“Fresh Off The Boat”’s first Halloween episode, “Halloween On Dead Street,” focuses on the Huang family’s first Halloween in the suburbs, after years of living in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Louis (Randall Park), the dad of the family, is even more excited for Halloween than the kids. The kids have drawn out a map so they can hit the best candy streets, but Louis has bought matching Mr. and Mrs. T costumes for he and his wife—because while the kids are out getting candy, he’ll be at home giving out candy, and for him, this is a dream. In D.C., he threw candy out of his third story window to passersby below, with mixed results. Now that they live in the suburbs and own a home, he can fulfill his particular version of the American dream.
But the Homeowners’ Association wants to go lights-out for the holiday. Two blocks down, on Highland, the Disney Imagineers (remember, this is Orlando) go all-out for Halloween — as one neighbor puts it, “It’s their Super Bowl.” Louis is nearly stymied. In an impassioned speech to his neighbors, he argues:
Look, Halloween isn’t about a bunch of Imagineers spending a bunch of money. It’s about the one day a year where you can lose yourself and create a whole new identity. It’s a chance to forget that we’re a lower middle-class neighborhood living under the flight path of the Orlando airport and trick people—haha, trick. People.—into thinking we’re a scary upper middle-class neighborhood that people would want to visit and get candy from! Ladies, if we build it, they will come. If we build it, they will come.
(Yes, the last line is from “Field Of Dreams.” But because that movie is about “ghost baseball players,” Louis classifies it as a Halloween movie.)
Louis’ ultimately successful speech is very funny, as is “Fresh Off The Boat,” an homage-filled rap-music driven sitcom set in the ’90. But Louis’ comical struggle to make Halloween mean something for his Taiwanese-American family strikes a timeless and universal chord. Trick-or-treating is part of Halloween, but it’s a much more complex and delicate tradition than just dressing up as Kanye and Kim and going to a costume party. It takes place in our neighborhoods, on our streets, literally in our backyards — making questions of who is “one of us” and who is an “outsider” particularly relevant, as neighborhoods either turn their lights off early to shoo away strangers or hire “safety officers” to keep the peace. Louis yearns for a regular Halloween that is the suburban birthright — even as his moving to the suburbs complicates that sense of community for the neighbors, those power-walking women who have never been able to befriend his wife Jessica (Constance Wu).
What strikes me about the “Fresh Off The Boat” Halloween episode — which is echoed in Halloween episodes throughout sitcom history, but especially several that aired this past week — is how one of the most perplexing things about the modern era is not so much that Halloween upends the status quo of who’s in charge, but also that the holiday upends the status quo of our very American social fragmentation. As was observed most famously (and also controversially) in Robert D. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” civil society in America shows evidence of significant decline, especially when it comes to voter apathy. And while the rise of the Internet has probably moved a lot of community building to cyberspace, you can’t exactly trick-or-treat on the information superhighway. Perhaps it is no surprise at all that Putnam’s first article on bowling alone and the first season of “Fresh Off The Boat” both date back to 1995.
Unlike her husband Louis, Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) hates Halloween. (If you’ve seen the show, you probably would not be surprised to hear that Jessica dislikes any day where rules become optional.) And in “Halloween On Dead Street,” this takes the form of guarding her investment property — just listed! — from a group of loitering, laconic teenagers with skateboards, who through total disdain manage to terrorize everyone around them. When Jessica runs afoul of them, they threaten to egg her house. Jessica can’t get into the fun spirit of the evening because she’s too busy grappling with the chaotic element that’s threatening her livelihood — she has hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk in that house, and repairing an egging would put her in debt.
It’s a delicate note to strike: The day opens up this potentially incredibly enriching public space, but that space can be leveraged all too easily by bullies. Jessica’s fear is the least campy, least gory fear of all; she’s afraid of crushing debt that would ruin her children’s lives. It’s hardly the kind of controlled Halloween fear of spooky monsters in the dark that you might expect. But the implication of the show’s comedy around Hollywood is a little disturbing — that which makes the day so wonderful for Louis is exactly what makes it so terrible for Jessica. That same act of throwing open the doors and engaging with the community can let in both really wonderful and really terrible things.
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There are a lot of Halloween episodes in the world, and a lot that aired just this past week; many, not just "Fresh Off The Boat"'s, tackle the complicated interplay between property, family and safety. "Black-ish" did a brilliant episode this Wednesday on the Johnsons' poorer cousins from Compton — on how alienated both families feel from each other even as they both attempt to engage with the communal group activity of trick-or-treating. "The Goldbergs" depicted mom Bev (Wendy McLendon-Covey) struggling to adapt to doing Halloween without her grown-up kids — and then leaping to their aid when a haunted house gets a little too scary. "Bob's Burgers" Halloween episode last Sunday is entirely about the family trying to scare Louise (Kristen Schaal) for the first time by giving her a fright that is real but not too real, and in order to do so, they have to pull in the neighbors, a few random acquaintances and someone else's house. The politics of trick-or-treating are built in the subtext of the holiday, because it's about the bait-and-switch of fear and fun.
But this Halloween, "Fresh Off The Boat"'s delicate treatment of both the joys and perils of investing in a community seemed to mirror some of my own current lines of thought. This week, bullies in a different neighborhood disrupted two panels at Austin’s major tech and music festival, SXSW. SXSW canceled the panels because of undisclosed threats against both panels, and has now offered up another type of event in their stead, and this is the topic of much important discussion.
The conference's problem is, like Jessica's egging teens in "Fresh Off The Boat," both rather niche concerns, for specific denizens of a specific community. But they are both part of the same universal concern, which is about what it means to have a public space, and what it means to make it safe. In this country in just the past few years, we have struggled with safety in airports, on campuses and now online, because the actions of a very small minority can destroy those spaces for everyone else.“Lone gunmen” attack our schools and universities; anonymous threat-makers get public events canceled and send forums for open discussion into hiding. In the extreme and hopefully never repeated example described here by Kevin Roose, two victims were harassed with hundreds and hundreds of pizzas being delivered to their door, or SWAT teams that are sent to their houses because of phony calls to 911. Neighborhood trick-or-treating, to my mind, is both a beautiful expression of the joys of public space and a reminder of how those spaces can be made vulnerable, too. There's a real fear underneath the costumes of grim reapers and vampires, about what it means to have and celebrate community. Yes, in “Fresh Off The Boat,” the Halloween-ruiners are just a few bullies on skateboards, dispatched with some help from a squad of shit-talking girls wearing glow-in-the-dark lipstick. But the ruiners are out there, the show observes, and you have to figure out what to do with them.