There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday,The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
TheFresh Off the Boatepisode “Success Perm.” A standout from the first season of the ABC sitcom, this episode finds the show’s central family entertaining out-of-town relatives at their new home in Orlando, and engaging in one of their favorite pastimes: passive-aggressively comparing social status. Based loosely on the life of Taiwanese-American chef and TV personality Eddie Huang,Fresh Off the Boatis set in the mid-’90s, and it addresses the ways the Americanized values of a hip-hop-loving slacker teen (Hudson Yang) conflict with the values of his hard-working entrepreneurial father Louis (Randall Park) and his intense, demanding mother Jessica (Constance Wu). In “Success Perm,” the divisions between generations and cultures widen even further when Jessica’s competitive sister Connie and her boastful husband Steve arrive, forcing the Huangs to pretend to be more prosperous than they are.
Why watch now?
BecauseCrazy Rich Asiansopened this week.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name,Crazy Rich AsiansstarsFresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an NYU professor who travels with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to meet his relatives at a wedding in Singapore, where she’s shocked to find that she’s been dating a fabulously wealthy man — and that his disapproving mother thinks Rachel is far too American to deserve him. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the romantic dramedy features an accomplished Asian and Asian-American cast, and tells a sprawling, episodic story that draws most of its humor and conflict from the pressures of family expectations and culture clashes. It’s rare to see a large, well-promoted mainstream American studio film with an Asian cast — the last one was arguably 1993’sThe Joy Luck Club— andCrazy Rich Asianshas already gotten plenty of positive press for its inclusion and its knowing representation of cultural details that aren’t often seen onscreen.
In its first season in particular,Fresh Off the Boatdrew similar praise for its willingness to showcase an Asian experience not often seen on-screen. And likeCrazy Rich Asians, “Success Perm” deals closely with wealth, insecurity, competition for prestige, and cultural traditions. The episode’s plot is an old sitcom classic: the well-meaning heroes put on airs for company, then have to scramble to keep from getting exposed as liars. ButFresh Off the Boatalso connects the story to Jessica and Connie’s lifelong battle for the attention and affection of their immigrant mother, who — just like Nick’s mother inCrazy Rich Asians— judges them harshly if they seem to be slipping into “the American way,” and taking life too easy. The external signs of wealth aren’t just a matter of vanity; it’s the sisters’ way of keeping score, as they try to see who can make their mom proudest (or the least disappointed).
Who it’s for
Anyone who believes that cultural specificity makes for better stories.
Before Roseanne Barr was fired from ABC’s revival of her sitcomRoseannefor posting bigoted, conspiratorial tweets, her show had already weathered some controversy over an episode that took a cheap shot at her network’s lineup of culturally diverse family comedies. In one snarky scene, after John Goodman’s Dan Conner grumbles that he and Roseanne fell asleep on the couch watching TV, and had thus “missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” she replies, “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.” Television critics and even some TV writers were rightfully miffed at the joke, which seemed to dismiss all the sincere efforts to bring fresh voices to pop culture as mere rah-rah “we’re all just people” pablum.
Also, Roseanne’s wisecrack was just… factually wrong.Fresh Off the Boat,Black-ish,Speechless,The Goldbergs,Modern Family, and, yes,Roseanneare acclaimed and popular because theyaren’tinterchangeable. They rely on some common domestic-comedy situations and characters — the grumpy old-timers, the underachieving kids, the farcical family mix-ups, et cetera — and they do rely on the idea that no matter our color, creed, sexuality, physical abilities, or social class, we all share a lot of the same joys and heartbreaks. But the actual jokes, storylines, and perspectives on these ABC shows are unique and personal, drawn from the widely varying experiences of the men and women who make them.
Some of the 1990s references in “Success Perm” — like the fax machines and dial-up internet connections, or Eddie’s cousin betraying him by ditching NWA for Nirvana — wouldn’t be out of place in any sitcom set 20 years ago, regardless of the characters’ ethnic origins. But the characters onBlack-ishorThe Goldbergswouldn’t fill their home with fake citrus trees to symbolize good fortune. Even the title of “Success Perm” refers to something concrete: how in the mid-’90s, Asian-Americans of both genders often got permanent waves, “to show prosperity,” as Eddie’s narration puts it. These are the kind of details that ring true not just to people who grew up in the same kinds of families as Eddie Huang, but also to those of us who didn’t, and who enjoy getting a glimpse into someone else’s world.
Where to see it
Hulu. The complete series (to date) is available. Later seasons take less advantage of the “Asian-America family circa 1995” backdrop — though those elements are always there — but season 1 is excellent throughout, and season 2 is strong as well.