The toughest criticism of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, came from Huang himself. In an article published in January, just as the networks were rolling out their midseason wares to the Television Critics Association, Huang aired his grievances at bumping up against what he called Hollywood’s “bamboo ceiling,” and the constant pressure to turn his acerbic book into a series that at one point literally proclaimed “America is great.” Huang’s article, in which he eventually gives his imprimatur to “Fresh Off the Boat’s” pilot episode, is a case study in the power and the limitations (self-imposed though they may be) of network TV. Huang laments seeing the specificity leached from a story based on his own life, as the show’s writers and producers push to make it more relatable (read, less likely to freak white viewers out). But as Huang points out, even the pilot, which often tends, for obvious reasons, to be a show’s safest episode, contains what he thinks of as a pivotal incident in his memoir and his life: The moment in a junior-high cafeteria when the only other non-white student in his class hits him with a racial slur. “It was the most formative moment of my childhood,” he wrote, “the first time someone ever called me a chink, held in a two-shot. Two kids of color forced to battle each other at the bottom of America’s totem pole on ABC.”
After three episodes — all that critics, and, as it turns out, Huang himself, have seen — it’s clear that Huang was both right and wrong about “Fresh Off the Boat.” It is indeed a sanded-down version, a conventionally structured single-camera sitcom that feels like most anything else on network TV. But it doesn’t look the same, and adapting the family sitcom model to accommodate an Asian-American family makes a powerful statement on its own. (It has, after all, been 20 years since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” the last network show with an Asian family at its core.) The show is sharp enough about race and culture to be daring, yet safe enough that no one is likely to feel excluded: Who could be offended by the gaggle of Rollerblading suburban moms who greet Constance Wu as she steps out the door into her new lily-white neighborhood, or object to dad Randall Kim’s plan to increased business at his steakhouse by hiring a new host with a “nice happy white face like Bill Pullman”? That the young Eddie, played by Hudson Yang, is obsessed with ’90s hip-hop gives viewers another presumed point of entry: Maybe you’re not a second-generation immigrant adapting to life in a new town, but who doesn’t love Biggie?
The answer to that apparently not-quite rhetorical question is the New York Post’s Robert Rorke, who complains that “the show’s view of Caucasians is certainly not going to entice anyone to stick around for Episode 2.” The failure to consider what “anyone” means in a year when “Empire,” with its near-total dearth of Caucasian characters, is the breakout TV hit, is why we need “Fresh Off the Boat.” That, and because during the show’s TCA panel, a woman in the audience — not, apparently, a critic, but someone accredited by ABC — asked Huang and the creators if the show would feature chopsticks. That spectacularly awkward moment, which you can listen to via Eric Deggans’ NPR report, not only illustrates how much ground “Fresh Off the Boat” has to cover, but how funny, at least with some distance, covering it can be.
“Fresh Off the Boat” premieres at 8:30 p.m. tonight, followed by another episode at 9:30 p.m.. It then moves to its regular slot at 8 p.m. Tuesdays.
Reviews of “Fresh Off the Boat”
James Poniewozik, Time
Three episodes in, it’s the best broadcast comedy of the new season, a daring but good-hearted sitcom about the complexities of identity — about not only being different but being different from the different.
Robert Bianco, USA Today
The show’s largest problem is Eddie himself. Building a show around your most abrasive character could be a workable choice, but “Fresh” hasn’t yet figured out how to present him: Is he a poseur whose shallow appropriation of hip-hop style is meant to be mocked, or is his love of the music and culture meant to tell us something deeper about who he is and who he will become?
Caroline Framke, A.V. Club
Family sitcoms are a TV staple, but the best ones find kernels of startling truth in the middle of the jokes: Shows like “All in the Family,” “Roseanne,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” and now “Black-ish” found their footing by marrying their comedy with issues like race and class instead of skirting their way around them with a wink. “Fresh Off the Boat” may not be the take-no-prisoners depiction of Asian-American life that Huang originally envisioned, but it still provides a perspective long overdue on television in a way that’s at once smart, sweet, and funny.
Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
If the show has been crafted to appeal to a mass audience — as mass an audience as a network can gather these days — it has not forfeited a certain impudence or embarrassed its leads by burying character in stereotype. To the extent that they are types, they are comic types, arranged for dramatic contrast.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
“Fresh” is ultimately heart-warming — this is ABC, after all — but it has at its disposal a whole wealth of jokes it’s willing to make that other comedies would most likely shy away from, out of ignorance, deference or fear. Whatever its occasional growing pains, its great accomplishment is that it is unafraid to be more than just another homogenized family comedy.
