Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fresh Off The Boat returns with a lukewarm start to Year Of The Rat

Rick (Rob Huebel) shows respect through his deep bow, even though that's more of a Japanese thing
Rick (Rob Huebel) shows respect through his deep bow, even though that's more of a Japanese thing

It’s February, and we all know what that means: President’s Day has finally arrived! Oh, and also the Chinese New Yea– a coincidence which gets reiterated again and again throughout Fresh Off The Boat’s first episode back from hiatus. It may be a case of holiday episode fatigue, but tonight’s “Year Of The Rat” feels uncharacteristically lackluster for the usually stellar sitcom.

The episode hits all of Fresh Off The Boat’s usual marks: As a family show, there’s a comfortably familiar “Dad effs up something important” storyline and a by-the-book “friends come together to show family they care” one. On the cultural end, we see the bad and good–and then sort of bad again – sides of White People’s cultural tourism, as the Huangs attend a disastrous, Floridean AAAOO (“like ‘The Fonz’”) event, then a meticulously well-planned one at Cattleman’s Ranch–at which Jessica wishes they’d care a little less after overwhelming her with questions. There’s a nicely packaged lesson in that it’s totally okay–and even appreciated–to participate in another groups holiday or traditions, as long as you take the time to educate yourself and get it right (but, like, maybe cool it on the questions while someone’s trying to eat?). Evan does something cute; Eddie delivers the requisite 90s “Kwame, the Boy Genius” shout out.

But overall, there’s too much going on here– instead of feeling complex, the stories overwhelm. There’s Louis messing up the flights, for no reason other than he’s sometimes a dopey husband (no Simpsons quotes callback, FOTB?). There’s Jessica missing her family and sense of belonging on an important holiday. There’s the three E-boys both worrying about their red envelopes and cheering up Grandma. Finally, there’s the two New Year’s celebrations, disappointing and heart-warming, respectively. Though there’s fertile ground in all of these areas, the episode jumps from plot point to plot point, skimming the surface instead of diving in. We know, intellectually, that Jessica is bummed to miss Chinese New Year‘s–and even more disheartened by the AAAOO’s (“like Who’s The Boss, like Tony Danza”) poor showing–but the punch isn’t as hard to the gut as it was when Eddie held a secret birthday party; the elaborate lion dance less happy-tear-inducing than Honey and Jessica’s karaoke duet.

In usual FOTB fashion, the episode slyly hits on a difficult and complex question: To what extent are outsiders–especially those in a powerful majority–allowed to participate in foreign cultures, and what obligation, if any, do foreign people have to act as educators? How does one deal with missing out on their culture and traditions It’s the supposedly bright-side of assimilation; a free and mutual exchange of ideas and traditions that create new, lasting ones between separate people. Of course, that’s not really how it usually goes, and it’s nice that FOTB doesn’t sugar coat White Stupidity (please be assured that I know I am based firmly in the White Stupidity Camp, but personal pronouns aren’t great journalism). It also hints at the total discomfort of being a foreigner in a foreign land; the isolation of caring about something deeply that no one else seems to understand.

But–unlike when Fresh Off The Boat is at it’s best–these cultural discrepancies and questions don’t deepen the various intra-personal conflicts between characters. There’s an uncanny valley aspect to “Year Of The Rat,”–so close to being a great FOTB episode, yet just off the mark enough to leave you scratching your head, wondering what went wrong.

Stray observations

  • For Fresh Off The Boat, even a B-episode hits some insanely high notes. I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever meet Constance Wu or Randall Park in person but I know it will be very uncouth.
  • Shout out to FOTB’s shout out to Morrisey’s strong Latino fan base.
  • Louis’s chiding “Olives are for eating, not wearing,” followed by Mitch’s “excellent,” still has me giggling.
  • I too love travel size toiletries…tis a forbidden love, to be sure…but it is love, nonetheless.
  • “Kinda like how you don’t want to shower after Garth Brooks signs your boobs?” Honey is so Florida it hurts.
  • Jessica gets it: “Just eat some toothpaste no time to brush!”
  • “And don’t you forget to bring me back a commemorative thimble.” I love how real Evan’s relationship with the neighborhood ladies has become.
  • “That’s all fine, as long as you aren’t bringing any citrus.” Air travel used to be so simple…
  • “It’s time you learn what all dogs are born knowing: All mailmen are thieves.” Mailmen….
  • Jessica and Louis waving desperately at the one Chinese guy on the street is hilarious and/or so heartbreaking.
  • “We made you your favorite snack: Mountain Dew and Combos.” This was also the unofficial official snack of choice at my public high school, but swap flaming hot Munchies for the Combos.
  • “What’s the deal with disappointment?” I wish I could say, Evan.
  • “Panda Train, Limited Stops!” “What about Panda Express?” Oh Hector, you sweet fool, that will never take off.
  • “We like prosperity and good fortune ok?!” Constance Wu can get fed up with me any day.