Fresh Off the Boat
Halloween brings out the best in Fresh Off the Boat. The show’s first Samhain-set episode, season two’s “Miracle on Dead Street,” is one of the series’ best half-hours. It established Jessica’s distaste for trick-or-treating, or, as she calls it in a classic line, “begging for candy in disguise to hide your shame.” That episode also introduced Louis’s desperate need to make his family love Halloween as much as he does, a theme continued in season three’s solid, if less dazzling, “Louisween,” in which Papa Huang tries to get his Stephen King-worshipping wife to enjoy some classic suburban spookery.
Between excellent and pretty good lies “It’s a Plastic Pumpkin, Louis Huang,” Fresh Off the Boat’s third Halloween outing. As can be expected, Jessica sits the night out — “It’s a subpar holiday,” she intones — and Eddie is more interested in trying to get into a seniors’ party with his friends than in handing out candy to little kids with his dad. The Emery Suck Zone strikes again, condemning the middle child to his room and producing the episode’s weakest storyline by far. (Actor Forrest Wheeler pulls off a surprisingly adept Cosmo Kramer impersonation opening doors around the house, though.) And so Papa Huang hopes to persuade his youngest, Evan, into joining him in celebrating Halloween, Louis-style.
Meanwhile, Evan has other ideas. The baby of the family takes after his mother — or, as Jessica enumerates, he gets from her his efficiency, beauty, speedy gait, and porcelain skin. He asserts the superiority of the plastic singing jack-o’-lantern that he bought at the store over the gourds Louis so cheerfully haggled for. Evan also would much rather spend Halloween at a grown-up party at his HOA frenemy Deirdre’s house, serving nonalcoholic cocktails and discussing the stock market, than indulge in kiddie feel-goodery that doesn’t much interest him.
Louis, on the other hand, hates adult small talk about diets and vacations and marriage problems. (DON’T WE ALL.) Evan’s precocity has served Fresh Off the Boat well — the only thing better than Jessica is the addition of a mini-Jessica — but it’s smart for the show’s writers to lament the traditional childhood that Evan denies himself. Louis attempts to drag Evan out of Deirdre’s party, but the middle-schooler insists that his father needs to accept him the way that he is. (Fittingly, the 11-going-on-40-year-old wears a bald wig while dressed as George Costanza.) Later, Papa Huang admits that the reason he works so hard to enjoy Halloween is because they didn’t have the holiday back in Taiwan. As Louis confessed back in season two, it’s “the one thing white people do better than us.”
Louis and Jessica have assimilated considerably since moving to Orlando, so it’s nice to see the Huang elders’ smugness return. Jessica dedicates her responsibility-free evening to writing the second chapter of her horror novel, A Case of a Knife to the Brain. Given that she was working on chapter one last year, the implied lack of progress foreshadows the writer’s block she’ll soon suffer. Jessica quickly gives up and joins Emery in listening to the strange sounds coming out of Grandma Huang’s closed door. A man’s voice invites mother and son into the elderly woman’s room, but Jenny swiftly corrects them: There’s no man, and she doesn’t want any company. Unless, that is, it’s the companionship of a quartet of apparent Transylvanians, who whisk the wheelchaired woman away into the night.
Emery and Jessica follow Grandma Huang to a mysterious building full of potions and tarot-reading, with The Exorcist score playing in the background. The boy thinks his grandmother has joined a coven, but Jessica’s pretty sure that the structure they find themselves in is far less magical. It used to be a strip club, since, as Jessica notes in the episode’s funniest observation, “Everything in Orlando used to be a strip club.” But Jenny disavows any connection to witchcraft: She’s just taking ESL classes. A slightly rueful Grandma Huang accuses her grandsons of speaking faster in English when they don’t want her to understand what they’re saying — which, by the way, is exactly the kind of cultural specificity I watch Fresh Off the Boat for — and so, in the classic, passive-aggressive, subtle-mind-control fashion not unknown to older Asian women, she decided to learn English behind her family’s back so she could understand her grandsons while hiding her ability to do so. (Still following?)
But Jenny is more transparent than she thinks. Emery immediately susses out that she has the hots for her ESL teacher, played by guest star George Takei in a thankless cameo. I hope it isn’t too much to hope for more appearances by the Asian-American Hollywood pioneer on Asian America’s most mainstream TV show.
Across the street from senior Sally Nelson’s house, Eddie and the gang carry out the “half-baked garbage” plan they hope will yield an invitation: Get dressed in costumes and “look hard.” (I know sitcoms love putting characters in wacky Halloween outfits, but wouldn’t high-school boys looking to impress act like they’re too cool for something associated with trick-or-treating children?) Dressed like Ice Cube from Friday, Eddie tries on unfeeling masculinity next to other emblems of manly intimidation: Chris Tucker’s Smokey from Friday, a death-row inmate, a Juggalo, and not so convincingly, Prince. (RIP, sweet, velvet-encased sex sprite from the skies.) The boys suffer through a Florida swelter in wigs and melting makeup, but their most obvious costume is their stoicism. It’s a lovely solace when the 14-year-olds decide, one by one, that they don’t need to play at performative toughness just yet. Walter leaves because Eddie decries his love of cuteness, as does Brian, from impatience, and Dave, from the heat. Only Eddie and Trent remain, but when the redhead does a too-believable impression of a future serial killer, the eldest Huang bolts. There’s being hard, and then there’s being smart enough to flee when everything in your body tells you to run.
Best ‘90s reference: Was 1997 the nineties-iest year of the nineties? The madeleines in this episode were evocative and cleverly utilized. It was heartening to see allusions to Daria, The Craft, Batman & Robin’s Poison Ivy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ April, Austin Powers, Scream, Pinky, and Brian-freaking-Boitano. And, of course, there’s the great descriptions from the off-brand costumes of the Seinfeld cast: Elaine (“Funny New York Woman”), Newman (“Disliked Footman”), Kramer (“Weird Neighbor”), and George (“Funny Bald Neighbor”). But I’m gonna give this round to MC Hammer’s “Addams Groove,” which, by the way, hit number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1991, because we apparently used to like our family-friendly rap real janky.
Worst ‘90s reference: A partygoer’s complaint about this newfangled DVD-delivery service called Netflix (a hopelessly ‘90s name) was a bit too clunky in an otherwise gleeful trip down memory lane.