Family sitcoms have been around since the earliest days of television and will likely outlive us all, especially since they benefit from the post-mortem gift of syndication. Television has had roughly 60 years to fine tune the format with classics like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Home Improvement, The Simpsons, and so forth, but even today contemporary entries are still finding ways to freshen the genre. One such improvement being an increase in the role of the kids and how much they contribute to the comedy, and not just with cutesie one-liners. Unfortunately, that’s where Fresh Off the Boat falls short in its comparison to other contemporary hits like Modern Family or The Goldbergs: the child actors (Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, and Ian Chen) just aren’t up to snuff and don’t have the comedic timing to really make the most of their material. By contrast, as the parents, Randall Park and Constance Wu seem to nail every line and have amazing chemistry. It’s a combination that makes the show feel lopsided at best, and cliched at its worst.
Fresh Off the Boat attempts to juggle two concepts for its premise: it’s the 90s and the Huang family have just moved to Orlando from Washington D.C. to open a steakhouse. That by itself wouldn’t be a problem, except the burden for establishing those two concepts seems to be evenly divided between the parents and the kids. While Louis (Park) and Jessica Huang (Wu) deal with the struggles of keeping a new business and family afloat, the kids have to remind us that it’s the 90s. Consequently the stories of the parents and kids rarely mix, and for all intents and purposes the parental story could be happening in the 80s, 90s, or present day and it would have no effect on what they’re doing. Even with the kids, the only real relation to the 90s is its occasional use of 90s-specific pop culture (Shaq Fu, Pump sneakers, etc.), but many of those things are still around today, severely hampering the impact.
Add to that the fact that the kids’ characters just aren’t very interesting and it becomes obvious how much of the show’s weight really rides on Park and Wu making the most of the parental relationship. Whether you want to blame it on the writing, the editing, or the actors, the kids just can’t land a joke without it feeling like the timing is off or that we’re seeing a cliché we’ve seen a dozen times before. Hudson Yang, who plays Eddie Huang (upon whose memoirs this show was very loosely based), is the oldest son who loves rap and struggles the most with respecting his own family’s culture and the one he encounters at school with the other kids. The struggle is played up for maybe 2-3 episodes, but after that he just settles in with a group of friends and from then on each episode is about how he wants to buy or do something his friends like and his parents object because they feel it’s too American or that he’s forgetting his culture. Meanwhile, his two brothers are the clichéd precocious children who seem oddly grown up with what they do and say. It’s all just old and tired material.
It’s enough to make you wish that Fresh Off the Boat was about newlywed couple Louis and Jessica who have moved to Orlando to start a family as Louis opens a restaurant and Jessica pursues a career in real estate. Giving the show entirely over to Randall Park and Constance Wu would have been preferable after seeing how strongly they play off one another and the neighbors (and their book clubs, soap operas, etc.). The kids add very little and only slow down the pace of the show so the show can remind us it takes place in the 90s, even if that makes very little difference at all.
With the success of The Goldbergs, you’d think a show that takes on the 90s for the butt of its jokes would have a lot to work with, but unfortunately there’s just not enough of a difference between now and then to really make fun of. Ridiculous cowboy themed restaurants still exist. Lunchables still exist. Catty suburban housewives still exist. People of ethnicities that don’t traditionally produce rap stars but who love rap much to the confusion of their parents still exist. Usually when someone says a joke is “too soon”, they mean the wound is still fresh, but in this case it’s because we haven’t had enough time to really become nostalgic since most of the things are still very much present in the modern day. Until the day nostalgia applies, it will be up to Park and Wu to keep the show going.
DVD Bonus Features
A “Pop Up Video”-style trivia track and a gag reel are the only extras on the set.
"Fresh Off the Boat: The Complete Season One" is on sale September 29, 2015 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Gail Mancuso, Lynn Shelton, Claire Scanlon. Written by Camilla Blackett, Rich Blomquist, Jeff Chiang, Eddie Huang, Nahnatchka Khan. Starring Randall Park.