“Fresh Off the Boat” will never make everyone happy — and it shouldn’t have to try

Compared to the traditional "Cristela," darkly funny "Fresh Off the Boat" contains multitudes -- and it pays off

Published April 16, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Eddie Huang is just one guy. “Just,” because he is not a borg-like assemblage of multiple people; he is just him, himself, doing his own particular thing. In this case, it’s writing, speaking and celebrity-chefing—Huang is the multitalented personality behind both the fast-food restaurant BaoHaus, in the East Village, and the book “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir.” That book was developed into a sitcom about Huang’s early life with his family that debuted this winter. ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” which concludes its first season this Tuesday, has proved to be a remarkable, refreshing addition to this season of scripted television. It’s well-written, well-acted and consistently engaging, making the most of the Huang family’s singular personalities and the bizarre fantasyland that is suburban Orlando, Florida.

It is also not the product of just one person. “Fresh Off the Boat” joined a Tuesday-night programming bloc on ABC that competes with Tuesday-night programming blocs on other networks. It has a cast of characters, all played by actors with their own identities and careers. It has a writing staff, made up of writers from many different ethnic backgrounds. Huang narrates the show, and has a producer credit, but as his own account in Vulture from early this year indicates, he was peripheral to the adaptation process. The show, despite being about Eddie Huang, is no longer just one guy. Now it is a cast, a crew, a network property, a brand.

This, and this alone, would account for many of the much-publicized issues Huang has had with the ABC show—outlined both in that Vulture piece and on his Twitter account, just last week. Huang doesn’t watch the show—he finds its story lines “artificial,” and added, “I don’t recognize my own life.” But because Huang is Taiwanese-American, his story, especially on television, takes on far more complicated questions of identity, authenticity and representation. It is not just the leap from just one guy to a whole TV show—now it is the leap from just one guy to the way an entire race of people is portrayed on American television. “Fresh Off the Boat” is the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” tried, and failed, to make a meaningful dent in what is otherwise a landscape of smiling white families. Eddie Huang’s childhood adulation of hip-hop, his mother’s love for Stephen King, his brother Emery’s effortless ability to get chicks—these are now not just personality quirks but ciphers for an entire population of people. No wonder Huang is angry: The proposition is ludicrous.

For as much as critics like myself argue for more diverse representation in the casts and crews of television shows, there is no denying that especially for a groundbreaking show like “Fresh Off the Boat,” the problems don’t stop. Telling a story about any identity category reinforces the boundaries around that category, and can have the effect of either stereotyping the experience or isolating that story from other stories. What starts as an earnest attempt to even the playing field becomes a nightmarish labyrinth of trying to define, capture and portray authenticity. This, on television, a medium that is notably not authentic, even when it claims to be (especially when it claims to be).

Huang summed up “Fresh Off the Boat’s" problems thusly:

The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane [showrunner Nahnatchka Khan]. But who is that show written for?

To which Wesley Yang, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, answered with his own question: “What did you expect?”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has both succeeded and failed: It has been both recognizable and unrecognizable, stereotypical and atypical, real and not-real. It has had to straddle the line between truth-seeking authenticity and plot-driving artifice, between stereotype-breaking characteristics and culturally specific quirks. And as a result, it has struggled to make anyone totally happy, from critics to audiences to Eddie Huang himself. Grandiose statements about its courage, its risk-taking, its “importance” detract from the show’s casual aspiration to be little more than a very funny comedy. It’s all of the above—important, and funny, and brave, casually so. It is not just one thing.

* * *

In terms, specifically, of the creator’s relationship to his or her work—to his or her sitcom family, even—“Cristela” and “Fresh Off the Boat” are at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Cristela”—which is ending its first season Friday evening—is the brainchild of Cristela Alonzo, and like Huang, it is her family, at a point in the past, that populates the storytelling of the sitcom. The difference is that Alonzo is the co-creator, showrunner, writer and star of the show—if any show is “just one guy,” it’s Alonzo on “Cristela.”

Which is interesting, because in nearly every way, the Mexican-American family on “Cristela” is a lot more conventional than the Huangs on “Fresh Off the Boat.” Cristela’s family is a lot like our collective idea of what most American families are like—they watch football, celebrate Christmas, and bicker over who’s going to help the kids with their homework tonight. Their Mexican-ness, when it’s introduced, is quickly recognizable to even the whitest of gringos: Tamales and tres leches cake; hard work, listening to your elders, and minding your manners; and sometimes saying “abuela” instead of “grandma.”

That’s facilitated by the format of the show—a multi-camera sitcom, one of the oldest forms of scripted television, airing on Friday nights, no less. “Cristela” is inclusive, funny, and grapples with identity in its own way. But it is deliberately inclusive in a way “Fresh Off the Boat” implicitly rejects. The Huangs don’t see themselves in the world around them, even when that world includes other Taiwanese or Chinese immigrants. In “Cristela,” it’s Cristela herself who doesn’t quite fit into her family, not the family as a unit. That means that when the show does grapple with identity, it takes the form of Cristela arguing with her sister, brother-in-law or mother—not, as “Fresh Off the Boat” (literally) frames it, a family of misfits isolated with the single-camera format into their own private struggles.

