Fresh Off the Boat
The only thing that seems more exhausting than having kids is having to deal with other people’s kids. You didn’t sign up for those, so why should you have to sign up to orchestrate their extracurriculars and pizza days?
Louis and Jessica didn’t grow up in households that were too concerned with the PTA, so they’re floored when Evan and Emery’s principal (the ever-wonderful Maria Bamford) calls them in to scold them for not participating enough. She insists the parents need to be involved in their kids’ extracurricular activities — or, as Jessica in particular finds out, that the parents need to at least pretend to be involved in their kids’ extracurricular activities. Well, it’s either pitch in time or money, and since Louis and Jessica are much more protective of one than the other, mandatory volunteer work it is!
When Jessica gets to the auditorium to direct Evan and Emery’s play, though, she finds a bunch of bored extra parents who can barely look up from their Game Boys long enough to even fake enthusiasm. It sounds harsh, but think about it: Would you rather corral hyperactive kids or beat the next level of Tetris? When Jessica asks why she’s even there, the principal straight-up admits that they wanted more “diversity.”
Though Tetris and Eddie’s Cross Colours shirt are solid ’90s references, Fresh Off the Boat’s mid-’90s setting also means it takes place right as cultural sensitivity heightened and the phrase political correctness took off on its continuing journey through talk shows and think pieces. So the principal’s hyperbolic worry that macaroni art will offend the Italians (pronunciation guide: “eye-talians”) is perfectly period. As far as Evan and Emery’s school play goes, the principal just wants to do the same thing that hasn’t offended anyone in six years — which turns out to be no play at all.
To no one’s surprise, Jessica can only take a couple minutes of watching her boys run around with no rhyme or reason alongside other people’s sticky miscreant kids before she can’t take it anymore. The second Evan and Emery scamper forward, all adorable in their flower costumes, and moo at her, it’s over. If there’s one thing Jessica Huang isn’t here for, it’s chaos. Just a couple scenes later, she’s not only cut most of the cast for their lack of focus and/or speech impediments, but rewritten the entire play into Acting: A Cautionary Tale. (Alison Hendrix would either love Jessica to pieces or die by her hand.) Instead of braying at the audience, Evan and Emery talk about their futures as doctors and lawyers and shake their heads at their hapless friend “Gumball,” a poor, unfortunate soul who tries to go into acting. Instead, he ends up alone and homeless. (Sample dialogue: “He’s not a bumball. He’s Gumball!”)
Jessica’s reign as play director comes to its inevitable end when the principal sees this pragmatic horror show, but it’s just as well. Turns out that Jessica childhood was so strict that she couldn’t have a “Sparkle Time Beauty Horse,” which is exactly the knockoff you think it is, except that every fifth one has “a human face.” This horrifying toy is nevertheless a metaphor for Jessica, who spends the entire episode resisting fun because that was what she was taught.
Jessica’s plot veers a little close to stereotype territory, but her monologues about not needing a Sparkle Time Beauty Horse and really needing a Sparkle Time Beauty Horse save it. Constance Wu is never better than when shutting down what she sees as pure nonsense (monologue A) or letting her anger loose (monologue B). While A includes Jessica punctuating her piece by holding her hand out for an ironed quesadilla, B is my hands-down favorite. (And yes, it’s also This Week’s Constance Wu Moment.) I mean, who am I to resist a fantasy featuring an off-brand My Little Pony named “Sugar Applebaum” and bratty classmate Janet Yi dying in a horrible plane crash? Also, the only thing more perfectly timed than Randall Park’s tentative “… Janet Yi’s not dead” is Constance Wu’s shrieking, “WELL, SOMEONE IS.”
Meanwhile, Louis’s experience as a “semi-pro” Taiwanese basketball player gets him a gig as Eddie’s new coach — the first one Eddie’s team has had. At first, Eddie thinks this is going to be awesome. When he finds out his dad was a “Mystic Tiger,” he has a fantasy of Louis facing off against an enemy team in the style of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the even more relevant Kung Fu Dunk (Shaolin Soccer’s basketball cousin).
It looks great, and Randall Park’s spin-a-basketball-and-smirk routine is an objectively perfect combination, but the whole sequence just ends up feeling a little too on-the-nose, and also, super long. It does at least make for a sharp contrast when the reality of Louis’s basketball career is revealed to be him bouncing and passing the ball to one other dude (writer Jeff Yang, also Hudson Yang’s father), all sponsored by Mystic Tiger’s “breakfast cigarettes.”
Louis is still thrilled about his assignment (“I got a good one”) until he realizes that Eddie’s team is a total mess. None of them are interested in basketball so much as looking cool, which isn’t a huge surprise, seeing how the Venn diagram of these kids’ interests pretty much just overlaps at “Shaq.” Then there’s Dmitri, an 11-and-a-half-year-old who looks and plays like an NBA forward. Eddie and his friends just sit back, offer him “sports drinks,” and let him crush the other team with hearts in their eyes. Louis does his best to teach them the value of teamwork, but it’s hard for them to care when Dmitri keeps dunking the ball and generally being more awesome than an 11-and-a-half-year-old is ever supposed to be. Eventually, Louis gets so annoyed that he accidentally body-checks Dmitri into the ground, breaking both his arms and their chances at another win.
It’s all fun stuff, but it’s also super predictable. Okay, I wasn’t really expecting Eddie and his friends to team up to pummel the other team’s ringer senseless, but I wasn’t really invested in the outcome of this Mighty Ducks tale, either. Last week’s episode was so packed with jokes that anything less would be disappointing, but the basic plots of “Crouching Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon” could have used some more wit to them.
On the other hand, Rich Blomquist’s script also has some of the most winking fun that the show’s ever had with its singular status as a series that focuses on Asian-Americans. When Evan and Emery start to sound like they might like acting too much, Jessica scoffs that “they’ll never put two Chinese boys” on TV, and if they do, it’ll only be “if there’s a nerdy friend or a magical day when someone wanders into a Chinatown.” At the end of the episode, the family’s watching Margaret Cho’s short-lived sitcom All-American Girl, which only ran for 19 episodes in 1995 — and was also the last show about an Asian-American family to be on television before Fresh Off the Boat. It’s a cute homage that uses Fresh Off the Boat’s characteristic sharpness to point out a sobering fact: The days of pop culture relegating most Asian-American characters to the “nerdy friend” or magical Chinatown-dweller somehow didn’t end with Game Boys.
If you don’t believe me, ask a procedural.