It’s worth noting that ABC is a bit of an adventurous astronaut in “the diversity space” at this moment.
On the one hand, the network, in league with executive producer Shonda Rhimes, has delivered a number of hugely successful “colorblind” dramas in which race and sexual orientation are refreshingly invisible, including “How to Get Away With Murder.” It has created a bit of a fantasy world, or a portrait of how happy assimilation in America might look — not including those shows’ murder, betrayal, adultery, and torture, of course.
On the other hand, ABC is producing sitcoms — “Cristela,” about a Mexican-American family, and “black-ish,” about a suburban black family — that dive joyously into more unresolved issues of assimilation, that focus on characters trying to find balance between the mainstream and their roots. It’s ABC — Assimilation Boom Comedy — and it includes the suburban gay couple and their Asian-American daughter on “Modern Family.” These shows try to take the sting out of melting pot issues, by laughing at how people of all kinds, including white people, fumble their way through their differences.
In a way, ABC is reflecting America as a land of individuality, where we’re not strictly defined by our roots and orientations — but where those roots and orientations still can and should thrive. The latest addition on the comedy side is “Fresh Off the Boat,” which is about an Asian-American family in the mid-1990s that moves from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, where the father has opened a cowboy-themed restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch. The show isn’t about a family that happens to be Asian, just as “black-ish” isn’t about a family that happens to be black; it’s about a family of Taiwanese descent and it zeroes right in on their cultural struggles.
The show, which premieres with two episodes on Wednesday night at 8:30 and 9:30 before moving to its regular Tuesday at 8 p.m. slot, is sweet enough and features a likable cast. The assimilation material is a bit obvious in the two episodes provided for review, but that’s typical in new comedies trying to establish their stomping grounds. The mother, Jessica (Constance Wu), is a tiger mom with exacting standards and traditional values who, when faced with a blaring neon sign for a market called “Food4ALL!!!,” says, “What is the store so excited about?” She doesn’t much care about blending in. Eddie (Hudson Yang), meanwhile, is a kid who desperately wants to blend in, who uses his love of hip-hop as entree into his grammar school’s cool group.
At one point in the premiere, on his first day at his new school, Eddie abandons a black kid in the cafeteria, when a white kid invites him to his table after seeing Eddie’s Biggie Smalls T-shirt. “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude,” the black kid says to himself. “This cafeteria’s ridiculous.” It’s not a subtle bit, but it’s funny and wise, especially when the white kid proceeds to reject Eddie after seeing Eddie’s authentic Taiwanese lunch food. The show relies on a more honest and less white-centric point of view than the last Asian-American sitcom on network TV, Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” back in 1994.
In time, “Fresh Off the Boat,” which is based on the memoir by and narrated by restaurateur Eddie Huang, could evolve into a more naturalistic comedy that involves racial issues but that is also a family story about particular characters. “Modern Family” has done that, and “black-ish” is well on its way. We live in a nation of immigrants, and there is plenty of awkwardness to make light of. But without well-drawn characters, it’s all a bunch of one-liners.