Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Kim's Convenience, RIP

(source)

It's been announced that the Canadian sitcom Kim's Convenience is ending after its fifth and latest season, but to me, the show ended around Season 3. TKWife and I dutifully carried on with the show through Season 4, but in truth, we both knew we were going through the motions for the sake of expressing solidarity with North America's Korean diaspora. 

How could we not carry on? TKWife's family is the real life version of Kim's Convenience. My in-laws have owned a liquor store in Washington DC for decades. The first episode of Kim's Convenience - the Gay Discount - had put us on the floor. In that episode, which was also the show's pilot, the patriarch of the family showed mild discomfort with gay people while working at the store. After the father Appa was called out for it, he institutes a "gay discount" during Pride in order to dispel any claim of bigotry.

To us, this was not a sitcom but a documentary. My elderly in-laws are devout Evangelical Christians and they are certainly not comfortable around gay people. Yet Pride Parade is an unofficial holiday at the liquor store, because it is bar none the year's best sales week. Have you ever seen extremely conservative Korean elderly couple, grinning from ear to ear with genuine happiness upon seeing a battalion of gay men in risque clothing? It's high comedy, and now the world saw what we see each year.

The Gay Discount episode, to date, is among the most brilliant portrayals of the contradiction in our Korean diaspora lives that I have ever seen. We are coded as POC, and assumed to fit into the liberal side of the politics along with Blacks and Latinos. But our lives in reality don't map neatly onto the typical racial politics. When the expectations that our society has of us don't match our actual behavior, something's got to give to mend the rupture. Either we awkwardly change our behavior or the people around us awkwardly change their behavior, and hilarity ensures.

Unfortunately, the first episode was the peak of Kim's Convenience. None of the other episodes managed to capture the pilot's brilliance, while some were pockmarked with low moments. The character of Nayoung - the Kim family's cousin from Korea visiting Toronto - was genuinely offensive and racist. While Kim's Convenience broke new ground in the mainstream television by showing Korean Canadians as ordinary, everyday people, the Nayoung character from Korea was a grotesque caricature, with ridiculously dyed hair, high-pitched falsetto voice and jumpy mannerism. I saw more than a few Koreans in Korea quit the show immediately upon seeing the character: "So that's how gyopos see us? They're normal and we're some kind of freaks?"

Fueled by the good memory of the first episode, TKWife and I persevered. But doing so required turning off parts of our brains and deliberately overlooking things that would never happen in a Korean diaspora family in North America, like the first generation immigrant parents speaking English to each other and with their best friends who are Chinese and Indian. I know expectations are different between a lighthearted sitcom and an arthouse movie, but it still seems worth noting Minari won an Oscar with the movie being acted out almost entirely in Korean. Plus, there is an under-explored comedy gold mine in the way in which diaspora Koreans strategically deploy their home language and English. Why not push the envelope further?

In fact, the show missed an even greater opportunity that could have pushed it to an entirely new level. Kim's Convenience could have built a whole season just based on the Kim family's church life, where the cross-currents are the fiercest between the Kims' POC status and their genteel Christian sensibilities. When Pastor Nina character appeared in episode nine, I had thought to myself - oh shit, they did it. They put a Black woman pastor at a Korean American church. I held my breath in anticipation: how will the Kims react? Where are they trying to take this? 

As it turned out, they didn't take it anywhere. Pastor Nina's race and gender never became a plot device, as if it was a perfectly common and everyday thing for a Black woman to be the lead pastor of a Korean church full of first generation immigrants. Why put Pastor Nina character there, if she was going to be treated like a pastor who is a Korean man? The show had five seasons to capitalize on the contradictions of desiring a safe space in a new land and the new land's demand for diversity and inclusion, and it never did.

By Season 4, the show was a wreck that attempted to be the lesser version of The Office and Friends. going through the awful sitcom death spiral where everyone dates everyone simply because the showrunners ran out of ideas. The show meandered through the least interesting part of the Kim family's world, namely the rental car shop where the Kim family's son Jung works. The show is called Kim's Convenience, but nothing really happened at the convenience store anymore. There will be a spin-off of Kim's Convenience based on the character of Shannon, the white love interest of Jung who also works at the rental car shop which only begs the question: why does the ground-breaking Korean Canadian show insist on going to the least Korean space within the show and focus on the least Korean character?

Only recently did we come to learn that none of the writers for the show was Korean, and the sole Korean Canadian presence Ins Choi, who originally created the concept for the show, was not very involved. The stars of the show are mad as hell at the way it ended. For my part, I'm mostly sad about the unrealized potential of the pilot.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

10 comments:

  1. I wanted you to know that at least one American still reads your blog.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And one Canadian :-)... I haven't watched the show, however after this review I might watch episode 1.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The best episode for Kim's Convenience may not be the TV show, but the play Ins Choi wrote and performed in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, I attended one of those nights, and having a drink with some of the actors/actresses afterwards. The "Gay Discount" was in the play as well. It later become a show on Soulpepper in 2012, and they even tour the show in 2013. The "Appa" and "Umma" are played by the same person all the way from the Fringe show to the TV series. I guess I've just watched the first 2 episodes on TV only, because the show on TV is barely recognizable from the original idea, and I feel so sad to all my friends in the play and the series later developed.

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  6. The one thing that’s always bothered me about Kim’s Convenience is Appa’s Korean accent. I know white guys from Encino that can do a better Korean accent than Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who plays the father. The actor was born in Daejon but clearly immigrated to Canada when he was very young.
    Still no excuse for an actor, though. I bet you Meryl Streep could do a kick ass Korean accent. 😂

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