Fresh Off the Boat’s best characters have always been the Huang family members who’ve been in America longest: mom Jessica (Constance Wu) and dad Louis (Randall Park). Wu has deservedly emerged as the ABC sitcom’s biggest star: a major comic find who pelts sly zingers at mainstream America with the careless glee of a kid tossing water balloons. (They’re forceful enough to sting, but man, does it look fun.) Balancing out Jessica’s hilariously punishing practicality is Park’s cheerful straight man, an outsider forever decoding a culture he loves but doesn’t always manage to get close to.
If the Emmy-winning “Parents” episode of Master of None set the standard for authentic Asian-American pop culture, last night’s Season 3 premiere of Fresh Off the Boat soared as close to that high bar as the sitcom’s ever gotten with a similar love letter to immigrant moms and dads. Fresh Off the Boat has delved into uncomfortable truths about first-generation life before — last year’s episode “Hi, My Name Is,” for example, stood out for its exploration of the painful costs and unfair advantages of assimilation. But the Taiwan-set premiere found Jessica and Louis in a kind of small-scale tragedy as they resigned themselves to living in in-between-ness. “Maybe we'll never feel completely at home in either place,” Jessica says of her hometown of Taipei and her residence in Orlando. Louis agrees in a callback to the episode-long riff on Taiwan’s apparent movie of the year: “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost: stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.”
Written and directed by creator Nahnatchka Khan, “Coming from America” is an episode much richer for its darker subtext than its sunny tone and breezy affirmations suggest. On the surface, it’s about resolutions: Louis takes his family to Taiwan to make up with his younger brother Gene (Ken Jeong) and attend the latter’s wedding. On their first-ever trip to Taipei, the kids — Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler), and Evan (Ian Chen) — decide they can’t wait to go back to Florida, and Jessica realizes that she’s changed too much in her years in America for Taiwan to feel like home anymore. When Louis wonders whether they should move back to Taipei, where they might enjoy a more comfortable life than in Orlando, Jessica argues on behalf of their stateside life by appealing to an American ideology of bootstrapping self-sufficiency. Unlike in Taiwan, where they’d benefit from connections by way of Gene’s new wife (Wei Ning “Ann” Hsu), “We moved to America and we made it. We are the success story.”
And yet, what lingers in the mind — and catches in the throat — aren’t the expected endings, but the stubborn uncertainties and impossible knots to tie that are left over at the end of the episode. Whether intended or not, it works on two registers: the superficially satisfying one where the Huangs return to America confident that they’ve made the right life choice for their family, and the sadder, lonelier one implied by Jessica and Louis’s rootlessness. Their situation could easily have been twisted into a smile, as cosmopolitans at home in two different countries. But the episode ends with them belonging to no place, able to rest only on the laurels of their achievement of having started over from nothing. Meanwhile, they live thousands of miles away from their relatives, they stand out as the only Asian-Americans in their white suburb, they continue to struggle financially with their scraping-by restaurant, and their three children feel virtually no connection to the country of their origin.
In response to the losses and sacrifices endured by even middle-class strivers like Jessica and Louis, Fresh Off the Boat offers understanding and empathy — and above all, visibility — for a pain that’s too often remained hidden and ignored.