Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 14 through 20 is “This is Not Us,” the season three finale of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat.
This year, one of TV’s most interesting and empathetic portrayals of what it means to be an American citizen — patriotic duty, pursuit of happiness, and all — belonged to an ABC sitcom set in 1990s Orlando.
When Fresh Off the Boat wrapped up its third season on May 16, I was so sad to let the Huang family go for a summer that it took me a second to realize how quietly ambitious the season had been. (I might’ve been distracted by the show’s supernaturally cute kid actors and spot-on ’90s jokes, the latter of which peaked in the final two episodes, with Michael Bolton appearing as himself to hawk Michael Bolton-themed merch at the Huang family restaurant.)
But looking back, Fresh Off the Boat undeniably stepped it up this season. While the show’s first two seasons mostly focused on the dissonance between the Huangs’ Taiwanese background and the sterile Floridian suburb family patriarch Louis (Randall Park) moved them to in order to open his own steakhouse, the third dove into how the Huangs handled their subsequent success as they closed in on the American dream they’d been chasing. The show’s ability to weave bigger questions of citizenship and what the definition of cultural success should be into a lovably silly family sitcom is a damn impressive testament to how the show’s grown.
Jessica’s path to citizenship has been a long and rewarding road for both her and the show
Though Fresh off the Boat originally started as the origin story of chef Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), it was hard to ignore that Constance Wu, playing his mother Jessica, was a force of nature who stole every scene from the second the show premiered. Jessica is firm in her beliefs and resolutions, convinced she’s correct on all fronts no matter the subject, and willing to do anything to make sure her family gets the success she knows they deserve. Wu plays her with a matter-of-fact confidence and underlying sweetness, keeping Jessica endlessly watchable whether she’s masterminding a real-estate deal or filibustering a neighborhood council meeting.
In season three, Jessica embarks on a higher-stakes challenge (though she treats basically everything like it’s life or death): becoming an American citizen.
In the fourth episode (“Citizen Jessica”), the Huangs find out that Jessica’s just been renewing her green card on a loop instead of biting the bullet and becoming an actual citizen. Naturalized citizen Louis encourages her to go for it, especially after the season premiere’s trip back to Taiwan made it clear that the Huang parents are, to their own surprise, too comfortable in the United States to leave it for good any time soon. It still takes Jessica some time to come around to the idea — and it takes knowing that being a citizen means she’ll have access to certain advantages she otherwise wouldn’t to really convince her it’s worth it.
The episode in which she finally secures her citizenship isn’t just a highlight for the season, but the series. “How to Be An American” (episode nine) frames Jessica’s final interview as a retelling of how she and Louis met and created a life in a strange new country together. Not only are the flashbacks to slapstick disasters and burgeoning affection lovely and funny in the way Fresh off the Boat does best, but they also give Jessica’s final step a personal touch that shows how meaningful this moment is for her beyond the necessary fact of it.
But Jessica becoming a citizen isn’t the only storyline that touches upon what being a citizen actually entails. “Citizen Jessica” also finds a pathetic sort of comedy in the fact that Jessica’s attempts to push a more favorable tax proposal through a local election is surprisingly easy, thanks to the fact that no one bothers to vote in the local election. And a couple of episodes before she secures citizenship, Jessica gets jury duty and immediately stages a hostile takeover of the jury to impose her conviction on the verdict. (Unsurprisingly, this plus her declaration to the defendant that she hated him the second she saw him triggers a mistrial.)
But once Jessica becomes a citizen, the season shifts into exploring something a little different, but no less related to the idea of achieving the American dream — namely, what the hell do you do once you’ve achieved it?
The season finale confronts what comes after the Huangs’ hard fight for success
The last two episodes of the third season — “This is Us” and “This isn’t Us” — see the Huangs reaping the rewards of their hard work. Youngest Huang kid Evan (Ian Chen), brilliant and bored, makes a case for why he should go to private school. Cattleman’s Ranch, Louis’s determined manifestation of what he thinks the American dream looks like, is successful enough that Michael Bolton himself wants to become a partner — which would give the Huangs enough security to buy a house years ahead of schedule. And so in “This Isn’t Us,” Jessica moves the family out of its strategically cozy rented house in a cul-de-sac to a giant marbled mansion, the better to make Evan more desirable for private school.
But despite the heated floors, fancy intercoms, and tantalizing hot tub, the new house doesn’t fit the family at all. It’s too big, too sterile, too far from the life they found for themselves and the friends they’ve made along the way. Jessica’s unhappiness there is so deep that Louis eventually has to ask her why she’s so sour about the fact that, after everything they’ve done and sacrificed, they’ve finally graduated to the level they were aiming for.
"I'm not comfortable being this comfortable,” Jessica finally admits. When Louis pushes for the reason why, she can’t stop herself from spilling her deeper insecurities around success. “If we get too comfortable, then we'll be satisfied with what we have,” she insists, “and we won't keep pushing to get better."
Louis, ever the optimist to Jessica’s pragmatist, counters that “if we don't enjoy what we have, we don't have anything.”
"I don't even know how to enjoy it. Struggling is all I've ever known,” Jessica counters. And though she agrees to try — and even manages to bliss out for a second on those heated floors — the echoes of this conversation linger, eventually leading the Huangs to ditch their fancy new life and return to their familiar cul-de-sac. When Jessica asks Louis, with no small amount of confusion, if “they’re done,” and if they “achieved the dream,” she’s not just asking what’s next, but what success even means when the American dream is all about dreaming bigger and better, no matter what.
It’s a big question for a family sitcom to tackle — and one Fresh off the Boat doesn’t brush off by trying to answer definitively. The Huangs may be knocked back to their status quo for season four, but hopefully, Fresh off the Boat will keep digging into the nuances of these issues like it did in season three. After all, the show is really good at it.
The first three seasons of Fresh off the Boat are currently available to stream on ABC.com and Hulu.