Fresh Off the Boat: Blind Spot

I’m torn. On one hand, I could write a sparkling review that references all of the jokes, throwbacks, and character highlights that made “Blind Spot” the funniest episode of Fresh Off the Boat‘s pilot season so far. On the other hand, I could ignore the shallow humor and continue to rail against this allegedly envelope-pushing comedy for turning reality into a cartoon, shying away from complex themes, and now treating LGBT characters like the latest in a parade of tired television tropes.

Fortunately, I have two hands. I will do both.

Angelic little Evan catches the chicken pox, but he turns out to have rather dark ulterior motives behind it... in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat

Angelic little Evan catches the chicken pox, but he turns out to have rather dark ulterior motives behind it… in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat

I think it’s pretty easy to separate this episode into its funny half and its funny-but-controversial half. This week, the parents and the children had different things to do with hardly any overlap. So let’s begin with Eddie, Emery, and Evan and their escapades with the (combined?) school science fair. Unsurprisingly, Emery’s realistic volcano diorama and Evan’s highly unrealistic but amazing Dr. Pepper (!) mass spectrometer are sure shoo-ins for first prize and a pizza party, but Eddie forgot all about the fair and has nothing to enter. Surprisingly, Evan catches the chicken pox and cannot enter the competition, leading Emery to gloat, Evan to infect him out of spite, and Eddie to attempt to catch the virus in order to get out of the whole thing.

It’s a fast-paced misadventure bursting at the seams with priceless quick cuts like Evan’s bathroom mirror message to Emery (“You’re next!”), Easter eggs like Grandma’s flu mask, and great references to Asian culture, like Mom’s insistence that white flower oil will solve everything. It’s hard for me to choose my favorite scene: When Evan threw so much shade at his brother’s mini-Vesuvius? When a chicken-shaped red blood cell attacked his immune system in an animation sequence set to the Chicken Dance Song, or when Evan himself stalked Emery while humming it softly, horror film-style? Jessica’s deadpan warning to her son to stay away from capuchin monkeys? Maybe Evan’s self-quarantine in a coat bag to prevent Eddie from getting sick and missing out on his “full potential”? (Wise words from Barney, on Oprah.)

All of it was gold. It didn’t do much for me personally in terms of nostalgia, since I never caught the chicken pox. (My two older brothers did, while I got away clean until I contracted shingles instead in the sixth grade. And that sucked; it prevented me from performing in the talent show.) But this was a clever mash-up of two common sitcom plots, childhood illness and school projects, and it was done so well!

Now, the only elementary school science fair project that I can remember doing was garbage… quite literally. My experiment was to stick a bunch of different kinds of trash — candy wrappers, apple cores, paper scraps — into cups of dirt and track how much they decomposed over several weeks. (Good thing that project wasn’t a measure of my future potential…) But anyway, I think the kid genius types that this show is making Evan and Emery out to be is balanced and cute, especially as it pairs well with the competitive streaks they began to show in this episode. I thought before that they were perfect in small doses, but I think now I can count on Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen to pull off larger plots in the future with as much charisma and earnestness.

Rex Lee as the pink and peacockish Oscar Chow in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

Rex Lee as the pink and peacockish Oscar Chow in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Okay, deep breath. Jessica and Louis had their own kind of competition this week, a very weird one that involved Jessica’s old college flame, Oscar Chow (Rex Lee), who turns out to be, well, a flaming homosexual. But here’s the joke: Jessica has been completely unaware of this for a decade. Her broken gaydar was chuckle-worthy back in “Fajita Man”, and I was pleased to see it back in full swing now, but its function as a major plot point led to scenes both playful and problematic.

