“FOTB is my life” – How “Fresh Off the Boat” resonates with its audience

Posted by Miguel Santa Maria & filed under Identity, Pop Culture, Television.

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When Fresh Off The Boat first premiered on television sometime last year, it was considered a key moment for many Asian-American television audiences. It was the first time in two decades that a TV sitcom mainly focused on Asian-American family life. More importantly, it was successful enough with its premise to renew a second season.

With the new season premiering this Tuesday, now is an ideal time to look at how and why the show resonated with its audience, to earn that second run. These reactions not only determine what made the first season a solid show, but it clues us in to everyone’s expectations for this new season, which premiers Tuesday September 22 at 8:30/7:30c.

The most important consensus for the show, according to audiences – especially the demographic it’s concerned with – is it provides a tasteful and relatable portrayal of Asian-American families despite being a sitcom. This was relieving for most viewers, as the previous attempt on the premise was Margaret Cho’s All American Girl (1994) – a show criticized for its overtly-stereotypical portrayal of Asian-Americans.

Slate.com’s E. Alex Jung, describing his experience during a packed show premiere party last season, remarks that Asian-Americans around him, definitely found that relatability. This was to the point where one peer remarked that it was “literally how some of [them] grew up”. “Indeed, this is where Fresh Off the Boat succeeds,” Jung said. “It addresses Asian Americans as the viewer, first.”

Comments about how relatable the show is for the minorities, became clear in social media. In a BuzzFeed post that archived Twitter posts during the show’s premiere, it’s evident that it definitely strikes that specific chord with many. “Eddie from FOTB was me” one tweet says, “[The show] is my life story” in another.

Tastefulness and and an effort for respect was also a bonus as one reviewer suggests.
“[The show] doesn’t exactly reflect the hyper-specifics of Huang’s childhood and experiences, [but] it has reflected larger parts of Asian-American culture and done so in a way that’s not condescending or pandering” said Pilot Viruet, in her review of the first season.

More importantly, the show proved to be genuinely funny – even with racial issues aside. Being a TV show first, this is essential as broader audience ratings are the priority for networks.

“This is a comedy first and foremost. The laughs can’t always come from the same source (like jokes about race),” said one review for The Hollywood Reporter. “[It] finds jokes in plenty of other, non-racial issues … that gives you confidence this is a show with legs.”

Taking in all these remarks, it’s easy to see what made this show “click” for many viewers. It’s comedy and entertainment value are exemplified by how identifiable it is, especially for American minorities. It is neither too stereotypical for viewers, nor is it too specific for a broader audience. Instead, it seems relatively accessible – whether or not people saw themselves in the shoes of the Huangs. In short, the show gave something for everyone.

Despite all these accolades, there are still those who hoped for something more -or just outright dissatisfied – with the show, especially with its core subject matter.

One writer for the Huffington Post admits that despite being entertained, she and her peers still found it dabbed in misrepresentation. This included forced themes or eye-rolling accents. In effect, the show still poses a risk of sending out the wrong messages.

“Fresh is not perfect, and we cannot expect it to be the show that depicts Asian-Americans,” she wrote. “Our experience as Americans, like everyone else’s, is varied, and to say that a single show can exemplify all our experiences, would be a disfavor.”

Eddie Huang himself, author of the original novel, explicitly expressed dissatisfaction with the show. Regretting selling the book rights, he found the poignancy of his Asian-American experiences neutered for the sake of comedy. For him, it proved that TV still has a long way in recognizing key issues coming from a minority standpoint.

“The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us,” Huang wrote. “Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak”

Overall, it is safe to say that when it comes to Season 2, audiences will expect the same formula that hooked them onto the show in the first place – that formula being the solid combination of identification and comedy. Given how much success that formula garnered for the first season, the new season is bound to stick to it. However, if Huang and other’s concerns are anything to go by, there is also an expectation that so much more can still be done for Asian-Americans’ on-screen representation.

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