If anything, Dr. Ken illustrates what Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef whose memoir served as the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, was talking about when he slammed the show for watering down his life story to make for sanitized broadcast TV—while at the same time showing how unreasonably high his expectations were to begin with. And Fresh Off the Boat, written by Nahnatchka Khan, may be unmistakably a prime-time ABC family sitcom, but it’s nowhere near as watered-down as Dr. Ken.
Khan’s writing might be toothless in the network-TV mold, but it still has a kind of edge to it—an underlying sense that the Huang family’s hijinks take place against a backdrop of their otherness in an unfriendly world. But Huang’s complaint about “reverse yellowface”—the reason why he ultimately quit doing narration for Fresh Off the Boat—fully applies to Dr. Ken: The show, alas, is a formulaic sitcom that uses all the same tropes as white-centric sitcoms but scores “diversity points” by casting an Asian family.
This in and of itself isn’t necessarily the worst thing. Dr. Ken takes place in 2015, whereas Fresh Off the Boat takes place in 1995 in a fictionalized version of Eddie Huang’s childhood. Diversity on TV, especially when it comes to portraying Asian American families, has come a long way since Huang’s childhood, or Ken Jeong’s, or mine. Part of what we want when we ask for representation is to acknowledge that we have struggles that are different from white people’s—but we also want the freedom to just exist as people without having everything be about our race.