The season finale opens with the Huangs doing just great, thanks. Evan and Emery are thriving both at school and at being really freaking adorable, this time as they sit together in Louis’s hairdresser chair and pretend it’s a rocket ship to Santa. Eddie is his school’s “first black president” (a rare groaner of a joke). Jessica has her Melrose Place viewing parties with the Rollerblading moms she’s learned to tolerate, and hey, even the restaurant is booming (we really haven’t seen any evidence of that before this moment, but it’s nice to see Louis so happy, so I’ll allow it)! It’s only a small step to get to the true pinnacle of success, according to Jessica Huang: a country-club membership.
Jessica convinces Louis to give the country club a shot after Marvin and Honey hint that it could be good for his business prospects, but also, after his and Jessica’s usual municipal tennis court — a lonely patch of asphalt with no net to speak of — gets overrun by a dog. That’s not a typo — it’s just the one dog, but that’s still enough to drive Louis straight into the arms of Orlando’s finest guffawing white prepsters. While country-club parodies have been done to death and back, there’s still a soft spot in my heart for jokes about blissfully clueless rich people (for which you can blame Jack Donaghy), so I’m all in for watching Louis and Marvin lob tennis balls out of the court. Maybe a white valet will pick it up. Who knows! The sky’s the limit at the country club, and Louis is powerless to resist its bourgeois charms. If he gets a business contact out of it, great. But Louis also just loves the community of business bros he gets to call jerks sometimes — but not “asswipes,” which is, apparently, too far.
So, after weeks of fighting over Lunchables, struggling to understand NASCAR, and roaring back in the face of slurs, the Huangs are finally settling into Orlando — or are they assimilating? The difference has always been a contentious one for immigrant and first-generation families, and it’s pretty awesome to see a prime-time sitcom tackling the issue in such a frank and pithy way. Jessica panics when she serves up macaroni and cheese (with bacon bits), which proves to her how comfy the family’s gotten with American traditions, and how far they might be straying from their Chinese heritage. Louis’s love affair with crisp white linens and business cabanas is officially jeopardized as Jessica, trying to undo Florida’s damage to her family, doubles down on bringing Chinese traditions back into their lives.
Shoes are no longer allowed inside the house, even though Louis’s notoriously wide feet make shoes like suction cups. The boys have to go to Mandarin lessons in Tampa. (Eddie: “Amazing. They found a way to make Tampa worse.”) Jessica tries to introduce chicken feet into the after-school snack rotation. Eddie, having tried to tap into his friends’ strategy of picking “layup” Caribbean countries for their class project on countries, has to give up Jamaica and his novelty Rasta hat ... so, yeah, that’s probably for the best. Even though the principal protests that they didn’t give Eddie China on purpose “because we thought it would be racist,” Jessica (and Constance Wu) pins him to the wall with the sheer force of her glare before the kill shot: “So you’re treating him differently because he’s Chinese?” Eddie never had a chance.
It all comes crashing down about the way you’d expect. Louis lies about canceling the membership — I mean, did I mention the business cabanas? — and Eddie slacks off on his China project so hard that he just shows up with a bowl, a bottle of soy sauce, and a picture of a panda. Louis eventually catches Jessica watching Melrose Place instead of buying a thousand-year-old egg (Jessica: “It hatched”). They have it out in one of Wu and Randall Park’s best scenes of the series. (An earlier scene comes close: Louis remarks on the decline of the “potato-bar craze” in malls, and Jessica snarks, “Did it ever really begin?” and gets the instant high-five she deserves.)
Later, Eddie tricks a kid into letting him switch back to Jamaica with the cunning use of Boy Meets World and catfishing (though his grandma’s Topanga impression could use some work). But Eddie’s refusal to learn gets tested when he starts to make fun of China, and his friends laugh at it, too. Suddenly, it’s not so funny. “Does China amuse you?” Eddie asks, and everyone in the room knows to back up and off. As any sibling knows, it’s one thing to make fun of your own family, and totally another when someone outside it joins in.
While Eddie ends up getting an F on his Jamaica project, Jessica’s so proud of him for sticking up for China that the failure gets put up on the fridge anyway — a true Huang badge of honor. There have been plenty of straightforward sitcom plots on Fresh Off the Boat that wrap up in predictably pleasant ways, but the moment when Jessica says she’s proud and Eddie beams and says, “Cool,” is genuinely sweet. Wu’s been amazing all season long, but this episode especially shows how far Hudson Yang’s come since the pilot.
As this first season ends and a second one looks likely, the fact is that there’s no other sitcom that could do a story line about a family reclaiming its Chinese roots — but also, Fresh Off the Boat is just funny. Sometimes the talk around the show — its significance, its inspiration, its behind-the-scenes drama, and its place in the pantheon of Diverse Television — overshadows the fact that this show has jokes. So many jokes! Writer Sanjay Shah (Cougar Town, King of the Hill) packs them in so hard that I couldn’t type my notes fast enough, and again, Evan and Emery were busy being so stupid-cute with their competition to get on the fridge that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. (Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen have been incredibly good with very tricky line readings, like tonight’s sick Emery burn: “Shhh. What’s that? Oh, it’s just me. Coming for you.”)
The strength and care the writers give to the comedy is what’s made Fresh Off the Boat so successful. They’re sharp, they’re fast, and they’re careful not to condescend. Just like the Huangs, the show’s had to walk a hell of a tightrope, which usually dooms something to years of bland pandering. Instead, Fresh Off the Boat has managed to make something unique, both in terms of whom we get to see on television in leading roles and in its comedy’s singular voice.
This week’s Constance Wu moment: An embarrassment of riches, as always, but she sold the hell out of the list of American things Jessica loves: "Melrose Place, Rollerblading, macaroni and cheese. It's so easy. You just add water. It's cheese from water."
Also, becoming a “Chipwich-eating American couch lady” sounds kind of great.
When Eddie goes up against his friends, the Switzerland booth debates whether to get involved or stay out of it. It’s such a dumb joke! I laughed so much!
Another example of Hudson Yang nailing it: "What's your biggest export, Barbados? Chronic?" "Electrical components." "Oh, word?"
“You know what’s a white thing? Hanging up a Buddha picture.”
“Success is important, but it’s meaningless if we lose ourselves.”