There’s the pop-culture element, too: The Huangs mix and match cultures with fluid ease. A fellow Asian kid at school turns out to be adopted by very Jewish parents; young Eddie finds solace in the gritty rhymes of hip-hop; and the real Huang uses cross-cultural metaphors like:

This universal market of Jos. A. Bank customers watches cornstarch television and eats at Panda Express because that’s all they’re being offered. I didn’t need the show to be Baohaus or Din Tai Fung; I would have settled for Chipotle.

“Who is this show for?” becomes a question harder and harder to answer.

* * *

In the “Fresh Off the Boat” episode “Blind Spot,” Jessica (Constance Wu, the breakout comedy star of the year) invites her ex-boyfriend Oscar (Rex Lee) to stay at their house when he’s visiting Orlando. She is immediately put out, however, when her husband, Louis (Randall Park), is completely unruffled by the presence of her former paramour.

Eventually Louis caves and informs Jessica that the reason he’s not bothered by Oscar is because Oscar is “obviously” gay. Jessica merely thought she was dating him, but it turned out that he actually thought he was dating Louis. A high jink or two ensues. Jessica has to confront her blind spot about homosexuality—she never sees it—while Louis has to come to terms with the fact that he never knows when people are in love with him.

It was an episode that sparked some of the show’s most pointed critiques, by writers who had up till then enjoyed the show. Pilot Viruet found the gaydar plot “tired,” while Dan Caffrey at the A.V. Club gave it a C. Viruet added that she was particularly bothered by the final scene of the episode, where the characters go to “a lesbian bar crawling with cheap stereotypes,” and she’s not wrong. It’s undoubtedly an episode offering up a retrograde smorgasbord of gay stereotypes.

Interestingly, though, to my mind, the story line struck a chord. As an Asian-American myself, I’m very familiar with the deep-seated homophobia that can lurk in the minds of culturally conservative Asian immigrants—especially women, who are socialized to be family-oriented, subservient to their husbands, and obsessively decorous. “Phobia” isn’t even the right word; it’s queer erasure, as demonstrated by Wu’s Jessica. She cannot even see the most obvious expressions of homosexuality. (Jessica’s astonished discovery that “Philadelphia” is about homophobia—“Wait, who was gay in ‘Philadelphia’??” reminds me a great deal of my own mother.)

It’s here that the thorny question of “who is this show for” sticks, again: It’s not trying very hard to be for gay audiences, and it’s losing its hold on progressive intellectuals like Huang himself with its broad stereotyping. At the same time, it demonstrates compassion for Jessica, a woman with a very specific worldview and, as we’ve seen in other episodes, an upbringing that pushed her to grow up hard and fast. And the episode offers up space to queer characters when it didn’t really need to—and employs Rex Lee, the actor, who is himself gay. (A depressing fact that adds even more depth to his casting: Lee has been estranged from his own mother ever since he came out to his family at the age of 22. He is now 46.)

* * *

In film and television—action-based stories, in particular—there is the undying trope of “just one man.” A character who can be everywhere at once, who can execute every step of a far-flung, complicated plan. He (it’s usually a he) is the superhero, the masked warrior, the gifted one.

There’s something comical about it all being done by just one guy, naturally. It’s a device that plays with the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Zorro somehow freed all those horses, and lit the fires on the hillside, and broke into the castle, all at the same time? Stories are allowed to get away with that kind of thing, but only if it makes the story more fun, not less. Funnily enough, it’s a trope with an Orientalist bent: “ninjas,” it is assumed, have the power to be everywhere at once.

But that’s fiction. In real life, it can’t be just one guy, perfecting heroic acts of representation or expression or performance. Most shows that tell a story about a marginalized group of people use the convenience of easily communicated stereotypes to find the audience and get them to laugh in as few seconds as possible. As much as I love “Cristela,” it’s squarely in that category. Cristela’s mother, Natalia, is both easily recognizable and recognizably caricatured—a cranky immigrant biddy dissatisfied with everything, the Sophia Petrillo of Dallas.

What’s striking to me about “Fresh Off the Boat” is how much the show pushes back against the idea of “just one guy” in nearly every episode—in nearly every scene, for that matter. Its humor is darker, more complex, and harder to forget. I don’t know if that makes it better—the show does, at times, trip over its own ambitions.

But ultimately, on a network that took a huge risk in debuting three new sitcoms about families of color in a landscape so overwhelmingly white that Deadline still writes articles positing that “ethnic casting” is “too much of a good thing,” “Fresh Off the Boat” has ended up being my favorite, and that is because it so emphatically contains multitudes. It is not satisfied with being just one thing; it refuses to be. Not just for the many Asian-Americans looking to it for representation—they will seek, and hopefully, they will find some part of themselves in “Fresh Off the Boat.” But the show pursues broadness and multiplicity for its own characters—who, like all Americans, are looking for the right to contradict themselves, to contain multitudes, to, indeed, sound a barbaric yawp over the rooftops.

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abc Constance Wu Cristela Cristela Alonzo Eddie Huang Fresh Off The Boat Randall Park Rex Lee Tv