‘Fresh off the Boat’ Review: ABC Serves Up Smart New Family Sitcom

Eddie Huang-inspired sitcom approaches family, race and culture in daring ways

Last Updated: February 4, 2015 @ 5:47 PM

The real American dream is achieving normalcy, an idyllic state of being that is filled with happiness and harmony that none of us — no matter the color of your skin or how much money you have — will ever really achieve.

The desire to seamlessly weave into the fabric of American life is one of the driving themes behind “Fresh off the Boat.” ABC’s delightfully honest, smart new comedy premieres Wednesday with two episodes in the network’s family-friendly mid-week lineup.

Told through the eyes of 11-year-old Eddie Huang, the show transports viewers back to 1995, when Eddie and his family move from Washington, D.C., to the homogenized suburbs of Orlando, Florida, in an attempt to fulfill their vision of normal.

Eddie’s dad Louis (played by the always-appealing Randall Park, “The Interview”) fearlessly uproots his wife, kids and mother in hopes that the new steakhouse he’s purchased will solidify his family’s finances and social status. Meanwhile, his wife Jessica (scene-stealer Constance Wu) cynically goes along with her husband’s lofty dreams despite the fact that her Taiwanese family and cultural nexus are back in D.C.

And no one suffers more than Eddie (charming newcomer Hudson Yang), a hip-hop–loving rebel who is more like his mom than his upbeat father and two younger brothers. Grappling with the desire to fit in and be himself — like most kids — Eddie clings to the music of Biggie Smalls and Nas, but at the same time, wants to take Lunchables to school instead of Asian noodles.

He wants to be liked by the students in his predominately white middle school, but he clumsily attempts to connect with one of the few minority kids in proximity, an equally ostracized and awkward black boy. In one of the show’s most unapologetic and heartbreaking scenes, it’s the little black child who is the most verbally racist.

Although viewers have seen this same first-generation dichotomy in movies such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and short-lived sitcoms like Margaret Cho‘s “All-American Girl,” the approach used on “Fresh off the Boat” is unique enough to help it really stand out.

More akin to “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Wonder Years” and “The Goldbergs” — celebrity chef Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the show, even narrates  — “Fresh off the Boat” uses hip-hop hits and pop-culture references to give the show an undeniably strong sense of place and personality with a Taiwanese-American viewpoint.

Intelligent writing plays a part, but the acting is even better. Most sitcoms can boast one or two likable stars, but Park, Wu and Yang, as well as Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler who costar as Eddie’s siblings Evan and Emery, respectively, are all wonderfully engaging and relatable.

Wu is especially dynamic as a woman of many talents and facets. Sure, she pushes her children to strive for academic excellence — as viewers will see in the second installment airing after “Modern Family” — Tiger-mom style, but she’s also affectionate, funny, enjoys singing and loves Stephen King books.

In other words, while there are those who have and will say “Fresh off the Boat” is too broad, stereotypical, or not edgy enough — this includes the real-life Huang who penned a pejorative essay and keeps doing negative interviews as if he wants the show to fail — that’s not entirely true.

It’s been 20 years since Cho’s bland, but well intentioned “All-American Girl” was canceled because it lacked a soul and ratings, and this is the first show with an all Asian-American cast since. But “Fresh off the Boat” has soul, flavor and an incredible cast.

Time will tell if the comedy finds the audience it richly deserves.

“Fresh off the Boat” debuts with two episodes on Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC and moves to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET beginning Feb. 10.