If you haven’t heard, yesterday was the launch of an all new sitcom about an Asian American family: Fresh Off the Boat. I could talk for a long time about the pros and cons of Fresh Off the Boat. But there’s a lot to talk about, so let’s focus on why it is a pretty good adaptation of Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name.
What makes a sitcom successful is a combination of humor, relatability, and interesting characters. What makes a memoir successful is not necessarily the same, though there are overlaps. Sure, both the memoir and the sitcom might have similar plots, but you can’t expect them to communicate the same way, or even communicate the same things.
The Eddie of the memoir is an outsider and a fighter, often unlikeable and caustic. A sitcom about a cynical guy who fucks shit up because he would rather be the aggressor than be stepped on, who often feels justified in his violence and delinquency, will not be charming for very long. Maybe in an antihero action flick, but it’s definitely not ABC prime time family programming. Instead, the sitcom’s Eddie is a cute pudgy kid who wants to play ball with his neighbor and fit in at school.
It’s definitely an adaptation of the book, instead of a direct translation– kid Eddie is more childish than mean, the bullying is more innocuous, his family is less dysfunctional. His family, the biggest topic of his book, is now more charmingly awkward than alien, and dysfunctional only to the degree to gather both chuckles and that fuzzy feeling. Things are definitely removed from reality, but at least after all this sitcom-ifying, the rosy suburbia that they live in still allows a sense of alienation, which is more than I gained from Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (it’s that-other-Asian-American-sitcom). Hooray for allowing us Asian Americans to be part of the media landscape without becoming every other sitcom family, in a limited edition flavor.
It isn’t the bamboo-ceiling-smashing, society-reconstructing solution to all our problems, but as Eddie Huang himself has concluded, it’s not a bad place to start. The show is doing well in terms of representation of a Taiwanese American family while conveying the fact that they are both Taiwanese and American. And best of all, it’s actually pretty funny.
You can watch the episodes on ABC’s site for a limited amount of time. If you want a sample of what Eddie Huang actually sounds like in his book (somewhat of a collection of delinquent shenanigans all told with an undercurrent of rage and cynicism) the aforementioned article is a good sample.