Spring 2015 Review: Fresh Off the Boat

18 Feb

Fresh Off the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat has something many sitcom debuts would kill for, especially the popular subgenre of nostalgia-coms narrated by the protagonist, always a kid during the events of the show, but as an adult later remembering the events of his childhood (and it’s almost always a his). In Fresh off the Boat, the emotional foundation that underpins the show works.

Most of these nostalgia-coms are extremely generic and trope-y. There’s a hard-ass, emotionally distant father (think, The Goldbergs), a fussy more-attentive mother who puts up with him, a somewhat down-to -earth protagonist and a couple of wacky siblings. The world of Fresh Off the Boat is certainly wacky, but the wackiness is primarily by way of the world; the family members are the relative normal ones, compared to everything that surrounds them. And that makes perfect sense within the premise of Fresh Off the Boat. This premise involves an Taiwanese-American family moving from Washington DC, where they have friends, family, and Taiwanese culture, to Orlando where they have none of these in order so the patriarch, Louis, can open his own restaurant.

Because sitcoms featuring Asian-American families are so rare and in particular because this sitcom is deliberately taking on the immigrant experience and generational assimilation into American culture, there is a potentially unfair weight on the show straight away. It’s on Fresh Off the Boat to authentically, sympathetically, and accurately portray this experience while hopefully having the freedom to develop real characters who are not mere archetypes. While I can’t speak to the immigrant struggle from a first person perspective, I can speak to the qualities of emotional connection and depth of character on television, and Fresh Off the Boat does an impressive job of developing these qualities in just 21 minutes.

The family includes the father Louis, who is excited to be full-on American, opening his own Boulder Creek-style American western-motif restaurant. Jessica, his wife, is more wary of the move and was reluctant to leave her friends and family but is trying to make the best of it and encourages her children to do the same. Younger children Emory and Evan (I’m not sure which is which yet) have no trouble fitting in, while narrator Eddie is more like his mother, struggling to fit in in the mostly white suburbs. The members of the family clearly care for one another. Eddie’s childhood struggle feels real, and as obvious of a moment as it was, it was affecting when Eddie, who believes his parents have it in for him with their tough love, hears them stand up for him to his new principal. Childhood is a time of frequent doubt and it’s harder to fit in without believing your parents are on your side.

These are all good things. The missing ingredient, which is rather important for something intended to be a comedy (and, make no mistake, even in this increasingly genre-less world, this is clearly intended as a comedy designed to make you laugh), is the comedy. I get the jokes; they’re not subtle, and they’re generally on the broader end of humor designed to appeal to people like me. ABC is exactly where this show should be, as the tone and style fits in with their block of family comedies like Modern Family, the recently deceased Suburgatory, and The Middle. But the jokes are just off most of the time. For example, there’s a cutaway, where Jessica negatively compares strolling the aisles at the immaculate American mega-supermarket to the calming experience of shopping at a Taiwanese market, where we see her batting people away and yelling. It’s an obvious joke, her opinion contrasting with what we see on screen, which could work, but it just doesn’t quite connect. These humor issues are hard to diagnose and can be difficult to fix, but are fixable. They fall on fine points of timing, chemistry. Fresh Off the Boat isn’t there yet.

Will I watch it again? I don’t know. I have a pretty crowded plate at this point, and while it ha strong points, the lack of any laughs means I don’t feel any urge to necessarily tune in immediately. I’ll wait and see.

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One Response to “Spring 2015 Review: Fresh Off the Boat”

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