It’s been a full two decades since prime-time television has seen an Asian American family sitcom. But ABC’s new show Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, is changing that. Though the very first Asian American family sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, was canceled due to poor ratings and lack of interest back in 1995, Fresh Off the Boat has already stirred up considerable buzz. It’s also a significant moment for many Asian Americans, who have largely been excluded or misrepresented when it comes to the mainstream.
But testing the waters won’t be easy for Fresh Off the Boat. Will the show resonate with a non-Asian audience? Will it manage to undermine stereotypes or end up reinforcing them? Will its jokes be lame?
So we wanted to discuss the series from an Asian American point of view. This week, in our second discussion of the show, Slate’s Jennifer Lai was joined by Phil Yu, creator of the blog Angry Asian Man, along with NPR Code Switch’s Kat Chow.
Lai: Do you think these two episodes felt more watered down than the first two?
Yu: To be honest, ABC family comedies are not my preferred TV genre. I doubt I’d be tuning in if we weren’t talking about an Asian American family. They definitely felt more in the vein of “traditional” half-hour sitcom plots.
Chow: The narrative arc of the third episode, where young Eddie is trying to woo the hot neighbor—that felt more like a traditional sitcom. But I do think that both episodes were consistent in that they had various signposts for Asian Americans woven into them. In the third episode, it was the stinky tofu as the “weird Asian food.” In the fourth episode, it was the success perm.
Lai: Can we talk about stinky tofu for a second?
Yu: It seems they chose the grossest sounding thing that is actually delicious.
Chow: Confession: I hate stinky tofu.
Lai: I had to explain to my non-Chinese friend that stinky tofu is a real thing – there’s an actual dish that is literally called “stinky tofu.” (Google it.) But it’s known to be kind of a delicacy even among Chinese people, so I had a really hard time believing anyone would bring a dish like that to a Melrose Place marathon with the neighborhood wives.
But unlike Eddie in the lunchroom scene, Jessica wasn’t embarrassed about the fact that no one liked her food or thought it smelled.
Chow: That’s what makes her character so charming. She’s not so affected by her judgmental neighbors. She’s way less interested in assimilating than her husband or her kids, even.
Lai: This episode was all about assimilating–Louis is off studying NASCAR videos like they’re homework, Emory has not one but two girlfriends, and Evan is gossiping with the ladies at the block party … And Eddie wants a “fine shawty” on his arm in order to fit in.
Chow: Speaking of which, can we talk about how some of the women are portrayed in this show? Eddie’s pursuit of Honey, their attractive neighbor, is weird on so many levels. He asks her to dance at the neighborhood block party, and even tosses money at her, like she’s a stripper.
Yu: Eddie definitely adopts some of the wrongest lessons from hip-hop–misogyny, sexism–without fully even realizing what he’s doing. It’s not about desire. It’s about status.
Lai: Yeah, but I loved Honey! Sure, she’s the young hot trophy wife, but she’s also a genuinely kind person who befriends Jessica, likes Stephen King, and is open-minded enough to eat (and like!) stinky tofu. Though she’s white, she’s a total outsider too.
Chow: These white characters–and their reactions to the Huang family–are so necessary for a mainstream, broader audience.
Yu: I hope the larger audience is watching someone like Deirdre’s behavior and saying, “Ugh. Am I like that? I hope not.”
Lai: How do you feel about the public displays of affection that Jessica and Louis have been showing each other?
Yu: There was a public screening of the pilot back in the fall, and during the Q&A, someone said it didn’t feel authentic because Asian parents don’t show affection like that. Louis and Jessica kiss in the pilot episode. And then during a discussion yesterday, someone noted that they had never seen two Asians in bed before.
Lai: Among a lot of Asian American families, parents don’t show affection toward each other (at least, in front of children) in that way.
Chow: I’m all for Asian Americans getting it on with one another on-screen. We don’t see enough of it. I don’t really care if that part is authentic or not.
Yu: Clearly, Asians are getting it on in real-life. There’s a lot of us.