As hard as it may be (for some of us) to get our heads around the idea of a ’90s period piece, “Fresh Off the Boat” is exactly that — and then some. Taking place during the childhood of its central character Eddie Huang (who wrote the memoir on which the show is loosely and controversially based), the Orlando-set sitcom often infuses many nostalgic favorites from the time period. From roller-blading to original hip hop, the series is steeped in cultural references; enough that it’s easy to forget the show is a cultural reference in itself.
Think back to the popular family sitcoms of the ’90s: “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Married…With Children,” “Home Improvement,” “The King of Queens.” While all of these certainly have their highlights, remembering an episode where the “mom” character is more than a sounding board for her husband’s antics is a bit challenging — a bit too challenging. Sure, Jill Taylor and Debra Barone would occasionally steal the focus of an episode, but even those spotlight moments were usually circumvented by the goofy antics of the series’ male stars.
If one were to look at Debra Barone’s Wiki page — as any good reporter is prone to do — phrases like, “not much is known about her childhood” and “Debra is usually stressed throughout the series” paint a darker portrait of a woman meant to be an empathetic, identifiable “Mrs.” Her “personality” section kicks off with “the loyal and dedicated wife to her husband, Ray,” while her “character development” consists of only four paragraphs (three of which are single sentences, and all of which focus on her relationship to her husband, Ray).
This, in a nutshell, is what wives were like on TV during the ’90s, but it’s not what Jessica (née Chu) Huang represents on “Fresh Off the Boat.” Written as a multi-dimensional female force and portrayed with genuine compassion by Constance Wu, Jessica is so much more than Mrs. Huang.
Speaking at a TCA luncheon in late July, Wu thoughtfully responded to a question about her take on motherhood in the sitcom. “I definitely call upon the real Jessica Huang in Orlando,” Wu said. “She’s a strong character, [and] you can tell by the way she talks to you. She gets really intense, but can you tell it all comes from a place of great conviction about how great her family is. And I think, as an actor, when you sort of make all your choices from that well of conviction and love, I think it just makes the performance passionate.”
Note: Wu doesn’t shy away from defining a portion of her character by her family. What’s key in the description is that she’s proud of “how great her family is,” not blindly loving them, no matter how infuriating they may be. In other words, Jessica is not merely a caretaker for her family, whose main goal is to fix all their problems and get through the day. She’s an eager and excited member of her family with goals that extend beyond her role as a mother — even in the ’90s.
In Season 1, Jessica engaged with an enticing balance of life inside and outside the family. She taught a sexual harassment seminar at the steak house, went after her realtor’s license, and tried to come to terms with American social politics (often alongside her friend Honey, played by the lovely Chelsey Crisp). But she also made sure to incorporate the family’s Chinese heritage into everyday life, took her son to a concert after a healthy exchange of ideas and consistently set an excellent example for her family. Season 2 will see more of the same, as Jessica will start her own business with Honey after going on an efficiently-budgeted family vacation in the season premiere.
Yet rather than be constantly “stressed” by all this, Jessica is confidant to the point of intimidation; a personality trait Wu and creator Khan came to terms with together.
By setting the sitcom in the ‘90s and airing on a broadcast network, Wu’s portrayal of a mother is even more important. Jessica shows how far we’ve come in the presentation of on screen moms: She’s family-friendly but not solely family-focused; grounded but not tied down; intense but not stressed; and, yes, “scarelarious” to boot.
When asked if she feels a lot of pressure portraying one of the Asian American leading ladies on television, Wu said, “I definitely do. […] Usually you see a lot of Asians on TV, but they’re always supporting the white person’s story, and — because they’re supporting another person’s story — they’re not allowed their own arc and their own life.”
During the ’90s, the same could be said about TV mothers. Thankfully, Wu and “Fresh Off the Boat” aren’t settling for any predetermined standard.