As the first Asian American family sitcom on a “Big 5” network TV channel in twenty years, the mere existence of Fresh off the Boat has already classified the show as a leading pioneer for Asian American representation, despite the fact that the first two* does not air until February 4. The excitement over the show has garnered enormous online buzz, and television critics are generally positive about the pilot and the first few episodes they’ve seen.
Then in an unprecedented move, Eddie Huang, an executive producer of the show and the author of the memoir Fresh Off the Boat (which served as the source material for the show), wrote a piece in Vulture saying, “The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.”
In the piece, titled “Bamboo-Ceiling TV,” Huang was not shy to write about his conflicts with fellow executive producer Melvin Mar (Huang calls him an “Uncle Chan”) and he even questioned whether it was valid for Persian American Nahnatchka Khan to be the showrunner (he wrote that he was worried the show would become “The Shahs of Cul-de-Sac Holando“). Throughout the piece, Huang detailed his experience with production as well as the many, many conflicts along the way. In the end, Huang concluded:
We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.
The day after Huang’s piece was published, he sat with the cast (and his best friends Melvin Mar and Nahnatchka Khan) at the TCA panel to promote the show in front of a bunch of journalists — all of whom had just finished reading “Bamboo-Ceiling TV.”
Immediately, the panel was off to an awkward and jawdropping start as an unnamed journalist said, “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”
Many TCA critics audibly groaned and instantly tweeted their embarrassment and frustration at the racist comment. And after a beat, the panel on stage laughed it off and made chopsticks jokes. However, while the mood was lightened temporarily, the panel remained uncomfortable and contentious as Eddie Huang’s piece was continually brought up. At one point Huang questioned a reporter’s “reading comprehension skills” after he was asked about his negative comments towards Nahnatchka Khan.
Despite this rough patch, critics remain hopeful. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Fresh Off the Boat was a show they wanted to see succeed because they believed in it and because Asian American representation is important, especially since there are those out there who believe Asian culture is all about the chopsticks.
* Note: Originally, the piece mentioned that the pilot airs on Feb 4th. It has been revised to the first two episodes airing on Feb 4th and its regular timeslot will be on Feb 10th.