From “Leave it to Beaver” to “Modern Family,” family sitcoms have long modeled what an ideal American family can look like. But within this popular genre, Asian-American family sitcoms have been in short supply. After the cancellation of Margaret Cho’s ABC vehicle “All-American Girl” in 1995, it took 20 years for another Asian-American family sitcom, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” to appear on network television.
Inspired by celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s autobiography of the same name, “Fresh Off the Boat” is a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family who moves to Orlando in the 1990s. It explores themes of culture and identity with humor and heart. One fan favorite episode is the season three premiere, “Coming From America,” which aired in October 2016. It was filmed in Taiwan, a rare location for an American sitcom. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan wanted to explore the idea of “home” and how the Huangs are “just as much American” as they are “Taiwanese.” Week after week, this series unpacks what it means to be a “hyphenate-American.”
Now in its fourth season, “Fresh Off the Boat” is in danger of cancellation.
In a video for USA Today’s “Save Our Shows” survey, which asks viewers to vote in support of an endangered network series, Randall Park, who plays the head of the Huang family, argued that “Fresh Off the Boat” is the “best show about an Asian-American family on network television.” Because, he added sarcastically, “there’s so many of them.” Currently, his show is the only Asian-American family sitcom on network television. “Dr. Ken,” an ABC show about a Korean-American physician with no bedside manner, his Japanese-American therapist wife and their two kids, was cancelled in 2017. Outside of network TV, there are a handful of cable and streaming TV sitcoms that feature Asian-American families ― like Disney’s “Andi Mack” and Netflix’s “Alexa and Katie.”
As the fastest growing racial/ethnic group, Asian-Americans currently make up six percent of the U.S. population and are projected to account for 38 percent of all immigrants in the country in 50 years. Yet they are virtually absent from mainstream entertainment.
The cancellation of “Fresh Off the Boat” would further erase Asian-Americans from the television landscape. In our research on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) on television in 2015 and 2016, my co-authors and I found that over one-third of all AAPIs appeared on just 11 shows—one of which is “Fresh Off the Boat.” If ABC cancels the show, with its five Asian-American regular cast members, network television would lose approximately 9 percent of its Asian-American regular actors. Viewers already see 28 percent fewer Asian-Americans on network, cable and streaming television compared to their proportion of the U.S. population ― the cancellation of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ would increase that figure to 33 percent.
The family sitcom is one of the oldest and most popular genres in U.S. television: In the 1950s and 1960s, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” ran for a record 14 seasons, and today, “Modern Family” remains ABC’s best-rated scripted series and is in its ninth season. Within the half-hour format of the family sitcom, there is just enough conflict to drive the story and, by the end, everyone is reunited as a happy family. Viewers regularly invite these idealized images of the American family into their sacred domestic spaces.
Though the genre has traditionally featured white families, there are notable exceptions. I grew up watching “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s — wishing my family could be more like the Huxtables with their doctor father, attorney mother and charming children. In many ways, “Fresh Off the Boat” harkens back to “Leave it to Beaver.” The show features 11-year-old Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American kid who loves hip-hop, getting into misadventures like Beaver, and his parents ― Jessica and Louis Huang― dishing out moral lectures that are similar to June and Ward Cleaver’s, but with a uniquely Asian-American point of view. The tensions between traditional Asian expectations and U.S. culture play out in humorous and dramatic ways, broadening what an ideal American family looks like.
Asian-Americans have long craved to be included in this slice of Americana.
“I watched a lot of TV growing up. I enjoyed shows about white folks just as much as the next person,” said Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man, a blog on Asian-American news, media and politics: “But I rarely saw Asian-American characters, let alone an entire family, who looked like me ... “Fresh Off The Boat” ... felt like finally being in on the joke.”
Asian-American families would disappear from network television if ABC cancels “Fresh Off the Boat,” but the representation of immigrant families on TV would also suffer. It is one of the few network television shows to feature a multigenerational immigrant family ― with a Mandarin-speaking grandmother ― and bilingual immigrant parents with U.S.-born children.
The Huangs represent the many immigrant families living in the United States, beyond just Asian-Americans. (Immigrants account for 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, and 19 percent of the U.S. population lives with multiple generations under one roof.) While there are other representations of this experience on streaming and cable ― Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” is an excellent example ― sitcoms featuring immigrant families of color are few and far between.
Positive, humanizing snapshots of immigrant families are essential to countering the current anti-immigrant climate. Research shows that, without these images, the public will rely on negative stereotypes to determine opinions about the impact of immigration. Of course, television by itself cannot change the current immigration policy affecting various communities of color, including Asian-Americans. More than 1,900 people of Cambodian descent are subject to immediate detention and deportation and approximately 600 have already been deported.
Still, by portraying how the Huangs navigate life in the U.S., “Fresh Off the Boat” lets viewers identify with an immigrant family’s hopes and dreams. As one fan of the series tweeted, “I cried when Jessica got her citizenship because it felt so significant for the family and for me to see on TV.” That fan is far from alone. As an immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in the 1990s, I never thought I’d see my life represented authentically on television. From the big and sweeping themes like assimilation and racism to details like Jessica bringing cans of grass jelly drinks on trips, “Fresh Off the Boat” has given me a deep sense of belonging. Its cancellation would mean losing my television family, and I’m not ready to say goodbye.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Randall Park as Randolph Park.
Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen is an Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Biola University and the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.