Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is not the new ‘All-American Girl’

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ABC announced earlier today that it has picked-up new comedy series Fresh Off the Boat for its fall line-up. Based on the popular memoir by Taiwanese American chef Eddie Huang, the show centers around a Chinese immigrant family’s life in suburban Orlando. And as many in the Asian American community have pointed out, this is the first network series centering around an Asian American family in two decades since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl also premiered on ABC back in 1994.

The comparisons between the two shows have already begun and I’m here to say—can we please stop with that? Because if we’ve learned any lesson from All-American Girl is that we should not treat this new show like All-American Girl.

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For those who weren’t there or don’t remember, here’s the Cliff Notes refresher course on what happened with All-American Girl: Margaret Cho is awarded her sitcom and immediately becomes the “great yellow hope”—all the dreams and aspirations of the community regarding mainstream representation are foisted squarely on her shoulders. The show debuts and just as immediately is attacked by many in the community for being culturally inauthentic/not being “Asian or Korean American” enough. Ultimately the intense criticism coupled with declining ratings kills the show after about a dozen-and-a-half episodes.

As I acknowledged when I wrote about All-American Girl for the Los Angeles Times back in 1994, the show definitely could have been better, but it also represented a missed opportunity for the community. There was a way to offer constructive criticism of what was legitimately problematic about the series while still showing support. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened—the negative reaction was harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving and, as Margaret acknowledged in her book I’m the One that I Want, contributed to the program’s ultimate fate.

As a young writer back then, I had done a number of interviews with Margaret around the time of All-American Girl and she was fully aware of the show’s problems, but also fully confident that given time and support, she could do something about it. Like Roseanne Barr–who starred in the popular sitcom Roseanne (also on ABC) and initially had minimal creative control over her own show, but was able assert more of her own comedic voice over time—Margaret felt she could eventually bring more of her comedic sensibility to All-American Girl. But alas, she never got that chance.

Now, I’ve already started reading things on social media about how Fresh Off the Boat is a huge watershed moment for Asian Americans and what it means to the community. And I get that—this is significant. But let’s also not forget that it’s just one show and to once again place all the hopes and aspirations of our community on its shoulders is unfair—it’s a series that stars an Asian American family, but I don’t think anyone associated with the show is working under the expectation that it represents all Asian American families. I’m excited about the show and, with talented peeps like our friend Randall Park involved, I hope it’s awesome and succeeds, but if it doesn’t—it’ll just be one of many, many programs with good intentions that doesn’t work out for whatever reason. It doesn’t spell failure or doom and gloom for the Asian American community and to place such weight on it would be…so 1994.

Because here’s the other reason why we can’t really compare Fresh Off the Boat to All-American Girl: it’s twenty years later and the TV landscape is a vastly different place than it was in the mid-1990s. Yes, as Asian Americans we still have a long way to go toward anything resembling “real” representation, but TV is no longer the cultural wasteland it was when All-American Girl premiered.

Who would’ve imagined seeing this on prime-time network TV back in 1994:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

And the Girlfriend Experience Well, uh, nevermind that last one, but you get the point.

And if we’re celebrating the pick-up of Fresh Off the Boat as a pivotal moment, we should also celebrate the other new series pick-ups with Asians in lead roles as similar milestones. While there are a number of TV series on the big four networks with Asians in the cast, very rarely are they the leads—in fact, with the cancellation of the CW’s Nikita starring Maggie Q, there is exactly one prime-time network series with an Asian lead at this moment–The Mindy Project (on cable, we also have Steve Byrne in Sullivan and Son). But not only do we have one, but at least three that I’m aware of (and all roles not written as Asian) for the new season:

John Cho as the male lead in ABC’s modern take on Pygmalion, Selfies.

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The aforementioned Maggie Q as the female lead in the CBS procedural, Stalker.

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And British South Asian Elyes Gabel as the male lead in my fellow Offender Justin Lin’s CBS drama, Scorpion.

