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Fresh off the Boat: Representation of Asians and minorities in the American TV Landscape

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Fresh Off the Boat, the new family comedy based on the memoirs of chef Eddie Huang, has been officially announced during last weeks upfronts and will be coming to ABC this Fall. To the best of my knowledge this is the first “Asian” show to grace the networks since All-American Family with Margaret Cho in 1994. That’s twenty freaking years people! Now I’ve already seen multiple accusations of this pilot, saying the humor is steeped in Asian stereotypes. And to those I say kind of, but… Yes, the trailer uses foreign accents and the hilarity of smelly ethnic food as comic fodder, and like all humor it depends on the joke, context, and receiver (viewer) if it can be considered funny without being offensive. And if the entirety of this series was based on the jokes of that three minute trailer, I’d be concerned. But comedic pilots are a tricky beast, one thats damned near impossible to pull of. (Seriously. Cramming loads of exposition, character introductions, and comedy into 22 minutes is just not right.) With the network TV model no pilot is guaranteed to air* so comedies will tend to go big and broad with its humor, and unfortunately when race is involved broad often equals stereotyping.

Hopefully Off the Boat becomes a bit more nuanced when it can flesh out the characters, situations, and tone. And yet, since this is based on one persons experiences, who are we to judge anything as producing stereotypes? I mean its his life! And such is the life for a POC (person of color) in the public sphere, as like it or (mostly likely) not, you unwittingly become a representative for your race.  Which makes ABC’s pilot pickup’s even more interesting. Besides FOTB, they also picked up Black-ish, and Cristela, family comedies with a raced based premise. Almost sounds like ABC realized its demographic of suburban white women over 40 wasn’t cutting it, so now they may be literally throwing out race cards – “Blacks! Asians! Hispanics! come on down! Have we got a show for you.” – Hypothetical ABC Exec.

Whatever the networks intention I applaud the effort as since watching K-Dramas its become ever more evident how lacking American media is when it comes to Asian and minority representation. All this to say I truly hope this show succeeds. It already has a stellar cast with promising newbie Hudson Yang as Eddie**, Randall Park (who is great as the military vet turned politician in Veep), the gap-tooth wonder that is Paul Sheer, and Mumblecore director Lynn Shelton. We’ll see how everything shakes out this fall, with the ultimate bar for success probably being The Cosby Show blueprint. To go from a premise about a successful African-American family, to its lasting legacy about a family, who happens to be African-American.  Whatever the outcome, at least POC actors will have a chance at some upcoming roles come September.

* Oh pilot season. It’s times like these where I remember why I watch hardly any of your content. The American network format is wiggity, wiggity, wiggity wack.

**I was getting some serious Answer Me 1997 flashbacks at the beginning of this trailer with all the 90’s hip-hop references.

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