ABC’s diversity push in comedies this year has saved its best for midseason. Representing a leap forward from the 1990s Margaret Cho vehicle “All American Girl,” “Fresh Off the Boat” combines the nostalgia of “The Wonder Years” and “The Goldbergs” with a specific take on the immigrant experience in general, and Asian-Americans in particular. Loosely based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir (he also provides the voiceover narration), the series straddles the line between warm and funny, and, despite some clunky moments in later episodes, feels like the kind of family comedy that should be compatible with ABC’s existing anchors.
The 11-year-old Eddie (played wonderfully by Hudson Yang) is the American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants Louis (Randall Park, fresh off “The Interview”) and Jessica (Constance Wu, in what feels like the show’s breakout turn), who are relocating from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, where dad is pursuing his dream of running a Western-themed restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch.
Unfortunately, Eddie has trouble assimilating to his new surroundings (whereas his younger brothers almost instantly do); and despite dad’s relentless positivity, mom has her own issues, from the humidity to the lack of an Asian market where she can shop to the other moms refusing to sample her stinky tofu.
As for the neighbors, even the friendly ones are condescending — one of the local moms tells Eddie, “Your English is very good!” after he says he was born in the U.S. — and the local kids can be cruel, inspiring Eddie to ask for a “white people lunch” after they mock his Chinese one.
Written by Nahnatchka Khan, the series mixes that kind of cultural specificity with universal themes, and in that sense is far more committed to its premise than, say, “Black-ish,” where race regularly disappears as an issue. By contrast, one of the funniest bits in “Fresh Off the Boat” comes in a later episode when Eddie brings home a terrific report card, and his mother marches into the principal’s office, complaining that his classes must be too easy. (As in “Jane the Virgin,” the grandmother speaks in her native tongue, with subtitles, and the rest of the family replies in English.)
Granted, critics might wince at some of the stereotypes inherent in the characters, and Huang himself wrote an extensive, rambling first-person account regarding the painful and awkward aspects of bringing his life to the screen.
Nevertheless, the show has to be viewed through the prism of Eddie’s memories, and the way kids tend to exaggerate views of their parents and childhood. Park and Wu also trump most of those concerns by conveying a love for their kids and each other, even in those moments when they’re behaving like stock sitcom parents.
Put all that together, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which is getting what amounts to a Wednesday kick-start before testing the Tuesday-night waters, sails into view looking like an over-achiever, at least creatively speaking. In an ABC lineup eager to replicate that rarest of commodities — a good, and modern, family comedy — the show appears to have accomplished what Eddie yearns to do: Fit right in.