After last night’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat aired, Eddie Huang, the restaurateur whose life and book “inspired” the ABC sitcom, sounded off against the show on Twitter. He said he didn’t watch the show, and that after the pilot (which he was ambivalent about), it veered “so far from the truth,” he didn’t recognize his own life. He sees the ABC show as a watered-down, anemic version of his raw memoir. It’s a tempting argument: Who better to judge the authenticity of this show than the person it’s supposedly based on?
Throughout his career, Huang has been concerned with the idea of authenticity. Remember his conversation with Francis Lam about appropriation in cooking? Or the time he slammed Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant Red Rooster? The ABC show is yet another instance of misappropriation — only this time, it’s a highly personal one. By scrubbing away the violence of his upbringing, ABC made his life unreal.
Indeed, few of us can imagine what it would be like to see our lives adapted to screen, but where Huang missteps is how he conflates the cannibalization of his personal life with a broader critique of the show. The tweet where he says, “I don’t think it is helping us to perpetuate an artificial representation of Asian American lives and we should address it” is telling because it suggests that there is something authentic to represent. Yes, Fresh Off the Boat is glossy and artificial, but so is every other network sitcom. This is not a problem of content so much as a problem of the medium: If you have a show on ABC, it’s going to be an ABC show.
But the fact is, we should expect more. In a New York Times Magazine profile on Huang, Wesley Yang begins by asking him, “What did you expect?” It’s a practical question, but also a jaded one. Huang’s fiery idealism dismisses existing structures and forces the question: How do we make it better, more real, more “true”? The lives of Asian-American immigrants are often marked by struggle, and the point is that we should be seeing more of that on television, not less. Yes, even on broadcast networks.