There aren’t many sitcoms that hit the ground running. Few pieces of television are worse to watch than comedy pilots, which are broad and often painfully unfunny. Even shows that end up being great usually start off with some growing pains. Fresh Off the Boat is an unexpected exception — it’s brimming with potential, and has a clear sense of its humor.
It’s unexpected only because, once again, ABC has made a mess of the marketing. Like many very funny ABC comedies before it — Happy Endings, Selfie (believe it!), Don’t Trust the B– in Apt 23 — unfortunate titles and marketing schemes that highlighted only the most cringe-worthy jokes left the series with only a small, devoted fanbase who dared to tune in. The reward of great comedy was met, in the case of the aforementioned shows, with swift loss, too, as poor ratings led to cancellation.
Fresh Off the Boat shares a few things in common with these funny forebears, but hopefully not their fate. Like Selfie, it features an Asian lead, a rarity on broadcast (the first — and last — sitcom to focus on an Asian family was Margaret Cho‘s All American Girl in 1994). It’s also executive produced and written by, in part, Nahnatchka Khan, who gave Don’t Trust the B– its wonderfully sharp, clever edges.
The series is based on chef and food personality Eddie Huang‘s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, and Huang lends his voice as the show’s narrator. A la the The Wonder Years and the like, Huang looks back to his childhood in 1995, when his Taiwanese family moved from D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida.
The Huangs have relocated because of his eternally-optimistic father Louis’ (Randall Park) desire to own and operate a Western-themed restaurant. Orlando is a culture shock for the family, though, and hip-hop loving Eddie (Hudson Yang) struggles to fit in (although his younger brothers Emery and Evan, played by Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen, become popular immediately, and are exceptionally adorable).
Like ABC’s black-ish, race is at the forefront of almost every interaction, often hilariously. “She’s cutting equally sized pieces because of communism,” one neighbor say knowingly to another as they watch Eddie’s mother Jessica (the excellent Constance Wu) slice up a cake at the neighborhood cookout. Later, Jessica wistfully tells Eddie how she misses the calm of D.C.’s Taiwanese markets — then it cuts to a memory of her screaming and fending off fellow shoppers with vegetables. At the restaurant, Louis wonders if customers might feel more comfortable if they are met by a white host (Paul Scheer) instead of himself: “A nice friendly white face, like Bill Pullman.”
Though Eddie is the star of the show, and his love of hip-hop a constant theme (which gives the show a great soundtrack — also, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen a pudgy Asian kid do a pimp walk), it’s really Jessica who stands out in the family. She’s a Tiger Mother prototype, but has the most depth of any character right from the start. She’s obsessed with frugality, loves Stephen King, and berates the school principal when Eddie gets straight As. “You are making school too easy!” she accuses. “Where can he take more classes?”
For 90s kids, the show also provides a lot of nostalgia, from the pump-up sneakers, to Eddie’s obsessions with getting his mother to buy him Lunchables, to even a killer lawn dart reference. Eddie bonds with kids at school over music, and gets his grandmother to play Snoop on a boombox as his entrance at home. The grandmother (Lucille Soong) is another hidden gem on the show. In one scene, where the Huangs are trying to understand their neighbors’ fascination with NASCAR, she says (in Taiwanese, with subtitles), “at those speeds, it wouldn’t take much tampering to get revenge on your enemies …”
Not everything on the show works yet; some of the jokes fall flat, and there is still that old sitcom push for the family to learn a valuable lesson by the end of the half-hour. But Fresh Off the Boat has great potential, and plenty to work with in terms of both story and humor. Its cast is exceptional, but Wu in particular is a standout.
To boost its premiere, the series is being sandwiched in between some of ABC’s most popular comedies on Wednesday (Modern Family and The Middle), and will air two episodes on its premiere night before moving to its regular home on Tuesdays, where it won’t face much comedy competition. Still, that’s the slot that has killed off many an ABC comedy before it …
The bottom line is, don’t be fooled by the cringe-worthy promos. Stick around for both episodes on Wednesday. Fresh Off the Boat is fresh, and occasionally very funny.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Fresh Off the Boat premieres with two episodes Wednesday, February 4th at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., before moving into its regular slot on Tuesdays at 8 p.m., starting February 10th.