'Fresh Off the Boat' recap: 'Pilot'
Let’s start this Fresh Off the Boat recap by recapping the show’s own messy backstory. As the opening scene points out, the sitcom is “inspired by” the similarly titled 2013 memoir from celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Meaning, it isn’t based on the book. This is a big point of contention for Huang. He has publicly and repeatedly criticized the series’ producers, including showrunner Nahnatchaka Khan (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), for sanding down the irregular edges of his deeply personal story in order to make it more palatable to a broader audience. His unique tale was becoming “a reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen,” he wrote in an essay for New York magazine. The first network show in over 20 years to center on an Asian-American family was doomed to be little more than Soft-Ass Glutinous Asians in Apartment 23, he lamented. (Huang’s full essay is definitely worth a tab, if not for the illuminating perspective then at least for the entertaining insults.)
In one sense, this is Huang doing Huang. The 32-year-old chef’s prickly, Kanye-esque persona is a key ingredient of his larger lifestyle brand (think Goop for the Vice set), and having your name on a big ol’ TV show can be a cred-killer even if it’s good. (Years ago, he basically sabotaged his hosting gig on the Cooking Channel by throwing Twitter shade at some of his colleagues.) But Huang also knows what the stakes are here, and in the end he ended up making compromises to please the network—more Panda Express, less Baohaus, as one producer put it. This balance, they hope, will help FOTB escape the fate that met Margaret Cho’s widely panned 1994 sitcom All-American Girl. That show was canceled after a single season, and for two decades no other network comedy starred an Asian-American family.
So, no pressure! Okay, okay—that’s a lot of baggage for any sitcom, and the first half-hour doesn’t seem too interested in blazing revolutionary new paths. More than anything, Fresh Off the Boat is just a solidly funny show, period. It’s also very ABC, with a basic framework that’s a little bit Black-ish-ish, a little bit Suburgatory-y, and a lot bit Goldbergs-y.
The episode opens on 11-year-old Eddie (played by a very game Hudson Yang) as he tries on some “fresh as hell” gear—Orlando Magic Starter jacket, snapback cap, dookie chain—to the tune of Erick Sermon’s MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future.” It’s 1995, and like a lot of kids back then, Eddie’s deep into hip-hop. Biggie, Nas, and Shaq (never forget Shaq Fu!)—these are his idols. Rap is how he defines himself; it’s his identity. But his family doesn’t get it. “If you’re an outsider, hip-hop is your anthem—and I was definitely the black sheep of my family,” the actual Eddie Huang explains in his voiceover narration, which lends the series a nice Wonder Years vibe. When his little brother Emery (Forrest Wheeler) asks him “Isn’t that necklace heavy?”, Eddie replies, “Life’s heavy, son.”
Indeed. We meet the Huang clan mid-move as they leave behind their old life in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown for their new home in suburban Orlando. Eddie’s dad Louis (Randall Park) is after the American Dream, which for some reason he thinks is hiding in Florida—specifically at the steakhouse he recently purchased. Eddie’s mom Jessica (Constance Wu) is the strict one. She’s as exacting as she is protective. She’s also the funniest member of the family. “This is why we left everything we know to come to a place where we know nothing and where the humidity is not good for my hair,” she says with chagrin during the car ride. “So your father can own a cowboy restaurant!”
Of course, things don’t go as planned in Orlando, and the fish-out-of-water humor commences. Eddie has it the worst. As the new kid in school (forced to start on a Wednesday!) and also the only Asian, he’s an immediate outsider. At lunch, he tries to sit with a black classmate named Walter, but gets denied; the white kids invite him over after they bond over Biggie, but it comes to an end once he pulls out his home-cooked bowl of noodles—or “worms,” as the white kids call it. Shunned, Eddie eats his ethnic food out back behind the school, with a kite-flying janitor.