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And that doesn’t include other Asian Americans in interesting supporting roles like Kal Penn in Battle Creek and Asian Canadian newcomer Jadyn Wong who also appears in Scorpion (and of course, a shoutout to my fellow Offender Sung Kang who appears on FOX’s Gang Related premiering May 22).

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We’re no longer living in a time where we need to place all of our expectations on one show. So let’s show our support, but whether Fresh Off the Boat succeeds or fails, whether John Cho or Maggie Q’s series succeeds or fails, there will be more to come. And some of those shows will also succeed and some will also fail, but none of them will impede the steady progress we’ve been making for the past twenty years.

UPDATE (5/13) Your first look at the series:

Check out these related blogs:

Six Pre-21st Century American TV Series with Asians in Lead Roles (12/15/2013)

Where are the Asian American Stars? Just Turn on Your TV… (12/26/2009)

An Open Letter to TV Writers on How to Write Your ‘Chinatown’ Episode (11/24/2009)

Advice for People Who Want to Take My Job (4/12/2010)

14 thoughts on “Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is not the new ‘All-American Girl’

  1. I think Far East Orlando (I’m being realistic here, it’s not going to be called Fresh Off The Boat) is going to fail because there’s nothing about it that will set it apart from the other family sitcoms. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a huge hit because urban/minority families latched onto it… heck, even poor white kids loved it. But my understanding is they want it to be more like “Modern Family”, which isn’t bad, but if it’s in the same vein, then it’s just throwing the dog a bone and making Modern Family: Asian Edition. At least Louie seems to know how to capture the spirit of “Asian” authenticity and he had to fly across the ocean, and if just for a brief moment. It wouldn’t seem patronizing.

  2. Hey Phillip – thanks for the great take! My post on FOTB/FEO may be one of the ones you’re talking about, and I definitely just wanted to chime in and say that I agree with you in regards to not over-selling the “landmark-ness” of FOTB. I think it’s worth pointing out that the failure of AAG pretty much doomed any new AAPI family sitcom from appearing on-air for two decades, and that it is definitely interesting to see our community get “a second chance” at that show genre.

    However, I definitely also agree with you that placing too much emphasis on one show will probably doom it. I think it’s important to bring FOTB to air to give it as equal a chance to succeed or fail as any other show, but I really appreciated your comment in ’94 (hence I quoted it) about the show not being “all things to all people”.

  3. As much as I’ve been known to rail against Hollywood when it comes to it’s portrayals of Asians, it’s cool hearing about these new shows and hope they’re a success.

  4. You forgot to mention Steven Yeun, a major cast member of The Walking Dead. :)

  5. Hey Aileen, Philip has blogged before that he thinks Steven Yeun’s character on WD is the best Asian American male on tv, but think in this case since he’s writing about the broadcast networks, WD wouldn’t apply because it’s on cable plus Andrew Lincoln is the lead in that show, Steven is one of the supporting characters though a very good one.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Philip. I concur that FOTB cannot be, and we should all resist thinking of it as, THE Asian American family sitcom. That family is going to be nothing like the vast majority of Asian American families and it cannot represent all of us. But what makes it potentially groundbreaking is its sensibility. At least based on a draft of the pilot script that I read, it depicts incidents and characters that will be familiar to a lot of Asian Americans but which we have never before seen on network TV (e.g., white tourists speaking English slowly to us and surprised that we are fluent; embarrassment at opening our lunch box at school and taking out “weird” food that our mother packed for us; trying sometimes painfully to fit in; navigating between being fully American while still acknowledging/honoring our heritage).

    Not only is FOTB very different right from the outset from AAG; it is 20 years later and Asian Americans dominate the social media space. Assuming the series if as good as i hope it will be, FOTB will be a test for whether we can use social media to help promote the show and encourage other mainstream media outlets to cater to us.

    Finally, thanks Philip for pointing out that we have made progress in the past decade or so. I’m weary of folks who still complain that Asian Americans are still invisible on TV. True, we can always ask for more starring roles and more complete back stories of Asian American characters, etc. but to fail to acknowledge the substantial increase in representation in prime time is just silly.

