Is “Fresh off the Boat” a network sitcom or the rawest, realest TV show about Asian Americans ever? Yes

Eddie Huang during the “Fresh Off the Boat” panel at the TCA.
Eddie Huang during the “Fresh Off the Boat” panel at the TCA.
Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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There’s an ancient Chinese curse — or what purports to be one — that goes like this: May you live in interesting times. It’s almost certainly apocryphal, but the idea behind it certainly feels very Chinese; “Interesting times” may be an asset if you’re a thrill-seeker, but Chinese people traditionally want their times as tediously predictable as possible. And not just Chinese people: the same goes for money managers and military leaders. And network PR executives.

For Fresh Off the Boat, ABC’s groundbreaking Asian American family sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s bestselling memoir (and starring my son, Hudson Yang, as Eddie!), the past few days have been…interesting times.

One day before the show’s winter press tour unveiling at the Television Critics Association — where TV reviewers from around the world gather to meet, greet and grill showrunners, castmembers and network executives on their upcoming midseason programs — Huang himself had written a lengthy essay that candidly tore apart the show’s development process, detailing the ways in which the series was softened from the story in his book (an epically bawdy, riotous, food-drugs-and-violence riddled coming of age story) into something feasible for prime-time broadcast.

The essay was brilliant; it also was nearly 4,000 words long (or, as Huang calculated it, 15 pages). Many readers took the time to follow it all the way down Huang’s intended rabbit hole, to the last few pages when he comes to terms with the fact that the show, even in this family-friendly version, is not only a staggering achievement — hell, just getting an entire family of Asian Americans on network primetime is an achievement that hasn’t happened in 20 freaking years — but actually historic.

Because while the show may not be very faithful to Huang’s individual life, it is nevertheless an authentic Asian American expression of a more universal experience, and one that’s rawer and realer than anyone has ever seen that story presented. The last three minutes of the pilot, three minutes in which Huang’s onscreen family hilariously deals with the repercussions of Little Eddie being hit with the worst of anti-Chinese slurs, were what convinced him, he says: “After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience. I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor or the source material. I was the viewer and I finally understood it.”

Or, as Huang later tweeted, “this is for the kids.” All the Asian American kids who never saw themselves onscreen, never had their trials and tribulations validated, never had a place to stand in America’s complicated, turbulent debate about race, culture and ethnicity. But it’s for their parents, and for all the non-Asian kids too, and their parents, who will collectively be getting a funny as hell 13-episode booster shot that vaccinates against the social dismissal of and casual prejudice toward Asian immigrants that is all too often the default in America. Not open heart surgery, like it might have been if it were a drama. Not a sneakered-foot enema, like the original book. But something new, something needed.

The painful degree to which it’s needed was on full display at Fresh Off the Boat’s Television Critics Association panel last week, featuring the cast — parents Randall Park and Constance Wu, and Hudson and his screen brothers Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen — and the producers, Nahnatchka Khan, Jake Kasdan, Melvin Mar and Eddie Huang himself.

Almost before the panel was seated, hands had sprung up. And the first question put to them was a doozy: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”

It was hard to tell who was more shocked and confused — TCA members, muttering with embarrassment at their unknown colleague, or Fresh Off the Boat’s cast and producers, who had prepared themselves to talk about the show and its various controversies…not eating utensils.

Wu was the first to react. “Yeah, we got some chopsticks,” she responded — followed quickly by Huang — “We got a lot of chopsticks” — and Khan — “Wait till Episode 5. It’s all about chopsticks.”

In some ways, the bizarre exchange set the tone for the rest of the panel. Another reporter was the first to invoke Huang’s essay, hoping to get a heated response from Khan to Huang’s statement, early in the article, that as a non-Asian she might not have the right POV to run the show: And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft.

Huang immediately challenged the reporter’s framing of his piece: “Did you read the entire article?” The reporter said that he had. “That statement was made on about Page 3 and…it’s a 15-page article. People’s opinions change and metamorph and they reach resolutions. I mean, that’s even how TV shows work,” retorted Huang.

