Photo: Jordin Althaus/ABC
There’s been a lot to praise when it comes to Fresh Off the Boat, but one thing that I have yet to mention in these recaps is the admirable attention to ‘90s detail. The 1990s are a tricky decade to portray on television — just look at how quickly Fox’s Surviving Jack was axed — because it simultaneously feels so far away and is also pretty recent, or at least recent enough that viewers of Fresh can scrutinize everything about the sitcom period piece.
The problem with ‘90s nostalgia is that it veers too much into simplistic “Remember this?” territory, rather than actually getting into detail about why it mattered and what it meant to those of us who experienced it (even if just for a few years). What Fresh Off the Boat does right, at least in “Fajita Man,” is it puts a ‘90s relic at the center of the episode but doesn’t fall back on cloying references; instead, it uses it as something tangential, a set piece in a much bigger story.
That relic is Shaq Fu, a Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo game that rocked every kid gamer’s world in the fall of ’94. It’s an utterly ridiculous game — it’s a Mortal Kombat–esque fighting game featuring Shaquille O’Neal as some sort of karate savant — but it was something that everyone wanted. It’s just a shame it turned out to be pretty awful. But poor quality aside, it’s a perfect game for Eddie to want in Fresh Off the Boat. (I’m not sure if the inclusion of Shaq Fu is a decision from the writers’ room or from Eddie Huang himself; I don’t recall it being mentioned in the memoir, but my memory could be wrong.) It’s everything that interests Eddie: video games, basketball, black culture, and fighting. And of course, his friends want it, too. Unfortunately, the game costs $50, which is about $50 more than Eddie has and $50 more than his parents are willing to give him.
It doesn’t help that his mom, Jessica, is currently not working (her stint at the restaurant was short-lived because she annoyed the customers) and is penny-pinching, so much so that she refuses to turn on the air conditioner in the Huang household during an Orlando heatwave. Instead, she has her three sons hang out in the frozen-food aisle of a supermarket to cool down. Her job search isn’t going too great because, in her own words, “No one seems to appreciate how I’m good at everything I do.” (Which is true for both the Jessica character and Constance Wu as an actress.) She also has a unique approach to job hunting in that she doesn’t just reply to Help Wanted ads but barges into a furniture store that has a questionable promotion going on, assuming that they must be in need of management, and confidently states her qualifications and salary requirements. Somehow, it doesn’t work.
Jessica has a great B plot, though, as she finds a clever way to get the boys free air conditioning while continuing her job search: She plants herself on the couch of a house for sale, effectively irritating the realtors. But, in a sitcom-y but surprisingly fun twist (mostly due to Constance Wu’s always-flawless delivery), Jessica lucks her way into a job by accidentally proving that she’s basically the best realtor ever.
But back to Eddie’s dilemma. When his parents don’t just offer up the money, and when Louis becomes worried that his son is going to become entitled and believe that he can just get games/money whenever he wants without any hard work, Louis decides that it’s time for Eddie to get a job. Sure, he’s only 11, but as Louis explains to his son, “When your grandfather was 11, he had three kids … As I’m saying that, I realize I’m exaggerating.” Eddie goes to work at Cattleman’s just in time for Louis newest business venture: fajitas, which are basically “an edible Ikea chair!”
Louis believes that his job, as a father, is to teach his sons the value of hard work and therefore teach them the value of a dollar. He puts Eddie to work and, to his credit, the kid hustles his ass off at the restaurant until his fajita game is tight, even predicting customers demands for “more sizzle!” as his glowing father looks on proudly. Similar to other episodes of Fresh, “Fajita Man” doesn’t employ a particularly groundbreaking plot (we’ve seen plenty of sitcom children enter the workforce at the request — or demand — of their parents), but it’s a plot that completely works for the show right now. Louis and Jessica are ensuring that their children are both assimilated into America but also not too comfortable that they lose their ideals and become, say, as entitled as Eddie’s classmate, whose mother is not only paying for Shaq Fu but also willing to drive hours to a different town just to get it a few days earlier. (The brilliant kicker: He ends up with a video-game version of 9 to 5. The even more brilliant kicker: This game is better than Shaq Fu.) As Louis says, there are no handouts in the Huang family.
This story line also works because it ends with a compromise of sorts. When Eddie realizes that he only got $18 at the end of the week — his pay was docked for spilled food and broken plates — and that he still can’t buy Shaq Fu after a whole week of work, he doesn’t go to his next shift. Louis wants to push Eddie harder and show him what it’s like to be a hard worker, even though he’s only 11, but his mother reminds him that Louis’s own father did the same thing and that’s why the two of them had a sad and frustrating relationship. So Louis compromises by giving Eddie the money, and Eddie decides that he doesn’t want a handout and would rather work for the money … but oops, he already bought the game. I like the note that the episode ended on: Eddie working to get the game back from his father and the entire family celebrating Jessica’s new job. It’s a win for everyone.
- This episode’s Constance Wu Moment: Her reaction to Cathy comics: “I keep getting distracted by the misfortunes of Cathy. None of those swimsuits are right, Cathy. None of them.”
- Evan and Emery are definitely in the running for cutest siblings on television, perhaps tied with Jack and Diane on Black-ish, and I love their dinner conversation about their future interests.
- Another small detail I liked: Grandma Huang disapprovingly looking at her nails.
- “What’s a pimp?” “Your Mommy, that’s who!” Constance Wu dancing is amazing.