Asian Americans can be a fickle and cynical bunch. There’ve been times when I tried to get some to support the rare movie that prominently featured Asian Americans and they’d say they were going to watch the latest Tom Cruise film instead. When we finally got a television show featuring an Asian American family (“All-American Girl”), they’d nitpick it to death with comments like “That’s not the kind of rice we eat” or “That’s not the kind of ornaments we’ve have at our dinner table.”
Truthfully, I wanted to wring their necks.
But last week Wednesday, Feb. 4, was a totally different — dare I say, uplifting —experience where so many from our community demonstrated how much they cared about the premiere of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” Some 1,400-1,500 people braved the elements to show up for a community screening in New York that could only handle 1,000. At least 300 showed up for the one at JANM for the 200 seats.
They could’ve stayed home and watched it on their TV sets or electronic devices. But they wanted to be part of history, something larger than themselves, and they wanted to celebrate it together.
As the East Coast broadcasts aired three hours ahead of the West Coast, many sent their comments into cyberspace. #FreshOffTheBoat became the fourth most popular hashtag. It gradually moved up to #3, #2, until the show aired on the West Coast and finally dethroned #BrianWilliamMisremembers.
As much as I’m a cynic of tweeting (especially live tweeting; what, this generation has such a severe case of ADD that it has to be reminded a show’s on every second or it’ll forget the airdate they were told for a whole week?), I joined in reminding people of the upcoming 8:30 and 9:30 preview episodes and tweeted and re-tweeted during the broadcasts.
It felt great to be part of a nationwide Asian American community that gave a damn about the first Asian American family sitcom in 20 years.
The reviews leading up to the first episodes were encouraging. Both Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety called it one of the best new shows of the season. Time said, “The result is a show with more voice after three episodes than most sitcoms have after three years.” Wow!
Then again, Robert Rorke of The New York Post complained about “the exaggerated and predictable weirdness of all white people” and predicted, “The show’s view of Caucasians is certainly not going to entice anyone to stick around for Episode 2.” (To which I felt like repeating executive producer Nahnatchka Khan’s Entertainment Weekly comeback to whites who’re offended by their portrayal: “Go back to running the free world!”)
Uh, but it did. The 8:30 episode’s 2.5 rating in the cherished 18-49 demographic and 7.9 million total viewers beat the audience of its lead-in, “The Middle” (2.2), and was a 9% improvement over its regular timeslot-holder “The Goldbergs.” And the 9:30 episode following “Modern Family” held pretty solidly with a 2.3 rating and 7.5 million total viewers, the former rating a 20% increase over the last new episode of that slot’s usual resident, “Black-ish.” It also beat the black family sitcom’s last four episodes.
If that wasn’t enough, there was further good news with the release of the DVR+3 numbers (those who recorded the show and watched it within three days): The first episode jumped 32% to a 3.3 rating and 9.8 million viewers while the second one improved from 2.4 to 3.1 and 7.5 million to 9.4 million. For all new network comedies in the 2014-2015 season, “FOTB” had the second highest debut, right after “Black-ish,” which has already been renewed for a full season.
OK so far, but the real test came on Tuesday when it moved into its regular timeslot of 8 p.m. — the same spot on the schedule that doomed “Selfie” — against “NCIS,” “Parks and Recreation” (replacing “The Voice”), “Master Chef Junior” and “The Flash.” In another déjà vu move, ABC decided to broadcast two new back-to-back episodes in that hour (when the network did that with “Selfie,” the ratings didn’t improve, and they cancelled it!).
ABC’s marketing was confusing, because all the billboards and ads on buses promoted the Tuesday 8 p.m. “premiere” and not the previous Wednesday’s “previews.” But I hoped people would still remember to tune in at that regular timeslot. Well, the first episode brought a 1.7 rating and 6 million overall viewers and the second actually improved to a 1.8 and 5.8 million.
