Hurrah, stinky tofu! It reared its ugly and delicious face even earlier in the new series Fresh Off the Boat than I’d expected, when Jessica attempts to win the neighbor ladies’ approval with Taiwan’s signature street food. (Seriously, what was she thinking? Stinky tofu is stinky. When my grandfather made it in the kitchen, I wanted to leave the house.) But she tries twice, because Honey (Chelsey Crisp), her only actual friend on the block but the object of everyone else’s fierce disapproval, shows a liking for it. I’m a real fan of this short storyline and Jessica’s conundrum over whether to show loyalty – and basic human kindness – to the neighborhood pariah, risking her own ostracization, or to sing some forgettable tune with Deirdre and her coven. (For the record, Constance Wu chooses the former, then kills it with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” instead, and makes sure everyone knows “this is not a duet.”)
I see in Jessica’s budding friendship with Honey a potential parallelism with Eddie’s fraught relationship with Walter, the other minority at his school. When two people fight not to be the bottom rung, the dynamics are genuinely interesting. Eddie can’t get an in with the cool white kids sporting Air Jordans, because he has “nurse shoes”. (Walter’s wearing normal sneakers, too, but apparently to be black is to have built-in Jordans.) But Eddie’s values, as we know, are about doing whatever it takes to win the game, so instead of even speaking with Walter, he aims for gaining the white boys’ respect. Too bad. I think Eddie and Walter should team up to take down the system from the outside, but whatever, Eddie has his own methods. And his methods are disturbing. I proceed to tune out the rap video recreation and every line out of this sixth-grade pimp wannabe’s mouth.
“The Shunning” is a smartly-written episode about fitting in, painted with broad strokes. Although I got good laugh mileage from its fast-paced jokes, I couldn’t help but notice about halfway through that there was really nothing in the episode about the Huangs’ Asianness, a central theme that I had expected from last week. Instead, it tried hard to appeal to everyone, using predictable tropes and a rather superficial itinerary of conflicts. It seems as if this episode itself just wanted to fit in, if you will, with the TV family sitcom crowd, and it chose, well, Eddie’s method: impress the majority. Fine. Play it safe. To make up for generic plot and conflict resolution, it gave us excellent lines from Jessica, more almost-annoying goofiness from Louis (evidence that Randall Park is seriously underused), and more wisdom from the mouth of the babe Emery (Forrest Wheeler).
And then, all of a sudden, we careened wildly to the other side with “Success Perm,” an episode that took a risky bet in filling nearly every scene with only Asians. Twelve minutes without a single line from a white person, only the members of the extended Huang family, including the grandmothers’ weird discussion of OJ Simpson which came completely subtitled. Wow! I mean, that’s really something, isn’t it? This is the kind of thing that makes me happy that Fresh Off the Boat is on a major network at a good time slot. So maybe its inflated portrayal of your typical Asian family feud was a little off, but more important is that 1) it was funny, and 2) it was visibility under a spotlight of several thousand lumens.
Anyway, when Jessica’s mother, sister, nephew, and super-successful brother-in-law drive for thirteen hours in a van and a “new” Miata ’95 to visit Orlando, the whole family is on red alert, and Louis and Jessica quickly sink the family a little bit more into debt in order to keep up appearances. (“Sometimes you have to spend money you don’t have to make it seem like you have money that you don’t spend.”) There is some excellent competition going on between Jessica and her older sister (Susan Park, who nails the eyes-wide-in-mock-fascination look). Their passive-aggressive banter is so sharp that Connie can smell her meimei’s shame through the phone. And Louis’ slightly-less-than-affable relationship with his brother-in-law Steven (Charlie Soong Lee, hilariously smarmy) has its good moments, too. As for Eddie and his idolized older cousin Justin (the precocious Lance Lim… Okay hold on a sec, why is the entire Chen family Korean?), the former’s over-hyped anticipation of catching up with the latter pops like a tang yuan when he who introduced our protagonist to the wonderful world of hip-hop is revealed to have shifted his pre-teen fixation to grunge. Oh, well, Eddie. I can identify with the weirdness of when a family member changes, but you can just shrug it off and let them deal with their newfound angst through Nirvana and picnic blanket flannel.
Intrafamilial competition taken to its most illogical extreme is a comedic blessing. I loved the small moments – the high-fives when Team Jessica & Louis score a point; A-ma’s instant TV-volume-up reaction to her disfavored daughter’s presence; the 100%-off tiger shirt. None of this is remotely close to the way my family behaves; either we’re not as competitive or we’re just not as mean. But as I hinted at before, I can’t really expect that kind of specificity from this kind of show. If Fresh Off the Boat scores a point for authenticity with my family or the Taiwanese-American families I know, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. I like to see what’s similar and what’s different (for these two episodes, it was mostly different), but the point of the show is not to tell the story of every Asian American family out there. In the absence of “Aha! I know this,” moments, I’ll take something else positive from the episode, such as… its humor!
So, the climactic family dinner at a still woefully under-patronized Cattleman’s Ranch (where were all the jukebox enthusiasts from last week?) was cringe-worthy but superb. I couldn’t quite feel sympathetic to Jessica’s increasingly desperate bargain bids (“Look, Mom. Someone die in this!”), because she clearly fell straight into a trap Connie had laid out, but even I was impressed that it took her attention away from the restaurant and its unmasked dismal failure. And oh, poor Louis; my reactions to him so far in this series are mostly boredom mixed with a hint of annoyance, but now I feel pity, as well.
The episode is tied up a little bit too neatly, but I did feel the heart warm just a bit when the relatives were finally waved off with reconciliatory good-byes and the most important acknowledgment: “I can’t believe it: we won.” I don’t think we’ll see Uncle Steven and Aunt Connie for a while, but when they do return, I hope that Justin will have become an emo kid and that Eddie will have become slightly more interesting. (Don’t ever take those glow-in-the-dark stars off your ceiling, though!)
Also, if you were wondering, it’s true. Asian people like perms, especially Chinese/Taiwanese women and Korean people of any gender. I’ve gotten a perm. Laugh all you want; I looked fly.
Eddie: Mom, can I get the new Air Jordans?
Eddie: Why not? They don’t cost that much. My sneakers aren’t fine. Youneverletmegetanything.God!
Jessica (interrupting Eddie’s rap dream sequence): If you want to waste something, you waste water. Do not throw juice!
Eddie: Mom, get out of my fantasy!
Louis: Swing a cat, hit a white woman. Be friends with her!
Justin: I’m thinking of moving to Seattle.
Steve: I brought along my Internet computer. I need to check out my store’s webpage.
(Eons of waiting for dial-up later…)
Louis: Steve has a fancy noise box!
Jessica: Yeah, it’s called Connie.
Jessica: Shut up, Deirdre. (Because yes, we do love karaoke. Do we ever.)