Fresh Off the Boat Is About to Dock

The business case for making an Asian-American show is simple: Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, they earn and spend more than the average American and they are overrepresented in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. But if the case were really so strong, surely two decades would not have passed without some network making a bid for this audience.

ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom loosely based on inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s memoir about growing up with Taiwanese parents in Florida premieres tonight. It’s the first Asian-American sitcom on TV in 20 years (!!!!!!!!!!), so people’s expectations are high, especially since there’s already been a slew of pre-show chatter regarding Huang’s personal frustrations with the show, mainly that it doesn’t really resemble its source work — -his life — -any more.

Luckily, early reports say the show is actually quite good. Last week, I had dinner with a friend, and we were lamenting the near-complete dearth of Asians on TV. It made me think of the first time Huang saw the commercial for Fresh Off the Boat:

My friend Rocky was staying at the crib and missed the commercial, so I played it back.

“Ninja, we made it.”

“YOU made it.”

“Nah, son, WE MADE IT.”

“I ain’t never seen anything like this. I don’t know what to say. I knew it was coming, but…son…YOU GOT ASIANS ON TV!”

On one hand: yes, absolutely, there’s certainly something to celebrate when you’re the first person to get someone who looks like you on a mainstream sitcom in twenty years, and I’m not surprised that Huang’s friend was so appreciative. But I’ve also come away from reading the coverage of the show with the feeling that various showrunners believe that Huang should be happy with what he has — -sure, your vision was compromised in carrying out your idea for a TV show, and your childhood was palliated to make the story more palatable for white people, but we got Asians on TV!!!! Isn’t that what matters??

Theres’s one thing at the center all of the top-down talk about bringing more diversity to media: just make it so that white people are ok with it. Diversity for the sake of white people’s comfort isn’t exactly diversity, is it? I’m sick of seeing people of color have to sacrifice and compromise their visions at the expense of just being able to get into the room.

My only hope is that Huang lets Hollywood have its way at the beginning to secure an audience, and makes the show more his own as time goes on.

[NYTM, Vulture]

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