‘Fresh Off the Boat’ leaving indelible mark on TV landscape

Even before “Fresh Off the Boat” hit the airwaves on ABC in February 2015, the show was facing pressure that other new shows weren’t.

It was set to be the first network TV comedy with an all-Asian cast since Margaret Cho’s “all-American Girl” premiered 20 years earlier. ABC cancelled that series after one season, and some wondered how long this show would last too.

Randall Park, who portrays patriarch Louis, never even thought the pilot — inspired by restaurateur and TV personality Eddie Huang’s childhood memoir — would be picked up.

“The odds of a show getting picked up are tiny. On top of that, being an Asian-American family at the centre of a show just made it kind of seem impossible in my head,” Park told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he is filming the Marvel/Disney+ series “WandaVision.”

Now, after six seasons, “Fresh Off the Boat” will make its final voyage Friday.

Without question, the sitcom, centred on a Taiwanese-Chinese American family in the 1990s living in predominantly white Orlando, Florida — will be immortalized in the canon of Asian-American representation. It accomplished some unique firsts, like being the first American TV show to film on location in Taiwan and having a majority of dialogue in one episode be in Mandarin. It paved the path for movie stardom for Park (”Always Be My Maybe”) and onscreen wife Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Hustlers”). And having passed 100 episodes, the Huangs will live on in syndication for years to come.

Hudson Yang, 16, was 9 years old when he won the role of Eddie. Thanks to his father, journalist Jeff Yang, he had an inkling this wasn’t just any TV gig.

“My Dad would definitely talk about how important it was to have this kind of show. We talked about how previously ‘all-American Girl’ tried to do the same thing,” Yang said. “I knew a little bit about how important it was but I didn’t really know the full scale until a little bit later on.”

The series used culturally specific humour while trying to universally appeal to a broadcast network audience.

“What was smart was having a writers’ room, showrunner and actors that felt more empowered like they were part of the process,” said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media. “They take that stereotype-based joke and turn it on its head a little bit more. That’s where the in-community joke gets funnier.”

The show may also be remembered for headlines generated off-screen. Wu, who was not available for an interview, shocked viewers when she angrily tweeted about the show’s renewal in May. She issued an explanation the next day, saying she would have to give up another project. She also apologized for being “insensitive” to struggling actors.

During the show’s first season, the real-life Eddie Huang distanced himself from the show. In an essay for Vulture in 2015, he slammed it as a “cornstarch story” that was less about specific moments in his life and was instead a bland, “one-size-fits-all” narrative. Huang hasn’t wavered.

“I take representing my experience as an Asian American in this country very seriously,” Huang said in an interview in January. “I never compromised it for what a company or brand or studio told me to do.”

For better or worse, the show was often treated as a default ambassador for the Asian-American experience. So, the cast understands some of the criticism from Huang and others.

“As expected, there were some people who were like ‘This isn’t my family.’ It’s an understandable kind of response when there’s only one,” Park said. “But I get stopped by people of different races who say how much they love the show.”

“Fresh Off the Boat’s” absence leaves “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens,” the Comedy Central series led by the star of “The Farewell,” as the only other U.S. series with a mostly Asian cast. But because of “Fresh Off the Boat,” there’s already hope that Asian American-led successors will no longer be seen as out of the ordinary.

“It is redefining what mainstream culture is. I think that’s the legacy,” Gong said. “It helped redefined a space that will help all creative Asian American media, producers and artists.”

As a young Asian American actor, Yang said it’s been exciting to see how much the landscape has already changed in six years. He cited Ken Jeong’s since cancelled ABC sitcom, “Dr. Ken,” and the game-changing opportunities for other “Crazy Rich Asians” actors.

“Henry Golding, he’s playing Snake Eyes,” Yang said. “I feel like things are slowly changing. Soon, we hopefully won’t have to worry too much about only having a few of us on TV, only having a few of us represented.”

Park credits “Fresh Off the Boat” fame for allowing him to be choosier about work. The actor, who co-wrote “Always Be My Maybe” with friends including Ali Wong — a former staff writer on the show — recently formed his own production company.

“I’m in more of a position to create things now which is really exciting,” Park said. “It’s been a focus of mine tell more stories from an Asian American perspective.”

Park also recently was in a position to direct. He helmed the series finale, which will include flashes of the Huang family’s future. Pulling double duty distracted him from getting overwhelmed with emotions.

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“While a lot of people were crying, I was thinking about the next step,” Park said.

For Yang, the next step will likely be college as well as the next acting job. And he knows he can think big.

“My dream role is always gonna be Amadeus Cho. He’s the Asian hulk,” said Yang, referring to the fictional superhero in the Marvel comic books. “But now, my dream for the next role is something fundamentally different from Eddie.”

TORONTO STAR