Let's start a review of a new series by asking why we're here. What was it about Fresh off the Boat that drew us to tune into the first episode?
More than likely, we tuned into this show because we wanted to see a family that doesn't look like any other family we've seen on television. In other words, it's the Asian factor. And I mean this quite literally: The last show we saw an Asian-American-centered sitcom on TV was 20 years ago with the Margaret Cho vehicle All-American Girl which ran for exactly one season from 1994-1995.
But "Fresh off the Boat" can't just put Asian people in front of a camera and proclaim some grand victory for diversity. It has to also be entertaining. And judging from Fresh Off the Boat Season 1 Episode 1 and Fresh Off the Boat Season 1 Episode 2.
Based on Eddie Huang's memoir, Fresh off the Boat centers around Huang's life at the age of 11 when his Taiwanese family moved from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to Orlando without the safety net of a Chinatown down South to protect them from having to socially assimilate at an uncomfortable rate to their white neighbors.
It's worth noting that I'm a D.C. resident and that for as long as I've been hanging out in Chinatown (around 2003-ish), the neighborhood is known more for it's high-end restaurants rather than being home to actual Chinese people. The show, however, is set in 1996 and it has all the appropriate trappings: Eddie listens to 90s rap and idolizes Shaquille O'Neal.
While the show is reminiscent of Fresh Prince of Bel Air (or most recently Suburgatory) with the culture clash angle, the show's template begs an unavoidable comparison to Chris Rock's series Everybody Hates Chris in the awkward minority pre-teen trying to make his way in a white world. Indeed, a quick internet search reveals that "Think Everybody Hates Chris or Malcolm in the Middle with an Asian family" was pretty much the exact pitch Eddie Huang heard from Hollywood when his book was optioned.
While it feels a bit disconcerting for those who care about originality in Hollywood that story elements were lifted almost verbatim from those two shows (the voiceover narration and lunchroom dramatics from Chris, the lucky younger brother who has everything go his way), there's a lot to be said about how those two shows worked and how, relative to other genres in this day and age, family sitcoms are sparse enough that these conventions don't feel tired or overplayed in the 2010s.
From a kids point-of-view, parents can be caricatures and a certain type of satire can be mined. Randall Park (he has a long history as a character actor but often is remembered for his one-time role as "Asian Jim" from The Office) is painted in broad strokes to parallel Bryan Cranston's Malcolm in the Middle character in that his life's purpose is to escape the terror of his wife in a bad mood, but Park imbues the part with enough specificity that there seems room to grow.
Similarly, Constance Wu is poised to be the breakout character as she gets all the good lines and delivers them with panache.
As someone whose father is U.S.-born and who's mother is an immigrant, I can tell you from experience there's a lot of truth to this: When you have a foreign mom who doesn't sound like your friend's moms, there's a certain disconnect that can definitely morph into humor as you look back on those experiences as an adult.
Perhaps, the show's most interesting artistic choice is not to use subtitles during scenes when the family is conversing among themselves. While some authenticity is lost, it has an effect of never showing the family's adult characters as entirely comfortable in their environment which is the basis of their comic personas.
The plots in the first two episodes showed promise although I have a strong hunch that with the character exposition out of the way, we can finally get to some more full-on comic episodes. Plot-wise, Louis' idea of hiring Mitch (played by Paul Scheer whose mere presence is a reassuring sign that the comedy world is taking this show seriously) to use a white person as the face of his store had relatively strong execution despite not being particularly edgy, and for a pilot, that's a decent start.
What did you think of the premiere episodes? Did they meet your expectations and what were your expectations? Who do you think is positioned to be the breakout character so far? Do you think the show is too generic or that it has its own style? Don't forget to watch Fresh Off the Boat online here at TV Fanatic.