Jessica is having trouble fitting in, too. Her neighborhood is dominated by a clique of Melrose Place-loving, rollerblading blond women, all of whom Jessica more or less despises. “You think I like pretending Samantha isn’t carrying a baggie of dog poops in her hand?” she asks Eddie, admonishing him for not trying harder to assimilate. “No! I don’t like this! We all see the poops there, it’s rolling around!” Eddie’s (other) little brother Evan’s not doing so hot either—he gets sick after his “fat friend JJ gave him string cheese.” As Jessica proudly puts it, his lactose-intolerant body is literally rejecting white culture. Meanwhile, Louis’ restaurant, the Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse, is so dead, there may as well be tumbleweeds blowing through it. Business is so dire, he hires a sitcom-standard weirdo named Mitch (Paul Scheer basically being Paul Scheer); Louis is banking on Mitch’s whiteness to bring in customers who might otherwise be skittish about going to a steakhouse run by a Taiwanese man.
Emery, on the other hand, is basically the biggest non-Shaq baller in Orlando: He’s getting girls, birthday-party invites, and respect all-around. The kid is crushing it.
To change his fortunes, Eddie demands that his parents take him to a suburban supermarket (Food 4 All!!!!) so he can buy “white-people lunch.” “When you live in a Lunchables world, it’s not easy eating homemade Chinese food,” Huang the narrator says, nicely summing up the show’s premise in a nutshell. But things take a turn at school the next day. Eddie struts around the cafeteria, Lunchables in hand, when he’s confronted by Walter. “You’re the one at the bottom now,” he says to Eddie. “It’s my turn, chink.”
This is the kind of raw experience that Eddie Huang fought to keep in the show, and it’s a good thing he did. The scene has a jarring effect—an unexpected but necessary bit of ugliness that jolts you out of a relatively generic story. Besides, it would’ve been weird —and ultimately inauthentic—if little Eddie hadn’t had slurs hurled at him in school. FOTB has a purpose now.
But the show mostly retreats from there. We cut to a fairly generic scene in the principal’s office, where it looks like Eddie might get in trouble for hitting Walter. Of course, he doesn’t get punished. His parents not only stick up for him but even threaten to sue the school for what Eddie had to go through. “It’s the American way,” Louis says in what amounts to the episode’s corniest moment. The family walks out together, like a team, and huddles on the playground for a pep talk. “Coming to this new place is going to make us all stronger,” Louis tells his family. Despite their reservations, everyone comes around to Louis’ tune. The Huangs won’t let Florida bring them down.
All in all, it’s a promising start. It’s not always potent, but there are plenty of great jokes here. And while Hudson Yang and Randall Park are great, the real MVP is Constance Wu. Every line, every expression, every under-her-breath swipe she delivers hits its mark. Expect her to be a regular in the Freshest Moments roundup.
- Eddie proves he’s cool at school with his Biggie t-shirt, but that Nas/Illmatic shirt he wears early on is way more badass.
- “See, exactly—not welcoming! That’s why no to your face and yes to the white face! A nice, happy white face, like Bill Pullman.” —Louis to Jessica on why they need to hire a white host at the restaurant
- Eddie, to teacher struggling with his name: Call me Eddie. Teacher: Oh, thank God.
- “What is this store so excited about?” —Jessica, in awe of Food 4 All!!!
- Eddie: Why aren’t chicks giving me soda? Emery: You want it too much.
- “Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Huang—the burro is ready for blocking.” —Nancy to Louis at the commercial shoot
- Eddie’s school cafeteria has a microwave? What? Is that a normal thing?? I’ve never seen it.
- “My mom is the worst roommate. It’s like, if you’re making toast, make us both toast! That’s why there’s two slots, you know?” —the always-great Paul Scheer as Mitch
- And finally, let’s all bow down to Eddie’s airtight three-pronged plan for world domination.
1) Get a seat at the table.
2) Meet Shaq.
3) Change the game, ideally with the help of Shaq.