I’m disappointed with the 18-49 numbers (because traditionally, they fall in subsequent weeks and when you get below 1.5, you’re on shaky ground), but the sitcom did beat its competition except for “NCIS,” can claim to be Tuesday’s most popular comedy, and (in the 18-49 demo) had the third and fourth most watched episodes of the night.
Let’s talk about some of the issues FOTB’s taken on so far. In the pilot episode, a black classmate calls 11-year-old Eddie Huang “chink.” The entire cafeteria goes silent and stares. It’s clear to the audience that it’s a taboo word and his classmates can’t believe the guy used it. In the next scene, Eddie’s waiting outside the principal’s office slouched in an “I’m in trouble again and my mom never supports me” posture while his parents are told Eddie kicked the kid in the groin area, shoved pudding in his face, and swore at him.
Jessica Huang tells the principal, “We are very upset… that you didn’t do anything to defend Eddie!”
Louis Huang: “That boy called our son a ‘chink!’ You think that’s OK? How come you didn’t do anything about that?!”
When the principal says Eddie’s in danger of being suspended, Jessica angrily warns him, “If you try to suspend our son because of this, we will sue everyone in this school!”
I watched this at an ABC-sponsored pre-screening in June, and as Eddie smiled and sat up, so did I. I felt a sense of pride welling up inside my chest because finally, we were fighting back against a terrible racial slur. For once, someone in a television show or movie took a strong stance against it. It felt like, “We’re not gonna take this sh*t anymore! We don’t have to!”
That moment alone was worth every Asian American watching that episode. To tackle such an important subject like that was MAJOR.
There’s interracial “dating.” The first day of school, middle son Emery is already holding hands with a white girl, whom he calls his girlfriend. In the third episode, he shows up to the annual block party with black and Latina girls. Eddie exclaims, “You have two dates?!” They try to be supportive of each other, the black girl explains. “You’d think it’d be an issue,” the Latina continues, “but it’s not!” I burst out laughing.
The Tiger Mom and Chinese as penny-pinchers. OK, this made me feel uncomfortable because parents who push their kids too far to do well academically piss me off, as do cheap people. But at least we saw a balance in the end where Jessica goes out of her way to help her husband maintain his belief in the general goodness of people after three kids skip out on their bill even after he kindly asked them not to because it would hurt his family financially.
Asian youth identifying with hip-hop culture. As Eddie tries to strut his stuff in front of the trophy wife of a neighbor, his mom asks, “What happened to your leg?!”
If there’s one thing that caused me to go, “Wait a minute!” it’s the 16-second theme song. It sounds like the guys from “South Park” doing their accented Chinese restaurateur’s mocking voice singing the title of the show over and over again over loud music. Created by African American Danny Brown, I’m assuming he did the voice too. OK, Eddie Huang (the 32-year-old adult, not the character in the show), how’s this reclaiming the term “fresh off the boat” if a black guy’s doing it? Isn’t this a continuation of the putdown?
The second and third episodes ran out of order. So maybe that accounts for the lack of follow-up on subplots like Eddie’s relationship with the black kid and his being smitten with the trophy wife’s stepdaughter Nicole (who shows she has more attitude than him by giving him the finger at the end of the third episode; I loved it! Thankfully, she returns next week). I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.
As many have attested, Asian Americans are used to not getting their hopes up too high with shows that star people from their community. Because we’ve been so disappointed in the past. It would be great for FOTB to be such a ratings winner that we don’t have to worry about it week-to-week. So we can just lie back and watch it like any other sitcom and either conclude, “That was funny!” or “Eh, not so great this week” without having to worry about the impact on its numbers the morning after.
Reminder/Personal Appearance Department: I’ll be addressing the Greater Los Angeles JACL chapter this Sunday, Feb. 15, at 2 p.m. at Merit Park Recreation Hall (58 Merit Park Drive) in Gardena. I rarely get the chance to talk about both the musical (Casey Kasem, Dick Clark) and activist (redress, MANAA) parts of my life, so this should be interesting. For more info, contact Louise Sakamoto at (310) 327-3169 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.