Rex Lee (right) in 'Fresh Off the Boat' | Photo courtesy ABC
Since Fresh Off The Boat, ABC's freshman comedy featuring the first Asian-American cast on primetime in 20 years, hit the scene in January, it's been winning over hearts and minds with a combination of sharp wit, writing, and relatable family dynamics. The show hasn't shied away from tackling important and interesting topics: notably, a scene where mother Jessica confronts 11-year-old Eddie about date rape. It was the most effective, non-PSA style moment in recent TV history -- perfectly funny and perfectly on point. Now, after nine episodes, Orlando is finally getting a "gaysian" in this week's episode, titled "The Blind Spot."
Oscar Chow (played by Rex Lee) is Jessica's college ex-boyfriend, but he's not the first gay character to appear on the show. Earlier they set up Jessica's obliviousness to gay men around her when she sold a house to two men as an accidental real estate agent. Oscar's appearance brings this blind spot into focus. While Jessica (Constance Wu) wonders why her husband, Louis (Randall Park), isn't jealous of Oscar staying at their house, the viewer is confronted with Jessica's ignorance, but she's not the only one missing something in the relationship. Louis can't tell when someone likes him, and Oscar has very different memories of their time in college.
The episode is one of the more refreshing takes of a love triangle that really feels triangular, so we caught up with showrunner and writer Nahnatchka Khan and episode writer David Smithyman about creating Oscar Chow, the progression of gay characters on TV, and the media attention on television diversity this season.
Out: What was the genesis of this episode?
Nahnatchka Khan: We wanted to set up the fact that Jessica has a blind spot and can't tell when people are gay. That's why the realtor part, where she can't tell the couple are a couple, set the table for this episode. We wanted to give Louis an equally obvious blind spot, where he can't tell people are into him.
Was there pushback to how you set up the dynamics between Jessica, Louis, and Oscar and the twist that Oscar thinks he was dating Louis?
NK: When we pitched that on the phone to the studio, everyone laughed. They were surprised. They were on board.
David Smithyman: It also kind of makes Oscar seem not crazy. He seems like the most rational guy. He really was dating Louis. I think a lot of gay characters are predatory of straight characters, and we all didn't want to do that. I think Oscar comes off as the most level headed of everyone.
NK: I think a lot of us have had relationships that we feel are full blown relationships in our head. But then you're like, maybe that wasn't what we thought it was.
Everyone is missing something, or misunderstanding different parts of their relationship.
NK:Exactly. That's also fun with shared histories, especially from college. You need those people to fill you in. You all have different ideas of what happened.
Was it difficult to write a gay character set in the '90s within the more progressive TV environment of today?
DS: It wasn't difficult to write him as a gay character. To be honest, I didn't even think of him as a '90s gay person, I just thought about him as a proud gay man. He was still figuring it out, and I think a lot of gay people, myself included, go through different phases our identity of being gay. I think someone like Oscar, there are flamboyant parts to him. But there's another side too, I think there's a very romantic side as well.
NK:I think it was cool the way that David developed the character of Oscar. He is out, he's comfortable who he is, and he doesn't hide any anything about himself. he's completely fine wearing a necklace that says "gaysian." He owns it. If he had been ambiguous or coy about the sexuality, I don't think that would have played for [Jessica's] story.
I want to talk about the ridiculous deadline article that was making the rounds, because Fresh Off the Boat was called out as part of the catalyst for this idea of more "ethnic casting" in Hollywood. Any response to that article?
NK:It's so ludicrous. [Laughs] I don't even know where to begin. The Shonda Rhimes response was the best I saw. What do you even say?
DS: White people have had it pretty good for a long time.
NK: It's only been what, 70 years of television that's been a certain way?
It's interesting that the kids storyline didn't touch much on Oscar or intersect, was that a choice or something that was cutting room floor?
NK: I feel like it's just a function. We wanted to give the kids their own story because the triangle between Oscar, Jessica, and Louis is so interesting. To bring the kids into that felt like it would be a lot. But we also wanted to treat it, too, like it wasn't a big deal. Nobody ever sits down the kids in the episode and says, "Here's the thing about your Uncle Oscar." There's no gravitas. There's no need to discuss it because he is who he is.
DS: I think one of the important points of Oscar being so openly gay, with the "gaysian" necklace and things like that. It was clear he wasn't making an attempt to hide anything from the kids or the family. He was 100-percent himself. I have gay relatives growing up where you're supposed to kind of keep it on the DL in front of family, and he doesn't do that.
NK: Didn't your [relative] live with the tennis coach, or something?
DK: He did, his full time coach.
NK: I mean, we've all had full time coaches that we've lived with...
Will we see any more of Oscar or more gay characters on the show?
NK:We'd love it. If we get more episodes ordered and Season 2, we'd love to have Oscar back. We feel like it's part of the world, we'd love to have that representation. David and I are talking about franchising the Denim Turtle [a lesbian bar that Jessica takes refuge in at the end of the episode.]
What's great in that scene is Jessica is so kind and open and caring, even though she's got these huge blind spots.
NK: She feels comfortable there. That's where she goes to feel comfortable. She knows everybody by their first name.
DS:We're hoping to get Denim Turtles into 50 airports.
Fresh Off the Boat airs March 31 at 8 p.m. on ABC. Watch a clip below: