It’s Eddie’s 12th birthday, that strange hinterland on your way to being a surly, salty teen. Whatever you did the year before isn’t cool anymore. Your 12th year is when you learn the art of parental manipulation, when the wool that’s been positioned firmly over your eyes for your entire life shifts, and you see that your parents are the enemy.
While this season is working for me on many, many levels, part of me wants the show to break away from the sitcom formula and show something with more consequence. Seeing storylines wrapped up neatly after 20 minutes of tightly executed comedy and heart is nice, but sometimes I want the stakes to be higher. Let’s get real racist and then deal with it, thusly. Bring back the two-part episode. Now that we’re comfortable with the show, and it’s established itself as a steady, consistent force to be reckoned with, rock the boat a little. Just don’t tip it over.
As an 11 year old on the precipice of impending tweendom, Eddie’s over his traditional celebrations. No more old piñata, recycled year after year. No more parties with Louis and Jessica casting a watchful eye. With his parents’ begrudging blessing, he gets the birthday of his 12-year-old dreams: a chill day at the mall with his friends. There will be no streamers. There will be no scallion pancakes or birthday noodles. This is the new world order.
But, because Jessica Huang is admittedly terrible at nuance, she realizes that when Eddie said he didn’t want to do anything for his birthday, that really meant he did. It was all a ruse. Lesson: Never take what your kids say at face value, because literally everything that comes out of their mouth is a horrible form of doublespeak, intended to trick you into doing what you think is right, but is actually very wrong. Like the good parents they are, Jessica and Louis hustle to the mall with a bunch of balloons only to see Eddie hanging out with his friends and eating cake, celebrating his birthday the way he wants to do it.
His parents are embarrassing. All parents, honestly, are embarrassing. He can’t be his sporty, athletic, and funny self around his parents because there are rules. So. Many. Rules. Do the dishes. Do your homework. You can’t have a lizard. No sleepovers. Finish your rice. Listen to your parents, because they know what’s best and they’re smarter and wiser and they’re right, always. He’s never going to be good like Evan and Emery, two angels with modified bowl cuts, so he might as well give up while he’s ahead.
Jessica realizes that her rules are maybe slightly crazy so she begrudgingly loosens the reins, starting small with Pop Tarts and then rapidly moving up to the big guns: sleepovers. Eddie is never allowed to sleep over at his friends’ house, something that confounds him and nearly brought me to tears in solidarity. I never understood my mother’s reluctance to let me go to sleepovers. Did she open the door and gaze at my slumbering figure at night, just to make sure that I hadn’t climbed out the window? Did it make her feel better to know that I wasn’t huffing glue and making out with whatever grimy 16-year-old boy I could find? I was a theater kid with friends who didn’t drink until after high school. We talked about Rent and Family Guy, watched movies and fell asleep. Jessica also doesn’t let Eddie sleep over, for reasons just as infuriating and undefined as my mother’s, so she lets him loose and sends him over to Dave’s house, a 12-year-old boy’s fantasy.
There’s Cookie Crisp for dinner, video games for days, and fart contests between mother and son, just like you always wanted. One can only hope that all parent-child relationships contain a hint of this freedom. But, other people’s rules, however awesome they seem at the outset, are jarring and weird and strange when they’re not at all what you expect. Example: Some (white) people may think it’s odd to take your shoes off when you enter a house, though it makes perfect, logical sense. This is a rule that I have yet to see on this show, but I have faith in the writers that they’ll make it happen. Eddie, not attuned to the nuances of Dave’s household, finds it bizarre to yell at your mom like she’s a Time Warner rep that’s had you on hold for a half-hour when she tells you to go to bed at midnight. Dave’s house is a funhouse of lax parenting and passing gas. Eddie can’t hang, and rightfully so. Crushing two-liter bottles of bright red soda is fine and all, but, I don’t know, respect your parents? Something.
While Eddie’s going rogue, Evan and Emery realize that it’s time to come out of his shadow. The eldest blazes a path first, causing so much drama and distraction that as the younger kids, you could push your little brother into a trash can and wheel him out to the curb, and your parents wouldn’t notice. Emery and Evan recognize that Eddie’s a giant black hole for their parent’s attention. Being the good kids is boring. So, they go buck. They eat Nutella out of the jar; they see Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls as unaccompanied minors. They throw Legos all over the living room. In an act of great bravery and defiance, Emery opts to put the toilet paper on the shelf above the toilet, not on the holder where it belongs. Jessica is either slipping or blind, because if this show was real life, Emery would be grounded until sophomore year of high school for that. Not a single thing they do catches their parents’ eye, including almost running away, but when they wake up after the prodigal son's return home to find their family eating birthday noodles at the dinner table, they finally get their wish. Leave the refrigerator door open for as long as you can, and no one will notice, but stay up past your bedtime? Grounded.
+My first-born child for so many Chinese mom moments, but especially when Jessica yells at Eddie about taking his vitamins before bed. “He’ll hide them under his tongue!” she screams, before Dave’s mom cuts her off.
+8,000 for the giant bowl of oranges on their kitchen table and +a year’s salary for the inside of the Huang’s refrigerator, which includes a six-pack of Sidra, the best soda in the world and a variety of mystery greens stuffed in plastic bags.