Monday Morning Critic: The Premiere of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and the Pleasures of “Anomaly Episodes”
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: a review of a new ABC comedy and a discussion of one of television’s most important narrative assets.
‘Fresh Off The Boat’ premieres on ABC on February 4 with episodes at 8:30 pm EST and 9:30 pm EST
There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the premiere of this show. But how’s the actual show itself?
I’m blessed with being too busy to really keep up with most off-air controversies for most shows, so I was unaware of a lot of the ancillary activity happening in the press leading up to the show’s premiere. I went into the episodes knowing little about the show either onscreen or off, and I’ll say that I really enjoyed the two episodes ABC made available for review.
This is the first Asian-American sitcom in twenty years. Does the show overtly acknowledge that at all?
It doesn’t, nor should it. ABC’s family sitcoms are about families first and foremost, and the brand extends outwards based on its characters. To some, that’s a positive. To others, it’s a negative. Personally, I like the idea of seeing fundamentally good people using their families as sources of strength in worlds that don’t often reflect their own personal experiences. It doesn’t matter if those families are Jewish in the ’80s, Asian-American in the ’90s, or African-American in present-day. ABC’s brand starts at the same place in each case and then lets things unfold within those particular prisms.
You’re not saying all shows treat race the same, right?
Of course not. ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ is about an Asian-American experience first and foremost, and the troubles that the Huang family has in adjusting to life in Orlando. But as with all ABC shows, there’s a universality to the stories (parent/child schisms, money troubles, generational misunderstandings) that provides an entry point for the audience. Lesser shows would stop there and try to pretend that everyone has similar access to achieving the American Dream. ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ doesn’t present the Huangs’ obstacles as insurmountable, but presents their specific obstacles all the same.
How does the show position its social commentary within the confines of a network sitcom?
I think the word is “carefully,” although that sounds more like an insult than a piece of praise. The show wants to be entertaining first, but doesn’t want to be lightweight. There’s a moment in the pilot in which a racial slur is depicted and discussed in ways I simply haven’t seen before, and that’s where ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ truly shines. Diversity in entertainment isn’t just nice, but vital. It’s sometimes hard to know what you’re not seeing until it’s put in front of your eyes for the first time. After that, it’s difficult to imagine your cultural diet without it.
This sounds heavy. I thought this was a comedy?
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments in early episodes, primarily via Constance Wu’s overbearing, prototypical “tiger mom” who gets the majority of the best lines. Everything discussed earlier is present, but primarily in the show’s subtext. And that’s good: No one likes a preachy show, no matter who is depicted onscreen. ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ is the latest entry in ABC’s strong family comedy lineup. And while that lineup’s diversity is to be lauded, its overall quality should not be underestimated.
A few months ago in this space, I discussed how ‘Scandal’ got its groove back after nearly a season and a half of struggling with itself. Well, last week, it topped itself with possibly the best episode since season two’s “Nobody Likes Babies,” which wrapped up the insanely successful and satisfying Defiance arc. But rather than serve as a prime example of what ‘Scandal’ usually does, last week’s episode “Run” served as a superior example of what I call The Anomaly Episode. What’s The Anomaly Episode? Let me try and break it down.
Just last week, I wrote about how “Leslie And Ron” was an amazing example of the cumulative power of long-form narrative television. That episode fits in with episodes like “The Suitcase” on ‘Mad Men,’ “The Fly” on ‘Breaking Bad,’ or “Cooperative Calligraphy” on ‘Community.” They exist within the worlds of those shows, stripping things down to serve as statement episodes for its inhabitants. All three episodes temporarily pause long-gestating storylines in order to emphasize the human costs of those threads. These episodes can be as satisfying as the medium gets.
But there’s a secondary type of episode that actually exists as the exception that emphasizes and actually augments the norm. “Nobody Likes Babies” fits inside the episodes just mentioned, and those episodes are always welcome. But the best shows also feature Anomaly Episodes that take advantage of the sheer amount of episodes television shows have to produce. Anomaly Episodes don’t have to adhere to the normal structure, pace, or even “rules” of what audiences expect to bring. In fact, the fracturing of those tropes is what gives these Anomaly Episodes so much power. They evoke as much pleasure as dissonance, as the audience struggles to figure out what in the hell is going on.
The audience struggle during “Run” matches the struggle of Olivia Pope, who finds herself imprisoned with almost no clues as to her captors or whereabouts. The episode puts us inside Olivia’s disorientation, which means we are figuring out things along with her. There are almost no “real” interactions with the core cast, as nearly every piece of dialogue with Fitz, Abby, and Jake takes place inside of Olivia’s head. And yet, while being tonally and narratively different from almost every episode of ‘Scandal’ to date, “Run” also felt like the purest representation of the show.
That’s the secret of The Anomaly Episode: Rather than being truly different, it reveals the core of what makes the show tick. Think about the episode “The Ghost Is Seen” from ‘Enlightened,’ or “Once More With Feeling” from ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer,’ or ‘The Constant” from ‘Lost.’ Those are three of dozens (if not hundreds) of episodes that approach core concerns from a new perspective in order to reveal the underlying themes of that show’s universe. ‘Scandal’ looks, feels, and acts like a soap opera, and it certainly is a soap opera. But that speaks to genre rather than intent. ‘Scandal’ is about what it’s like to live in a century in which trust is almost impossible and invisible hands may be pulling all the strings.
Anomaly Episodes can weaken in power if deployed at the wrong time or too often. (I’d argue ‘Community’ grew into a series of Anomaly Episodes after the success of “Modern Warfare,” but that excess is also what endears it to so many fans.) The worst Anomaly Episodes are exercises in style versus substance. For example: Far too many shows drop musical episodes as a way to drum up interest and score cheap ratings. But the ‘Buffy’ ep “Once More” or even the ‘Scrubs’ installment “My Musical” demonstrate that the key lies in timing and execution.
“Run” came at the absolute perfect time in the run of ‘Scandal’: not only was it a hellaciously great way to return from a lengthy hiatus, but it also served as a statement of the show’s true nature. Vermont, white hats, standing in the sun, face-licking, and political backbiting exist as window dressing to the show’s central conceits about identity and trust in the twenty-first century. We can’t trust our surroundings or our loved ones any more than Olivia can. The true scandal comes when we think we’re above these concerns instead of neck-deep in them. “Run” brought that theory to the surface as clearly as any episode to date, which makes it both an Anomaly Episode as well as mission statement. Four seasons in, ‘Scandal’ still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, and I can’t wait to find out what’s next.