Fresh Off the Boat Recap: Rap vs. Grunge

Jessica’s sister Connie, her husband Steve, and their son Justin come to town. Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC

Two things show prosperity — Lemon trees and perms — and the Huang family has both. Although it’s still early in the show’s run, Fresh Off the Boat is already whipping out the sitcom tropes: a visit from relatives, sibling rivalry, and an old-fashioned competition between two nemeses. “Success Perm” deals with these tropes deftly, not exactly subverting them but still remaining clever and interesting enough to avoid feeling stale.

In “Success Perm,” the Huangs are visited by Jessica’s sister Connie, her husband Steve (who constantly competes with Louis), their son Justin (whom Eddie admires), and Jessica’s mother. Jessica and Louis go to extremes to make their house and their lives seem much better than they really are by getting fake lemon trees, pouring Pert shampoo into Pert Plus bottles (I love this detail, very era-appropriate), and even purposely hiding change under the couch cushions just in case someone happens to dig through them. And of course the Huang parents get matching perms, which, according to older Eddie’s narration, is a sign of wealth and success in the Asian-American community. (Constance Wu pulls her off, but Randall Park? Not so much.)

There’s a lot of history to be explored here, and Fresh Off the Boat successfully uses characterization to succinctly sum up the sisters’ entire lives together. Jessica and Connie have been in an unending competition to best each other at every turn, whether they are fighting to see who can save the most money while shopping or fighting to be their mother’s favorite daughter. Jessica and Connie are also experts in the art of passive-aggressive conversational tactics, requiring the series to humorously translate through subtitles (my favorite: As the sisters are laughing, a subtitle pops up saying, “Not Laughing”).

Louis and Steve’s relationship is pretty similar, with the two also locked in a long competition about who has more money or the best gadgets — so much so that Steve drives the entire way down to Florida (13 hours!) separately from the rest of his family just so he can show off his Miata. Louis shows off his fax machine; Steve one-ups him by bringing over his “internet computer” so he can check on his business’s website. This leads to my favorite gag of the night, mostly because of the frustrating familiarity: The men stand around forever listening to dial-up noises, impatiently waiting for the computer to connect to the internet.

While both of these rivalries are done well (Jessica’s more than Louis’s, since it’s much more personal), the best story line of the night once again belongs to Eddie. He’s excited to see his cousin Justin, the friend who first introduced Eddie to the world of hip-hop. It’s a simplistic but masterful scene with Justin playing Eddie N.W.A. for the first time and therefore essentially changing Eddie’s life forever. It doesn’t matter if Justin is only a few months older because when you’re a kid, those few months mean everything. Eddie looks up to Justin the way that most people look up to older siblings or cousins, itching to be just like them but also itching to impress them. Eddie has such a simple, primal desire: He wants Justin to think he’s cool. So when Justin comes to visit, Eddie is practically bursting with excitement to show Justin how much his knowledge of hip-hop has expanded.

The conflict of the A-plot, however, is that kids go through phases so quickly that it’s hard to keep track, and it can leave other kids feeling left out in the cold when they aren’t caught up on what’s “cool” anymore. When Eddie last saw Justin, they were both hip-hop-heads. Now, suddenly (and seemingly overnight to Eddie), Justin is a full-blown grunge freak, complete with a Nirvana tee and a flannel shirt that resembles a picnic blanket. “It reflects how I feel on the inside,” Justin explains in monotone. When Eddie breaks out his Tupac CD, Justin waves it off and plays Eddie some grunge instead. It’s both heartbreaking and confusing for Eddie to see that he and his cousin no longer share the same interest that bonded them together in the first place. Plus, and this is devastating for an 11-year-old, it means Justin thinks of Eddie not as a cool peer but as a child who just doesn’t get the emotional nuances of grunge (or who doesn’t understand why Justin wants to move to Seattle).

This story line is a perfect example of the type of plot that showcases why shows like Fresh Off the Boat (and ABC’s other wonderful and wonderfully diverse hit black-ish) work so well, and why they resonate with large swaths of people. Fresh is a show about race that often remarks upon the specificities of existing within one ethnic group (such as the numerous references to the status symbols that exist within the Asian-American community), but it is also a show that includes universal feelings that anyone can relate to, such as Eddie’s feeling left out and left behind.

What’s also interesting in this episode is the juxtaposition between “Success Perm” and “The Shunning.” Last night’s first episode focused on Eddie and Jessica’s alienation from the larger world around them (his classmates, her neighbors), while the second episode tackled these same alienated feelings on a smaller scale: Their family. Jessica’s mother is dealing with feelings of abandonment, which leads to her basically shunning her own daughter, refusing to acknowledge her existence, and instead doting on and complimenting Connie. Jessica isn’t used to feeling second-best and continually tries to get back into her mother’s good graces. Similarly, Eddie, who has been struggling to fit in at school, could really use his cousin’s visit as a reprieve from the isolation plaguing him with his peers, but it only serves to transfer that isolation from peer to family — and he doesn’t exactly get a redeeming ending.

As for the Huang parents, they have a somewhat satisfying, albeit super-sitcom-y, ending when they learn that Connie and Steve aren’t as well off as they’ve been claiming to be. It turns out that Steve is way behind in payments on his (used) car and the family is in debt. All of the adults are pulling the same juvenile stunt even though they are all on the same level. “Success Perm” ends on a sweet note, with Jessica and Connie acting more like sisters than enemies.

Other notes:

  • This episode’s Constance Wu Moment: Her sickeningly sweet smile and tone while thinking, You can sleep outside with the rest of the crocodiles.
  • Eddie’s shirts in this episode are particularly on point: Mobb Deep, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan. Also, his Rugrats shirt was the best.
  • There was a cute runner throughout the episode wherein Jessica’s mother and Grandma Huang become invested in the O.J. Simpson case, or, more specifically, the idea that O.J. Simpson is pulling an Andrew W.K. and switched places with a look-alike.
  • Great first-date conversation: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “Not anymore.”
  • I really loved the hyperspecific description of Mariah Carey: pre–Nick Cannon in the Washington Wizards dress. 
  • “I have my own baggage. Emotional.”

Fresh Off the Boat Recap: Success Perm