Fresh Off the Boat and Diversity on TV

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Reporters at the TCA aren’t particularly shy about vocalizing their displeasure with their peers’ questions. Throughout the week, disapproving tuts, eyerolls and laughter have all been common responses from the room whenever anyone has asked a particularly dumb question. But nothing drew a response quite like the first question posed to the cast of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

“I love the Asian culture,” a reporter began. “And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”

Some people laughed. Some people cried out “What?” The cast, to their credit, handled it gracefully, cracking a few jokes in response, and the tension was diffused when the second reporter to ask a question jokingly wondered “Will we be seeing fortune cookies?” But the tone was set for a weird, tense session about the series based on chef Eddie Huang’s childhood move from DC to Orlando.

The show is a smart comedy that deals with Huang’s father’s love for American culture—he owns and operates a steakhouse called the Cattleman’s Ranch—his mother’s reluctance to go along with the move, and his own experiences growing up as a first-generation American in Orlando’s suburbs. The subject matter, of course, is very personal to Huang, but it’s also a pretty big deal in that it’s a sitcom focused on an Asian-American family, airing on a major network—sadly, something that up until now has been virtually unheard of.

“This show to me is historic,” Huang said. “This show has a huge place culturally in America. I mean, I don’t think you guys have seen a TCA with this many Asian faces on stage in a long time…the first episode, like I said, to deal with the word ‘chink’ in the pilot episode of a comedy on network television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”

Huang has been outspoken about the show, and he recently penned a much-talked-about article for New York magazine in which he says “The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.”

However, to say the article is entirely critical of the show is inaccurate, and towards the end of it, he clarifies many of his feelings. At the TCA panel, Huang bristled when the portion of the article where he questions whether Nahnatchka Khan should be running the show, considering that she’s not Chinese or Taiwanese:

While it’s a proud moment, it’s also sad and disappointing that a show like Fresh Off the Boat can still be so misinterpreted (I’m still cringing about that chopsticks question) and that there’s still need for more Asian-American writers to accurately capture the first-generation experience described in Huang’s memoir. And the fact that a show with Asian-American leads is a notable rarity in this day and age speaks to how far TV still has to go before being able to truly claim diversity.

Fresh Off the Boat premieres on Feb. 4, and you absolutely should not go into it expecting “chopsticks and all that”—go into it looking for smart comedy and sometimes-uncomfortable confrontations of race. If there’s one thing to take away from its panel on Wednesday, it’s that it’ll be talked about in many different ways—some backwards and bigoted, some valuable and important—but it’ll certainly be talked about, and any show that fosters conversation about diversity on television is doing viewers a great service.