ABC announced earlier today that it has picked-up new comedy series Fresh Off the Boat for its fall line-up. Based on the popular memoir by Taiwanese American chef Eddie Huang, the show centers around a Chinese immigrant family’s life in suburban Orlando. And as many in the Asian American community have pointed out, this is the first network series centering around an Asian American family in two decades since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl also premiered on ABC back in 1994.
The comparisons between the two shows have already begun and I’m here to say—can we please stop with that? Because if we’ve learned any lesson from All-American Girl is that we should not treat this new show like All-American Girl.
For those who weren’t there or don’t remember, here’s the Cliff Notes refresher course on what happened with All-American Girl: Margaret Cho is awarded her sitcom and immediately becomes the “great yellow hope”—all the dreams and aspirations of the community regarding mainstream representation are foisted squarely on her shoulders. The show debuts and just as immediately is attacked by many in the community for being culturally inauthentic/not being “Asian or Korean American” enough. Ultimately the intense criticism coupled with declining ratings kills the show after about a dozen-and-a-half episodes.
As I acknowledged when I wrote about All-American Girl for the Los Angeles Times back in 1994, the show definitely could have been better, but it also represented a missed opportunity for the community. There was a way to offer constructive criticism of what was legitimately problematic about the series while still showing support. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened—the negative reaction was harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving and, as Margaret acknowledged in her book I’m the One that I Want, contributed to the program’s ultimate fate.
As a young writer back then, I had done a number of interviews with Margaret around the time of All-American Girl and she was fully aware of the show’s problems, but also fully confident that given time and support, she could do something about it. Like Roseanne Barr–who starred in the popular sitcom Roseanne (also on ABC) and initially had minimal creative control over her own show, but was able assert more of her own comedic voice over time—Margaret felt she could eventually bring more of her comedic sensibility to All-American Girl. But alas, she never got that chance.
Now, I’ve already started reading things on social media about how Fresh Off the Boat is a huge watershed moment for Asian Americans and what it means to the community. And I get that—this is significant. But let’s also not forget that it’s just one show and to once again place all the hopes and aspirations of our community on its shoulders is unfair—it’s a series that stars an Asian American family, but I don’t think anyone associated with the show is working under the expectation that it represents all Asian American families. I’m excited about the show and, with talented peeps like our friend Randall Park involved, I hope it’s awesome and succeeds, but if it doesn’t—it’ll just be one of many, many programs with good intentions that doesn’t work out for whatever reason. It doesn’t spell failure or doom and gloom for the Asian American community and to place such weight on it would be…so 1994.
Because here’s the other reason why we can’t really compare Fresh Off the Boat to All-American Girl: it’s twenty years later and the TV landscape is a vastly different place than it was in the mid-1990s. Yes, as Asian Americans we still have a long way to go toward anything resembling “real” representation, but TV is no longer the cultural wasteland it was when All-American Girl premiered.
Who would’ve imagined seeing this on prime-time network TV back in 1994:
And if we’re celebrating the pick-up of Fresh Off the Boat as a pivotal moment, we should also celebrate the other new series pick-ups with Asians in lead roles as similar milestones. While there are a number of TV series on the big four networks with Asians in the cast, very rarely are they the leads—in fact, with the cancellation of the CW’s Nikita starring Maggie Q, there is exactly one prime-time network series with an Asian lead at this moment–The Mindy Project (on cable, we also have Steve Byrne in Sullivan and Son). But not only do we have one, but at least three that I’m aware of (and all roles not written as Asian) for the new season:
John Cho as the male lead in ABC’s modern take on Pygmalion, Selfies.
The aforementioned Maggie Q as the female lead in the CBS procedural, Stalker.
And British South Asian Elyes Gabel as the male lead in my fellow Offender Justin Lin’s CBS drama, Scorpion.
And that doesn’t include other Asian Americans in interesting supporting roles like Kal Penn in Battle Creek and Asian Canadian newcomer Jadyn Wong who also appears in Scorpion (and of course, a shoutout to my fellow Offender Sung Kang who appears on FOX’s Gang Related premiering May 22).
We’re no longer living in a time where we need to place all of our expectations on one show. So let’s show our support, but whether Fresh Off the Boat succeeds or fails, whether John Cho or Maggie Q’s series succeeds or fails, there will be more to come. And some of those shows will also succeed and some will also fail, but none of them will impede the steady progress we’ve been making for the past twenty years.
UPDATE (5/13) Your first look at the series:
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