Every now and then, I expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and film. I do so by doing these analysis pieces once in a while about a TV show or film that has reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release, etc.).
Five years ago, I started doing these various analyses on different TV shows and films of the past and present that have been part of my life to some capacity, and that all started with the ABC series, “Fresh Off the Boat;” the first sitcom in over 20 years to center on an Asian American family. Today, following its series finale last night, I am using this time to look back on its evolution over the last six seasons, and how the media landscape has changed along the way.
(WARNING: There will be minor spoilers from throughout the series, including last night’s finale.)
As a refresher for those who don’t know, “Fresh Off the Boat” is loosely based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by celebrity chef, Eddie Huang (who was the producer and the show’s narrator for the first season). In 1995, 11-year-old Eddie, his younger brothers, and his Taiwanese immigrant parents and grandmother move from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida, in order for his dad Louis to start up a restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch. Suddenly finding themselves living in a mostly white suburb, Eddie and the rest of the family navigate their everyday lives in the most comical ways possible.
At the time this show premiered, the number of Asian Americans in lead roles both in front of and behind the camera, in TV and film was small. The fact that the expectations for this show to succeed beyond one season was heavy with the #repsweats. The fact that “Fresh Off the Boat” was on the air for six seasons, tapping out at 116 episodes, is incredible!
“Fresh Off the Boat,” in many ways, was the average American family sitcom; ranging from comical banter between the parents, mischievous children where at least one of them is the golden child, and a guaranteed happy ending for nearly every single episode. At the same time, the show was also atypical, as it touched on numerous subjects and situations that many Asian Americans and their families will recognize: from Jessica studying for her citizenship test, to the family wondering if they’re being both Chinese enough and American enough, and Eddie wanting to put a modern take on Taiwanese cuisine on his dad’s restaurant’s menu, despite Louis’s initial hesitation.
It wasn’t just the fact that “Fresh Off the Boat” centered on an Asian American family that made it unique. The show was also a period piece. It was set exactly 20 years in the past, starting off in 1995 and ending in the year 2000 (or technically 2008 at Evan’s commencement ceremony from Harvard). This show came at a time when 90’s nostalgia in the present day really started to get real, and getting to see that play out throughout the show’s run was fun: examples including notable 90’s music (particularly hip hop) and movie references, the fashion of the decade, the fact that Netflix started during that period as an alternative to Blockbuster, etc.
At the time of the show’s premiere, many people hoped that if it succeeded, perhaps more opportunities will finally start opening up for Asian Americans. Five years later, it’s fair to say that they have in large quantities. The same year “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered, “Dr. Ken” also premiered that fall on ABC (though it sadly lasted two seasons). More shows started popping up with Asians or Asian Americans in leads or in prominent roles; from “Quantico,” to “Andi Mack,” to “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens,” and more. Same can be said for films as well, especially in the last two years with films like “The Farewell,” “Searching,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and of course, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Both Randall Park and Constance Wu have grown to be prominent names in the industry and the boys on the show have both literally grown in stature and are on the rise to great things.
I believe that “Fresh Off the Boat” has opened a lot of doors for a lot people of this community, and seeing it all has motivated me to work even harder for my goals as a writer. It meant a lot to have put out my second novel during this time period and it was wonderful to have applied to a very particular writing program twice, using “Fresh Off the Boat” as my choice of show to write my spec scripts on.
I love this show a great deal, and as sad as I am to see it go, I believe the timing is right. It’s the end of one era and the beginning of a new, and “Fresh Off the Boat” will be forever historical for the laughs, the tender moments, and the road it paved for others to follow.