Fresh Off the Boat Season 1 Episodes 3 & 4 Review: “The Shunning”/”Success Perm”

Fresh Off the Boat 1.03

There’s a clear line between what Fresh Off the Boat‘s early episodes are doing well; while the (younger) adult and child (Louis, Jessica, Evan, and Emery) story lines are finding their rhythms quickly, the older counterparts of each generational divide (Grandma, Eddie) are struggling to get off the ground a bit. That dichotomy is no more apparent than in this week’s pair of episodes, two half hours littered with promising moments and held back, mostly, by some poor taste in important moments.

Both episodes really get a strong grip on the parental components of the Huang family; both “The Shunning” and “Success Perm” do a great job establishing the external pressures on Jessica and Eddie (mostly personal for the former, and predominantly professional for the latter). Jessica’s friendship with Honey is a particularly strong turn for the character early on, unnecessary rendition of “I Will Always Love You” and all. It not only softens the character a bit, but gives her some fun conflict in the neighborhood beyond the predictable Stepford Wives vs. the Weird Family in the Neighborhood material; she’s really the only female on the show given any agency as an actual human being (that’s part of the main cast, that is), and it’s given Fresh Off the Boat a certain energy it has desperately needed in the first few episodes.

By the same token, Louis’s attempts to get the business going are also working well, mostly because of their proximity to Jessica’s stories, particularly in “Success Perm,” which begins to flesh out the Huang family tree in interesting ways (like that Jessica’s brother-in-law was Eddie’s boss before he moved to Orlando). Randall Park’s performance, however, doesn’t appear to be on the same show, as funny as it is; while the rest of the cast plays things relatively straight, Park’s performance is much more over-the-top, which heightens the absurdity of scenes with him intently watching a computer loudly try to connect to the internet (with a hilarious perm, nonetheless), and adds some dramatic ebb and flow to his unsuccessful attempts to fill the restaurant with customers.

Yet, Fresh Off the Boat is still struggling to give Eddie, its protagonist, either the same shades of gray as his mother, or the wackiness of his father. So far, he’s been a cipher for expensive music samples, a lower middle-class kid who somehow has a fresh hip-hop brand to wear each and every episode, along with the latest CD’s (which were still a bit of a fancy thing for a kid in 1995) and stereo equipment (it had the Sony max bass button on it! Who doesn’t remember those?!). Simple financial contradictions aside, Eddie hasn’t been much of anything so far, except a vehicle for broadly-delivered notions of hip-hop philosophy, which lead to him treating Honey like a stripper in “The Shunning,” a deplorable ending for an episode that appeared to be building towards something a little more poignant (if you’re going to invoke the name of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, I think it’s almost an expectation).

“Success Perm” works a little bit better, but only in the episode’s first two acts; at first, Eddie’s disappointment at his cousin’s newfound grunge-themed angst is played to be a centerpiece of the episode, though it quickly fades in the background for a really racist story about two old Asian-American women (who confuse a delivery man for O.J. Simpson) and the aforementioned stories of the parents. Had “Success Perm” actually made Eddie’s cousin someone with personality, it might’ve been able to give voice to Eddie’s struggles to fit in, in ways that would at least align better with his parents, rather than exist as an under-cooked attempt at narrative parallels.

That being said, both “The Shunning” and “Success Perm” are pretty funny episodes, half-hours that are occasionally able to elevate tacky 90’s jokes into genuinely funny material, like the perms Jessica and Eddy get, or the confusion of the younger siblings as to what a Two Pack is. There are even moments where it oddly feels like Fresh Off the Boat is embracing  the stereotypes it is trying to avoid (the older women, again; even if they’re parodies of women from Huang’s real-life experiences, it’s off-putting), which make the various stories in both episodes feel more and more dissonant, even as the episodes’ third acts pull them together for a pair of rushed, semi-cathartic resolutions. But those flaws can’t cover up the promise shown in the parental-focused parts of both episodes; if Fresh Off the Boat can continue to build on that while bringing the children up to speed, it could quickly became an early breakout of 2015.

[Photo via ABC]

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  1. Baakus