Fresh Off the Boat (2015) is an ABC comedy, based on Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name, that has resonated with audiences perhaps in part thanks to its grounding in real experiences. Set in the 1990’s, it tells the story of a young Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his experiences moving from Washington DC’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando. In many ways, Fresh off the Boat feels similar to Everybody Hates Chris (2005), in which a young version of Chris Rock (Tyler James Williams) attempts to balance living in a predominately black neighborhood in 1980s Brooklyn, after moving out of the “projects,” while attending a predominately white school. Just as Fresh off the Boat builds humor around Huang’s life events, Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris is a fictionalized and exaggerated retelling of the show creator’s childhood experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Rock acted as a writer and the narrator on Everybody Hates Chris, and in the first season of Fresh off the Boat Huang also acted as narrator, although the show removed the narrator for the start of the second season. The first season follows the main character, Eddie, unveiling the plot through his point of view, while the second season focuses on plot lines involving the entire family from multiple points of view. Everybody Hates Chris makes a similar transition following the pilot episode, aptly titled “Everybody Hates the Pilot,” to focus on multiple story lines as well.
While the two series share these striking similarities, Fresh off the Boat tackles diversity in a different manner than Everybody Hates Chris. In Everybody Hates Chris, the adversity young Chris faces is often a result of being misunderstood in his new, predominantly white culture. However, in Fresh off the Boat, Eddie’s character has internalized the culture in Orlando. He desperately tries to distance himself from his Chinese culture, presenting himself as a fan of hip-hop, rap and basketball. The way the two respond to their family cultures is a major difference between the two series. In Everybody Hates Chris, Chris desperately tries to hold onto his culture at home, while he is also intrigued by the vastly different life of his best friend, Greg (Vincent Martella). In contrast, Eddie avoids any connections to his Chinese roots, initially avoiding being a tutor for fear of seeming “too Chinese,” to the dismay of his parents—especially his mother (Constance Wu).
Fresh off the Boat also creates an interesting contrast between Eddie and his mother through accents. His mother has a thick Chinese accent, whereas Eddie speaks with an American accent dribbled with hip-hop and rap slang and references. This juxtaposition presents a duality in the language barrier. While his mother’s accent makes it difficult for her to assimilate into her new culture, Eddie’s interest in urban pop culture provides her with a second barrier to communication and relating with her son.
Just as Everybody Hate Chris worked to bring the black family into homes on primetime, Fresh off the Boat is working to make shows about Asian-American families to the forefront. Fresh off the Boat focuses on the life and adversity as experienced by an Asian-American family and presents it on primetime television. However, unlike Everybody Hates Chris—which could look to more precedents of successful and long-running shows about black families, such as Family Matters (1989) and The Jeffersons (1975), Fresh off the Boat has fewer examples of mainstream Asian-American representations, aside from All-American Girl (1994), on which to build.
For this reason, it is important to distinguish Fresh off the Boat from Everybody Hates Chris and other shows about non-white families, or we risk losing the unique importance of bringing Asian-American culture to primetime television. By the same token, we must be equally cognizant to avoid categorizing Fresh off the Boat as a catchall depiction of the Asian-American experience. The Miami New Times’ Inkoo Kang writes, “Fresh Off the Boat shouldn’t be read as an accurate depiction of the Asian-American experience, in the same way that All in the Family [1971-1979], The Golden Girls [1985-1992], and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [2005 - ] are no more faithful depictions of white Americans’ lives.” Similarly, Everybody Hates Chris should not be seen as a universal representation of black Americans’ lives. While both series draw on important aspects of the main characters’ cultures, they must be viewed with the understanding that every experience, regardless of race, is unique to the specific fictional family and setting. We must be careful not to overlook the nuances each individual series in regards to its specific culture, its social insights and its individual style as a piece of storytelling.