Primetime television is always under the watchful eye of millions of viewers across the country and can face heavy critiques if the subject matter is not a carbon copy of what they are used to. This is often the case when the main cast of the show is from a minority group in America. The question is, what makes some of the shows with a minority cast successful? In this entry, I will be looking at traits of the new ABC show Fresh off the Boat and comparing it to The Cosby Show. What is the key to getting it right? And should these shows represent as much of their community as they can?
In criticisms about The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby received critiques saying that the show was “not black enough” and that the show should “tackle more racialized issues.” To respond to the first claim, Cosby noted that he was not an expert in “blackness” and that the show was not meant to represent all black people, just this particular family. Furthermore, in response to tackling racialized issues, Cosby claimed that these expectations are unfair. Just because they were a black, middle class family did not mean that they represented all black people. They should not be held to a separate standard just because they are black. What is it keeping other shows with predominantly white casts from tackling racialized issues? Why does it have to be pushed onto The Cosby Show? It’s an extremely unfair bias towards their show and could essentially minimize the show to being a public service announcement for black people in America. This would not lead to a successful television show because it could cause the out group (the rest of America) the inability to relate. Unfortunately, if the majority doesn’t relate to it, then it is not going to last long. Representing themselves seems to be what lead to a successful television career.*
*Quotes from Cosby are pulled from Leslie B. Inniss and Joe R. Feagin “The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class” available on JSTOR
With Fresh off the Boat, they are also presented with heavy pressure to “get it right” meaning that they are expected by some to represent the entire Asian American community in America. This is an impossible task considering how diverse and multicultural the group that they are expected to set out and represent. With this in mind, Fresh off the Boat would be wise to follow The Cosby Show in not trying to be an expert on “asianness” and representing the entirety of Asian America. They should stay specific and represent this specific family and hope, much like The Cosby Show, that it opens up doors for other races to find their way to the primetime slot, represent themselves as individuals, and let American viewership relate where they see fit. The problem is when the viewer tries to group the actors with an infinitely complex identity of Asian and Asian American and attempts to use the actors to give them the entire perception.
Fresh off the Boat cast is just a small slice of what the Asian American community is. Relating or representing Asian America is not half as important as representing themselves and connecting to a general audience. This is one of the keys to success that The Cosby Show successfully mastered. Connecting with main stream America and relating to everyone is a strong key to breaking down barriers. If shows like Fresh off the Boat were to consistently stress differences and didn’t allow people to relate, it would stress too much in group/out group dynamic and rapidly decline in viewership. America’s primetime television is all about including as many people as possible to make money first, and then everything else second. If Fresh off the Boat wants to continue succeeding, it needs to represent itself as an individual and continue entertaining the masses without selling out their race.
Fresh off the Boat’s first goal should be to represent this specific Asian American family, the second goal should be to be entertaining to the masses, and the third goal would be finding it’s groove to make this continue as long as possible. With the success of this show, Asian America will have a (hopefully) long running single veined representation of their culture on primetime television. This will open doors to an increase in Asian American representation on primetime television, and that is the best outcome for any single show to hope to achieve.