LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO HISTORY

Whether or not “Fresh Off the Boat” is renewed, the pioneering sitcom has changed network TV

Obsession
Glass
Obsession
Glass

This post has been corrected.

On Apr. 21 the final episode airs of what we all hope is just the first season of Fresh Off the Boat, ABC’s Asian American sitcom that happens to star my son, Hudson Yang, as its lead kid, Eddie Huang. This past year has been an epic, high-velocity journey. Nothing has been easy; nothing has been straightforward; nothing has been certain, except for one crucial truth: over the past few months, history was made.

This was never simply about getting a sitcom featuring an Asian American family on the air in network primetime. We saw that happen way back in 1994, with Margaret Cho’s groundbreaking All-American Girl, which lasted 19 episodes and did so poorly with both viewers and reviewers that it frightened the broadcast powers that be away from putting another Asian-centric series on the air for a two full decades. In contrast, Fresh Off the Boat had to succeed—it had to win critical acclaim and appreciable ratings, and to prove that there was an audience out there looking for programming that tells Asian American stories, with Asian American voices and faces.

Fresh Off the Boat has been Tuesday’s highest-rated network comedy when airing in the perilous 8pm timeslot, according to the crucial Live+3 ratings, the ones that broadcasters use to actually calculate how much advertisers owe them for the eyeballs they’ve delivered. This means the upstart little comedy has stood up against ratings behemoths The Voice and NCIS, fended off CW’s fleet-footed superhero show The Flash and even exorcised Fox’s foodie favorite Hell’s Kitchen.

And it has done so on its own idiosyncratic terms. Yes, as many have pointed out, Fresh Off the Boat is a sitcom in every sense, meaning its storylines and characters are built for hilarity over veracity. TV’s FOTB bears only passing resemblance to Eddie Huang’s original book (much to his public dismay). And the traits that define the characters are comically over the top: Louis’s irrepressible optimism, Jessica’s determined defiance in the face of encroaching assimilation, Eddie’s rebellious embrace of hiphop as refuge; these are all played for laughs and nostalgic recognition first, not scathing social commentary.

But the commentary has been there, nevertheless, and never more so than in the finale episode airing tonight, “SO CHINEEZ”—the closing chapter of two interwoven central themes from this first season. Over a dozen episodes, we’ve seen a pair of characters, Tiger Mom par excellence Jessica and her irascible eldest son Eddie, slowly figuring out how to survive in a world they did not create or choose.

Jessica, who at first found their new neighborhood incomprehensible and its cheery inhabitants idiotic, suddenly finds herself fitting in all too well in the pastel landscape of suburban Orlando. Eddie, meanwhile, has tentatively set aside his adolescent mask of hiphop swagger, finding new friends and unexpectedly, popularity. But in gaining social acceptance, both ultimately realize they’ve lost something in the process: a deeper connection to where they came from and who they really are.

First-generation Asian immigrants becoming distanced from their roots, second-generation Asian Americans rediscovering their ancestral ties—these are the underlying themes of virtually every work of literature and theater in the Asian American canon. Yet they’ve never before been explored, humorous or otherwise, in what is still the most mass of mass media, network primetime. Over a dozen episodes, we’ve seen Tiger Mom par excellence Jessica and her irascible son Eddie figuring out how to survive in a world they did not create or choose. 

Millions of Asian Americans will watch tonight’s episode, and experience a flash of recognition and validation. Millions of non-Asians will view it, and even as they laugh, gain hidden insight into the inner cultural struggles faced by immigrant communities.

It may not be the full-bore blast of acid reality that Eddie Huang hoped for, and it’s certainly no substitute for a degree in Asian American Studies. What it is, however, is a breakthrough—a crashing of the gates, a cracking of the dam. It ensures that there will be other voices to follow, telling other stories and putting more Asian performers onscreen, high and low.

In the post-FOTB era, shows like Nickelodeon’s delirious (and sneakily addictive) K-pop inspired kidcom Make It Pop, featuring Megan Lee, Louriza Tronco and Erika Tham, become possible, as does the much-anticipated pilot for Ken Jeong’s Asian American family sitcom Dr. Ken.

And hopefully, we’ll have another season of Fresh Off the Boat itself, one that doesn’t have to face a constant struggle to validate itself and vindicate those who’ve worked so hard to bring it to the screen.

Until then, enjoy tonight’s episode. And keep your fingers crossed.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @originalspin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Make It Pop is produced by MTV, it is actually produced by Nickelodeon.

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