Oh boy. That was weird. There was something very off-kilter about Fresh Off the Boat‘s latest episode, the blandly-titled “Very Superstitious”. Fortunately, it had nothing to do with the superstitions themselves, but unfortunately, those are probably all anybody is going to remember about this weak half-hour of life with the “Hoo-wangs”.
Why don’t we start with mispronunciations, actually? This episode starts us off with a miniature lesson about a common Asian superstition: that the number four is unlucky because it is homophonous with the word for ‘death’. In Mandarin, that’s the number sì (四) and the noun sǐ (死). (The superstition extends to other languages, too. Compare the Korean sa (사), Taiwanese si, Japanese shi (し), and Vietnamese tư.) Jessica’s tetraphobia manifests itself — for the first time all season, if I recall correctly — when she refuses to show a 4-bedroom house with the ominous address 44 West 44th Street. I guess I was irked at the outset because the explanation was given by an outsider who not only grossly butchered the correct tones but also came too close to embodying the trope of the White Mansplainer. Let Jessica speak for herself, dude. And stop eavesdropping.
(Other stuff: the way Eddie said ‘lie’ and ‘lying’ for this entire episode kept throwing me off. I’m not usually a stickler on accent, but he sounds weirdly posh/RP every time. All three kids’ delivery was less than satisfactory, but I can’t tell how much of it was the awkward script and how much of it was… bad luck.)
Okay, so superstition. Now, I’m aware that my personal experiences are going to shape what I say. I come from a deeply religious family, but there isn’t an ounce of folk superstition running through my veins. None of that lucky eights, unlucky fours business, no belief in the matchmaking auguries of the zodiac, no evil spirits that fill your house if it doesn’t follow feng shui. Sure, there are aspects of organized religion that are arguably superstitious, too, but my point is that I have only a superficial reference point to the Chinese culture that was given a comedic exposition tonight.
This is probably why I found it hard to find it humorous. The jokes didn’t remind me of anything my family has ever done or believed. Instead, the entire plot, which centered on the perception of bad luck following the family after Jessica sells the house and Louis cashes in the check, felt stupidly exaggerated. The superstitions were literally called ‘crazy’ at one point. When did FOTB stop laughing at the obliviously white people of Orlando and shift its satire to its own already-tokenized protagonists?
Perhaps my friends who grew up with more access to this aspect of Asian culture were able to laugh more throughout the episode. I only laughed when Louis claimed that “every generation gets less and less superstitious, just like they get less and less racist,” because it was such a preposterous statement to make.
And the reason Louis said that at all was so that his sons would forgive their grandmother of her idiosyncrasies, which both parents placed at the rock bottom of a ridiculous and slightly offensive hierarchy of superstition. Grandma is already a completely Othered character on this show; she never speaks in English and exists only to prop up the jokes carried by other characters. Now, she gets cast as the exotic shaman-type, called in to save the day. Yet nothing about her amituofo ritual could be interpreted as anything but a farce, Garfield mugs and all.
That’s all I want to say about that. In the B-plot, Eddie takes more bad advice from his father and lies his way into office — the office of student council president! I thought the idea was funny, but I wish that there had been more drama around it, or at least more time allotted to it. Does ambitious Eddie see this as a step toward his ‘big dreams’, as stated back in the pilot? Would he really settle for a free period every day and the opportunity to maybe possibly see Shaq? I was hoping for some actual conflict. Eddie Huang — the real one — rose to the top by fighting dirty, and he acknowledged the race and class struggles every step of the way. In this scrubbed-clean rendition of young Eddie’s first foray into politics, he comes off as too self-satisfied, too busy preening to recognize that being elected (the first Asian-American) president just might actually be a huge achievement for him and his school. Sure, elementary school elections were pretty silly overall, and this was a cute throwback to that, but… I don’t know, they never seem silly when you’re eleven. I wish the episode had saved this plotline for a more serious treatment; all of its potential was wasted.
Closing miscellany: I’m glad to see Philip Goldstein (“Choose the chosen one!”), Finnegan, and Mitch back, if only in small doses! FOTB is developing its world pretty well, and I’m delighted that recurring characters can pop in regularly to remind us that continuity is a thing that is supposed to exist in television. Um… Scottie Pippen made a cameo. He was a good sport. And oh yeah — holy cow, don’t let your kids anywhere near Romeo the Mechanical Bull. Anyone who gets bucked off will probably fall straight into a pit of fire.
Jessica: I’m seeing you through a Pepsi!
Eddie: Dad, there’s no way I’m gonna win.
Louis: Well, win or lose, we’re putting it on your college application because you literally have nothing. It’s just: was born, likes lunch, ran for president.
Jessica: We’ll, you’re lucky you only broke your left arm. You can still do your homework.
P.S. In other news, show creator Eddie Huang stirs the pot by dissing his own show again.