This week our roundtable discussion of TV’s Asian American family looks at episodes 5 and 6. Read below for more on Shaq (Fu and Soda, respectively), “the talk,” and more.
Belinda: What stands out most in episode 5 (“Persistent Romeo”) is the discussion of sexual assault, consent and sex, all of which are big issues to tackle in one 25-minute episode of a family sitcom. The fact that “Fresh Off the Boat” even addresses these matters shows a lot of complexity and audacity from the writers. A few scenes stand out. First, there’s Jessica’s “sexual harassment seminar” at Cattleman’s Ranch. This is, of course, played up for laughs, but Jessica ends up essentially harassing the workers (in what we’re supposed to see as a goofy, endearing manner). Louis cuts her off and later hires Dusty Nugget, who similarly gets kind of creepy with the employees. While I think the show has good intentions, do these instances make light of a serious problem?
Karen: I think those are really interesting questions, Belinda, and frankly, I have to say that the fifth episode’s treatment of sexual assault really made me wary and kind of uncomfortable. To begin with, the Dusty Nugget cameo was mostly played for laughs, as were Jessica’s (well-intentioned) attempts at teaching her employees and kids about sexual assault.
Esther: I agree, and I thought the framing device was also problematic: i.e. the way that Jessica’s fears were shown as irrationally stemming from her attention to “nightly news.” That kind of framing makes it seem like an individual woman’s quirk, or a housewife’s boredom, rather than a larger issue that’s worth addressing in a serious way. But I wonder how much this has to do with the limitations of a sitcom format and tone.
K: Yeah, exactly. Her paranoia was framed within her obsession with Stephen King — as a kind of pulpy read. So in that context, her fixation on issues of sexual assault was seen as a singular obsession, too. I agree that the sitcom doesn’t enable one to consider such fears more seriously, though.
B: Yeah, and Louis doesn’t take her and her concerns very seriously. He seems pretty dismissive of her “irrational” fears. It would’ve helped if he agreed that some kinds of precautions, like a sexual harassment seminar (which is normally required) are necessary. Like, he allowed for the sexual harassment seminar to happen to placate her rather than agreeing that it is a good safeguard in its own right.
E: I wonder if that is tied to a class discussion — like in terms of Louis’s money-making “pragmatism.” Which is part of the problematic nature of it, because then sexual assault education becomes a discussion of monetary ‘value’ for the restaurant.
K: Right. That’s a really good point.
B: Yeah, maybe that’s why he had her lead the seminar to begin with rather than hire someone legitimate.
E: Ugh, Dusty was so sketchy.
B: And even after she kind of botches it, he hires someone illegitimate still.
E: I guess that’s the joke, though. I did like when he spoke Mandarin.
B: YES! Hahahah. And not entirely horribly.
K: YES! That was hilarious. And so true to life, even — I always switch to Mandarin with my friends or parents when I’m about to rag on someone but don’t want them to know, haha.
B: But essentially, the sexual harassment training should’ve been something that was important to Louis regardless of the cost, and not something that he was forced into doing because of his wife.
E: Right. I kind of want to chalk up this episode as a forgettable attempt to address a topic kind of outside the scope of the sitcom format.
B: Well, many sitcoms address sex, especially in the parent-child context. So I think that was the focus of this episode, but they wanted to throw the whole sexual assault topic in there. Which, again, I think was audacious, but it wasn’t the best delivery.
E: I guess the generous reading of it would be something like: it was nice of them to try and address it, even though it was kind of botched. At least it was put out there? But that’s a pretty generous take on it.
K: Yeah, I appreciated them trying to tackle these kinds of issues, which does ring true to a kind of middle-school experience. From what I’ve heard, it’s also an adaptation from a moment in the memoir.
B: How did we feel about “The Talk” overall? It a strong bonding moment between Louis and Eddie, and it’s great that Lois didn’t want to water anything down, i.e. “Flowers and Watering Cans.” Some of it was a little uncomfortable, though, like when he talks about how excited he is for Eddie’s future spring breaks and how he might come with. Or how he moved to this country so Eddie could have lots of sex. I think this aspect was a lot more solid than the show’s way of addressing assault, but it still seemed a little awkward to me.
K: I think that’s a productive reading, Belinda.
E: Seeing this moment in the context of the next episode, which is more explicitly about father-son bonding, I am inclined to see “the talk” more generously. I appreciate the way that they build up the father-son relationship, and how (uncomfortably) direct the talk is. But there is also a squicky element of treating sex as… a prize? Or something to look forward to that takes the human connection element out of it.
B: Yeah, that’s not the way I see a father explaining sex to an 11-year-old. That’s how I could see an older brother explaining it to a younger brother, or a friend explaining it to a friend. But it definitely seemed like more of a “sex is awesome” kind of discussion rather than “here is what sex is.”
K: For what it’s worth, I do appreciate that Eddie got a less euphemistic talk about sex than the other kids in his class, though.
E: The contrast with the watering can version was pretty hilarious.
B: Yeah, the directness was definitely good and I like that he addresses contraception! Another big highlight is, of course, Jessica’s fervent “anti-date rape” lesson. It’s so over-the-top with her tackling Eddie on the bed with a giant stuffed animal. “You like that? Well, girls don’t either. No means no! Respect girls!” It has an important message but the delivery was, uh, peculiar. How did you feel about the way Jessica handled that?
K: YES, I really appreciated that moment just for the content and the message. But the way it was framed was definitely weird. I feel like we were supposed to be critically distanced from Jessica in that moment, and given how important that message (“no means no”/”don’t date rape”) actually is in a broader context, that made me really uncomfortable. Especially as Louis repeatedly tried to get her to apologize afterwards.
