Fresh Off the Boat is the most adorable show on television. That should always be enough to keep it around. The ABC sitcom, fresh off its fifth season, was officially renewed for Season 6 on Friday, which is a relief because, as you know, it's the most adorable show on television. I don't know a cuter show! But Fresh Off the Boat is also the rare sitcom that manages to be cute without ever turning cloying, and that's where the magic lives.
Much of Fresh Off the Boat's bite comes from Constance Wu's show-stealing performance as Jessica Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant who, along with husband Louis (the equally hilarious Randall Park), is raising three sons in Orlando in the 1990s. Wu gives a layered take on the stereotype of the disciplinarian tiger mom — she roots Jessica in love for her family even when she's steering into her worst traits at top speed for comic effect. Jessica cedes control to no one, and her stubborn belief that she is always right leads to both her funniest and her most human moments. Her take-no-prisoners attitude also makes her a font of incredible one-liners. "No team-trust-falls workshop," Jessica tells neighbor Honey (Chelsey Crisp) when they go into business together. "If I fall on somebody, I want them to die."
While Jessica keeps the show from going soft, Fresh Off the Boat leans into its sweet side with the rest of the Huang family: eternal optimist Louis, hip-hop loving eldest son Eddie (Hudson Yang), overachieving youngest son Evan (Ian Chen), and middle child Emery (Forrest Wheeler), who may just be TV's most genuinely good-hearted teenage boy. Emery doesn't get the attention around the house that his brothers do, but he's effortlessly popular in school; it's almost like adults don't know what to do in the face of pure kindness, even as kids understand it without trying. Fresh Off the Boat writes kids better than the average sitcom does because Fresh Off the Boat actually likes them.
The series got off to a bumpy start in its first season, which led to a creative retooling after the real-life Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the show, criticized it as an "artificial" spin on his life. But Fresh Off the Boat remains the only network sitcom on air centered on an Asian-American family, and if it filters difficult conversations about race and identity through a family sitcom lens, at least it starts those conversations. In 2016, Wu recalled feeling moved by Season 2's "Hi, My Name Is...," which flashed back to a young Jessica being told no one would learn how to pronounce her Chinese name. "I remember a lot of takes where I was actually crying," Wu told Vulture, "because it's so hurtful to hear somebody say that to me." Fresh Off the Boat celebrates immigrants by acknowledging the challenging aspects of starting over in a new country.
ABC has built a collection of nostalgic sitcoms set in previous decades — The Kids Are Alright, which was canceled after its first season, looks back on the 1970s, while The Goldbergs is set in the '80s and Goldbergs spin-off Schooled tackles the '90s. But Fresh Off the Boat, which is moving through the late '90s, uses its setting to tell a story about outsiders. As executive producer Nahnatchka Khan said before the show's 2015 premiere, in the '90s, "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." When Eddie's friend Nicole (Luna Blaise) came out as a lesbian in Season 4, she didn't have an online community at her back; she had a group of women from the local lesbian bar. But if Fresh Off the Boat understands how the experience of being an outsider has changed over time, it never pretends prejudice was on its way out in the '90s. It just pokes fun at white people who assumed it was. "It's the '90s," Nicole's dad Marvin (Ray Wise) told Louis in Season 5. "People are getting hip. All this race stuff is almost done with."
None of this is to say Fresh Off the Boat is above a little '90s nostalgia. Eddie's romantic life is forged in the terrifying battleground that is high school mall culture. He idolizes Biggie and Tupac. In Season 5 alone, which spanned late 1998 to early 1999, the show played with extended references to The X-Files, The Sopranos, Mulan, and Sex and the City. If we're being honest here — because it's Upfronts season, and at Upfronts season you tell the truth — it was the X-Files jokes in Season 5's Halloween episode that prompted me to go back and watch the first four seasons in the first place. Emery and Evan handed out candy as Mulder and Scully, and it was a better X-Files revival episode than plenty of episodes from the actual X-Files revival. These jokes aren't window dressing; this is a show that loves going deep on how people define themselves through pop culture and how TV and movies bring people together.
Fresh Off the Boat is one of those shows. It's as satisfying to watch with the family as it is to binge alone on the couch as an adult. And canceling this show right before the Huangs experience Y2K would have been a huge missed opportunity.