Pasadena, Calif. — The Fresh Off the Boat panel Wednesday at the TCA winter press tour was much like the New York magazine essay that dominated it — a little contentious but mostly illuminating and encouraging.
The ABC comedy about an Asian-American family, premiering Feb. 10, is based on the memoir of chef Eddie Huang, who penned an essay Tuesday that at first criticized the network’s attempt to make his memoir into a “cornstarch sitcom” but eventually came to the resolution of the importance of a network TV show “highlighting Asian American’s coming of age.”
“I care most about the conversation that is going to happen because of this show,” Huang said alongside the show’s actors and executive producers on the panel, which followed ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee’s executive session, in which he touted the network’s diversity. “I don’t think you guys have seen a TCA with this many Asian faces on stage in a long time ... (or) ever. Big props to the big Asian homie Paul Lee.”
The article also referenced the fact that showrunner Nahnatchka Khan is Persian-American, not Asian-American. Both Khan and Huang assured that there were no issues. Khan, who noted the importance of Huang’s voice in the production process, compared his immigrant experience to her own.
“Being first generation ... that to me was my access point,” Khan said. “If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong or like an outsider ... this show is a show you can relate to.”
Added Khan, “I believe the show is very strategic and smart in how it’s opening things up.” He also praised the pilot episode, saying it is “one of the most proud things we have in Asian culture today.”
For so long, as Huang and others mentioned during the panel, Asians have played “the nerdy kid” or the sidekick on shows, but in Fresh Off the Boat, they are front and center — “playing flawed characters and funny, relatable characters,” as Khan put it.
The series stars Randall Park (fresh off playing Kim Jong-un in The Interview) and Constance Wu as the parents of three children, with Hudson Yang playing the part of young Eddie.
“Progress arises out of conflict, not out of pretending everything’s hunky-dory,” Wu said. “If this is a success and it does well, it will encourage people to invest in shows that do have an Asian person as the lead, not the third lead.”
Other highlights from the panel included:
—Park talked a little bit about the aftermath of The Interview, saying he is happy the movie was released but things have quieted down since then. “It was more just crazy to turn on the news and to see my face,” he said. “(They’d be) talking about Kim Jong-un but they show my face.” Khan joked that when the controversy hit, “no one wanted to sit next to Randall on set.”
—Huang referred to his mother as “an accidental comic, kind of like the Taiwanese Larry David.” Wu, who travelled to Florida to meet her, said that Jessica Huang doesn’t care what people think of her. “She has a really strong sense of self,” Wu said, “and that’s the spirit I try to take into her character.”
—Khan shared her initial response upon hearing that Fresh Off the Boat’s time slot — Tuesdays at 8 p.m. — would pit the show against ratings juggernaut NCIS. “My first reaction was, I have to call my mom because she’s going to be real conflicted.” She added that the 8 p.m. time is more conducive to families watching together.