One of the best new sitcoms of 2015 – and a historic one, too – might actually be one of its worst, and a cultural atrocity of historic proportions, according to Eddie Huang, the chef/author/TV host/social-media loudmouth whose memoir serves as the series' inspiration.
Fresh Off the Boat, a midseason replacement that premiered on ABC in February, is the story of a young Huang circa the mid-1990s. After moving with his family from Washington to Orlando, Eddie, his parents, grandmother and two brothers tackle the daily challenges of being outsiders in a town that's, bluntly, full of clueless Caucasians.
It's a remarkable show because it's the first U.S. network program in decades in which Asian-Americans are the main protagonists. The last attempt was an infamous flame-out: Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, which lasted all of 19 episodes in 1994 and was embraced by no one, least of all the Korean-American community it meant to portray.
Where FOB has succeeded so far, 11 episodes in, is in being hilarious. It is a wonderful pastiche of 1990s nostalgia (and the accompanying hip hop that flavours Eddie's POV), smartly scripted culture clashes and never-before-seen Chinese family values. Killer casting, including a star turn from The Interview's Randall Park as the dad, makes the TV Huangs relatable, lovable and – most important – watchable. Fingers are crossed that it is on track for renewal: FOB performs well in the coveted 18-49 demographic and outdraws more critically acclaimed network comedies such as The New Girl and The Mindy Project.
But because this is 2015, no TV show can be consumed without a heaping of social-media commentary. Enter IRL Eddie Huang. He is the outspoken chef behind Baohaus in New York, the host of the online food show Huang's World on Vice.com and the author of the memoir Fresh Off the Boat. Would you believe he's also on Twitter?
Huang's conflicted relationship with the show that is loosely based on his life is well documented. Before it even premiered, he wrote a personal essay for New York magazine that spent 3,000 words trashing the network-television process that he feels infantilized his story. The kicker: He backtracks in the final paragraphs to say he was proud of the pilot episode. Truthfully, Huang most loved that the producers were willing to invoke the word "chink" in the climactic scene. His assessment was right. Seeing young Eddie being called that slur, in prime time, to an audience of millions – it was a monumental cultural milestone for a community that's been hungry for real representation since Long Duk Dong swung on the bunk bed in Sixteen Candles.
Huang has been mostly congenial since the premiere, choosing to revel in congratulatory retweets and his other cultural coup: using FOB's theme song to introduce Middle America to Detroit rapper Danny Brown. But last week, he couldn't keep it in any longer. He tweeted to his more than 60,800 followers:
"For the record I don't watch #FreshOffTheBoat on @ABCNetwork," he begins. "I had to say something because I stood by the pilot. After that it got so far from the truth that I don't recognize my own life.
"I understand this is a comedy but the great comics speak from pain: Pryor, Rock, Louis … This show had that opportunity but it fails."
There is more, but this limited space isn't Twitter, and his thoughts on the lack of authenticity in network television are nothing industry folk haven't heard before (see, again: Margaret Cho).
The difficult part in critiquing an unfiltered figure like Huang is that he's not all bluster. His online rants are like a bull in a cheap china shop, but parse his rage and you'll find he raises legitimate questions in need of serious answers.
Huang mentions his grandmother's bound feet, his grandfather's suicide and the domestic abuse he and his brothers suffered from their father. These stories are an integral part of his memoir's serious narrative; where are they on TV? It seems obvious now what set him off: Last week's episode featured a running joke where bad luck causes Eddie to break his arm, and a comical misunderstanding causes a teacher to call child services to the family's home. The real-life Huang's experiences with child services were not so funny.
"Why do sitcoms have to avoid real issues and instead appropriate the symptoms of our problems for entertainment?" Huang tweeted after this episode aired. "I don't accept this."
FOB is by no means the definitive portrayal of an immigrant Chinese family in the United States. It's what Huang set out, and failed, to achieve, in the broadest of mediums. He was emboldened by his disruptive successes in restaurants, online media and publishing, three spheres that were ready for a rap-obsessed, pot-addled, attention-loving Asian who calls himself a "chinkstronaut." Huang probably should have googled ABC first before signing over the rights to his book (or went with Netflix instead).
FOB, through any other lens, is a huge step forward for Asian representation. A quieter voice, and perhaps a more well-versed one, is Jeff Yang, a columnist with The Wall Street Journal and a former TV critic for the Village Voice. He's also the father of Hudson Yang, the young actor who plays Eddie. In the Los Angeles Times, he recounts the short, sad history of on-screen Asian-American culture and has a clear-eyed view of what FOB means in 2015: "Putting a set of characters on-screen that a generation of young Asian Americans will laugh with, live with and recognize as reflections of themselves."
The show as it's been realized fails only one person, if at all: Eddie Huang. If the goal was to faithfully translate a deeply personal, bestselling memoir into a hit mainstream TV show, it was a goner before the ink on the contract was dry. While the book is a must-read, I would boldly argue that Huang's life experience is unique only to himself. I admire his extroversion and his success, even more so knowing how difficult his childhood was. But I unfortunately can't identify much with real-life Eddie; I see much more of myself in TV Eddie, an awkward kid who just wants to fit in and sometimes brings stinky tofu to school for lunch. I think many of the millions of viewers relate just the same. Some of them, as The New York Times reports, even attend weekly viewing parties, because being able to relate is still so new and thrilling.
Huang, I'm sure, was well compensated for the right to be inspired by his life. He's also been introduced to his largest audience yet, far bigger than his fan base of foodies and Internet hipsters. FOB, the TV show, may not be hard enough for his edgy brand, but Huang could spare a tweet to recognize that, like it or not, he's earned a place in history and he'll be looked back on as a trailblazer.