Fresh off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience

Fresh off the Boat ended its run in February, more than five years since it originally started. For being the sole representation of Asians on TV, it has left an outstanding legacy. But there has been another Asian family TV show that has been gaining followers and fans – Kim’s Convenience.

The shows are superficially similar – both examine families living in a North American city and show how they sometimes struggle to fit in. But once you actually watch Kims Convenience you start to realise that it’s wrong to look at Kims expecting it to be the same as FOTB. It’s set in Canada, for a start, and Fresh was deliberately filmed in Florida of the nineties. The style of FOTB is very ironic and knowing – we can laugh at how things used to be. Kims is very much the show of now – it’s the present after all. Most of it is very realistic – which is not how FOTB unfolds, because Fresh is the product of a writer’s imperfect memories of growing up.

However much the actual Eddie Huang (writer of the book) complained that it removed the darker moments, the first season does a brilliant job delineating the first year that the Huangs spend trying to familiarise themselves with white collar Orlando. Perhaps the earliest episodes were a little weak comedy wise, but even by episode 6 they were getting into really exciting territory – tackling racist stereotypes head-on and looking at how hard it is to remain true to your culture.

Fresh used the nineties setting to give many fans a warm glow – the colours of the clothes and the glossy neighborhood setting always make for great TV. Each episode contained loving references to popular fads of the time. Whether it was Eddie’s love of Biggie and Tupac, or Evan’s Beanie Babies, the show was a lovely trip down memory lane for anyone who can remember growing up in the nineties.

Even more importantly – the show was often laugh out loud funny – by the time they made an episode actually filmed in Taiwan there were jokes every three seconds. Another great pleasure was had in watching the three Huang brothers growing up- the show caught the boys just as they were becoming interesting, and stopped when Eddie had finally matured into a young man.

It’s hard to find as much to like in Kim’s Convenience Store. The Kims seem to be accepted by everyone in their Vancouver neighborhood. There are no real conflicts here, except of the very trivial kind. The family want to hold on to their Korean heritage rather than embrace Canadian culture. There’s nothing like the So Chineez episode – where Jessica started speaking in Mandarin and cooked Chinese dishes. The Kims don’t need to do any of that – because people already accept them as they are. It may be an example of multi-culturalism, but it’s boring to watch a show when there are no conflicts.

Maybe for comedy to be successful, you need an element of cultural snobbery, or humiliation. But the characters in Kim’s are tolerated all the time, even when they make cultural faux pas. Also , the characters are too down to earth to be really memorable as sitcom characters. If the Kims are funny , it’s mostly down to the strong Korean accents, rather than any external situations. There’s nobody as comically brilliant as Jessica Huang -who may have been overplayed but was always recognisably human.

As for the writing, FOTB was much stronger. Every episode followed a classic sitcom arc of problem, resolution, and pay-off. There were cute jokes about Evan’s toys, Eddie’s lunch, or how much Jessica loved Costco. Also, the influence of the wicked humour of Ali Wong was much in evidence. There was the ‘Asian Flush’ episode, which Wong made a brief appearance in, for example. Then there were the Christmas episodes with Jessica’s model villlage and her Lao Ban Santa costume. Some of the best involved mocking Asian customs such as Chinese New Year, and their love of Asian sports stars. There were double entendres, references to Chinese culture that would not always sink in immediately – and a whole soundtrack of old Hip-hop that would be used just at the right time.

Kims has stories which simply meander and fizzle out, there are no dramatic conclusions or very big lessons to learn. Take one episode in Season 1. An old flame of Amma’s arrives in the shop and Janet thinks that he is still interested in her. It could be exciting but he quickly explains that he is married. The storylines are weak – one episode climaxes with the characters getting food poisoning from a bad Korean stew. Episodes aren’t connected and could probably be watched in random order. FOTB was more enjoyable – it’s funny to watch children doing silly things – Kims can’t provide this – the best it can do is to have the characters learn something about themselves – Uppa realises he is too bossy, or the daughter asserts her independence.

I know exactly which show I would prefer to watch. Still, i’m not complaining – it’s always good to see Asians on TV; and maybe – just maybe – Kim’s can make new episodes which are up to the standard of Fresh.

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