV executives, one mistake with All-American Girl was enough, and general audiences simply aren’t “ready” for another mainstream programme starring Asian actors.

But it seems that ABC’s had a change of heart. If successful, Fresh off the Boat stands poised to change the American media landscape, potentially heralding the transition of Asians from bit players to game changers.

Huang, who serves as the show’s executive producer, seems confident that Fresh Off the Boat will succeed in its mission. In particular, he has drawn special attention to the programme’s title, traditionally a derogatory term used to describe Asian immigrants who have just arrived in a new country with little to no knowledge of its customs or culture.

In promotional interviews, Huang has explained that by taking this traditionally mean-spirited phrase and subverting it, the show is making no apologies for what it clearly is – a sitcom meant to specifically represent the Asian experience in America, with all of the misconceptions, subtle racism and culture shock experiences that go along with it.

The trailer is full of nods to this. In an exaggerated take on the struggles of immigrants to assimilate themselves into American culture, Huang’s father, played by Randall Park, moves his family to Orlando to open what he thinks is a quintessentially American steakhouse restaurant.

And then there is Huang’s mother, played by Constance Wu, who tries to fit in by roller blading with the local white mums and cries out in despair as she compares the sterile supermarkets of Orlando to the refined craziness of Washington’s Chinatown.

My favorite scene in the trailer showcases the struggles of twelve-year-old Huang himself, played by talented child actor Hudson Yang. Huang is trying desperately to fit in at school with all of the other kids, who empathise with his shared love of late hip-hop legend Biggie Smalls but deride him for packing “gross” looking noodles in his lunchbox.

I laughed when I saw this scene and was reminded of my own experiences with elementary school lunch discrimination years ago. And I’d wager that most Asian kids who grew up in 1990s suburban America can at least relate to a few elements in the trailer, which is already a good sign that Huang and the other Fresh off the Boat creators have at least some ability to generate witty, inoffensive cultural humour.

There are things to nitpick, of course. Constance Wu’s accent occasionally sounds authentic, but also wavers into “American actress trying too hard to mimic the sound of her immigrant mom” territory. And then there’s always the possibility that the show may devolve into nothing more than a repeat of All-American Girl, leaving Asian Americans back in the television ghetto for another twenty years.

But after witnessing all of the healthy discussion that this upcoming show has inspired amongst Asian American bloggers and social media personalities, most of whom are “cautiously optimistic” at worst, I’d say that Fresh off the Boat may actually be able to deliver when it finally airs in 2015.

And at the least, it’s gotten off to a – dare I say it – very “fresh” start.