‘Fresh Off the Boat’: Why Watering Down a Minority Narrative Doesn’t Make It Less Important

By all rights, Fresh Off the Boat‘s first season should be considered a success. For 13 episodes — including the finale, which airs tonight — the series has remained consistently funny, without a single bad episode (though some, of course, were much better than others), and has performed pretty well in the ratings. Critical consensus has been generally positive, as has the response on social media, and the show will likely see a second season. Throughout Season 1, however, there’s been a lingering question about the purity of the adaptation and whether watering down Eddie Huang’s memoir to make it more palatable for broadcast consumption was worth it.

Prior to the season premiere, Huang was very vocal about his intentions and hopes for the show, as well as his opinion on the (somewhat) finished product, most notably in a piece he wrote for Vulture:

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell 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. But who is that show written for?

Huang’s hesitation is understandable; his memoir, also titled Fresh Off the Boat, is certainly funny at times, and those moments do translate well to the screen, but it’s also a caustic and unflinchingly honest story that details alienation, abuse, racism, and violence. The story is, unquestionably, Huang’s. Fresh Off the Boat, as a television show, significantly waters down that story, aiming to depict a broader narrative — one that fits neatly into the mold of a family sitcom, and an ABC family sitcom at that. This is a network that routinely depicts squabbling elders on Modern Family; it doesn’t seem particularly interested in depicting child abuse. It’s why, like Huang, I was worried about the adaptation, and everything that would be lost in translation from memoir to screen — even if, as we’ve learned from multiple film and TV adaptations, complete fidelity to the source material is practically impossible.

Back in February, when the show premiered, my fears were somewhat assuaged by the unique pilot episode in which 11-year-old Eddie is called a “chink” by a classmate, in a conflict that quickly turns violent (and has Eddie’s parents in full support of their son’s response). It’s a brave topic for an introductory episode. But from then on, Fresh Off the Boat seemed like it was pulling its punches. The best example is “Very Superstitious,” an episode that aired two weeks ago. The episode was no doubt inspired by a passage in Huang’s memoir that detailed an incident in which his mother threw a steel brush at his little brother, Emery, which left deep cuts on the boy’s face — and led to social services interrogating the sons, and then their mother, about what happened.

In the book, Huang writes,

They kept us off to the side with one of the officers and my mom wasn’t allowed to speak to us. … My initial reaction all day was to worry. I didn’t want my mom to get in trouble, I didn’t want to be a foster kid, but after a few hours, I gave up. I quit worrying. I realized the truth: they fucking deserved it. I was glad they got caught. There’s a difference between hitting your kids to discipline them and kicking the living shit out of them.

HUDSON YANG, JUDAH FRIEDLANDERThe TV episode tells a much different and more family-friendly story. In “Very Superstitious,” Eddie accidentally trips over a cord and breaks his arm, through no fault of his parents. At school, he tells lots of childish, unbelievable lies about how he got the injury, in order to impress his classmates and win a school election. The school becomes suspicious of the lies, and Child Protective Services visits the Huang household. It’s all misunderstandings and overly sensitive guidance counselors and silly hilarity, a scenario that’s almost the opposite of how the incident is described in Huang’s book. The reason for the change is understandable — Fresh Off the Boat is an ABC family sitcom, not a dark dramedy on FX or Showtime — but Huang’s quick Twitter reaction the night the episode aired was equally understandable. Watching very specific, very upsetting and formative incidents from your childhood weakened into sitcom-esque jokes must be frustrating. Unfortunately, though, that’s how television works: a specific story is tailored to appeal to a universal audience.

But does this weakened adaptation take away from the basic message and themes of Fresh Off the Boat? Maybe the most important thing about this series is that it exists, and that, for the first time in 20 years, there is an Asian-American sitcom on network television — as well as that it’s good, and people are watching it. The show could, presumably, open the door for more Asian-American (and also more minority-driven) narratives to exist on TV in the future. And while Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t exactly reflect the hyper-specifics of Huang’s childhood and experiences, it has reflected larger parts of Asian-American culture and done so in a way that’s not condescending or pandering.

It’s also true that Fresh Off the Boat might have been able to go darker, and more accurately portray Huang’s life, if it had ended up on a cable or premium network. But in that case, it probably wouldn’t have reached as large an audience or captured national attention in a way that could result in more shows like it on networks of all kinds. When I spoke to Eddie Huang in December about this season’s influx of diverse TV shows, I asked whether he would’ve preferred to see the show air on a cable network. He said no (though, to be fair, this was before he’d seen much of the first season) because he was aware that this bigger, broadcast show could lead to better adaptations down the line — ones that are more refined, more specific, and more true to his own experiences.

To watch and love Fresh Off the Boat, as I’ve done all season, is to accept both, dueling versions of Eddie Huang: the real, raw version that’s told through his voice in the memoir and the nicer, primed-for-network-comedy version that exists within the television show. Both are voices worth listening to.