Success Perm: “Fresh Off the Boat”

Success Perm: “Fresh Off the Boat” February 21, 2015

This is just a quick Saturdayish post to say that ABC’s new sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s based on a memoir, which probably explains the specificity of the setting: The central character is Eddie Huang, a rap-loving plump kid whose parents move from DC’s Chinatown to suburban Florida in 1995 in order to open their own restaurant, the perpetually-struggling Cattleman’s Ranch. The humor mixes culture-clash jokes and nice specific details (one episode gets a lot of mileage from Eddie’s mom’s love of Stephen King, ending with an excellent Shining gag) and the three lead actors, Eddie (Hudson Yang), his dad Louis (Randall Park), and his mom Jessica (Constance Wu), are all terrific.

The dad is kind of like if Billy Pelzer’s dad developed self-awareness, all flop sweat and uneasy smiles, but played very lightly. Park has a great troweled-on, gooey face, and an off-kilter smile. The mom is a tiny dynamo the way moms always are in sitcoms, but “FOTB” lets her be funny in her own right (rather than playing the endlessly-competent straight woman to the dad’s foibles) and makes fun of her hypercompetence without coming across as blaming her for it. Eddie’s little brothers are kinda bland, but they’re fine, they’re not cloyingly sassy the way sitcom kids often are. Basically, every time I watch, I find myself laughing a lot and not checking my email, so something about this show is working.

The “lol the ’90s” humor gets shticky, but the bigger problem is the relentless sitcom morality. Niceness always wins the day! Underneath our differences, we’re all Americans. All the characters want the same stuff deep down, and they more or less get it. Tolerance, family togetherness, material success: Just once I’d like to see some of that stuff lose. Jessica’s mom plays favorites with her daughters, openly and brutally, but of course thirty minutes later the mom is “coming around” as the daughters exchange insults which the chyrons helpfully translate into professions of sisterly love. In my experience families where the parents are that unabashed in their favoritism have some pretty dark undercurrents of narcissism or hidden motives. That stuff is not hard to make funny, really, but it’s a different–more honest–style of humor than the one “FOTB” consistently chooses.

If “FOTB” is bringing back the ’90s, I wish they’d borrow some of their sensibility from “Roseanne.”

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