Fresh Off the Boat Review: Phillip Goldstein

“Louis, I know you like to be good cop, but somebody has to wield the hammer in this family.” Jessica, saying it like it is, as always. I just find it hilarious that of all the things the bad cop can yield, she goes for a hammer.

So let’s talk about good cops and bad cops. Or actually, let’s expand the theme of this episode of Fresh Off the Boat, “Phillip Goldstein,” to general good-bad dichotomies. We saw good cop, bad cop in Louis’ struggle to fire an employee he didn’t particularly like. We saw good friend, bad friend in the ways Eddie and Phillip looked out for each other (or failed to). And, most curiously, we saw good Chinese boy, bad Chinese boy, in a somewhat questionable moral that I’m intent on discussing later.

Let’s start with Louis and his newest employee, Wyatt (the winsome Parker Young), a bona fide Marlboro Man who at first charms the restaurateur with his Western drawl and lassoing skills. He’s here to replace Mitch, who as we recall was originally hired to be a white face to greet patrons. But while Wyatt’s image and competence bring in the business, Louis quickly (and uncharacteristically) becomes disenchanted, perhaps even jealous. It was actually hard to read him. I’d have thought that Wyatt’s success would be seen as an unquestionable boon, but perhaps Louis just really missed Mitch and his adorable goofiness. In any event, Louis wants to fire Wyatt and take Mitch back, but he’s having trouble breaking the news to the suave vaquero because, as his wife points out, he has a good cop attitude that prevents him from doing or saying anything that could be construed as even the slightest bit hostile.

We actually don’t quite get any resolution on this storyline, which I don’t mind in the least. Next week, I hope we see Mitch and Wyatt vying for customers’ attention with the threat of a split salary forcing their hands, as Louis tries to keep them both. Randall Park is finally hitting his stride with his comedic timing and perfect facial expressions; he doesn’t need a hat or even any particularly funny lines to make me laugh.

Eddie asks his new frenemy Phillip about Shabbat in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat

Eddie asks his new frenemy Phillip about Shabbat in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Now: good friends and bad friends. I really enjoyed how this episode explored the various ways kids become friends. During childhood, it’s usually by proximity; the simplicity of it is why I liked Eddie’s relationship with his neighbor, the straight-C student whose dad never sent him a birthday card. But Eddie’s more on the lookout for a crew, kids that he can share with in musical tastes, for example. He can’t get that from the white boys, and so far his relationship with Walter, his school’s token black kid, is fraught with a simmering rivalry. So what does Principal Hunter do? But of course: introduce Eddie to their second Asian student, Phillip Goldstein. (He was adopted by a Jewish couple.) Instant best friend! Right?

Actually, not. Turns out Phillip (played by the William Hung mini-me, Albert Tsai) is an insufferable nerd! (I found him toeing the line between charismatic and too much like myself.) He prefers Les Mis to the Beastie Boys and keeps Shabbat more strictly than his adoptive parents. The two boys spend one morning with each other, and then… “We don’t like each other, do we?” asks Eddie with a resigned pout.

But everyone at school makes the automatic assumption that the two Chinese boys will stick together like sushi rice. Principal Hunter’s creation of a Pacific Rim Club was especially endearing and also offensively naive. I think this was a hilarious take on the common stereotype: all Asians know each other and are family friends, if not related! Now, this was actually true to some extent for an extensive Asian-American community like the one I grew up in. Every degree of separation could be notched down by one or two when you were dealing with the Asians who did all seem to know each other. This doesn’t mean we were all best friends, obviously, but, like I said… sticky rice.

And it doesn’t help, either, that Eddie’s mother takes an instant liking to Phillip. His Jewishness fascinates her, but only to the extent that it means he’s fastidious about rules and takes pride in overachieving. But Jessica’s unrestrained and unabashed fawning over Eddie’s frenemy is so on point. Let me tell you that this is exactly what Asian mothers do. The Koreans have a great word for this: 엄친아 (um-chin-ah), your mom’s friend’s kid to whom you are always compared. They get straight A’s, won the concerto competition, speak Chinese/Korean fluently, are tall, have been accepted to med school. Phillip Goldstein is an 엄친아, and I really like his characterization. I hope they bring him back.

Even more so, I hope that this show does more scrutinizing of the complexities of friendship and common cultural identity, not just because FOTB did a good job of subverting the insular Asians trope, but because in the end, Eddie’s minor falling-out with Phillip led to him striking up a promising friendship with Walter! They bond over an actual shared interest when they discover that they both went to the Beastie Boys concert. “Check us out,” says voiceover Eddie, “an Asian kid and a black kid bonding over music by white Jewish rappers. America’s crazy.”1 The only problem is that there was really nothing to check out, maybe about twenty seconds of interaction and an open door. Let’s explore this more in the future, please.

Lastly, let’s talk about good and bad Chinese sons. The bad Chinese son makes his mother breakfast in bed, with a catch: a bunch of bananas when he needs permission to go to a Dr. Dre show, or a box of cereal (for a Wu Tang Clan show), or a literal carton of eggs and frozen rasher of bacon (for Snoop Dogg), or Pop Tarts (for the Beastie Boys). The good Chinese son is Evan or Emery… or Phillip. But Phillip does something really… bùguāi at the end of the episode: he ditches Eddie at the theater and goes home instead of fulfilling his promise to go with him to the Beastie Boys concert. This is enough to garner Jessica’s wrath! Her criticism of Phillip’s selfishness is spot on, but I have a bone to pick with what followed. “You are not a good Chinese boy,” she reprimands him, in a complete reversal from her earlier adulation, “Eddie is.”

Hold on a minute, Moms. Really? Come on, neither of those statements is true. Both Phillip and Eddie are selfish. Both of them are just boys being themselves! They struck a deal, one party broke it, no harm done, really. I understand that she was speaking out of anger for the wasted and worrisome evening, and I get that she is showing her love for Eddie with her words, but putting down a kid like that seemed like a step too far.

The Asian question we were asked this week was, “What are the hallmarks of a good Asian son?” Fresh Off the Boat would have us think it’s someone who keeps his promises, who looks out for others, who may not be a musical prodigy or study CLC diligently, but takes on responsibility when it comes knocking. I’ll take that, because this is a sitcom, but let’s not forget that real-life Eddie Huang prides himself on being a “rotten banana” through and through.

Eddie: That’s called being a G, mom!
Jessica: Why do you want to be a letter that’s only worth two points in Scrabble? Q is better!

Eddie (holding up Enter the Wu Tang): But they’re sort of Asian!
Jessica: No.
Eddie (holding up Dr. Dre’s The Chronic): But he’s a doctor!

Emery: It kinda sounds like you’re gremlins…
Evan: What happens when you get water on you?
(They nailed everything in this episode!)

Jessica: I wanted Eddie to play the cello but he wanted to play the beatbox instead.

Philip (on his cello practice): Five times perfect in a row. If I make a mistake on the fifth time, I start over.
Jessica: … Yes.

– – –

By the way, there was some drama over this very line. Have you read (the real) Eddie Huang’s article on vulture about the whitewashing of his memoir? Give it a shot.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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