Fresh Off the Boat hits its stride when it snatches the treacly, tearjerking tropes of family sitcoms and hands them all to Constance Wu and her impeccable comic timing on a silver platter. In the capable hands of the writers and actors on the show, the same stories — growing up and realizing that your parents don’t always know best — feel fresh. Watching the same old shit through a different lens is what makes people laugh. And then it makes them cry.
Last week’s episode set an overarching story line in motion: The kids are growing up. Everyone learns a lesson — there’s always a lesson, whether you like it or not — but the method isn’t hackneyed or clunky. It’s a cute little chunk of television, as delicious as a fluffy barbecue pork bun.
Eddie and his boys have finally earned valuable protection in the form of hot neighbor Nicole. Never mind that she’s repeating eighth grade. The hulking eighth-graders that terrorize Eddie and his friends are scared into submission by Nicole’s mere presence and her sharp suburban cool. The lunch table is now a safe space for everything from Continental Airline teddy bears to glasses to kilts. Nicole’s not just Eddie’s friend who he might try to kiss one day, she’s cultural cachet.
Not even Nicole can save Eddie from his mother, who is insistent that her son take piccolo lessons for his fifth-period elective. This does not sit well. Who looks good playing piccolo? It’s a tiny flute. Nicole, on the other hand, needs a tutor, and when the egg-shaped British man running the joint assumes that Eddie’s her tutor, he goes along with it. Ten points for Eddie: He wiggles out of his woodwind obligation and gets to sit in a room with his crush while she draws the Wu-Tang Clan logo on his hand.
Jessica wants none of this tutoring nonsense — it’s one step down from a teacher, which is essentially the last stop on the life train before homelessness. Eddie wants nothing to do with the piccolo. He raises his voice. He puts his foot down. He tells her no. Really, Eddie? You’re gonna try that? Have you met your mother? Try as you might, she’s going to find a way to bring you back to that tiny metal tube, just you wait.
The way she parents on the show is brilliant — a dialed-down tiger mom with just enough teeth to keep the kids on edge. Her “because I said so” method of parenting is the same reason my sisters and I took everything from art classes to karate lessons to piano. We didn’t want to do any of that, but we did it because our mom said so, and because she was always, somehow, right. That’s just how it works. Defy that divine edict, and you might not be long for this world.
As a person, Jessica is growing in teensy increments. This week, she’s coming to terms with the fact that her children — excuse me, her pawns — are going to grow up and start doing stuff she has no control over. This is a reality that never occurred to her. It’s thrown into sharp relief when Honey reveals her parenting tactics during book club: She treats her stepdaughter like a friend. In fact, she’s terrified of her surly teen girl and bends to her every desire because what the hell else are you supposed to do?
Not one to respond to reason, Jessica presses on. Eddie’s insistence on tutoring is nothing more than a particularly vexing equation to be solved. If this is what he wants to do, she’ll make it so bad for him that he actually wants to play the goddamn piccolo. Sidling up to the teacher in charge, and doing what my mother calls “showing her charm,” she appeals to his, um, sensitivity toward Asian culture — peep that pic of his Chinese wife! — by trotting out a fake Chinese parable, the tale of Zong Dingbo, to get him to bend the rules and make an exception. If Eddie wants to tutor, he’s going to actually tutor. Her plan works. Eddie’s alone time with Nicole is gone, and his thunder is stolen by a super-tall transfer student who wows Nicole with a chill Beavis impression and steals her away. Jessica wins this round, but what she’s left with is a mopey kid who can only sit in his room listening to “End of the Road” on repeat while the Wu-Tang logo on his hand fades, much like their love.
What of Papa Huang and the two best child-actors on television? Louis is realizing that his little angels are growing up. They refuse his good-bye hugs in the morning and are starting to live their own lives. Disheartened by this development, Louis focuses his energies elsewhere, dreaming of a little girl, a princess who will cherish him forever. Like any normal man, he communicates his desire by papering the house with calendars of babies dressed as vegetables, hoping that the vision of a tiny baby Photoshopped into a head of Napa cabbage will reopen Jessica’s shop, long since closed for business. Emery and Evan catch wind of this and fly into a panic. A baby girl will steal their younger-child thunder. We certainly can’t have that.
Nevertheless, lessons must be learned. Everyone has their own personal come-to-Jesus at the dinner table, during a sing-along to “End of the Road” that made me yelp in delight. Louis will never have a girl, but he’s good with that. Eddie is experiencing heartbreak for the very first time. And Jessica realizes that it’s okay to be a little bit of a friend to your kid. She shows some sympathy to Eddie and he starts to see his mom as more of a real person, not just an irascible woman who says no all the time. Besides, piccolo really isn’t that bad, especially when there’s a cute girl playing the melody to “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” in the band room.
+infinity for the Huang family motto: “Because I said so!”
+10 for this line, which neatly explains why your Asian mother is the way she is: “Why are Americans so obsessed with being friends with their children? I have no children friends.”
+10 for Zong Dingbo.
+5 because Eddie has to play piccolo to snatch up those sweet unclaimed marching-band scholarships.
+25 and rising for the lazy Susan on the Huang’s kitchen table, but …
-10 for eating their dinner off of plates. Plates are not an efficient vehicle for rice!