  7. Because racist whiteys love hacking sites to squelch asian-americans’ freedom of speech, I’m back on this site in the same way one has to resort to 7-11 when a Hokkaido buffet is closed. Of the shows listed above, none of those really count except maybe for John Cho’s. DDK is more of a background prop to remind viewers that the show might be taking place in Hawaii. Plus, DDK isn’t anyone any woman fawns over.

    Of course I would love for FOTB to do well but it’s f’d from the very start. The lead guy is only going to appeal to fat old white men who think asian men should only be a goofy looking stereotype. The AF is ok. Some white anti-asian viewer will complain and make racist remarks about how there are 3 sons because asian girls are so devalued in asian cultures. There are no hot AMs or AFs to root for as there have been in every white-dominant show (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, Modern Family, etc.). Are we going to see repeating themes of misunderstood situations like those in “I Love Lucy” as a result of the “fobby” element?

    When it comes to asian-american portrayals, I’d like to see broadcast network shows catch up to the times already executed much more proficiently on certain youtube channels.

    I’ll give the show a try and support it if I see it’s headed in the right direction.

  8. First off, I want to state that I hope this series takes off and becomes a wildly successful sitcom that employs tons of APIAs. It’s definitely a progressive move on the networks to take a gamble like this.

    Also, no show or movie should have to shoulder “the burden” of being representative of a ‘community’ with hundreds of languages and separate cultures – as Mr Chung have often wrote in his “those weirdo Japanese/Chinese are so crazy and unlike the dignified Coreans!”

    With that out of the way, why is the logic here of if a show/movie shouldn’t “represent all of the community” but in the very next sentence also states/insinuates that Asians should be giving it unabashed support without any dissenting opinion or nitpicking it whatsoever?

    If East Asians/South Asians/Pacific Islanders are such diverse cultures and even within cultures we all have divergent opinions (as people should), why aren’t we allowed to say something if we don’t like it?

    It seems to be the constant yomyomf/Quentin Lee argument here: “I have Asians so you must support it regardless of the type of content because it’s art and I’m an artist who’s above reproach.”

    This is exactly the problem with CAPE, EWP and even Daniel Mayeda’s coalition sometimes: don’t bite the hand that feeds you corporate hush money. If something is racist, then it’s racist regardless of how many actors, writers and directors are being hired. And face it, even in this list the leads are more Asian women than men – for obvious reasons…

    Mr Mayeda wrote “to fail to acknowledge the substantial increase in representation in prime time is just silly.”

    And I say, to fail to acknowledge the type of portrayals that are often racist in context (killing off hordes of AM by the AF for the WM fantasy) is just plain apologist.

    Going with Razorek’s food analogy, it’s like the US government’s feeding people fast food with EBTs and saying “you can’t complain about being hungry when there’s such a glut of food available in this great country” – but in reality it’s insidiously killing off the population and keepnig them lethargic so as to not demand real and meaningful changes to the government and banking corruptions.

  9. I think I was too young to really know about All-American Girl, but I’m excited for Fresh Off the Boat (or whatever they decide to call it) and hope that it does well. The trailer seemed decently funny (“What this store so excited about?”) and at least it’s based on something an actual Asian American created.

    I also want to say that Sandra Oh deserves major props as an Asian actress. She’s a lead in an ensemble cast for Grey’s Anatomy, and she is a lot of people’s favorite thing about that show. She’s been doing amazing work, both there and in movies, for a long time. And I don’t think she’s done yet. ;)

    There’s also Ming-Na in Agents of SHIELD (which I don’t watch, but I hear she’s one of the few highlights..) along with halfie Chloe Bennet, also in that show, and halfie Kristin Kreuk in the CW’s Arrow.

    Small gains, but ones that feel significant to this halfie!

  10. Pingback: What’s in a Name? Apparently Everything If You’re Asian on Network TV | You Offend Me You Offend My Family

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