Fresh Off the Boat’s second and third seasons each launched with a family trip: The Huangs cheapskated their way around Gator World at the start of the show’s sophomore year and discovered in Taiwan just how American they are 12 months later. After giving up their McMansion and a cookie-cutter version of the American Dream in the season-three finale, the family are in no position for another trip. And so the furthest they travel is “Hotel Honey,” next door to their old house, where they take over Honey’s living room while talking the world’s nicest man out of the home he just moved into.
The Huangs could resume their old life pretty much immediately if Jessica would settle for paying the same amount of rent that they had before. But her prolonged negotiations with the landlord are aided by a twist of fate: She’s going to be on Wheel of Fortune! The scene in which Jessica and Grandma Huang scream at each other for a length that feels both way too long and exceedingly perfect is easily the premiere’s best moment. (Constance Wu’s comic timing is a marvel, y’all.) Wheel’s Best Friends Week is an obvious ploy to get a frustrated Honey to join Jessica on the game show, have the BFFs fight onstage, and make up via a culture lesson. (Long story short: Jessica feels it’s okay to take advantage of Honey’s hospitality without expressing gratitude, because she’s family). It’s far from the most interesting story line between Jessica and Honey, in large part because I just didn’t believe that Jessica, who called homelessness her worst nightmare, would willingly stay in someone else’s home for so long. At least the Wheel of Fortune plot shows us how Jessica sees herself: “horror novelist and real-estate mogul.” Also, I would totally watch a TLC docuseries about best friendships that fell apart under the lights of nationally televised game shows.
Kicked out of private school before he even enrolled, Evan gives himself the task of getting through St. Orlando’s summer reading list in an effort to keep up with the city’s one percent. But Nicole’s Baby-Sitters Club books beckon: “Read us, Evan. We’re light and fun.” (I can attest from my own childhood experience that Claudia, Mary Anne, and the rest of the gang were indeed a ’90s Tiger Mom’s most formidable nemeses.) Evan’s resolve melts like Velveeta in a microwave; some trash is just irresistible. I look forward to the future episode about Evan’s Christopher Pike addiction.
Fresh Off the Boat hasn’t figured out how to make Emory interesting in a while, and this premiere was yet another example of that. Giving Emory a birdhouse to make with Louis felt like more filler for the neglected middle child. Still, the gag that they accidentally made a haunted birdhouse was well done. (Did the ghost from the McMansion follow them?)
The show’s celebrity guests, especially the ones who play themselves, have traditionally melded into the show with the subtlety of a purple jelly bean in a bowl of rice. (The Shaq episode might in fact be the series’ worst.) The sitcom works best when it hews close to its own slightly skewed suburban reality, so the introduction of Michael Bolton (sans his infamous ’90s mullet) as Louis’s silent partner was one of the last season’s most head-scratching developments. Distractingly, the famous guest stars no longer look the way they did in their heyday two decades ago — that goes for Pat Sajak and Vanna White too — adding yet another layer of unreality to the proceedings.
The Bolton B-plot continues to pay off zero dividends as Louis loses control of Cattleman’s Ranch (now renamed Michael Bolton’s Cattleman’s Ranch) to the fickle singer. The restaurant is fuller than it’s ever been — and patrons are quick to applaud when Bolton asks Louis to lean on him in full vibrato — but Papa Huang is probably indulging his middle son a bit too much by ignoring his busy beeper. Before Louis gets a say, Bolton has sold off his shares of the restaurant to Kenny Rogers. (Please sound off in the comments: Was Kenny Rogers Roasters any good? And has anyone tried the franchise’s food in Malaysia, where dozens of locations continue to flourish?)
Eddie started Fresh Off the Boat isolated from everyone at school, and the conclusion of season three brought him back to that same lonely place by forcing him to start school having alienated all of his friends. (To recap, he got mad and called them “losers” when they decided without him to not get pizza slices tattooed on their 14-year-old bodies. The five pizza-slice tats were supposed to come together to create a whole pie, because teenage-boy logic.)
Smartly, the show slow burns that inevitable reunion by having Eddie’s friends still phase him out, forcing him to spend more time (and fall back into crush mode) with Nicole. He’s torn between his first unrequited love and his absent girlfriend Alison. “What do you do if two girls like you?” Eddie asks the least grudge-holding of his friends. “I don’t understand the question,” dorky Dave replies. A decidedly un-pimpin’ Eddie finally blurts out to Nicole on what he thinks is their date that he’s staying loyal to his boo, and the older teen responds that she thinks she’s into girls. He feels awkward because he’s read Nicole’s signals wrong once again; she feels awkward because it’s the first time she’s ever expressed her possible lesbianism aloud to anyone. (Judging from the Contact jokes, the premiere takes place during the summer of 1997. In the Fresh Off the Boat world, Ellen DeGeneres would have had her character come out on her eponymous sitcom just a few of weeks before.) Flustered and embarrassed after Nicole’s confession, Eddie flees the parked car that she had driven them both home in. Then he comes back — and is ready to hear whatever Nicole has to say about herself.
Eddie has always been a boys’ boy, the flyest guy at the nerd table. Perhaps because of its openly gay showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, Fresh Off the Boat has always embraced queerness in its depiction of a progressive (and sanitized) Asian America. Nicole is such a minor character that it’s totally possible that her sexual identity will never come up again. But it was still heartwarming to see Eddie demonstrate real growth by finally putting someone else’s needs ahead of his own. The boy’s got some man in him now.
Best ’90s reference: Maybe I’m biased, but The Baby-Sitters Club came close to taking this title. (Speaking of, future doctor-president Evan’s favorite BSC member has to be bossy, go-getting Kristy, right?) But I’m gonna give this initial crown to Nicole’s white scrunchie, that pseudo-virginal, dirt-collecting madeleine of the Clinton era.
Worst ’90s reference: Randall Park does a great Tim Allen impersonation, but the faster we forget Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor and his testicle-scratching grunts ever existed, the better off we’ll be as a species.