Following the misfire that was Margaret Cho’s 1994 sitcom All-American Girl, it took 20 years before ABC — or any other network — would take a chance on a series led by an Asian-American cast. As Viola Davis noted in her history-making Emmys speech on Sunday, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” Finally, women of color are being afforded some space — and even making space for themselves — in network television, and this more diverse landscape has made for undeniably richer, more informative storytelling.
When EW spoke to Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan in advance of the ABC comedy’s first season, she said that a focus-test of the original pilot left white people in the audience feeling “persecuted.” Now, as season 2 goes into full-swing — Fresh returned Tuesday — we caught up with Khan and star Constance Wu to talk representation, stereotyping, strong women, and what’s next for the Huang family.
After years of being relegated to token and supporting roles, Fresh Off the Boat can boast the largest Asian-American-led cast on television, which exerts a unique and not insignificant amount of pressure. “We sort of have the burden of an entire group’s representation,” says Khan of having to answer to criticisms from the Asian-American community. “You can’t please everybody.” Indeed, even Eddie Huang — the author of the memoir that inspired the show — has openly derided the series for being too safe and not adequately representative of his experiences. He narrated the series for season 1, but was absent from the season 2 premiere and seems unlikely to return.
Khan’s priority, however, is to the characters. “It’s like, ‘Would Jessica do this? Would Louis do this?’ That’s what we try to stay true to, just making sure the characters behave in ways that feel authentic to them and their story,” she explains. “In doing so, I think people see themselves or their families or their growing-up experience in [Fresh Off the Boat] and that makes us happy. But if people don’t see that, that’s okay too. Not everybody can see every moment of their life displayed by one set of people. It’s just not going to happen.”
Wu — who plays Huang matriarch Jessica — posits that the initial concerns from the Asian-American community came from a place of fear. “They’re so accustomed to Asian people being the butt of the joke. I think a big part of that is because Asian people traditionally — and even now in entertainment — are supporting characters, and supporting characters are inherently there to support the more important story, which is often the white person’s story,” Wu tells EW. “When you’re a supporting character you don’t have room in the medium to show all your many colors. I understand the reactive response. If you’re a puppy that’s been kicked a million times, you instantly think you’re being kicked again.”
Adds Wu, “We are leading and telling our own unique story and giving each of our characters humanity, so they’re not just supporting a white person’s story. It will take some time. We’ve been wounded in the past, but if you approach it with an objective mind and an eye for what a full character arc looks like, then I think you can find [Fresh Off the Boat] quite enjoyable and important.”
Earlier this summer, Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez told Glam Belleza Latina that she never saw herself onscreen while growing up, but that the current shift toward more diverse television has allowed her and other actors and actresses of color to represent their communities in heretofore unseen ways. “And the reason that’s important is because little kids look at the screen, as we did when we were growing up, and wonder, ‘Where do I fit in?’ And when you see that you fit in everywhere, you know anything is possible.”
Khan echoes these statements, telling EW, “So many people come up to me and they’re like, ‘My kids love the show.’ Asian kids seeing themselves on TV, that’s their new normal. If you take a step back, you realize that the TV landscape really has been … There have been some amazing shows in terms of representation, but not for Asian people. It’s not been there at all in comedy. It’s cool to just have this be the new normal.”
On season 2, and writing strong women
Moving into season 2, Fresh Off the Boat will see the Huang family continuing to grapple with their desire to fulfill the American dream while staying true to their roots. Now that the family restaurant has taken off, patriarch Louis (Randall Park) will need to figure out “what happens when you achieve that first level of success. Do you keep chasing it? When is enough enough?” asks Khan. Also, look out for Honey (Chelsey Crisp) and Jessica going into business together and continuing to connect through their mutual otherness, as well as, of course, their mutual love of Stephen King. Khan also reveals that Jessica’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar Chow (Rex Lee) will make a reappearance, bringing his boyfriend into town to meet up with the Huangs. As for the family, Eddie (Hudson Yang) will begin to experience that “first blush of rebellion” that comes with early adolescence, and he and Jessica will “butt heads even more.”
However, it’s unlikely that Jessica will take that behavior lying down. A memorable scene from season 1 had Jessica repeatedly jamming a stuffed rabbit into Eddie’s face in order to teach him a lesson about date rape. (“No means no! Respect girls!”)
“That’s one of my favorite moments. My favorite thing is writing strong women,” says Khan, who was also at the helm of the short-lived B—- in Apartment 23. “Women who don’t apologize is the thing that I love to do the most. With Jessica, she feels strongly. She’s just living her life. She’s not trying to make a statement, she’s just doing what she feels is right and she loves her family and she’ll do anything to protect them. … Certainly on network sitcoms in the past, the wife character has been sweeter or more matronly, and Jessica is not about that. She’s not touchy-feely, but she loves her family, and that strength and confidence is presented in a way that won’t end with a big hug moment. But she’ll attack her son with a giant stuffed animal because she wants him to understand the way of the world and that’s how she shows her love. And for us, that just feels authentic.”
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.