B: Agreed. I didn’t even find that very funny, and I think that was the writers’ intention.
E: Should we transition from there to episode 6’s (“Fajita Man”) handling of the father-son relationship?
K: Well, for starters, I liked episode 6 a lot more than 5.
B: Me too! This episode is more focused on the Huang family’s internal relationships than previous episodes.
E: I thought they did a very sweet and funny job handling a VERY common, pretty played-out theme: the intergenerational narrating of hard work. I loved that they brought the grandma in to the episode more and allowed her to speak.
K: Yes!! And even bringing in the legacy of the grandfather, while still troubling his work and parental ethics.
B: Me too! And I love that the grandma only speaks in Chinese. I almost wish the parents would interact with her in Chinese, but I know the writers don’t want to put off audience members with too much Chinese.
E: It definitely complicates a traditional narrative of filial piety, since the grandma steps in to point out that this hard emphasis on work alone has emotional costs. And I think that’s something that’s addressed at great length in other formats (I’m thinking of Asian-American literature here), but it’s nice to see a sitcom take on it. And some genuine sweetness. Or, I guess “genuine.”
K: Right. To be honest, I appreciated Louis as a character a lot more after this episode. I didn’t think he was as fleshed out (or perhaps as comedic?) as the other main characters, or even the grandmother, in the previous episodes. But this episode worked well to give him more dimension and deepen his relationship to Eddie.
B: I like that the grandma is able to get through to Louis — and that he follows in his father’s footsteps of promoting strong work ethic in his own son, but is able to soften up and compromise. That definitely makes him more complex and likable in my eyes. And it makes the grandma a more valuable character as well, rather than just a secondary character.
E: Yeah, definitely. I really liked the exchange between Evan and Emory at the table — where they have this weirdly detailed but adorable exchange but Evan’s career as a future pickle-maker, hahaha. The show is really smart about strategically utilizing the cuteness of their characters. I feel like that cuteness also is used too cover up otherwise problematic themes, like the womanizing we talked about re: Eddie.
B: Yes, their adorableness is kind of a distraction. Like comic relief… cuteness relief. I hope the brothers become more developed so that they start interacting with the parents beyond just being these little goody two-shoes, mamas’ boys. Haha.
K: To this episode’s credit, that little moment of interaction between Evan and Emery particularly did develop them a little more, I think… I feel like they maybe connect to each other a little more because they both model the ideal son, albeit in different ways, whereas Eddie is more of a rebellious son. I love the moment when Emery said, “I know you’re expecting me to say [my specialty is] the ladies, but I’m too classy for that.” So much snark!
E: Haha, yeah.
B: Yeah, that’s a good point. It does serve to distinguish them… Side note: I think it’s important that the show promotes work ethic as not just studying and achieving good grades — what many people *may* associated with Asian-American “work ethic” — but also helping out the family. What Eddie does is more on par with physical labor, but it’s still a character-building and father-son bonding activity, and I’m glad the show makes that a positive thing… that it’s not just pushing the “Chinese Learning Center” facet of hard work.
K: Right, it doesn’t feel stereotyped or reductive — especially with the fact that they lingered on the photo of the grandfather at the end. Speaking of work, let’s talk about Jessica’s job search?
E: Starting from the end, I loved that that storyline brought that moment of celebration where Jessica imitates Eddie’s “pimp walk,” haha. It was so cute and went against the stereotype of the stoic Chinese family that’s centered around the patriarch/filial piety.
K: Oh, yeah, that was adorable. I think every episode so far has ended with a feel-good family moment, but so far that one resonated with me the most.
E: What I really liked about it was the way this episode took a really clichéd sitcom storyline — the kid trying to buy something he can’t afford — and put an Asian-American spin on it. But that spin also managed to avoid feeling really reductive or essentializing.
B: Agreed! It was a fun moment, and it showed this sense of deeper understanding between Jessica and Eddie. Jessica’s always skeptical of these “fat brown men” Eddie is into, and Eddie feels like she never sides with him. But in the end, she kind of celebrates in a way that resonates with Eddie. And I like that everyone joins in, haha.
K: Yes, not to mention it was really culturally and historically resonant to that particular moment — I looked it up and apparently Shaq Fu WAS a hyped up game that later became dubbed as one of the “worst video games of all time.” LOL.
B: I loved that the show mentioned that! That the one girly game the kid at the table got was so much better in the end, haha.
E: The 9-5 video game was awesome.
K: Yes hahaha. And it had a proto-feminist message! Bless.
B: That 9-5 ending was perf.
K: Thank goodness for Shaq that Soda Shaq (of the Arizona Iced Tea variety) was a much more successful business endeavor.
B: What is this Soda Shaq you speak of and how can I get some?!
K: https://www.drinksodashaq.com/ — For Belinda and any of our viewers who may be curious!
B: I love Arizona Iced Tea! So good to know. haha.
E: My favorite moment in this episode… maybe in this whole show… was when Eddie turned to the white character and said, simply, “Shut your damn mouth.” Now that’s a mic drop moment.
K: Yes, Esther, that was such a good moment, since it addresses a common Asian-American stereotype really well and in a funny way.
B: Not sure if the kid genuinely thought he was Japanese or was trying to tease him. Either way, that was a badass response.
All in all, our team still finds “Fresh Off the Boat” a sweet and fairly balanced look at a particular Asian American family, replete with 90s nostalgia and a great soundtrack. We look forward to next week’s episode.
Not ready to disembark just yet? We recommend Phil Yu and Jenny Yang’s post-show commentary stream, “Fresh Off the Air.” Access it through The Angry Asian Man Blog, here.