Identity has always been at the core of ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. When we left the Huang family at the end of season one, Jessica (real-estate agent, wife of Louis, mother of Eddie, Emery, and Evan, and beating heart of the show) was reeling from an attack of assimilation angst: Were modest financial success, a fondness for Melrose Place, and the convenience of Lunchables stripping her family of its Chinese identity?
In its first season, the same question was at stake for the entire show – could network TV dish up an authentic Chinese-American experience? The real Eddie Huang (on whose memoir the show is based) challenged the sitcom as not-Chinese-enough before it even launched, but ultimately, Fresh Off the Boat passed muster with enough Asian-American viewers (and Eddie showed enough Chinese pride) to make it to a second season.
In this year’s premiere, Fresh Off the Boat shows the confidence to double down on the question of identity, but in subtler and more ambiguous ways. Tuesday’s pilot pushes the question of how the Huangs identify within and apart from their family unit beyond their ethnicity and immigration status.
The episode begins on the last day of school in spring 1995 and takes us through summer vacation. Eddie and his posse of seventh-grade friends view summer vacation as a make-or-break opportunity to establish their coolness for eighth grade. The show displays its penchant for ‘90s specificity (Eddie is sure his status will be secured by his brand-new pair of Reebok Pumps) alongside a very 2015 sensibility (the boys’ “pics or it didn’t happen” ethos is informed by the age of the internet and Evan’s subsequent concern about his #brand is a joke written with Twitter in mind).
Eddie is so confident that his Pumps will mark him as “fresh as hell” that he spends the entire summer on the couch, watching TV, playing video games, and failing to acquire any anecdotes (or pics) that might burnish his cool bona fides come September. Then, as Labor Day approaches, disaster strikes. John Stockton is spotted wearing Pumps, and the verdict comes down from on high (courtesy of MTV VJ Ed Lover): “Give those to your dad or your white neighbor ‘cause they’re over.”
Evan, the youngest Huang, is struck with an identity crisis of his own when Jessica provides him with the spoils of back-to-school shopping (hand-me-downs from middle-child Emery in a new shopping bag). The imminent loss of his final baby tooth and his mother’s expectation that he wear shoes with laces (no more Velcro!) mean that Evan is losing his “Baby Evan” brand, and he’s not happy about it. “What does it matter,” he moans at one point. “Every step we take in our non-Velcro shoes is another step toward the grave.” (“Great!” his father replies, in a moment that is very on-brand for Louis Huang.)
As for image-obsessed Louis, he’s off for his annual franchise-owner conference, where he imagines the impression he’ll make on his peers: “Which one is Louis Huang? Ah, he’s the steakhouse owner in the sharkskin suit.” (“Or, he’s the Chinese one” is Jessica’s response; the Huangs’ otherness is not ignored, just deemphasized.) Of course, Louis’s business trip is really a secret vacation, much to the chagrin of his “Your job is a vacation from poverty” wife.
The entire family ends up piling into the minivan for a “family business trip” to a hotel adjacent to Gator World where Eddie hopes to acquire evidence of coolness (a ride on the “Death Roll” roller coaster), Evan hopes to regain his brand as the baby, Louis hopes to sneak off for beers in the hot tub, and Jessica hopes to maintain the most important aspect of her own identity – not being a sucker.
Not being a sucker and not being white are closely linked for Jessica. She turns up the air conditioner as high as it goes (it’s free), brings prepared meals in a cooler from home, and takes the kid on a ride on the amusement park’s free parking-lot shuttle rather than pay the exorbitant price of admission. When she realizes that Louis just wants to eat steak and drink beer, she challenges both his Chineseness and manliness at once — “Moving to the white suburbs has made you soft!” — but Louis gives as good as he takes — “Woman, I’ve been soft!” — and persuades her to relax, sort of.
Jessica lets down her guard and lets Louis take charge of the family while she gets a massage, leading, of course, to the family getting taken for suckers. She has to reassert herself to save the day (and fight back all the hidden charges the hotel tries to use to get them), coming up with a scheme that allows Evan to play the baby again. Meanwhile, Eddie chickens out on the roller coaster, but, in a sort of older-woman ex machina move, achieves coolness thanks to neighbor Nicole and a touch of honesty.
For a half-hour of television that includes no less than three awkward fits of laughter, a John Tesh joke and callback, and a deliciously awkward massage session, this episode packs a decent thematic punch. Here is an exploration of identity that is not just bestowed upon us by inherent characteristics (race, gender, age), but through our relations to one another. In the end, Louis realizes that his identity is entirely reliant on Jessica’s: “I can be me because I have you,” he admits.
It’s a moment that recalls a throwaway joke from the beginning of the episode. “What if you got a tattoo?” one of the seventh-grade boys asked. “No good, I might want to be Jewish someday,” another boy responds.
The joke sets us up for an exploration of identity as both mutable and permanent. We can choose certain markers of identity, but making one choice forecloses another. We can take a vacation, but we’re still stuck carrying the baggage of being ourselves.
Odds and Ends:
- “I would paint portraits, get a Saint Bernard, rebuild a muscle car.”
- “We will be using God’s towel, the sun.”
- “I don’t know how to relax. It seems like a waste of time. I could be marinating meat or driving.”
- “And that’s how I get you.”