It gets a little sticky when family sitcoms decide to tackle current affairs as complicated, nuanced, and nightmarish as the current state of American politics. Constrained by the half-hour format, issues like undocumented immigration are plopped out in bullet points and sound bites that detract from the subject’s seriousness. “Citizen Jessica” pokes at the edges of the immigration debate, but it doesn’t really add much. I applaud the attempt, but I was less than pleased by the result.
Just like in the real world, it is almost Election Day on Fresh Off the Boat. Cattleman’s Ranch is a polling place for the 1996 general election between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. Louis is extremely excited to vote because everything excites him. Evan wants to shill for Bob Dole, Emery has a masterful command of what the electoral college actually is, and Eddie can only think about who killed Tupac. As for Jessica, well … are you even surprised that she couldn’t care less about this election?
Eddie and his friends spend the entire episode arguing over whether or not Biggie killed Tupac. They nearly end their friendship over it: None of them can agree on whether Tupac is alive or dead because of Suge Knight. While Eddie pouts, Grandma Huang rolls in to dispense some wisdom. Armed with a new clue that should definitely break the case wide open, Eddie gathers his friends in the AV room for a screening of the “Toss It Up” video, released after Tupac’s death. The evidence, of course, is that Tupac is wearing sneakers that weren’t even released when he was alive. Done! Great. They’re friends again. How easy was that?
Meanwhile, here’s the incident that spawned Jessica’s political awakening: She sold her first McMansion and netted a huge commission, but as noted real-estate rival Raoul Ruiz informs her, that bonus means she will lose money in taxes. She jumped tax brackets, so she’ll owe a lot more on that dollar amount. And if there’s one thing Jessica Huang hates, it’s losing money. She also apparently hates the scourge of undocumented immigration, but we’ll get to that doozy in a second. When she tells Louis about this development, he gently encourages her to vote.
Of course, Jessica doesn’t want to vote. But she’s moved to do so after viewing a nice roundup of vintage campaign ads, including one for Prop 187, an infamous California ballot initiative that targeted undocumented immigrants, barring them from non-emergency services like health care and public education, while also establishing a state-run citizenship screening program that encouraged Californians to report undocumented immigrants to the authorities. The fake politician Jack Clovis who supports this proposition also proposes a wall at the border, much like the orange-skinned jerk running for president right now! It’s a fearmongering tactic, according to Louis, but Jessica only sees a cost-saving measure without actually understanding the ideology behind it.
The seeds of political dissent planted in Jessica’s mind by Prop 187 bloom into xenophobic flowers when she considers the case of Hector, a cook at Cattleman’s. Hector spends a considerable amount of money on things like exhaust pipes for his fancy street-racing car. How does he afford it? He doesn’t pay taxes, thanks to a technique learned from a Wesley Snipes business seminar. Jessica is on it. She’s immediately suspicious of Hector, even though he has a Social Security number.
Did you suspect Jessica Huang would be the Schmonald Drumpf of this family? The Prop 187 signs that she’s plastered all over Cattleman’s confirm as much. At this point, Louis tries to talk some sense into her. Prop 187 is anti-immigrant; Jessica is an immigrant. Also, those signs are a polling violation and will certainly have to come down. Her argument is that she’s a legal immigrant. She didn’t jump a line to get ahead. She waited her turn, so she thinks everyone else should wait theirs, too. Hector stages a peaceful anti–Prop 187 protest that gets busted up because Jessica calls INS. In the impromptu sweep, guess what? There were two illegal immigrants at that rally: Hector and Jessica.
Jessica’s green card expired and she has to apply for a new one, but she didn’t realize that she needed to keep renewing it. “Permanent” resident should mean actually permanent, not something you have to re-up like Amazon Prime. In almost every episode of Fresh Off the Boat, Jessica’s hubris ends up biting her and she finds herself humbled by the end. This week, however, felt particularly hard to watch. The process to gain citizenship is full of traumatic interrogations, as if they’re trying to catch you in a lie. There’s very expensive paperwork, a very expensive test, and honestly, what difference will it make in Jessica’s everyday life?
Here’s where the show gets explainer-y. Louis launches into a speech about gray areas, Pilgrims (the first undocumented immigrants!), and how the issue of immigration is too complex to be reduced to a sound bite. EVEN THOUGH THAT’S WHAT HE’S DOING. At the end of the day, though, everything works out. Jessica and Hector speak to an immigration lawyer; he’s going to get his status straightened out and Jessica’s going to apply for citizenship. She wants to vote! And she also wants to be on Wheel of Fortune. That’s the real American dream.
+25 “I Voted!” stickers for Jessica’s ambivalence about citizenship and her very real concerns about how the process is confusing and intimidating, and can seem like more trouble than it’s worth.