ABC’s 90s comedy Fresh Off the Boat was originally developed to revolve around the exploits of Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), having been based off of the memoirs of the real Eddie Huang. But as the real-life Huang distanced himself from the show and it became clear that its breakout star was his on-screen mother Jessica (Constance Wu), the show began to pivot in its second season to include more of the adults and somewhat less of the kids. But, the kids have still remained essential to the show’s core.
This freedom has allowed Yang’s character in particular to be used in some of the show’s best comedic moments, as he interacts with his friends at his Orlando school, obsessing over Shaq and trying to teach them his hip-hop knowledge. But also among the show’s younger set are two particularly fantastic actors who are always comedically on point — Forrest Wheeler as middle-child Emery, and Ian Chen as youngest brother Evan.
Though Evan and Emery have never been (so far) the show’s A-plot (something the series recently made fun of in the episode “The Big 1-2,” when the two attempt to win their parents’ attention), they are consistently hilarious and lovable as the youngest Huangs.
Now that the show has gotten a little more comfortable in its time slot and with its extended episode order, Fresh Off the Boat feels like it’s also finally allowing itself to be a little weirder (which is what one should hope for and expect from showrunner Nahnatchka Khan), and in no way has that manifested more gloriously than with Emery and Evan. Though both are goody two-shoes, they each have a distinct style — Emery is more of a young lothario, while Evan fits in with the gossipy homeowner’s association members. But the two are often at their best together, either when dressing up as Silence of the Lambs for Halloween, or reacting harshly to neighbor Honey (Chelsey Crisp) moving their Thanksgiving table decorations. “Put … the overalls … back … on the damn gourd!!” Evan seethes through gritted teeth, barely holding himself together over the outrage.
That’s the beauty of both Chen and Wheeler’s performances. They are adorably cute, almost unbelievably so, but they also find a way to be ever-so-slightly edgy, suggesting a potentially darker underbelly to their personalities. Unlike some sitcom children of late who have been written to specifically convey morally questionable attitudes (like Modern Family’s Lily or black-ish’s Diane), Evan and Emery are exceptionally layered in their portrayals of two kids you can’t quite pin down. And that credit is largely due to Chen and Wheeler.
Though there are plenty of episodes that have featured classic Evan and Emery moments (the poker game with Lucille Soong‘s Grandma Huang, Emery’s Pompeii science project, Evan power-walking with the ladies of the neighborhood), this past week’s “Huangsgiving” illustrated how integral the two are at keeping the show’s comic rhythms going, and how adept they are at providing some of the biggest laughs of an episode. “Huangsgiving” was strong on almost every level (competitions between Jessica and her sister for their mother’s affection are always golden), but what helps make Fresh Off the Boat truly stand out are its smallest cast members. Their unique brand of youthful maturity and impressively precise comedic timing make them delightful and essential players in the show’s exceptional cast.
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