Fresh comedy redefines stereotypes

It’s 1995, and the Huangs are moving from Washington D.C.’s thriving and highly populated Chinatown to an almost all-white and humid town in Orlando, Florida. Hip-hop obsessed, 12-year-old Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) is thrown for a loop as he tries to fit in with the popular kids at school. “Fresh off the Boat,”  ABC’s new comedy, follows the Huangs after their move as they try to navigate the uncharted territory of owning a Western-themed restaurant and living in a practically foreign suburban neighborhood.

The Huangs move to Orlando after Eddie’s father, Louis (Randall Park, “Veep”), buys Cattleman’s Ranch, a Western restaurant. Louis believes unconditionally in the American Dream, much to his wife Jessica’s (Constance Wu) chagrin. Eddie’s two younger brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Evan Chan) are sweet boys who accept their Asian culture wholeheartedly and fit in quite well at their new school. Emery even becomes popular on his first day at school, getting a girlfriend with his happy-go-lucky attitude — much to Eddie’s surprise, disbelief and

Jessica’s displeasure at having to leave D.C. can be seen in the first few minutes of the pilot episode. She is unhappy as she has no friends, family or a Taiwanese market, and her hair does not bode well in the Florida humidity. She, much like Eddie, is separated by her Asian culture when trying to mingle with the more popular wives of the neighborhood. However, after a couple episodes, she and her neighbor’s outcast second wife bond over their shared love of Stephen King movies.

“Fresh off the Boat” is the only Asian-American centered show on primetime American channels.  The show rehearses old Asian stereotypes while quickly and empathetically demolishing them. For example, in the pilot, Louis tries to make Cattleman’s Ranch successful by hiring a white host, so customers won’t be put off by an Asian face greeting them. Similarly, Jessica and Eddie embark on an expedition for Lunchables at a giant grocery store, which initiates a nostalgic flashback of Jessica fighting and “negotiating” for prices when buying groceries at the Taiwanese market in D.C.

The first episode is steeped in such stereotypes, suggesting that the rest of the season would be much the same, chock full of stereotypical Asian behavior mixed with comedy to lessen the awkwardness. However, the second episode is a little bit of a game-changer, and insinuates a much better direction for the show.

The second episode opens with the principal of Eddie’s school warning all the parents of a dangerous drug dealer tricking kids into taking drugs. Jessica stands up and asks about something that she fears even more: when report cards come out. The implication that Jessica holds grades above all else is slowly chipped away throughout the episode, resolving the episode with her understanding that there is much more to life.

While the show may still be finding its rhythm, it is an important pop cultural moment; it lays down both common and uncommon Asian stereotypes and either dismantles, undermines or pokes fun at them. Major themes are alluded to in the narration at the outset of the show and then dealt with somewhat gracefully during the length of the episode.

“Fresh off the Boat” might be the first of many shows and may be part and parcel of recent trends in Asian American representation, joining Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) in “Elementary,” Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn)  in “House” and Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) in “The Mindy Project”.

Seven episodes have aired so far, and there has been major character development, be it Jessica sticking up for Louis’s belief in the good of all people even though she regards most people in the opposite way or Louis realizing that sometimes happiness is worth more than success. The show is doing well and has a lot to be hopeful for, coming up with 6.4 million viewers last week. Although “Fresh off the Boat” still needs more refinement material-wise, what it stands for and what it is trying to do make it more than worthy of at least a second season.