Fresh Off the Boat Review: Persistent Romeo

I’m really glad that the creators and directors of FOTB recognized early on what a great comic talent they have in Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang (aka “Moms”). She consistently nails her one-liners and has the best expressions: a sly wink at Hector, sullen embarrassment while sewing up the stuffed animal, utter confusion at Grandma’s poker table. In this episode, both Jessica and Louis (Randall Park) get a lot of time to shine, and young Eddie (Hudson Yang) also finally proves his acting chops with substantially more screen time. The jokes came hard and fast, usually in the form of montages (and at the expense of actual plot).

In the main thread, we have Eddie trying to impress the white boys at school with promises of showing them a dirty movie at a sleepover, promises that are of course empty. (Come on, Eddie! Be Walter’s friend instead!) The boys’ naivete is worth a few chuckles, and I think the easy jokes about squid snacks and other crazy things when a party takes place in an Asian household weren’t milked as much as they could have been. But the funniest part is the anti-sexual harassment training video that gets played, to the boys’ wide-eyed delight: a(nother) montage of super-corny and super-nineties workplace situations that we must all remember to “NO”.

Eddie saunters into school the next week expecting his hallway cred to have shot through the roof, only to find that Brock has swiped his videotape (his videotape!) and made copies of it for every kid in school. This brought to the principal’s attention, Mom and Dad are ominously summoned to the office and told that they need to give Eddie a real sex talk.

Jessica presides over a sexual harassment seminar at work, while Louis sits in active regret, on ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

Jessica presides over a sexual harassment seminar at work, while Louis sits in active regret, on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Yes, Jessica and Louis, who have spent the entirety of the episode so far being hilariously paranoid about sexual harassment and beleaguered by the fuss, respectively, have to give Eddie the talk. Randall Park has some good moments during the father-son time (“I like having the lights out so I can pretend like we’re in a castle”), but once again, Constance Wu steals the show. Eddie, lying in bed thinking about what a man he has become with his newfound knowledge, has his internal monologue interrupted by Hello Pochacco in his face, brandished by his screaming mother: “You like that? No! Well girls don’t either! No means no! Respect girls! Nightly News.”

Does this reflect a typical Asian upbringing? Actually, I think my parents never bothered with the talk. They left it all to the school sex ed curriculum, which was fortunately not full of watering-cans-and-flowers nonsense. I don’t fault them for that. But it feels odd just to see a TV family addressing sex in such a frank way, even if it’s shrouded in comedy, let alone an Asian family, which, as far as I know, wouldn’t normally touch the topic with a ten-foot pole.

What the show does hit on a perfect bulls-eye, on the other hand, is Jessica’s tabloid-fueled paranoia. My friend Tracey is full of stories of how her mother would make the entire family save months of rainwater in case of an earthquake or Y2K. And remember: sleepovers are only for children whose parents don’t mind the risk of a roof collapse or strangers in the night. Just last month, I told my dad that I would drive up the coast to Portland, and he replied with a story about a car (full of graduate students on their way to a conference, no less) that careened over a cliff and into the ocean just a few years ago. “Why would you tell me that?” I asked him, upset. “I just want to make sure you’re safe,” he said.

Back to the show, though. I’ve not been able to help noticing that the show has quickly backpedaled far, far away from addressing race continuously in the stories it tells. From a promising pilot that looked to portray culture clash in a quirky but honest manner, now we have a typical show about the Huangs: basically just another TV family with typical TV family problems, plus Squiddies, bad accents1, and a white man whose horribly-pronounced, worse-than-Zuck’s Mandarin serves as a comic twist. Where’d the edge go, FOTB? Where’d it go?

Eddie: Why [can’t I go]? It’s just a sleepover.
Jessica: Because pedophiles. (Which I have to note is an anachronistic 2010-era construction! For the linguistically inclined, see here.)

Brock: Sucks to be you!

Evan: Don’t tell Mom! She relies on me!

Jessica: I gave birth to him. Life is worth a thousand “I am sorry”s.

– – –

1 I want to talk about accents for a bit. Yes, I agree with every Taiwanese person out there that Constance Wu’s accent comes and goes weirdly, and that Randall Park should really just stop trying. But no, it’s not important to me. If the accents develop and become more accurate, fine. If they disappear altogether, fine. But I wonder a lot at the public fixation on this aspect of the show. Is it a talking point for Asians because a discernible accent is part of the identity we project onto our parents’ generation?

I actually watched the first two episodes with my parents a few days ago. My mom quickly got bored and went to the kitchen to cut up some fruit. My dad, however, chuckled audibly at points and seemed to really enjoy it. I asked him for his complete, honest thoughts afterward. The first thing he said was, “Oh, but this family isn’t Taiwanese, right? The actors are second-generation. No accent!” My dad had been expecting the Asian TV dad to sound more like him, and was briefly thrown for a loop when the representation he’d hoped for was linguistically inaccurate. My mom, too, focused less on the show as a whole and more on the TV mom whom she had taken to be a symbol, in some respects, of her. And her conclusion? “I’m not like that!”

Dad found FOTB funny but thought that it could have been “more like real life” — Eddie’s parents opening a Western restaurant, for one, would have been a bizarre and unheard-of career choice for any immigrant my parents knew in their early days in the US. And I’d like to add also that my parents rarely have a full conversation between themselves in English. They could if they wanted to, of course; but why bother, if Taiwanese and Mandarin are more natural? So the moral of the story is… language is profoundly important. It’s tied very much to identity, be it ethnic, generational, national, what have you. (You can read the works of William Labov on this subject if you’re interested). If FOTB were serious about accurate representation, the language of the entire show — not solely the accents per se — would reflect it. But we all know that FOTB isn’t really that serious. It’s a sitcom. Enjoy it for what it is, folks.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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One Response to Fresh Off the Boat Review: Persistent Romeo

  1. hillkathy2 says:

    I loved this episode. But something that my mom said made it really interesting for me. My mom has been watching the show and we talked on the phone after this week’s episode. She said that she is learning from Constance Wu’s character that she shouldn’t have been like that when we were growing up (and now). I still haven’t figured out what to make of that, but I don’t think it’s a situation where the media has gotten into her mind. It was an important moment of self-reflection. I think that Constance Wu’s great performance of Jessica helped created that space. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the show!


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