by Pilot Viruet
“Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and going, ‘Huh?’… They see a white face and say, ‘Oh, hello white friend! I am comfortable!’” — Fresh Off the Boat, “Pilot”
In the first episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, a new fish-out-of-water sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family that moves from DC to suburban Orlando, patriarch Louis Huang (Randall Park) floats the idea of hiring a white greeter for the steakhouse he owns so white people will feel comfortable when they walk in and spot a familiar face. It’s a clueless, optimistic line that is played for laughs, and Park’s delivery is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a line that works on multiple levels, because it speaks volumes about the current television landscape and its irritating approach to diversity: Networks cater to white audiences by always promoting white faces — or trying to universalize the nonwhite narratives that they do have in an attempt at mass appeal — rather than taking chances on stories whose characters don’t superficially resemble the majority of their viewers.
Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American sitcom in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which ran for just one season (also on ABC) in 1994. The show is doing great in terms of both ratings (Episode 5, which aired February 17, had more viewers than Parks and Recreation and New Girl combined) and criticalresponse — as are the other diverse freshman programs airing on major networks this season: ABC’s clever sitcoms Black-ish and Cristela, Fox’s infectious musical drama Empire, and The CW’s telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin, which earned lead actress Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe award.
With the overwhelming success of these new programs centered on nonwhite characters, it’s easy to wonder: Why didn’t this happen sooner? The answer is as simple to state as it is complicated to explain: Minority narratives have a hard time making it to network television and an even harder time staying there.
What makes this even more frustrating is that once these programs manage to get on the air, they tend to do very well in ratings and among critics but face extra challenges in achieving longevity. The networks’ loyalty to these programs is always in question, because history has shown executives aren’t fully committed to diverse shows for their own sake, instead relying on them for quick monetary gain or a temporary influx of viewers. And this is especially disappointing in light of fans’ love for these shows — just take a quick glance at your Twitter timeline during Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday takeover (Scandaland How to Get Away With Murder are inescapable) or when Empireairs on Wednesday, blowing up the trending topics before the episode even begins. There is even an ongoing joke, largely on Black Twitter, about how Black-ish and Empire are on at the same time, forcing us to choose.
Outside of audience enthusiasm, these shows are flourishing in terms of sheer popularity.