Fresh Off the Boat Season 1 Episodes 1 & 2 Review: “Pilot”/”Home Sweet Home-School”

Fresh Off the Boat

2015’s first “Important Comedy about Race,” Fresh Off the Boat is often a surprisingly muted look at what it was like to be Asian-American before the turn of the century, when social awareness began to take leaps and bounds forward. And as the first show in two decades to prominently feature an Asian-American cast, Fresh Off the Boat certainly earns its moniker as an “important show,” at least in theory; in reality, Fresh Off the Boat is a typical, work-in-progress family comedy about the idealism of the American dream – and when it comes to being a progressive comedy, the show reveals itself to be something a little more obvious and predictable.

There’s an obvious neutering of chef/writer/creator/narrator Eddie Huang’s memoir on-screen, which at times in the first two episodes is a little odd; there’s really only a few scenes where Fresh Off the Boat addresses the bigoted nature of American culture, which works to both the show’s benefit and detriment. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a show that doesn’t have to constantly throw the race card in our face to make a point about American culture; however, Fresh Off the Boat still wants to pull that race card on occasion, whether it’s addressing family pressure to get excellent grades or when another kid (a fellow minority, nonetheless; because it’s the minorities in America that were tearing each other apart in the 1990’s) calls our de-facto protagonist a “chink.”

It puts the comedy in an odd position; there are times when both episodes attempt to dispel notions that it’s trying to be a “special show,” yet sometimes it feels like the show should embrace its unique take on the American Dream – which turns out to not really be all that unique; the American Dream is peddled as the end all, be all for the Huang family, which neatly reflects a 90’s attitude towards American values, and also how attached we still are to them today, since those ideals have been commercialized to no end. It’s like the show’s attempts to be “cool”; no matter how many Biggie samples you drop into an episode, it doesn’t feel like the show’s using its avenue of hip-hop as the great social unifier of the 1990’s in meaningful ways (which it kind of was, if you put aside the re-appropriation of the African-American struggle to be glorified and marketed to white, middle-school America; but these are long, long discussions for another time and place).

That being said, I’m 400 words into a review of a TV show, and I’ve spent the whole thing talking about race on television; a fascinating topic, but one that doesn’t quite inform whether Fresh Off the Boat is any good or not. After two episodes, that answer is a definite “maybe.” Where the show has struck gold with its portrayal of matriarch Jessica trying to get her family settled, adjusted, and financially above water, it equally struggles to make the patriarch (played by Randall Park) an interesting character. In the first two episodes, he’s essentially a cipher for the end-all, be-all approach to the American Dream: he opens a failing restaurant, lies to his wife to get her to move to the bottom of the East Coast, and, for the most part, can’t be concerned with anything that doesn’t involve turning a profit. It makes for a very dissonant relationship between the two, with Constance Wu’s Jessica a humanized, evolved character with real connection to her children, while Park’s Louis is a goofy straight man, full of over-the-top emotional expressions and an accent that almost seems racist in how weirdly it shifts between typical American slang and slightly affected Asian-American accent.

It all makes for a very odd mix; when Fresh Off the Boat is working best, though, is when it becomes a hybrid of Everybody Hates Chris and Malcolm in the Middle, adopting the slight cultural reflections of the former and the distinct child characters of the latter (Eddie’s two younger brothers are both extremely well-defined in the first two episodes, a surprising move for a network comedy), with our protagonist trying to navigate the waters of faking his family’s financial status, while still maintaining his individuality around every corner. In those moments in the first two episodes (and next week’s episode, which has fantastic Jessica and Eddie stories), Fresh Off the Boat shows promise as 2015’s first watchable new comedy, a combination of clever and poignant that would really rock, with a few tweaks and twists here or there. Fresh Off the Boat isn’t quite there yet – and while it’s not as forward-thinking a show as many probably would like it to be, it’s ability to form a coherent, relatable story around a cast of characters normally deemed unwatchable by network executives is forward-thinking enough to make it the first intriguing new entry of 2015.

[Photo via ABC]


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