Don't expect Fresh off the Boat, ABC's midseason comedy about the immigrant/first-generation experience of an Asian-American family, to shy away from uncomfortable racial topics. Not 15 minutes into the pilot episode, main character Eddie (played by Hudson Yang and based on the real-life Eddie Huang, on whose memoir the show is based) gets called a "ch---" by a classmate at school.
"To deal with the word ch--- in the pilot episode of a comedy on network television is borderline genius and insane at the same time," Huang said at the Television Critics Association winter previews Wednesday. "I care the most about the conversation that's going to happen because of this show. This show, to me, is historic and has a huge place culturally in America."
Constance Wu, who plays Eddie's mother Jessica, calls the show a "bold" move on the part of ABC. "The television landscape is starting to change, and we are part of that," she said. "If this is a success ... it will encourage people to invest in shows that have Asians as the first lead, not as the third lead."
Randall Park, who portrays Eddie's father Louis, is no stranger tocontroversial conversations. He can also be seen in a little movie you may have heard of called The Interview - as Kim Jong Un, no less.
"I'm excited to move on from that," Park said. "I was never worried for my safety or for getting hacked or any of that. It was more just crazy to turn on the news and see [that] they're talking about Kim Jong Un but they're showing my face. I am glad that that whole chapter is done. ... I was just really glad the movie came out and that, in the end, people got the chance to see the movie."
Like Huang's memoir, Fresh of the Boat is set in the 1990s, a decision that executive producer Nahnatchka Khan says was by design. "That's the last period of time before the Internet sort of exploded," she said. "You couldn't go online and find like-minded kids if you felt isolated. You had to make it work with the kids around you."
That idea speaks to the childhood experience Huang says he had when he and his parents left their close-knit community in Washington, D.C. and moved to Orlando, Fla. "Going from a place where you had a reference group and a support system to a place where you were really alone," hesaid. "Suburbia's weird for a kid, because you're trapped. You go to school and you come home and if you don't identify with the kids in your neighborhood ... you're very alone and isolated. This book is very much about figuring out who I am regardless of where I am, and creating my place wherever I go."
Eddie's parents (Park and Wu) are also based on Huang's mother and father. Huang says he wasn't sure if American audiences were prepared to see a strong Asian character right away. Although the character of Louis seems overly congenial in the pilot, he will evolve as the show progresses.
"The father character does become stronger and more aware, and that's what my father wants to see," Huang says. "My dad is a real outlier, and I think the show is strategic and smart in how it's easing the viewer into that."
At Wednesday's panel, Huang was challenged about comments he made in a recent New York magazine article about the show's evolution from page to screen. Namely, a question was raised about his lament of the fact that Khan is Persian, rather than Taiwanese or Chinese. "I related to this," Khan said. "When I read his memoir, [though] the specifics were different... what I really related to was the immigrant experience of this show, being first generation and having parents who weren't born here. That was my access point."
Huang also defended Khan: "I do not debate [Khan's] ability at all to do the show."
After Wednesday's panel, there's little doubt that Huang is welcoming the opportunity to confront viewers with issues that may challenge their comfort levels. "People are really sick of watching things that are for the middle, mass consumption shows," Huang says. "People want specific stories."
Fresh Off the Boat premieres Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 8/7c on ABC. Will you watch?
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