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

It’s game, set, Billie Jean King for Fresh Off The Boat

Illustration for article titled It’s game, set, Billie Jean King for Fresh Off The Boat

Absurdly specific in 90s detail, “Michael Change Fever,” is a simple and delightful episode. Forgive me, for being physically born of the 90s, my cultural knowledge of the decade comprises of old toys and games left over from older siblings, trends my parents were a little late on, and TV reruns. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I ask you now: Is there anything more 90s than career aptitude tests? Maybe CATs are still widely used today, but the violent level of panic that accompanied being told what career you’d be good at in second grade can’t be healthy for a developing mind. So many, many recesses lost to gossiping about what fake-careers people were fake-tested for. Evan, Emery, and Eddie arrive home from school with the results of their tests, confusing Jessica since telling them what to do is “her job.” She’s overjoyed to hear Evan scored a “surgeon general,” and dismayed to find out about Emery’s “flight attendant” (the homeless of the sky,) despite Emery’s assurance that it sounds right up his alley.

O, friends, once again, I come to you with another desperate query: Is there anything more 90s than professional tennis? Not only were tennis skirts and knee socks popular among preppy valley girls (at least, according to TV), but America got Sampras and Federer, not to mention Michael G-d Chang, for whom the episode is titled. Watching Chang compete in the Australian Open with his family–complete with homemade fan apparel–Louis laments his own lack Asian sports idols. With Emery the only kid able to withstand the absolute agony that is watching tennis (it’s a game whose scores are based on love), Louis asks if he’d be interested in playing. Seeing an out for her attendant some, Jessica reacts enthusiastically to the idea. While Louis hopes to have a lasting bond with his son, Jessica sees it as Emery’s ticket to personal (and financial) worth. Turns out, Emery’s a total natural, even catching the eye of Billie Jean King who happens to be at this exact Floridian country club. Also, gratifying use of the Country Club membership the Huangs fought so hard for.

At home, Jessica and Louis force Eddie to move in with Evan, so that Emery can be as close to the x% of child prodigies who grow up lonely and sibling-less. When Eddie discovers a scrap of paper in Evan’s back pack, threatening his little brother over Pogs, I fall to my knees and cry to the heavens: Is there anything more 90s than Pogs? Eddie refuses to let his little brother go down like this, so he takes the only logical course of action: Regulate. Him and his bros roll up on Evan’s schoolyard bully–taking only a slight detour for Rocket Pops (I ask you, is there anything more 90s than Rocket Pops?) But it turns out that Evan’s not getting bullied, he’s getting shaken down over Pog-based gambling debts, which is officially the most 90s thing about this episode. Eddie figures out how to get Evan off the hook with his fifth grade enforcer, throwing his limited edish Garbage Pail Kid on the line for a final round of Pogs. Grandma gets to shine in “Michael Chang Fever,” as it’s her gambling hand that saves the day.

Back on the courts, Emery rapidly rises through the ranks of a weekend-long, Orland U16 regional boy’s tournament–every ace accompanied by a genial “sorry.” His story isn’t unpredictable, as he first fires Louis based on Jessica’s recommendation, then fires Jessica in favor of Billie Jean King, who proves to be much stricter than even Jessica manages–Billie Jean disguises punishment as treats, “she gets it.” While Jessica and Louis are hurt that their son has banned them from the courts, and his life, they agree to support him. But Emery isn’t ready to devote his life to tennis, asking if he’s allowed to stay at home and be normal. Jessica and Louis agree, glad to have their son back.

While it’s a light plot in terms of emotional stakes, “Michael Chang Fever,” manages to showcase the comedic talents of every Huang and then some. Fresh Off The Boat consistently progresses as a show–growing more comfortable with unusual character pairings, and puzzling out the focal balance between its younger and older family members–without sacrificing any laughs, or perms.

Stray observations

  • Eddie basically nails the general vibe of the 90s: “Like our aunt just found out about sewing machines.”
  • Technically, the episode takes place before Chinese New Year, but that’s neither here nor there nor The Big Game, brought to you by the NFL, as one must legally call it.
  • “No one expects a coup from the surgeon general…” Jessica is always looking for that next play.
  • Eddie’s not having his mom’s arch conspiring: “I heard that. You’re like three feet away, why wouldn’t I hear that?”
  • The Bunkmate Agreement: Rule 1, do not rearrange the star stickers on the ceiling. Rule 2: If I get stuck in my shirt, you will help me remove myself from my shirt. Good rules, honestly.
  • Jessica and Louis’s rival narratives for Emery’s sports career: In hers, he uses prize money to buy an election; in his, they have a dramatic schism on the court, reconciling once Louis lies on his deathbed.
  • A good rule to live by in general: “Anything that happens in Australia doesn’t count.”
  • “I don’t eat our nation’s colors” and “Nobody stop me!” Eddie’s school chums continue to be perfect and adorable. They threw out all their ice cream trash in the garbage!
  • “I’m not trying to understand this, Dave!” Man I love these kids.
  • “Steal money from mom’s purse… She sleeps heavy, after she eats Mexican food.” Evan is a lowercase “g” indeed.
  • “We’re both made at Emery, I know.” Louis and Jessica’s bedtime fights
  • “But how could he tell who harassed him when he’s blind?” Jessica’s trash-talking stays legendary.
  • Success perm!
  • Grandma’s day in the sun: “I know how to play all games.”
  • “Are you firing me?” “Yes. And you were doing it for free so it must be especially painful.” Jessica ruining another life in the span of a few words.
  • “You are wasting your time as a gate attendant, this is beautiful.” This exchange between Randall Park and the attendant could win awards at Sundance.