Should you try to fit in if you’re different? That’s the biggest question posed by Fresh Off the Boat, and not just because it’s about a Chinese family that moves to the lily-white suburbs of Orlando in the 1990s. It’s really a question about the comedy itself, the only sitcom about an Asian-American family on television. Before it debuted, Eddie Huang, the chef whose sharptongued memoir of the same name inspired the story, worried in New York magazine that its creators, including showrunner Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23), were taking his distinct cultural experience as a hip-hop-loving Chinese kid and watering it down for a white audience. So it’s a relief to find that Fresh Off the Boat is not only genuinely funny and surprisingly broad but also a little bit subversive.
That isn’t immediately obvious from the series’ opening moments, which introduce 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang); his people-pleaser father, Louis (Randall Park); his strict mother, Jessica (Constance Wu); and his two brothers. The immigrant parents are a bit stock at first: Eddie describes Jessica as a proto–tiger mom, and Louis believes he’ll get more customers at his steak house if he hires a “nice happy white face, like Bill Pullman,” to manage it. Though, like that steak house, Fresh Off the Boat is only greeting viewers with a nonthreatening face. The pilot ends with a black classmate telling Eddie, “You’re the one at the bottom now. It’s my turn, chink!” Later it also pokes fun at well-meaning white people who are overly cautious of offending anyone. When a white neighbor asks Eddie if he wants to play basketball, he replies, “Does a yellow man like dumplings?” The neighbor is stunned silent. “We do, we do!” Eddie assures him. “Sorry. Put you in an awkward spot.”
Most sitcoms sell the American cultural ideal, right down to the Leave It to Beaver-style family dinners. By skewering institutions like NASCAR and tuna casserole, Fresh Off the Boat makes that culture seem just as weird as Eddie’s family seems to their neighbors. That’s mostly a credit to Wu, who brings a deadpan wit to Jessica, finding absurdity in everything from this country’s sticker-stamped underachiever report cards (“Two clouds? That seems…bad”) to its TV shows (“So Melrose Place is about prostitutes who are mad at each other?”). She’s supposed to be an outsider, but she’s actually the woman many American mothers believe themselves to be: an independent thinker who has nothing in common with the neighborhood’s Stepford wives. Not fitting in is the best thing about her. And that’s true for Fresh Off the Boat as well. B+