It may be overreacting to start a campaign for ABC to renew Fresh Off the Boat since its ratings have actually been decent throughout the season, and ABC hasn’t renewed any of its shows yet. But just in case there is any doubt, it’s essential to make a case for the fact that this show both needs and deserves to stay on the air.
There is, of course, the fact that this is finally a show about an Asian-American family. In the series’ penultimate episode of its first season, “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon,” Jessica (the exceptional Constance Wu) spends most of the episode convincing her two youngest sons, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) not to pursue the dead-end career of acting. “They’ll never put two Asians together on a TV show,” she says to them. Then in the end, the family sits down to watch Margaret Cho‘s All American Girl (Fresh Off the Boat takes place in 1995 Orlando).
It wasn’t a slick reference, but its truth — like the truth of so much of the series — rang out. Though Eddie Huang, on whose memoir the show is based (he also appears as the voiceover for “adult Eddie” — the kid version is played by the great Hudson Yang) has taken issue with the show’s watered-down, Americanized vibe, it’s a show he really should ultimately be proud of.
Still, Huang isn’t totally wrong in some of his criticisms. Fresh Off the Boat does sometimes — like Modern Family in its later seasons in particular — force an obvious lesson when it really doesn’t need to. In the season finale, “So Chineez,” Jessica wonders if her family is becoming too Americanized, and forces them into honoring more Chinese traditions. It leads to, in the final moments, Eddie suddenly schooling his classmate on China, which felt sudden and out of character (especially given everything that came before). It’s the show’s only weak link.
A much better and more subversive scene came earlier, when Jessica explains her new dedication to Chinese traditions to husband Louis (Randall Park), who points out that, “there’s nothing more American than hanging up a picture of the Buddha.” And Jessica later realizes there are some American things she really respects: “Mac and cheese. It’s so easy to make … you just add water. Cheese comes from water.”
Like the Huangs, the show doesn’t need to worry about being too Chinese or not Chinese enough. It has always struck the perfect balance thanks to its smallest touches. It doesn’t matter what the overall arc of the show is, every episode is full of references to Chinese and Taiwanese culture, some of which are broad, but most of which are natural and occasionally nuanced (like a sequence in “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon” where Eddie’s ideas about Taiwanese basketball essentially turn into a Stephen Chow-style Wuxia film).
One of the things that has made Eddie such an interesting character, too, is that he’s no stereotype. He loves hip hop as the music of an outsider (“why is there a black man on your t-shirt?” Jessica asks him early in the series). And one of the best recurring gags on the show is how Eddie gets his grandmother (Lucille Soong) to roll into a room in her wheelchair blasting hip hop on a boombox, so that Eddie can make an entrance. It’s all part of his version of a gangsta countenance, learned from albums and music videos, that creates his unique identity as an outsider that’s both tied to and separate from race.
Still, all of these themes, however clever or ambitious, might fall flat if it weren’t for the strength of the cast. Constance Wu’s Jessica is the shining star of the series, but she’s nearly matched by the exceptional younger cast, who nail their characters, and make each unique and essential to the story. And the real unsung hero of hilarity on the series is Soong, whose understated responses to everything are pitch-perfect (one of the funniest sequences of the entire first season revolved around a poker game she plays with Emery and Evan).
Another component to Fresh Off the Boat‘s success as a series is simply its setting. The 90s nostalgia is fantastically referential without being overdone. It’s surprisingly easy to come into the show and not even realize at first that it takes place in the mid-90s. This is where the show really solidifies its humor within a particular context, not only in its send-ups of its Orlando locale, but also choosing some deep cuts not just for throwaway jokes, but full-episode arcs (like in “Fajita Man,” when Eddie is desperate to own a copy of the game Shaq Fu).
Though there is a very viable case to be made about Fresh Off the Boat‘s need to stay on the air because of its commitment to diversity, that argument shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the show is very, very funny. It’s also clever, nostalgic, and a great showcase for some terrific actors. And, as previously mentioned, the ratings haven’t been even close to terrible, especially for a Tuesday comedy (ABC’s former death-slot for a host of great shows). This one is a no-brainer, ABC. As Danny Brown says in the show’s theme song, “So if you don’t know homie now you know: Fresh off the boat. And homie, I demand my respect.”