The '90s Asian Sitcom That Shows How Far We Haven't Come
Though they're separated by decades, TV's two Asian-American family sitcoms have a lot in common. For one thing, their subjects don't like them.
"You're not going to become actors," Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) scoffed last night on Fresh Off the Boat. She had just learned that her two younger sons had parts in the school play and, in her typical iron-fisted fashion, was prepared to squash the slightest hint of artistic insurrection in her children.
"You think they're going to put two Chinese boys on TV?" she asked Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen). "Maybe if there's a nerdy friend or a magical thing where someone wanders into a Chinatown, but no." Lessons would be eventually learned by the various family members about loosening up, teamwork, and Taiwanese-style basketball. But then, over the credits, the Huangs gathered in front of the television. It was playing All-American Girl, Margaret Cho's sitcom about her Korean-American family in San Francisco. "So, no Asians on TV?" Emery countered.
Jessica was wrong about her sons' acting prospects — but just barely. In 1995, the year Fresh Off the Boat is set, All-American Girl was limping to the end of an initially ballyhooed but ultimately single season. As the first Asian-American family sitcom, some sort of acknowledgement of All-American Girl on Fresh Off the Boat was all but requisite. Cho's series is Fresh Off the Boat's clear predecessor — down to the network, ABC. But using All-American Girl as a triumphant punch line requires an even more selective memory than the already nostalgic Fresh Off the Boat has previously demonstrated.
There's no denying that All-American Girl was a milestone. But it also managed to please pretty much no one during its 19-episode run. Not an Asian-American community starved for representation and wary of stale stereotypes. Not the larger viewing public, which trickled away in spite of the network's desperate revamps. And least of all its star and co-creator, Cho, who dubbed it Saved by the Gong. All-American Girl's cancelation hardly signaled an end to the casting of Asian actors, but it wasn't until 2014 that another series centered on an Asian-American family. You think they're going to put two Chinese boys on TV, Emery? Sure — it'll just take two decades, so settle in and bring some snacks.
Fresh Off the Boat is smarter, funnier, and more cohesive than All-American Girl, which was a terminally '90s, laugh track–laden affair. Its family-friendly morals were so bafflingly conservative that, in one episode, Cho's character was shamed out of the stand-up career for which Cho was famous in real life. But while All-American Girl is now known mostly as trivia — the first, discarded practice pancake before a series of shapelier and more satisfying follow-ups — its basic elements are exactly the same as Fresh Off the Boat.
Both series are family comedies filtered through rebellious, Americanized offspring (Cho as Margaret Kim and Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang) whose choices and cultural references bewilder their first-generation parents — Margaret with her alternative rock and Eddie with his hip-hop. The rest of the characters fall into parallel types. There are the strict but caring tiger moms (Jodi Long and Wu), the mild-mannered small business owner dads (Clyde Kusatsu and Randall Park), the wacky grandmothers (Amy Hill and Lucille Soong), and the model sons (B. D. Wong, Wheeler, and Chen) who stand in contrast to their troublemaking siblings. More disconcertingly, both series have been disavowed by the people on whose lives they're supposedly based. Cho and Eddie Huang — whose 2013 memoir is the basis for Fresh Off the Boat — publicly said ABC's interference had turned their personal experiences into something unfamiliar.
All network sitcoms are commercial products built on compromise, and producers, writers, and actors come and go. But it's jarring when talents whose identities form the premise of these shows — and their self-referential back-patting — speak out against them. When shows make a selling point of breaking representational ground, they have an added responsibility to be authentic. Yet the subjects of the only two Asian-American family comedies on network television — not counting Pat Morita's flicker of a Happy Days spin-off Mr. T and Tina — can't stand them.
Cho has been frank about her feelings about All-American Girl. "It was immature and unfunny, and playing an overgrown, oversize teenager was not my forte," she wrote in her 2002 memoir I'm the One That I Want. The show's version of Margaret was a giddy, fun-loving girl who sulked but accepted her lessons whenever things didn't go her way. During the same period in her real life, Cho was trying to get over a crystal meth addiction and living in her parents' basement because her father had banned her from the rest of the house. "All-American Girl was so far away from being me it was ridiculous," she wrote.
Huang has been jostling against Fresh Off the Boat since before its premiere. It's striking, given that he does the Wonder Years-style voiceover for every episode. He penned a searing article in New York magazine about how he wanted the show to be Married With Chinese People but got "a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane."
Last week on Twitter he revealed he doesn't watch the show. "I'm happy people of color are able to see a reflection of themselves through #FreshOffTheBoat on @ABCNetwork but I don't recognize it," he tweeted. "It got so far from the truth that I don't recognize my own life."
Because All-American Girl and Fresh Off the Boat are broad, mainstream sitcoms, complaints from Cho and Huang generate a certain amount of savvy eye-rolling: Well, what did you expect to get from these deals, The Sopranos? And both shows — in spite of their racial makeup — blend in with the rest of ABC's lineup, then and now. All-American Girl could have been part of TGIF when it started (until it was abruptly and oddly transformed into a Friends knockoff in its final episode) and Fresh Off the Boat is precisely the kind of single-camera comedy ABC's gotten very good at, with The Middle and The Goldbergs and Black-ish. Theses series are sharply observed but gentle in tone, affirming that in some ways, all happy families really are alike — even though their inspirations were anything but.
The commercial demands of network television turned Cho from a bawdy, substance-abusing high school dropout turned comedian into a girl whose rowdiness is mostly expressed through how often she changes her college major. It turned Huang from a rageful brawler whose former gangster father beat him into a round-faced boy whose love of hip-hop is suburban-kid-cute and not, as Huang's insisted, born out of a genuine sense of connection in oppression and pain. It did what it does to all standard sitcoms premises — smoothed them out until they had the proper proportion of "aw" moments to humor and could be the basis of stories that could be neatly wrapped up in 22 minutes.
But in a media landscape where Asian-American characters still get sorely shortchanged on screen — where they've spent decades being depicted as demure, desexed, passive, humorless, compulsively hardworking, clueless, or, best case scenario, exotic — that smoothing over is a little tougher to take. Cho and Huang aren't just funny people with distinctive voices. They're big, disorderly personalities who defy model minority expectations and stereotypes. They love their families, but also have seriously complicated relationships with them that these shows soften into generational clashes. They're not the kind of people we've seen in TV series before. The characters they inspired — the flaky party girl and the rascally kid — are. They're just, for a change, Asian.
It's still nice to see the Huang family on screen every Tuesday, part of primetime's slow diversification. But aspiring future thespians Emery and Evan deserve a shot at more subversive roles.