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Last winter, ABC debuted Fresh Off the Boat, a family comedy that was refreshing both in its focus on an Asian-American family, but also in its wonderfully subversive humor. The series, from Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23) is based off of the memoirs of chef Eddie Huang, who grew up as a hip-hop loving kid in 1990s Orlando. Huang has since distanced himself from the show, including no longer narrating it, saying essentially that it didn’t capture the edge of his memoir. But Fresh Off the Boat did, over the course of its first season, cultivate its own unique charms.
In many ways, Fresh Off the Boat is the antithesis of ABC’s comedy juggernaut Modern Family. The Huang family — Louis (Randall Park), Jessica (the exceptional Constance Wu), and their children Evan (Ian Chen), Eddie (Hudson Yang), and Emery (Forrest Wheeler), as well as Lucille Soong as the hilarious Grandma Wu — are outsiders in their white, suburban neighborhood. Though each family member finds their way of connecting locally, they also hold fast to Chinese traditions. Some of the first season’s best episodes highlight the pull between the two cultures, both of which the family feels invested in.
In the Season 2 premiere, “Family Business Trip,” those habits are the highlight, but with somewhat mixed results. Though Jessica’s frugality is a recurring theme on the series, it’s taken to extremes for broad laughs when the family goes on an impromptu family vacation. But mainly, “Family Business Trip,” written by Khan, juggles too many subplots, and overplays Jessica’s obsession with saving money while leaving Eddie with several incomplete arcs. The show has clearly pivoted away from its initial Eddie-focus to more of the family at large, particularly Jessica (as Wu has been a clear standout), but it hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the hip-hop-loving junior high schooler in the meantime.
Still, the show can be exceptional in its smallest moments, particularly regarding its smallest cast members (and its oldest, with Soong), as well as its great use of throwaway comments and referential cutaways. The Huangs’ feelings about vacations are summed up by Louis telling an employee, “your job is a vacation from poverty,” and their strict family ethics are made clear when their youngest son says he’s looking forward to “more of the Tooth Fairy’s constructive criticism this year.” Fresh Off the Boat also revels in its 90s setting with well-placed references both popular (pump sneakers) and more obscure (John Tesh), but it doesn’t drown in it — a casual viewer could conceivably go several episodes without realizing it’s a throwback series.
While there are parts of “Family Business Trip” that feel like the show at its very best, there are other parts that feel a little half-cocked. The series held on to a modest but steady viewership for ABC last season, but it faces more competition in fall primetime. Because of that, Fresh Off the Boat needs to come out at its strongest, which “Family Business Trip” doesn’t quite achieve. Still, like the new Muppets series (with which it is paired), it takes a tired genre setup and infuses it with nostalgia, as well as a humor not seen elsewhere on broadcast (or, frankly, on cable).
The bottom line is that Fresh Off the Boat deserves attention, even as it fumbles through growing pains. Like the Huang family, it’s pulled between two competing styles — here, between traditional comedic restraints (and the push for each episode to highlight a lesson learned), and something much quirkier and interesting. In the Season 2 premiere, Jessica tells Eddie she bought him “the t-shirts you like, with the black men on them.” But instead of hip-hop icons it’s LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow. Similarly, while Fresh Off the Boat may not be as hip as the real Eddie Huang may have hoped for, but it’s still pretty darn great.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Fresh Off the Boat Season 2 returns to ABC Tuesday, September 22nd at 8:30 p.m.