Eventually, Khan responded to the question herself: “When I read his memoir, the specifics were different to my growing up experience, being Persian American and him being Taiwanese American, but what I related to was the immigrant experience of the show, being first generation and having parents who weren’t born here. And that, to me, was my access point. When you take something from the source material that’s such a strong voice and make it into an 8 p.m. family sitcom on broadcast TV, you need a lot of access points.”

Then Park, who was getting over a case of the flu, was asked about the repercussions of his controversial role as Kim Jong-Un in The Interview. “I was never afraid for my personal safety,” he said.

Even the kids, in the very last few minutes of the half-hour, were asked a question that raised eyebrows. “When you’ve gone to auditions,” asked the journalist, “have you ever been asked to ‘play more Asian’?” The kids exchanged glances, clearly unsure what the reporter meant. Forrest Wheeler, who plays middle kid Emery, reacted first, returning to a theme that had come up earlier in the panel — in which Wu had noted that the show, if it succeeded, would give Asians a chance to expand the kinds of characters they could play. Not just “the girlfriend” or “the nerdy tech guy” (a stock part that Park said he’d auditioned for many times).

“Only once,” Wheeler offered. “For a nerdy role.”

The other kids agreed: “Oh, yeah, nerdy roles.”

The answer seemed to satisfy the reporter, and the session came to a close. But the kids later admitted that they had no idea what the woman meant. Chen, who plays youngest Huang son Evan, and Wheeler are relative veterans, with dozens of screen and commercial credits. My son Hudson has only auditioned a handful of times — “This is my first big role,” he made clear, prompting a round of laughter — and the only “nerdy” role he’s ever been sent by his agents to read for was the part of a gangly, bespectacled Jewish kid named “Ari.” (He didn’t book it.)

The bottom line was that almost nothing asked by the assembled audience, the cream of the cultural critic profession, had much to do with Fresh Off the Boat itself. In sessions for other shows, cast and producers were asked about character development, about plot arcs, about target audiences and competition — questions related to the craft and content of their series. The questions aimed at the Fresh panel were about external controversies like Huang’s “New York” essay and Park’s risky role in The Interview, the state of Asian Americans on screen, the reason why ABC chose to make the show (which Huang answered bluntly: “Asians have money. You want the money? Make things for them”). And also, chopsticks.

These questions wouldn’t have been surprising if the assembled critics had not yet had the chance to watch the show. But they had — three full episodes. And as most were quick to point out later, they really liked it. What they didn’t seem to have was context: The show is so singular, so dissimilar to anything on TV now or coming to TV this winter, that they stumbled out of the gate in how to explore it. Is the show’s name offensive or subversive? Does the show recapitulate or shatter stereotypes? Most of the jokes seem to be on the series’ non-Asian characters — the last 30 seconds of the pilot episode in particular are going to cause some white viewers to react with hostility. Is this inversion progress, or provocation, or both?

Even after seeing three episodes, it seemed that though the packed room of hundreds of critics (nearly all non-Asian) had found it funny and charming, they weren’t quite sure what they’d seen, and to some degree, whether they had the permission to laugh. The smartest take on the panel came from Melanie McFarland, blogging for IMDb. “Comedies and dramas that deftly employ universal themes and humor that resonate with the wider audience, featuring minority-led casts that don’t ignore said cast’s ethnicity, are still uncommon,” she wrote, unpacking the carnival-like questioning the cast and producers faced. “Amazingly, in 2015, ABC’s insistence on diversity is met with a sense of awe, and an implication that what the Alphabet network is doing is a bold experiment. In the case of Fresh Off the Boat, maybe it is.”

There are 13 episodes in Fresh Off the Boat’s inaugural season. Because they’ve been made in the absence of scrutiny, all of them completed before a single episode airs, the producers have been able to develop storylines and themes that pay off later in the show’s run, while continuing to push the envelope further as the show continues to run. They’ve been able to explore issues as varied as LGBT Asians, transracial adoption, ethnic taboos and superstitions, athletic stereotypes. Once the show begins to air, the conversation will hopefully turn to the unique content of the series, its stellar writing and its fresh and fabulous cast. Until then, maybe that’s something the show has to endure. No bold experiment is without risks; the producers and the network hope this one pays off.

Until February 4th, the show will just have to live on through…interesting times.