Fresh Off the Boat
At face value, “Very Superstitious” is as typical a sitcom episode as it gets. It features a school election, a valuable lesson on the perils of white lies, and people bursting into a bathroom to find a grandma on the toilet. Shenanigans arise, ensue, and resolve themselves. Lessons are learned! All’s well that ends well! Rinse, repeat, see you next week. What makes Fresh Off the Boat stand out, though, is that its voice and characters were so well-established so early on that even the most routine story lines get an extra jolt of refreshed energy. Writer and stand-up comedian Ali Wong then makes the most of the show’s comfort level with a dense script that takes those routine sitcom plots and stuffs them to the brim with jokes. (Also: ‘90s references. Like, a lot of ‘90s references.) “Very Superstitious” is also better for backing its way into those typical plots with one that the incredibly white comedy landscape would could never touch.
As the real-estate office’s (white) janitor points out, Jessica’s superstition around the number 4 is firmly rooted in Chinese tradition, since the Chinese word for four is so close to the one for death. Jessica being Jessica, her superstition is not half-assed. A series of flashbacks reveals clocks with upside-down 4s (Emery: “it’s a quarter to H”), a fear of Forbes magazine (“It’s too close”), and Evan turning three and “second three!” So when Ashley assigns her the toughest open house available, Jessica can shrug off its rat infestation and history of murder, but she can’t ignore its address: 44 West 44th Street. Jessica being Jessica, she still manages to sell the house after standing outside on the curb and shouting at the couple touring inside about the master bedroom’s closets. Much to her horror, though, her victory is cut short when the second she sees her commission check — numbered “4444.”
From there, the episode takes a turn toward the more typical as far as sitcom plots go. Louis tells Jessica he supports her decision to tear up the check, and then immediately tapes it back together so he can pay to have a mechanical bull in the restaurant. The trouble is that the bull (a) is terrifying, and (b) has a cord that trips Eddie so hard he breaks his arm. Louis informs his sons with a frozen, frantic smile that they can’t tell their mother how Eddie actually broke his arm, because lying is okay as long as it’s for “the greater good.” Like when Jessica asks him how he likes her jeans with the six-inch zipper, Louis doesn’t tell her she’s “half crotch.” (Cut to: Jessica checking out Eddie’s cast in the jeans with the six-inch zipper.) Eddie then internalizes this “lying can be okay” lesson so that when his campaign for student-body president starts tanking, he just pretends his broken arm came from an elaborate Street Fighter–esque battle. Trent may have Scottie Pippin (and his Air Jordan knockoff “Air Pippins”), Albert Tsai’s Philip may have one hell of a slogan (“Choose the Chosen One!”), but no one can touch a badass fistfight. So Eddie wins, but his try-hard new guidance counselor (Judah Friedlander, with a ponytail that’s either glorious or horrific, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which) sees right through his tall tales. Child Protective Services pays the Huangs a visit, the truth comes out, and both Eddie and Louis learn valuable lessons about lying.
Again, that story’s pretty much what you’d expect. But again, the characters and actors are so good that the clichés don’t bug nearly as much as they could. To exactly no one’s surprise, Constance Wu crushes both Jessica’s confidence as a real-estate agent and terror as a superstitious person. Randall Park also has one of his best episodes to date, thanks to his winning smile (as seen with his sidling up to various bank tellers), and then the spastic deterioration of that winning smile. His breakdown over taking off his lucky jade necklace is gold, thanks to some seriously disorienting editing and Louis’s muffled internal screams.
Hudson Yang has also been getting better and more comfortable inside Eddie’s skin with every passing episode. His line readings this week are off-the-charts great, like when Friedlander’s counselor asks him to look into his third eye and Yang screws up his whole entire face when he asks, “My … butthole?” Then there’s Eddie explaining to his brothers that Jessica won’t listen to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” because “she thinks that’s what made him blind.” My personal favorite is the inciting incident for Eddie breaking his arm, because it’s Eddie deciding to dip things that don’t belong in chowder in chowder, and I will always support gross and/or inspired food adventures. Yang practically skips as he smirks, “Do you think it’d be gross …? Imma find out.” Cut to: cord-tripping, bull-mooing, arm-breaking.
As always, Grandma Huang and the younger boys get less to do, but they’re so good as punctuation for jokes that I can’t get too mad about it. Lucille Soong’s Grandma spends much of the episode musing silently in clouds of incense, but still manages to get a laugh in when she summons aunties to reverse the bad luck with the help of collectible Garfield mugs. Meanwhile, Emery’s emerging as the show’s best source of deadpan left turns, like when he says he supports Eddie’s run for president because he’s “got an everyman’s husky build and a middle-class background, so people can relate.” Evan, as Louis pointed out earlier this season, is just so goddamn cute that even a weak runner about him missing everything interesting while he’s peeing becomes ridiculously charming. All together, this ensemble may be the most believable and endearing family on television right now.
Speaking of: Several hours after the episode aired, Eddie Huang tweeted about how he doesn’t watch Fresh Off the Boat on the regular because it has strayed so far from his memoir — and the pilot episode that he was satisfied with — that he doesn’t “recognize [his] own life” anymore. Huang notes he’s happy that “people of color are able to see a reflection of themselves through #FreshOffTheBoat on @ABCNetwork, but I don’t see it.”
Huang’s childhood was decidedly less rosy than his onscreen counterpart; his grandfather committed suicide, his grandmother’s feet were bound, and his father beat him. His love of rap was a way of coping with being an outsider, but it was also an escape. A visit from Child Protective Services was a sober occasion where a “sharing clam” wouldn’t have gotten laughs.
So, yes, it’s true that Huang’s memoir pulls more punches than the show. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat hasn’t taken nearly as big a risk as it did in the pilot, when the school’s only other minority called Eddie a chink. It must be incredibly strange — not to mention frustrating — to have someone buy your life story, only to use it as a launchpad for a family-friendly network sitcom that has barely anything to do with your actual life. Still, Huang might need to explain his claim that the series “perpetuate[s] an artificial representation of Asian-American lives” a little further. I’m curious about whether Huang is more concerned that the show twists his story or that it twists “Asian-American lives” in general. Either way, it’s safe to say that Fresh Off the Boat as it stands right now is a very sharp and charming sitcom, but that the “based on the memoir by Eddie Huang” credit is a stretch.
As you may have noticed — like I notice every day — I am not Pilot Viruet. She unfortunately had to step down from these recaps, so I will do my best to fill her shoes. This starts with upholding her inspired tradition of …
This week’s Constance Wu moment: “The garbageman is right. You should promote him … to garbage boss.”
“So we all ate chocolate dreidels while Phillip cleared up his stance on Santa. He’s for him.” Barefoot Dave (Evan Hannemann) is the best of Eddie’s friends, and I will hear no arguments. (The Kool Aid mustache no parent is wiping off is also a nice touch.)
“The Golden Saddle: Just like the food, the fun is well done.” This is a terrible slogan for a steakhouse, in which the meat should never be well done.
Eddie’s college application, according to Louis: “Was born, likes lunch, ran for president.”
“I’m going to get a pedicure done by a white lady. That’s how you know you’ve made it.”