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Why Eddie Huang losing control of ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ turned out for the best: Column

March 27, 2015

- OPINION -

In this image released by ABC, Constance Wu, from left, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen  appear in a scene from the new comedy series "Fresh Off the Boat," previewing Wednesday with episodes at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EST. (AP Photo/ABC, Jordin Althaus)

In this image released by ABC, Constance Wu, from left, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen appear in a scene from the new comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat,” previewing Wednesday with episodes at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EST. (AP Photo/ABC, Jordin Althaus)

 

A few weeks before ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat” debuted in February, Eddie Huang, whose life and memoir provide the premise for the show, came out swinging and his punches were aimed at the show itself.

By Brian Han Korea Times US reporter

By Brian Han
Korea Times US reporter

“The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that,” Huang wrote in a column for Vulture magazine.

It sent audiences a mixed message to say the least and although his arguments made sense, the timing certainly did not.

He felt his legitimacy as a hard-nosed artist being threatened by ABC’s interpretation of his book. In the heat of the moment he chose to value his ego over the success of a show that could mean so much to a disappointingly underrepresented minority in network television and even Hollywood as a whole.

It’s difficult to disagree that compared to the book, the series is considerably watered down. We’re not seeing the makings of a celebrity chef as he deals drugs or decides to dabble in the adult entertainment industry before finding his true calling.

Sure, there might be a market for that, but the issue at hand is so much bigger than Huang and his story. The show isn’t even really about him, it’s about a family taking risks and beginning a new life.

Where Huang’s memoir is raw and gritty, the show is funny and heart warming. Both are entirely different products at their core and are aimed at different audiences.

When he lost most of his creative control to ABC it was honestly for the best. Maybe not in his eyes, but for many Asian Americans who have struggled to find a positive voice in American pop culture, it felt like a step in the right direction.

The show debuted with almost eight million viewers with a little help from a “Modern Family” lead-in, but even after being relegated to prime time on Tuesdays — where comedies historically go to perish — it stood its ground and brought in six million viewers on a consistent basis ever since.

Established critics, including an editor for Vulture who published Huang’s essay, have predicted that the show will be renewed for a second season.

There’s something about the sitcom that is resonating with the masses.

It’s not just the sentimental 90s references or the novelty of Asian-themed subplots in prime time network television. Those are just secondary to the driving forces of familial bonds and the desperate desire to belong. The show is universal at it’s very core.

When the mother Jessica (Constance Wu) peaks through a window to see her husband Louis (Randall Park) playing basketball with the kids, when they should be studying by her normally strict rules, audiences get to see a softness and a new dimension to the “Tiger Mom” stereotype.

When Eddie (Hudson Yang) has a hard time fitting in at school because the traditional Taiwanese food his mother packs alienates him from others, she makes the cultural compromise of buying him Lunchables because she can relate to her son’s difficulties fitting into a new environment.

Is the show realistic? Not always, but neither are the majority of other successful sitcoms.

Sometimes the accents are distracting (or somehow manage to completely vanish) and sometimes the writing is a bit contrived, but after many weeks of solid ratings and promising reviews, the scrutiny starts to feel a little heavy handed.

Most of the people who are watching the show are learning to brush off the imperfections because the characters are worth following.

“Fresh Off The Boat” entertains, brings audiences back each week and allows the general public to feel comfortable watching a good story led by Asian American faces.

There is no doubt that there were compromises made along the way, but if the show continues to succeed and gets renewed for another season it’s not only a victory for the show and the network, but it would also set a precedent for mainstream media to take more chances on diverse casts.

If Huang wanted his story to stay true to its roots in moving to a visual medium, he should have sold the rights to an independent filmmaker he trusted, not to a media conglomerate that’s bent on drawing in as many viewers on an outdated platform.

Who knows? If he had taken the former route, he might have had a hit on his hands that he could hold up proudly, but that’s not the case here.

Instead, he’s the producer of a network television sitcom and whether or not he likes it the formula is working.

4 Comments

  1. Eugene Suh

    March 27, 2015 at 9:25 PM

    Hello Brian Han, I agree with your commentary about “Fresh Off The Boat”. In general, American culture seems to espouse or have an affinity toward comedy shows so the fact that “Fresh Off The Boat” is a comedy turned out to be a recipe for success. Although it is venerable to stay true to the source or roots (in this case, Eddie Huang’s memoir), drama and/or tragedy seems to be an associated stereotype with the average Asian-American (immigrant) family. For example, “The Joy Luck Club” was and continues to be an excellent portrayal of the turmoil encountered by most Asian-American immigrant families adjusting to each other and life in America. The humor portrayed in “Fresh Off The Boat” adds a fresh take on Asian-American immigrant families in America. However, adding some kind of educational component to the humor that disabuses negative Asian stereotypes would behoove the show as well as the viewers, since racist stereotypes about Asian-Americans living in America unfortunately continue to still exist today. The fact that the main Asian characters in the show speak English well (although the mom speaks with a slight accent) is a welcome aspect of the show. Hopefully, the show will be a success and somehow, someway give justice to all Asian-Americans, including the show’s inspiration, Eddie Huang. Thank you for reading, thank you for your time, and I look forward to more enlightening commentaries!

    Sincerely,
    Eugene Suh

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  3. Daechoongmama

    March 29, 2015 at 3:29 AM

    I agree with you. I read his memoir and though I really enjoyed it, found it funny and crazy and relatable to an extent, there’s no way that his stories could fit into the sitcom mold. People just want to relax and laugh for 22 mins. His memoir is about abuse, alienation, drugs, and it’s a very specific and unique story about his life and doesn’t necessarily relate to the blanket narrative of Asian American immigrants. When I first found out about Fresh Off The Boat being a sitcom I new they would just have to work with the premise and scrap the rest. But I think it works really well.
    THe funny thing is, a lot of the non-Asians I talked to about the show said they love it because of the nineties references. All of us Gen-Xer’s are now in our 30′s with kids and whether you are Asian or not, there’s a lot of nostalgia about that time period. For me it’s a way to share a bit of what I went through in the mid nineties as one of the only Asians in an all white school.

    http://www.daechoongmama.com/daechoongmamacom/2015/2/20/why-asian-american-parents-should-watch-fresh-off-the-boat-with-their-kids

  4. ida

    May 20, 2015 at 4:09 AM

    Thanks for a well thought piece amongst all the hoopla going on right now.

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