A mildly funny sitcom with a charming cast, Fresh Off the Boat premieres on Wednesday night with two episodes that nail down its premise. It's 1995, and Louis Huang (The Interview's Randall Park) moves his family to Orlando to open a steak house. Married with three sons, Louis is a hard-working, optimistic charmer. His wife, Jessica (Constance Wu), is more cynical and perhaps a bit smarter than Louis — part of the pleasing tension of the show derives from whether idealism will be defeated by skeptical realism in the couple's lives.
Fresh Off the Boat is based on the writings of show creator Eddie Huang, and the story is told largely through the eyes and actions of its key character: 11-year-old Eddie, played with a skilled array of emotions by Hudson Yang. The show's title suggests what its scripts hammer home unceasingly — that as an Asian-American family trying to live the American Dream, the Huangs are too often seen as The Other — as "foreign" — by the culture around them. In this case, that culture is mostly white and suburban.
Fresh Off the Boat makes a lot of corny jokes about the numbing conformity of suburbia. It renders Jessica a wisecracking variation on the "Tiger Mom" stereotype; she's always pushing her children to excel and scorning the lax parenting skills of non-Asian families. If Wu wasn't such a likable performer, Jessica would be pretty unbearable.
Pre-publicity about Fresh Off the Boat has been interesting. Much has been made about how rare it is to have an Asian-American family as lead characters (the last time was two decades ago, with Margaret Cho's ill-fated comedy All-American Girl); it's been frequently said that the success of Fresh will add important diversity to primetime. Indeed it will, but that success will be significant only if the show is some combination of good and widely-watched. Then there's the other kind of publicity the show has received: criticism of it by its creator. Eddie Huang took to New York Magazine to complain that his vision was being compromised, that the sharp ethnic humor of his writing was watered down in this TV adaptation. (Still, he provides the voiceover narration for each episode.)
Huang certainly has a point. Fresh Off the Boat is yet another sitcom in which we are asked to find it automatically funny any time a non-black character (most often, in this case, the young-Eddie character) appropriates the black culture that created hip-hop. The show also trades on tired jokes about a gawky, opportunistic employee played by Paul Scheer, a talented comic who ought to have a better role in primetime.
I suspect Fresh will do well in the ratings for a while — seeing this family on TV will intrigue viewers, and the comedy is broad enough to appeal to a wide audience. But I'm not a fan of the way the series frequently reduces hip-hop to a series of sexist gestures that, for example, puts the 11-year-old character in the position of treating a neighborhood woman as though she's a stripper in a music video.
Then too, there's a predictability to Fresh that undercuts its potential freshness. It repeats tropes we know from about a hundred contemporary sitcoms, good and bad: that the wife is invariably smarter than the husband; that kids are more wise than their parents; that the older generation (represented on this show by Lucille Soong as "Grandma Huang") isn't wise — it's jadedly sarcastic. Fresh Off the Boat, when it has flashes of energy and well-written jokes, easily transcends ethnic stereotypes, but it's these sitcom stereotypes that are the ones the show needs to defeat if it wants to be both long-running and distinctive.
Fresh Off the Boat premieres Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.