Fresh Off the Boat
“Fresh Off the Boat is a wonderful successor to the ill-fated but culturally impactful All-American Girl.”
Title: Fresh off the Boat (Seasons 1 - 3)
Creator: Nahnatchka Khan 👩🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Book by Eddie Huang 👨🏻🇺🇸, TV scripts by Nahnatchka Khan 👩🏽🇺🇸 (54 eps), Camilla Blackett 👩🏾🇺🇸 (41 eps), David Smithyman 👨🏼🇦🇺 (41 eps), Sheng Wang 👨🏻🇺🇸 (39 eps), and others including POC and women
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Fresh Off the Boat is a kid-friendly show that I throw on when I feel like something pleasant. I’ll admit, I’m rather biased; much like the Huangs, my own parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s. So for me, Fresh Off the Boat is the ultimate comfort show.
Episodes vary in quality. A few have been pretty boring while others serve up great, laugh-out-loud moments. It can be touching, too—a resonant episode involves sisters singing “Miss Celie’s Blues” to each other while I watched on, crying like a baby.
Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Huangs over the last few seasons and have come to love their little quirks and relationships.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Jessica Huang, played by the indomitable Constance Wu, is the matriarch and heartbeat of the series. With enviable levels of sass and confidence, Jessica portrays a wonderful blend of Taiwanese and American culture—say, cooking Chinese food for every meal but watching Melrose Place and Denzel Washington movies in her free time. And while her penny-pinching “tiger mom” angle is hardly “fresh”, it never actually dumbs down her character enough to be a stereotype.
As for the other women on the show, we see a robust cast of recurring neighbors who are all weirdos and delightful in their own way. Maybe it’s from having a female showrunner, or diverse writers and episode directors—whatever it is, it’s working. The women of Fresh Off the Boat are handled deftly and with affection. The only reason I docked half a point is that I didn’t see anything that breaks or challenges gender norms.
As with any show or film portraying a brand new perspective, I’ll rate this in full. No other mainstream show on network television has ever attempted to capture the Taiwanese-American experience; the closest is Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl from 1994—also an ABC forbearer—which features a Korean-American family but was cancelled after just 19 episodes.
While Fresh off the Boat reveals limited representation of minorities beyond the Huang family, a glance at 1990 Census data for Orlando points to its relative accuracy. Specifically:
Walter’s tokenism as the “black friend” might look trite, but is actually statistically overrepresented as one of Eddie’s close friends who appears in 31 of 55 episodes so far. In Districts 7 and 8 of Orlando, which were predominantly white and thus probably where the Huangs have settled if their ultra-white neighborhoods are any indication, black residents made up 6-10% of the population in 1990. (Alternatively, they made up 87% of Orlando, District 3. Segregation much?).
Hispanics made up 6-11% of the predominantly white districts of Orlando in 1990. The only Hispanic character I can recall from the show is Hector, the chef at Louis Huang’s restaurant who appears for 10 out of 55 episodes so far; not a great showing. On the plus side, his character is cool, clever, and friendly as counterpoint to the geeky bumbling of Mitch and Nancy at the restaurant.
Of the 55 episodes aired, we only see one that explores LGBTQ themes. Jessica Huang’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar Chow, appears out of the blue and I enjoyed his role despite it being pretty stereotypical: effeminate and fabulous. In fact, that’s part of the point as the episode centers on Jessica having terrible gaydar.
As barometer, if 3.4% of American adults self-reported as LGBT in 2012,* this means we should still have seen at least another episode featuring gay characters. Or better yet, what about a recurring character?
I will give the show half a point, however, for having Oscar be someone of color. All too often, mainstream shows attempt to inoculate themselves from seeming out of touch by throwing in a gay character who still happens to be—in groundbreaking fashion—white and male. There are other contingencies of queer culture, so kudos to Fresh Off the Boat for featuring a POC in this role.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
Extra full point for including minority groups that don’t fit into any of the above categories—senior citizens and people who use wheelchairs. According to MDSC’s 2016 report, seniors over 60 are underrepresented in film by almost 10%, and of those reduced speaking roles, women make up a pathetic 19.6% of them. (And I don’t even want to see the statistics on how many of those roles are played by non-white actors). Thus, it is a delight to see Grandma Huang appear in 54 of the 55-episodes released so far, in a humanizing and badass role expertly portrayed by the 78-year old Lucille Soong. A recent episode even dives into the psychology of being in an analog wheelchair versus a motorized scooter, and how gaining more independence (and a boyfriend!) impacts her mental health. Complicated themes to fit into a comedy, yet Fresh Off the Boat manages to do so without ever making it feel forced.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.38/5
After Asian-Americans have been frozen out of leading roles in network sitcoms for over two decades, Fresh Off the Boat is a wonderful successor to the ill-fated but culturally impactful All-American Girl.
Fittingly, the show displays a wealth of inclusion as diverse as their army of multi-hued writers and episode directors, and not even in just our regular categories—in Grandma Huang, we find a brilliant character who happens to be a senior citizen using a wheelchair, two groups of people who rarely see themselves onscreen.
The show does stumble a bit in having enough LGBTQ representation, considering its long and growing run of 55 episodes, but the instances they do touch on the topic are comfortable and free of missteps.
In short, Fresh Off the Boat is an important cultural marker for Asian-Americans and features some of the most underrepresented groups in the United States. Furthermore, it’s fun to watch, engaging fans of all stripes by using the 1990s as common denominator for nostalgic Millennials like myself.
If you’re just starting the show, stick it out for a few episodes for it to find its chemistry and to get beyond the novelty of featuring Asian-Americans. It gets going around episode 4 with the introduction of Jessica’s ridiculous sister, and after that I was sold: the Huangs are hilarious to watch, their relationships with their neighbors are heart-warming and silly, and Jessica Huang is my hero.