Asian-American family sitcom to hit US TV after 20 desert years

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On Fresh Off The Boat, a new ABC family sitcom based on the memoir of the same name by the rowdy, bawdy chef Eddie Huang, the young Eddie is played by Hudson Yang, an amiable 11-year-old with an air of preternatural chill.

In the book, Eddie is a bit of a rabble- rouser, but on the show, he is a fastlearning fish out of water with a gift for comic self-presentation.

At home, Hudson is part of a different legacy. His father, Jeff Yang, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was one of the most prominent Asian- American cultural critics of the 1990s and a founder of A. Magazine, a glossy title highlighting influential AsianAmericans that aimed to capture an underdocumented cultural moment and to meaningfully brand Asian-American cool.

Scarfing down some after-school pizza with his father one recent day on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Hudson did not appear to be in the least frazzled about his place at the crossroads of decades of Asian-American cultural politics.

He had recently returned to school after three months in California shooting the show's first season and he had prealgebra and the Indian subcontinent on his mind. "I don't think the grades are gonna be very good, Daddy," he said with aw-shucks mischief.

Still, Mr Yang said, Hudson understands the big picture: "He's aware of the enterprise, if you will, and how different the enterprise that I was engaged in and grew up on is from the one he lives with."

It should not be, but even in 2015, it is striking to have an Asian-American family at the core of a network sitcom. The last time that happened, it was 1994, and Margaret Cho, then a rising comic, was the star of All-American Girl, also on ABC, which focused on a KoreanAmerican family. It did poorly, getting cancelled after one season. And not quite wittingly, Yang had a hand in its demise.

At the time, he was the television critic for The Village Voice, where he wrote an anguished but firmly negative review of the show: "The situation is humdrum - 20something slack-queen clashes symbols with her loving but hopelessly trad family. The writing is awful, larded with stereotypes and dusty gags from Full House's cutting-room floor."

At the time, there were not many Asian-American television critics and Yang's piece landed hard. Cho called him up and chewed him out, telling him that the network would use it to argue that "not even the community was behind this show".

He stopped short of regret for what he wrote, but noted: "I don't think anybody thought back then that we'd have 20 years of wandering in the desert."

The deeply neutered All-American Girl in effect "apologised for the Asianness of this family", he said, by filtering it through the lens of traditional white sitcom values.

On Fresh Off The Boat, about an immigrant family of Taiwanese descent making its way in white America with varying degrees of success, it is the white perspective that is foreign. It is also a memoir about falling under the spell of hip-hop at a time when, for an outsider, that could feel like a more or less solitary pursuit.

Both series in their own ways have underscored tensions about how Asian- Americans can be represented in the mainstream.

"It freaks me out that if it doesn't work for some reason, it'll be another 20-year drought," said Mr Melvin Mar, an executive producer of Fresh Off The Boat, who said he had read countless scripts by Asian-Americans in search of one he wanted to produce.

"You have to remember we're not making a show just for Asian-Americans, we're making a show through the Asian- American point of view for everybody," he continued. "We work on the Fox lot, so everything is compared to Modern Family, so it became, 'We want to be the Chinese Steve Levitan!'" (Levitan is a creator of that sitcom.)

But there is a boldness to Fresh Off The Boat that Modern Family has largely let fizzle in recent seasons. As Eddie, Hudson moves with a casual swagger, the sort of kid who is convinced that he is older and smoother than he actually is but almost pulls it off.

In one episode, he has someone deliver a pack of Skittles to a young white woman he has a crush on. Then he gives her a nod and shouts: "Go on, girl! Taste the rainbow!"

In writing his book, Huang went out of his way "not to just write about being Asian - my experience was bigger than that. We have solidarity as people of colour in this country".

And so his entree into the mainstream came not through assimilation into white mainstream America, but through a side door: an embrace of black culture as a lingua franca of outsiderness.

In the pilot, the young Eddie is rejected in the lunchroom until a blond boy sees his Biggie Smalls T-shirt and invites him over, prompting the one black child in the cafeteria to exclaim: "A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude - this cafeteria's ridiculous!"

Before joining the cast, Hudson had only one credit, a small part in a 2014 independent film, The Sisterhood Of Night. He had auditioned originally for the role of the middle brother, but Huang responded enthusiastically to his tape. "He was a really cool kid, irreverent and he didn't care," he said.

He was cast despite his limited experience and, at the first full table read, Hudson, not acclimated to the professional setting, was visibly restless, worrying executives.

But his father said: "I had this feeling that I was at the ringside of history in the making."

He likened the experience to attending the first Obama inauguration in 2008.

Huang wants Hudson to wave his own flag, even if it means gradually erasing traces of the memoirist from a show based on his life.

"I try to tell him, 'Don't worry about being me'," Huang said, adding: "At some point, you have to transcend race and be an individual."

 
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