Network Failure

If there’s one problem that ABC have – apart from being a Big Three network in an era of digital multiplatforming – it’s authenticity. For two years in a row, debuting primetime offerings from the network have been pulled up for artificially rendering their source material. The complaints are as much from authors as critics. Second-generation Chinese-American restauranteur, writer and cultural activist Eddie Huang laid in to the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat based on his memoir of the same name for reverting to ethnic and racial stereotype in its depiction of a Chinese immigrant family settling in 1990s Orlando. Though credited as a producer and a narrator for the pilot season, Eddie has continually spoken against the homogenising and caricaturing of his life and people by the show’s writers and producers, as well as the network itself. Having read his memoir, it’s certainly no exaggeration that the events of Eddie’s life have been sanitised, his political views marginalized, and his experience of growing up in America made secondary to the demands of a family sitcom.

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Flash-forward one year and critics are saying the same about The Muppets, ABC’s TV revival of the vaudevillian puppet characters owned by parent company Disney. While the two Disney movies that rebooted the Muppet franchise were highly regarded returns to the original talent show premise, the sitcom that followed revisited the characters in a behind-the-scenes mockumentary format replete with self-consciously adult humour. It’s no Meet the Feebles but nor it is the family-oriented and friendly fare we’re used to. Retrofitting Muppets like Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzy Bear into a Larry Sanders-style sitcom has meant the libidinal and laconic sides of these characters – which were traditionally alluded-to, offscreen things – have come to the fore, and long-time Muppet aficionados have questioned the connection between the current and original incarnations. Again, it’s hard to disagree. The Muppets were always meant to appeal to adults, but not solely, and usually as a by-product of their pan-familial ambitions. The idea that Jim Henson’s ensemble are able to compliment twisted modern comedy is cross-breeding even he would balk it.

Inauthentic? Yes. But worthless? Absolutely not. The sitcom variation on Fresh off the Boat may be far too cosy to do justice to the raw and acerbic memoir it was inspired by, but it is has never shied from addressing questions of race and assimilation. Last week’s episode filtered its discussion of Chinese media self-representation through the ghost of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, seen here as the gold standard of racist Asian stereotype in American popular culture. Occasionally, too, a fiercer take on caucasian culture and community reminiscent of Eddie’s own bleeds through, as when Grandma Huang casually remarks on the subject of family relations, that white people ‘are the cruellest race’. Though the format is familiar, the content is often challenging and we don’t forget about the problem of difference. There’s universality to the representation of the latter-day immigrant experience that even G, a Mexican-American, recognizes. To his credit, Eddie is gracious enough to admit that this universality is not altogether a bad thing, just that it lacks the reality he knows.

Though some of ABC’s The Muppets is like watching your parents make out (or worse!), I’ve enjoyed a lot of the writing that uncovers the parts of Muppet culture that previously remained – mostly for reasons of censorship – latent. Whether it’s the band’s unspoken pot habit finally exhaling it’s now-legal name or the romantic truth behind the sado-masochistic relationship between Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Burner, you might also say that in more progressive, accepting times, it’s the obvious way for the characters to go. Speaking of diversity, it’s been a pleasure to see Pepe the Prawn, a Latin Muppet, get some much-deserved screen time, including some of the show’s best dialogue. Having had an episode order trimmed severely and their showrunner leave after a single season, it seems as though the network is not happy, or at least buckling under the heavy criticism, much of it from parents and conservatives concerned about the sitcom contaminating the moral fibre of the Muppet brand. I’d disagree with them anyway, but objectively the transgressive stuff is still done tastefully.

The Writer's Room!

The Writer’s Room!

I’m not completely sold on either of these shows. Fresh off the Boat made father Louis Huang a virtual replica of Phil Dunphy instead of a progressively contradictory character while The Muppets has some of the worst qualities of the navel-gazing industry mockumentary tradition. But they make their own reality.

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