ABC’s”Fresh Off the Boat” arguably stars a familiar cast of characters: a mischievous young protagonist with two cherubic little brothers, a no-nonsense mother and a kooky father whose well-meaning but hapless business schemes can sometimes land the family in hot water. Think “Leave It To Beaver” meets “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” — a coming-of-age story about finding one’s place in America.
Except, in at least one way, the network sitcom is anything but conventional.
Based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s bestselling memoir of the same name, “Fresh Off the Boat” is only the third prime time series to center on an Asian American family, after Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All-American Girl” and “Mr. T and Tina” in 1976. It’s the first to be renewed for a second season, which premiered on ABC Tuesday night.
It’s an important moment for Asian American representation in mainstream entertainment — one whose significance wasn’t lost on the six million viewers who tuned in, with many flocking to social media to express their delight at the return of the hip-hop-loving, girl-next-door-crushing 11-year-old Eddie Huang. The season’s first episode, called “Family Business Trip,” also presents Jessica Huang (played by last season’s breakout star, Constance Wu) in all her matriarchal glory, as she upholds her “anti-vacation” stance by being aggressively frugal even while on vacation.
Like “Fresh Off the Boat’s” last season, this first episode received generally positive reviews. The Atlantic deemed the show “still pretty fresh,” while Vulture lauded it for packing “a decent thematic punch,” with explorations of both familial and racial identity.
An afterthought in most recaps? The fact that the real-life Eddie Huang, whose voice over narration anchored the first season in a flashback structure, is noticeably absent.
More jarring — though not surprising — is that Huang likely won’t be coming back.
Vulture reported early Tuesday that according to sources close to the show, Huang has not recorded any voice-overs for the new season. Those sources say that the show will move forward as a single-camera comedy sans narrator.
As Constance Wu has pointed out in interviews, Huang’s relationship to the show is naturally complicated because it’s about his family. To see the story of your once-abusive father and ethnic alienation laminated with classic prime time gloss would be hard for anyone to stomach, let alone someone as fervently idealistic as Huang. But the former lawyer and marijuana dealer at the helm of BaoHaus, an East Village sandwich shop with a strong cult following, went beyond personal grievances in his criticism of “Fresh Off the Boat.”
He detailed his discontent last year in a Vulture article titled “Network TV Ate My Life,” in which he grapples with how to reconcile the often-crude specific details of his upbringing with the expectation for “Fresh Off the Boat” to represent all of Asian America. He likened the show’s portrayal to “orange chicken” — inauthentic, but acceptable when other alternatives don’t exist.
Huang wrote, “The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?”
Not for him, clearly. This April, he tweeted:
I don't think it is helping us to perpetuate an artificial representation of Asian American lives and we should address it.
— RICH HOMIE HUANG (@MrEddieHuang) April 8, 2015
In the same string of tweets, he revealed that he doesn’t watch the show.
A few months earlier, Wesley Yang of the New York Times had asked Huang, “What did you expect?” to which he responded, “I expected I could change things.”
As Huang tells it, what he got instead was “reverse yellowface” — Asian Americans acting out white family dramas. On “Fresh Off the Boat,” he has argued, we see raw immigrant struggles sanitized to appear more easily surmountable than they are.
His indignation notwithstanding, viewers are excited about the second season. Whether they’re just getting Panda Express or something closer to the true Asian American experience is still to be determined.