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February 6, 2015

ABC is Off the Boat but into the sea

It has been more than 20 years since the last sitcom featuring an Asian-American family was on network television. Let that sink in. Most first-years were not even born when Margaret Cho’s series All-American Girl premiered in 1994 and ran for only one season. On Wednesday night ABC ended that drought with Fresh Off the Boat, a new series set in 1994 about a family of Taiwanese immigrants.

The series follows the Huang family as they move from a primarily Taiwanese neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida where the father of the family, Louis (Randall Park), takes over a cowboy-themed steakhouse. As Louis and his wife Jessica (Constance Wu) struggle to keep their business afloat, their children try to fit into their new school to varying degrees of success. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is treated as an outsider by his peers even as his younger brothers seem to fit in seamlessly. The series is based off of Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. Huang, a well-known Asian-American chef, is the protagonist and narrator for all of the events in the show.

While the subject of Fresh Off the Boat is certainly groundbreaking, the show itself fails to break any new ground. It very much feels like one of ABC’s other family-oriented sitcoms— Modern Family and Blackish—only with Asian-American actors and a few jokes thrown in about misunderstanding American customs and parents obsessing over report cards. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of the show, especially since it has only aired two episodes, but a lot of the scenarios in Fresh Off the Boat felt somewhat stale. While the second episode hit some genuinely funny notes, the show needs a few more episodes before it can get into its stride.

On Wednesday, the PanAsia Solidarity Coalition held an event to watch the pilot and second episode with a short discussion in between episodes. While the general consensus seemed to be in favor of the show and the greater exposure of Asian-American stories in the media, concerns were raised about whitewashing the immigrant family experience and how faithful the show is to Eddie’s real life experiences. For example, while Eddie’s father in the show is portrayed as a rather dopey, laid-back parent à la Phil Dunphy in Modern Family, Eddie’s father in the memoir is described to be very strict, an image that didn’t necessarily fit with ABC’s brand of family comedy.

Regardless of the quality of the show, though, Fresh Off the Boat is a step in the right direction. While the series has certainly made waves, it now needs to make sure it does better than just tread water.

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