Ken Tucker, Yahoo!
there’s a predictability to Fresh that undercuts its potential freshness. It repeats tropes we know from about a hundred contemporary sitcoms, good and bad: that the wife is invariably smarter than the husband; that kids are more wise than their parents; that the older generation (represented on this show by Lucille Soong as “Grandma Huang”) isn’t wise — it’s jadedly sarcastic. Fresh Off the Boat, when it has flashes of energy and well-written jokes, easily transcends ethnic stereotypes, but it’s these sitcom stereotypes that are the ones the show needs to defeat if it wants to be both long-running and distinctive.
Willa Paskin, Slate
Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire
“Fresh Off the Boat” is undeniably about race, but that’s not the only subject it tackles. Much like “Black-ish” and “Cristela,” the show incorporates race into its storylines while also discussing other topics, effectively toeing the line between racial commentary and old-fashioned family sitcom — though you can sort of get the feel from these episodes (and Huang’s Twitter account) that the writers would love to do more of the former. ABC hasn’t fully Americanized the sitcom, but it definitely has a universal feel.
Brian Lowry, Variety
Loosely based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir (he also provides the voiceover narration), the series straddles the line between warm and funny, and, despite some clunky moments in later episodes, feels like the kind of family comedy that should be compatible with ABC’s existing anchors.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
The series works almost immediately for a number of reasons — the foremost being the breakout, star-making performance of Wu as Eddie’s mom. Wu’s hysterically harsh strictness — way before the Tiger Mom phenomenon, as Huang notes in the show’s narration — is delivered with an impressive range that covers the blatantly angry, the dubiously befuddled, the disapproving but supportive and the flat-out odd.
Linda Holmes, NPR
It’s certainly not a great show; Eddie Huang is right that they’re taking a pretty safe, not very provocative approach to putting this family in front of the viewers of ABC. He’s right that a lot of the feel-good lessons aren’t exactly daring in the face of what television has been saying for decades about everything being ultimately universal.
But he’s also right that there are bracing moments in which this show is pushing on dynamics that don’t come up all that often, as when Eddie finds himself tussling with the black kid at his school over who’s “on the bottom” of the pecking order. Every episode has a couple of moments like that, where a new facet is added to a pretty ordinary sitcom plot and even a jaded eyebrow may go up in interest.
Neil Genzlinger, New York Times
Mr. Huang’s book is brash — he “puts the crude back in crudités,” Dwight Garner wrote in reviewing it in 2013 in The New York Times — an edge that this show seems eager to avoid, which is too bad. Yes, breaking down the network barrier — Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All-American Girl” in the 1994-95 season was the last show to do it — is important, but “Fresh Off the Boat” might really have belonged on a cable outlet like FX, where it could speak its mind more bluntly.
David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle
The first episode focuses far too much on these stereotypes. On top of that, it’s not even funny. The real difference between the first and second episodes, is not just that the stereotypes are eventually turned upside down but that the characters are no longer just those stereotypes. We see Jessica’s humanity, her partial realization that there should be more to her sons’ lives than academic excellence and that her husband’s genuine affection for others isn’t a sign of a weak character.
Allison Keene, Collider
Not everything on the show works yet; some of the jokes fall flat, and there is still that old sitcom push for the family to learn a valuable lesson by the end of the half-hour. ButFresh Off the Boat has great potential, and plenty to work with in terms of both story and humor. Its cast is exceptional, but Wu in particular is a standout.
Daniel Fienberg, HitFix
It’s in specificity that “Fresh Off the Boat” makes its bones and it’s in favor of specificity that Eddie Huang railed in his now-famous Vulture column (which is funnier and more sharply written than 95 percent of all network TV pilots to air in the past decade). But it’s in its variable degree of universality that “Fresh Off The Boat” deserves to become another family hit for ABC. His protests aside, Eddie Huang’s version of growing up as an outsider is specific and it’s at least somewhat what’s depicted in “Fresh Off The Boat” and it’s an experience that only a very few people can share. And yet in his experience, I see a lot of my own outsider experience, which is pretty unique in its own right. We’re all delicate snowflakes and we’re never more delicate and afraid of being unique than we are in those formative years around adolescence; and even the pretty and popular people who were, in practical reality, not outsiders at all, still probably feel some connection to the outsider experience.
Robert Rorke, New York Post
Based on Huang’s memoir of the same name, this series is written by Nahnatchka Khan (who gave us that piece of cubic zirconium, “The B in Apartment 23”), and the first episode makes you wonder where the show will go. Putting a knock on white suburbia is hardly the most innovative comedic idea. Having established the exaggerated and predictable weirdness of all white people, “Fresh Off the Boat” seems to have run through its one topic — and one joke.