Look, I laughed when Jessica hid from a group of carousing leather daddies because she thought they were a gang, when her gaydar locked in on Oscar’s necklace, and when Louis became embroiled in the controversy because Oscar bought him a fancy French press but gave Jessica an Orlando sweater from the airport gift shop. As it turns out, Oscar thought he and Louis had dated for a few months in college, too, but Louis was just as oblivious as Jessica to this asymmetric romance. I think that the character development we got from Louis and Jessica, while minimal, was important. Jessica wanted to stoke Louis’ green-eyed monster because she thought it would make her feel validated (the way she asked “Are you sure you’re not jealous, Louis” through frozen lips was incredible), but she realized that having a loving husband at all was worth more than that. Louis learned that he could be a funny and responsible husband but still miss out on opportunities to show his appreciation and affection for his wife. Cool. Couldn’t we have done all of that, though, without the walking, pink-robed stereotype Oscar and the silly love triangle he induced?

Gay characters on television have taken enormous strides since the nineties, especially in the past five years. Same with Asian characters. Am I happy to see the two combined on a primetime show? Yes! I mean, have we ever seen queer Asians on the silver screen before? We can probably count Mulan in Once Upon a Time and Oliver in HTGAWM; nothing else recent comes to mind. Still, there is something profoundly dissatisfying about Oscar Chow.

Perhaps part of the problem is that FOTB is a comedy, and the easiest — sorry, I mean laziest — way to get laughs out of a gay male character is to make him effeminate. Give him sass. Have him fall for the straight guy. Essentially, play into stereotypes that will actually reinforce viewer’s prejudices against racial and sexual minorities. “It’s just a TV show,” you say. But it’s a TV show that has millions of viewers tuning in because it’s breaking ground for Asian-Americans in this country. Fresh Off the Boat has a big audience, and it can take advantage of that to give a platform to a funny and realistic gay Asian-American dealing with sexuality in the nineties.

Or it can give us boilerplate. It can, once again, proceed with a storyline in which these painstakingly unique Taiwanese people could have been replaced with stock White people and not a single line would feel different. People will watch and think, “Oh, good, flamboyant gay Asian men are just like flamboyant gay White men; I am no longer threatened by their Otherness.” Oscar Chow was, to my dismay, just as much a novelty as he was a cliché.

I have to give props to one part of the episode, however. It is also a glaring anachronism (along with the use of the words ‘gaydar’ and ‘gaysian’). If “Blind Spot” did any good for the LGBTQ community, it was in Louis and Jessica’s mature and progressive relationship with Oscar. They demonstrated a welcoming, even nurturing environment for adults to work out a personal issue regarding homosexuality. The couple had a simple misunderstanding with a friend, and they treated him with respect from start to finish. Not a hint of homophobia. There was a genuine sweetness in their reconciliation at the end; Oscar hopes for as nice a family as Louis has, and Louis offers his full support: “He’s out there. You’ll find him!” Have patience, Oscar; twenty years from now you will also be able to marry him.

(And yes, I believe very firmly that all of this would have been utterly uncharacteristic of folks in the nineties, to say nothing of Asians. Homosexuality is much more stigmatized in our cultures than it is in the US in general. I’m happy that Oscar is loud and proud, but he doesn’t act at all like a product of his time. Here is more proof that FOTB is actually a 2010s show masquerading as a series of colorful nineties flashbacks. I guess it could be worse.)

Is it okay that a character like Oscar Chow exists on television? Sure, why not? Visibility has intrinsic value. I mean, I would have appreciated knowing that gay Asians actually existed when I was a kid in the nineties, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to find that out from my family or friends. But will I be content with him being the only portrayal of gaysians that the world evening audience of one major American television network gets to see? Absolutely not.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this episode of Fresh Off the Boat or about minority representation on television. Leave a comment below!

Lastly, here are two nice interviews, one on Hollywood Reporter and one on, with the writers of FOTB on the creation of “Blind Spot” that redeems the character of Oscar a bit. Enjoy.

Voiceover Eddie (on science fair projects): When your people invented everything from gunpowder to Sudafed, nobody is cool with you phoning it in.

Louis: Why would I not be comfortable? I’m like a beanbag chair: almost always comfortable.

Evan: If you need a second opinion, you should ask one of the other kids building a volcano.

Bev: These two spermbags giving you trouble? What’s the matter? You guys tired of running the world?
Oscar: I’m a gay Asian, okay? The only thing I run is half marathons.

Jessica: So what you’re saying is, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. The one thing we can all agree on is that I am hot.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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