Some things on Fresh Off the Boat will always be funny: Jessica’s shameless stinginess, Evan’s demanding fussiness, Eddie’s husky ginger friend Trent. And some story lines will never be funny, namely Louis’s tussles with first Michael Bolton, and now an unseen Kenny Rogers, over the future of Cattleman’s Ranch. Expressing his wishes through a newly arrived minion, the country singer/rotisserie mogul demands major changes to Louis’s restaurant. More chicken on the menu. Fewer bear carcasses on the premises. A comments line — where customers can leave racist comments, Louis retorts. The rest of “First Day” is like this: a few really strong jokes, if more tonally sour than usual, strung together by plots that feel insubstantial.
Rogers also wants his name forever above his rival’s, so that the steakhouse’s sign reads “Kenny Rogers Michael Bolton’s Cattleman’s Ranch.” If I want to watch two ridiculously rich white dudes get in a spat, I can catch up on Twitter about which of his cabinet members Donald Trump is feuding with this week. Can Louis please get his restaurant back already so that we can get our show back?
Louis eventually holds firm against any more modifications to Cattleman’s Ranch, especially after Rogers’s henchman proposes getting rid of the restaurant’s stuffed bruin. Jessica tells Louis to think of Cattleman’s Ranch as just the first step of his restaurant career, but Papa Huang is too attached: He can’t let some stranger run off with his first, er, business.
Louis’s other troublemaker, Eddie, undergoes his own makeover. Intimidated by the jocks that crowd around his suddenly distant girlfriend Alison, Eddie takes himself and the “BOOTY” cap Jessica had ordered him not to wear on his first day of high school to football tryouts. (Thanks to a recent growth spurt, actor Hudson Yang, who plays Eddie, towers over the rest of the cast and thus makes for a credible football player as a freshman.) But Jessica nixes Eddie’s NFL dreams; she’s terrified he’ll suffer a concussion. And so, like any teen would, Eddie forges his mom’s signature on the permission slip. A spot on the team would set him up for the rest of high school: a team, a girlfriend, a sense of purpose. Feeling overconfident, he taunts his old friends in the hallway.
Jessica being Jessica, she quickly discovers Eddie’s deception and heads to East Orlando High to pull him off the field. The visored tiger mom shows up just in time to watch her eldest perform some fancy footwork before getting flattened on the ground by a player on the opposite team. She screams, runs toward him, and discovers that Eddie is actually nowhere on the field. He hadn’t made the team and was too ashamed to tell Alison about it, and so paid another kid to pretend to be him. This shenanigan seems like it’d fall apart the moment Alison ran up to him after practice and pulled off his helmet, but at least it made for a genuinely surprising reveal. Feeling betrayed by the switcheroo, Alison breaks up with Eddie. Jessica runs back to the tackled kid on the grass to retrieve the $50 he paid him. The next day, Eddie is exactly as alone as he’d feared he would be. But his friends have forgiven him. Letting bygones be bygones, they dive into the E.R. finale, which makes sense, because that’s probably the gnarliest show outside of The X-Files that a 14-year-old kid could watch on broadcast TV in 1997.
This week, it’s Evan’s turn to enter the Emery Suck Zone (what I’m calling the middle child’s consistently underwhelming plots). Golden boy Emery starts to feel the side effects of pubertal gawkiness: His usual grace and elegance are abruptly replaced by spills on his clothes, zits on his face, and an unprecedented indifference from girls. Emery had been looking forward to being the only Huang boy in middle school, but it turns out that Evan is there too — the youngest brother skipped fifth grade without his siblings learning about it. “You know how our family doesn’t like to talk about [things],” Evan shrugs in a sly send-up of Asian-American culture.
Then, because we’re in the Emery Suck Zone, the middle Huang blames his younger brother for his sudden unpopularity. “The only thing that’s different is you,” Emery reasons, completely unreasonably. Who else could be responsible for all the cartoon penises in his textbooks? Evan is flabbergasted: “You think I would waste pencil lead on pornography?” Grandma Huang points her finger at a different culprit: Emery’s zodiac year, which brings misfortune. Based on the awkward phase most 12-year-olds go through, sure, fine, whatever. I guess blaming the heavens is preferable to the Huang kids learning some forced lesson about appreciating each other. But it feels unsatisfying to leave Emery stranded in the Suck Zone that is now his life, with nothing to do but raise his fists to the stars for all his bad luck.
Best ’90s reference: N/A
Worst ’90s reference: All of them, sadly. This episode name-checked E.R., Murphy Brown, Dolly Parton, and O.J. Simpson, and with the first three, the show made the late-Simpsons mistake of believing an allusion and a joke are the same thing. We’re not gonna laugh just because a character mentions a blast from the past. As for the O.J. joke, Jessica telling Eddie that he doesn’t want her eldest son to “marry a white girl, become a Hertz pitch man, and then kill [his] wife because [he] lost [his] mind from all the concussions” veers a little too close for my comfort to excusing domestic violence of the most horrific degree, as if football took away Simpson’s ability to distinguish right from wrong when it comes to the partner he battered for years. I hold Fresh Off the Boat to a higher standard because it has done and can do better. And also because I want more of Jessica rolling her eyes at ’90s junk, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or as she refers to them in her indelible dismissal, “karate frogs who eat pizza in a sewer.”