Five years ago, shortly before the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat,” events at a press conference for the show demonstrated exactly why it was so important it made it on the air.
An alleged journalist told the show’s stars and producers, “I love the Asian culture.” And then she asked whether we’d be seeing chopsticks and fortune cookies on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
My head nearly exploded. It was at the Television Critics Association press tour; I was TCA president at the time; and racist questions were being asked by someone who was not a member of TCA. The stars and cast tried to laugh it off, but they were clearly unhappy. I was furious.
I went to ABC’s then-head of publicity and raised a stink about the network admitting “journalists” who had not been vetted by TCA — and, in this case, asking racist questions, which reflected badly on the association.
To their credit, ABC publicists told the “Fresh Off the Boat” stars and producers as they exited the stage that the questions did not come from a TCA member. And that TCA wasn’t happy about what happened.
I was disgusted, but not altogether surprised. Asians had been so poorly represented on television that some people’s only point of reference was chopsticks and fortune cookies. (And, by the way, fortune cookies originated in California.)
“Fresh Off the Boat” became the first (and, to date, only) successful American network TV series that featured a primarily Asian cast. Lots of shows feature actors of Asian descent; few have given us an Asian American family. “Fresh” was the first to make it on the air in 20 years, since the failure of Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl.”
In a lot of ways, “Fresh Off the Boat” is the opposite of groundbreaking. It’s a fairly typical sitcom about a nuclear family — mom, dad and their three boys. (Don’t get me wrong. Creator/executive producer Nannatchka Khan and her team turned out a funny, charming show that has been consistently entertaining.)
But while there have been lots of successful sitcoms about white families, black families and even a few about Hispanic families, there’d never been one about Asian Americans. And that lack of representation — diversity isn’t just about blacks and Hispanics — made Asian Americans invisible on TV.
“Fresh Off the Boat” followed Chinese immigrants Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Wong (Constance Wu) as they moved from Washington, D.C., to suburban Orlando in 1995 with their sons Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen). Louis and Jessica wanted their own part of the American dream; the boys — particularly rebellious Eddie — were just American kids.
Louis’s mother, Jenny (Lucille Soong), spoke primarily in Mandarin and was subtitled, and Louis and Jessica often recalled immigrating from Taiwan. And the fact that they are Chinese American has been a major and continuing plot line — beginning with the first episode, when a classmate throws an Asian slur at Eddie. (The two boys later became friends.)
But they are also a family pretty much like every other family. Because, you know, Asian Americans are Americans.
“Fresh Off the Boat” ends its six-season run with episodes 115 and 116 on Friday (7 and 7:30 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4), and it’s hard to say it’s too soon. The show had a good run, and it will live on in syndication.
But for a little show, it did a big thing. It proved that Americans will watch a show with an Asian American cast. It may have opened doors for “Dr. Ken” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” And it didn’t do it by ignoring the ethnicity of the cast but by playing to it.
In the 7 p.m. episode, Emery suggests that the teacher who taught him and Evan might have been racist. “The first song he taught us was ‘Chopsticks,’” Emery says. “Does that not bother you?”
The big question now is whether we’ll see other shows with Asian leads. Right now, we’ve got “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” on Comedy Central, and Sandra Oh returns in Season 3 of “Killing Eve” on April 26 on AMC and BBC America.
There need to be more.