“Fresh Off the Boat” will end its six-year run on ABC this Friday, ending an era for both the show’s cast and creators and the Asian American families who saw themselves reflected on primetime for the first time. When the 90s-era family sitcom pilot premiered in 2015, it was celebrated for being the first network show with a predominantly Asian American cast in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All American Girl” hit the airwaves in the actual 1990s.
But much nervousness also surrounded the show, which premiered with a provocative pilot featuring main character rap-loving middle schooler Eddie Huang navigating through a new school in Orlando, Florida and getting bullied by a Black student. Would the show accurately portray a Taiwanese immigrant family? Would the storylines resonate with non-Asian audiences? And perhaps most importantly, would the show get renewed or would it cause another 20-year dry spell for Asian Americans on network TV?
“We realized very quickly, we are not making a show about everyone’s family,” says executive producer Melvin Mar, who spoke at CAAMFest San Jose in 2015. “It was a specific family that was inspired by Eddie’s book and then every writer, actor, and crew member that brought their experiences and stories with them.”
For audiences at home, “Fresh Off the Boat”created a rare opportunity for families to sit down and watch television together. Nelson Wong, creator of the now-shuttered entertainment website AARisings.org, says he watched nearly all the episodes with his 13-year old daughter. “She figured out on her own that seeing people that looked like her and the family around her was important even without my input,” says Wong. “She has grown up with the kids on ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and even follows them on Instagram.”
That power of seeing a familiar face on screen is echoed by many Asian American parents. Actress (most recently seen on John Mulaney’s “The Sack Lunch Bunch”) and Fairy Princess Diaries blogger Erin Quill says that her six-year old son discovered the show while home sick and watched it all day. “Episode after episode,” she recalls. “And when I asked him why later, he said, ‘Because they look like me. They look like my family.’”
Some families even made exceptions to their no-TV rules. For former Los Angeles news anchor Angela Chee, “Fresh Off the Boat” was the first primetime network show she allowed her kids to watch. “It also had a deeper meaning for us. We talked about how being reflected matters,” says Chee, whose kids are now 10 and 11. “I shared how when I was growing up there weren’t shows like this or people like me on TV except for Connie Chung–which is of the main reasons I went into TV news.”
Over the seasons, the sitcom introduced the wider audience to such Asian American references such as a fighting over paying the bill at a restaurant, the Asian glow that results from drinking alcohol, and even the “success perm” (although that one may have been more of a writer’s room invention). Intertwined with those cultural touchstones were more typical plotlines involving teenage crushes, dad Louis Huang’s steakhouse and mom Jessica Huang’s odd couple friendship with their next door neighbor.
But as expected for a show as rare and far-reaching as “Fresh Off the Boat”, not everyone was thoroughly pleased. Some parents appreciated the opportunities to see Asians on TV, but not the content. “We enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the snarky behavior of the kids in the show,” says Kristina Kanemoto of San Jose. “I felt like it was encouraging my son to behave like that.”
Other parents, like SheHeroes co-founder Sophia Yen, loved the show, especially the episodes where the characters visited Taiwan, but has hopes for future series. “We are sad to see it go and hope that there will be more Asian-American family sitcoms coming,” says Yen. “And more with girls!”
However, the show that billed itself as the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family has drawn some criticisms from the Taiwanese American community–especially those who have advocated for an identity separate from the post Communist Revolution Chinese diaspora. “I’m thinking about a scene where Eddie brings a PRC flag to a school presentation on his family heritage ,” says Catherine Chou, Assistant Professor of History at Grinnell College. “I think Asian-Americans community leaders are responsible for some unfortunate erasure of Taiwanese history and identity and ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was no exception.”
The show’s success came with some growing pains. The original Eddie Huang, restauranteur and author of the memoir that lent its name and premise to “Fresh Off the Boat”, was one of the earliest critics–distancing himself from the production towards the end of the first season.
Actress Constance Wu, who plays the blunt mom Jessica Huang, brought an equally bold presence to social media during the show’s early days, speaking out for Asian American representation and becoming the target of online harassment. She now prefers to spend less time on social media.
“I’ve found that real world, face-to-face engagement is more effective in terms of understanding folks and being understood,” Wu says. “Whether it’s in a meeting with an executive, or negotiating contracts with a studio, or at a party, or my involvement with behind-the-camera hiring decisions, political campaigning, or even in a dive bar, I am way more outspoken about representation in those settings than I ever was before.”
Ultimately, “Fresh Off the Boat” inarguably proved to network executives that Asian American stories were not only relevant — but bankable. During its first season, the producers dreamed that they could keep the show running long enough to write stories about the kids learning to drive and taking SATs. Those story lines have been played out on the screen; oldest son Eddie (Hudson Yang) seems to have grown two feet, Emory (Forrest Wheeler) has a new, deeper voice, and youngest brother Evan (Ian Chen) is hanging on to the last traces of his round cheeks.
“To have a show like ours build a solid fanbase and go six seasons lets the industry know that there is an audience out there willing to invest in our stories,” says Randall Park, who also directs the show’s final episode. “And that audience isn’t just Asian Americans.”
The titles of Friday night’s back-to-back episodes suggest a sense of closure: “Family Van” portrays how parents Jessica and Louis deal with the breakdown of their trusted minivan, and “Commencement” focuses on Jessica grappling with her purpose in life as her sons move towards independence.
The wrap of “Fresh Off the Boat” is simply the end of the show, but it has paved the way for more diverse programming. In the years since the Huang family hit the airwaves, audiences have seen the rise of Asian American TV programs such as “Kim’s Convenience”, “Master of None”, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, and box office hits such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell”. Many careers have been launched by “Fresh Off the Boat”. Ali Wong moved from being in the writer’s room to getting her own Netflix comedy specials and movie, “Always Be My Maybe”, which she co-starred in with Park. Showrunner Nanatchka Khan directed the movie. “In the last six years, I think visibility for artists has a changed, something I’m very happy about,” reflects Mar, who is in development for a pilot of a new comedy featuring an immigrant family.
Park says he does “get stopped on the street a lot more nowadays, but people are always kind and supportive, so it’s not really a burden.” He is currently currently shooting a show called “Wandavision” for Marvel Studios, playing Detective Jimmy Woo (from “Ant Man and The Wasp”) and has tarted a production company called Imminent Collision with Hieu Ho and Michael Golamco.
As “Fresh Off the Boat” draws to an end, Asian American viewers have many more options to see themselves reflected on screen than anyone could have imagined six years ago. “I love that my kids get to grow up with representation,” says Stephanie Huang Porter, a Sacramento mother of two teenage girls. “We can’t wait to watch ‘To All the Boys’ tonight once they finish homework. I never saw an Asian girl the star of her own romance. My girls get to have that! I’m so grateful.”
Updated 10:50 pm, February 20, 2020 with comments from Randall Park.