SAN DIEGO – A lot of what is on television seems stale. But ABC has a fresh new offering that deserves to be watched, praised and nurtured. Because if it fails to find an audience, we won’t be this lucky again for a long time.
Such is the special burden of multicultural comedies. When a TV show about a white family flops, network executives don’t shy away from other shows featuring white families. That would be silly. But for shows that explore the experience of Asian Americans, Latinos or other immigrant groups, it’s a whole other story. Good luck getting anything else on the air for the next couple of decades.
The captivating family sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” (airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) was criticized even before the first episode premiered.
The phrase “fresh off the boat” – which is also the title of the 2013 memoir by New York chef Eddie Huang on which the series is based – is considered a slur by many Asian-Americans, intended to put down those who haven’t fully assimilated.
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It’s an old story. In the 1800s, Chinese immigrants streaming into California were labeled “unassimilable” by nativists.
The family in the sitcom doesn’t have that problem. The Huangs are of Taiwanese descent and move from the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida, to support the father’s dream of opening a restaurant. They skillfully navigate the mainstream while maintaining their culture.
Therefore, while the title is deliberately provocative, the controversy surrounding it seems much ado about nothing.
The more justified criticism was aimed at an ill-conceived marketing strategy that, leading up to the pilot, included a tweet of a graphic of racial caricatures – an Asian in a pointy bamboo hat, a Mexican in a sombrero, an African in a kufi, an Indian wearing a turban – along with the condescending phrase “We’re all a little #FreshOffTheBoat.”
After Huang himself complained about the tweet, calling the imagery “reductive,” it was deleted.
The snafu was insulting, but also instructive. We can assume that the folks on the ABC social media team who thought that minimizing the experience of Asians, Latinos, Africans, and Indians was a clever and effective way to promote a new show were not Asian, Latino, African or Indian. Otherwise, alarm bells might have gone off.
Which brings us to why “Fresh Off the Boat” strikes the right tone. It’s that rare creation, a comedy about the Asian-American experience written from the point of view of, well, Asian-Americans that still manages to be accessible and enjoyable to the rest of us. That’s hard to do, but this show does it.
As The New York Times noted, from the vantage point of the writers and producers – including creator Nahnatchka Khan, whose parents came from Iran but who grew up in Hawaii, which has a large Asian population – “it’s the white perspective that’s foreign.”
In one episode, the father, Louis, decides that since his restaurant is a Western-themed steakhouse in a mostly white city, business will pick up if he hires a white manager to greet the guests so they feel more comfortable. It’s as if, from the point of view of Asians, white people have a secret language with which they converse with one another.
In another episode, son Eddie is thrilled after getting all A’s on his report card, but his mother, Jessica – who appears to have been the original “Tiger Mom” – gets angry because she concludes that the school must be too easy. Meanwhile, a white classmate gets all C’s and his family takes him out to dinner to celebrate the achievement.
Then there is the special sauce that really makes this show an important contribution to pop culture. While sprinkled with subtle references to the kinds of cultural idiosyncrasies that we all recognize in our families and communities, the meat and potatoes at the core of this show are mainstream topics – fitting in, making friends, striving for success, competing with siblings, etc. People of all colors can relate to those things.
Hollywood had it backward. For decades, it spit out stereotypical comedies that gave people a chance to laugh at those who were different when what viewers hungered for was a comedy that showed how we’re alike.
“Fresh Off the Boat” pulls it off. The result is a sitcom that doesn’t just make you laugh. More importantly, it makes you think.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.