A scary man has been prowling the grade-school campus, handing out drug-laced stickers to little children. The principal, flanked by police, shows a group of parents a sketch of the suspect. Murmurs are heard. Then, quickly, Jessica Huang springs up with a question: “When are report cards?”
As I mentioned in the recap for the pilot episode, Constance Wu’s Jessica is one of Fresh Off the Boat’s biggest strengths. Luckily, the episode “Home Sweet Home-School” gives her plenty of room to shine. That’s because the plot revolves around two things she takes much more seriously than the boys in the family (Louis included): academic matters and financial matters.
I know how it sounds. It could be a cheap and flimsy premise designed solely to support 30 minutes of lame if not racist Tiger Mom jokes. There are plenty of shows that would jump at the chance. (Ever watched TBS’ Sullivan and Son before it got canceled?) Fortunately, that’s not the case here—FOTB is above that. Instead, we delve into the characters’ unique quirks, some fun education-system humor, and one unusually funny instance of vehicular violence.
It all stems from two separate problems, both involving Jessica. The first is that Eddie’s getting straight A’s in school, which he attributes to the fact that he doesn’t have any friends. But that’s not what distresses Jessica—she’s convinced his school’s curriculum is just too weak. Her younger sons are in a similar bind: They’re doing too well at their liberal, no-grades school, as indicated by the stickers of rainbows and leprechauns on their report cards. (Arrested Development did a similar joke years ago, but FOTB still pulls it off with its own spin.) Normally in times like this, she’d send the boys to the local CLC—the dreaded Chinese Learning Center, where kids undertake extra after-school lessons in math, reading, and violin. But since there isn’t one in Orlando, she decides to home-school them herself.
Louis is thrilled, as this fixes the other big issue: Jessica has gone full-tyrant at the restaurant in a bid to save money. “Is that why you clogged the pepper holes?” he asks. “Look at that guy,” she replies as she looks scornfully at a diner. “Shaking away our profits like he’s a pepper monster!” But thankfully for Louis, the home-schooling scheme has kept her away from the restaurant, which he likes to rule with a soft touch. More than anything, Louis wants to be liked.
Back at the house, Eddie’s miserable. He’s got his finest tear-away pants on, but instead of playing basketball with his friend next door, he’s stuck studying with his brothers. He sees his neighbor out the window. “Oh, man, a trampoline? And he’s using it inappropriately?!”
Eddie’s a smart kid, though, and he quickly realizes that his dad’s avoiding his mom on purpose. The tell? Dad has started saying “I love you.” At House Huang, that’s cause for concern. “We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement,” the older Huang narrates. “So if you said ‘I love you,’ you were probably hiding something.” This, as it happens, is the main kernel of the episode. He may be chafing under his mom’s strict rule—just as his dad was at the restaurant—but that’s just her way of showing people she loves them.
But screw love! Eddie wants to play. So he rats his dad out to mom, who comes up with one plan to irk them all: She’ll school the boys at the restaurant, putting an end to the crouton-sneaking bacchanalia that had emerged at the steakhouse. Everyone plays nice for a while, but finally Louis comes out with it. He doesn’t want her harshing his vibe at the restaurant anymore. To prove that he can hold his own, he goes to a young group of customers who look like they might dine-and-dash (one of them is pumping his sneakers, Jessica notes) and, instead of threatening them, he simply asks them nicely not to rip him off. Cut to a completely empty table, with no sign of a check. And on top of that, Eddie’s missing too–he took off amid all the commotion.
Jessica is instantly on the case. She jumps into her wood-paneled minivan and starts cruising the neighborhood. She spots Eddie first, but she moves on—she’s got bigger fish to catch. And by catch I mean run over with her car. Jessica finds the culprits and crashes her van into them GTA-style. One manages to escape and starts running, but Jesscia throws an onion at him. And then she makes her sons retrieve the onion—she’s gotta make dinner tonight, right?
In the end, Jessica cares less about the unpaid bill and would rather have the dine-and-dashers return to the restaurant to confront Louis face-to-face. More than money, her primary concern has been to preserve her sensitive husband’s innocent worldview. That’s why she has to be the bad cop, so that Louis doesn’t have to. So when she gets home to find Louis and her truant son Eddie shooting hoops in the driveway, she lets them play. After all, she’s loved them enough for one day.
- Neighbor kid: Anything else for me? Mailman: Buddy, we talked about this. I would lead with the card—I’m rooting for you!
- Jessica: “Plus-minus rainbow? One leprechaun… two clouds! That seems bad!” Evan: No, clouds are good! Jessica: Clouds are rain. What are you, a farmer?
- Eddie strutting into the house to the tune of Snoop Doggy Dogg
- What’s up with grandma?! They just kind of sneak her in.
- “Please put your lap chicken away!” —Jessica to the farm-program-loving principal
- Also, Jessica’s amazing slippery-slope speech at the restaurant.
- “Let me go get my breakaway pants… so I can rip them off!” —Eddie
- Evan, writing his brother up: Student: Eddie Huang. Infraction: Not nice.
- Louis and Mitch bro’ing out and cheersing croutons. “That was fun, we should do that all the time,” Mitch says. Louis: “No…”
- Jessica: “If Mitch steals two croutons per hour, and a three-pound box costs $5, how many days until we are on the street! Evan: How many croutons per box? What are we paying in rent? How can I solve for X if I don’t know Z! Eddie: Nerd. Evan: Student: Eddie Huang. Infraction: Slander. Emery: He’s tough, but he’s fair.
- The Golden Corral/different-colored bear thing becoming a running joke.
- Injured dine-and-dasher: My body’s getting cold. Jessica: It’s shutting down. But the point is…
- Eddie: Want to play? Neighbor: Well, I was just going to flip through sports games on TV and look for my dad in the crowd, but I guess that can wait.
- There was a pleasant surprise at the very end when Maria Bamford cameos as Evan and Emery’s teacher. Her explaining the grading system is priceless, particularly the gem “unless the bear’s hat is black, which indicates a very high level of effort.”