Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seoul Food: CBC's Kim's Convenience

Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang in Kim's Convenience on CBC.

Ins Choi's semi-autobiographical 2011 play Kim's Convenience originally debuted as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival and was later remounted by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company to wide acclaim. Soulpepper's production would go on to win two Toronto Theatre Critics awards in 2012, one for Best Canadian Play and another for Best Actor for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in the role of Mr. Kim. With Soulpepper on board as co-producer, CBC's television adaptation concluded its 13-episode first season on December 27, and it was consistently one of the delights of the 2016 television season, be it American or Canadian.

Kim's Convenience centres on the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family who own and operate a convenience store in Toronto's downtown Regent Park neighbourhood. Adapted for television by Choi and Kevin White (the two also co-wrote many of this season's episodes), the series also features Lee and Jean Yoon reprising their stages roles as "Appa" and "Umma," the patriarch and matriarch of the eponymous Kim family. White, who has written for Corner Gas and Schitt's Creek, had previously created InSecurity, CBC's homegrown spy spoof, which aired for two seasons in 2011 and which was ultimately cancelled due to the infamous federal budget cuts of early 2012. (InSecurity, incidentally, is a small gem and remains one of my favourite recent Canadian comedies.) What the two shows share is an unabashed Canadianness of the sort that marks many of the best Canadian shows, from Due South to Intelligence. The charm of Kim's Convenience is also of that same, utterly untranslatable sort that speaks a kind of universal language only the most situated stories can accomplish.

As Canadian television's first Asian-helmed series, its most obvious precursors are two CBC comedies: Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012) and the now-classic King of Kensington (1975-1980), which starred Al Waxman as another convenience store owner in an equally diverse Toronto neighbourhood. Little Mosque, about a tiny Muslim community in small-town Saskatchewan, was at its strongest in its first season when it held more firmly to the specificity of the stories it told. (Little Mosque was never quite as focused on the geographic locatedness as Kim's is, though I admit that, living in Toronto, I am likely more attuned to those details in the newer series.) But like Kim's Convenience, both shows were at their sharpest – and funniest – as they irreverently mined the multiculturalism that Canada is rightly celebrated for.

Simu Liu in Kim's Convenience.

In addition to the Kim family – which also includes the 20-year-old Janet (British Columbian newcomer Andrea Bang), studying photography at Toronto's OCAD University, and her older brother Jung (Simu Liu), who is long estranged from their father – the store setting allows the city itself to be a regular character in the series. While Kim's is at its heart a family comedy, the series also shines in the small, slice-of-life vignettes each episode showcases between Mr. Kim and his revolving door of colourful customers. One brief scene from the middle of the season where Appa confidently, proudly, and wrongly identifies two niqab-wearing young Muslim women by name, for example, expresses more in about 70 seconds than any two-hour lecture on multiculturalism ever could. Or another, where Appa, his Chinese friend, and a female Caribbean customer engage in quick banter, their strong accents clashing – challenging the audience to keep up with what is clearly a daily experience for the characters on screen.

Traditional and firmly set in his ways, the character of Mr. Kim never veers into stereotype. The family dynamic and intergenerational tensions are familiar and authentic without losing a sharpness that keeps it from falling into heartwarming territory. Shows that are firsts certainly run the risk of becoming too invested in the politics of representation and going into too-earnest territory, but Kim's – similarly to how ABC's Speechless has recently succeeded – has deftly steered clear of any hint of pablum. And, moreover, neither does the show take itself into Louie-like cringe-comedy territory. Mr. Kim, with his old-world negotiation of the multicultural world he lives in – like the first episode's "gay discount" subplot, or Appa's frequently expressed suspicion of all things Japanese – is simply too genuinely engaged with the world around him for that. (See, for example, when he expresses his concern over the noisy Gay Pride Parade and inquires of two gay customers: "If you is the gay, why can’t you be quiet, respectful gay?”)

Like Speechless, Kim's Convenience works because – in the end – it isn't trying to be anything more than funny. It draws on an immigrant experience that certainly reflects the lives of many Canadians (more than half of Toronto's residents were born outside the country), and it is does so with sweetness, sensitivity, and, yes, heart – but it reaches for those hearts by way of the messiness of those experiences and not by dulling all the edges.

The cast is also uniformly strong, though a special mention needs to go to Liu. As close-knit, first-generation immigrants, the painful rift between Jung and his father is central to the story lines for every member of the family – but Jung's evolution into a responsible adult on his own terms is one of the season's strongest arcs, and Liu quickly emerges as one of the most appealing new TV actors of 2016, stealing practically every scene he's in. (His palpable charisma reminded me of  Jason O'Mara, another television actor whose basic charm automatically elevates everything project he's involved in.) Liu's having a pretty good year: just days after Kim's premiered on the CBC, it was announced he'd be joining Tatiana Maslany and company for the fifth and final season of Orphan Black, and he's in the main cast of the Taken prequel series that's debuting on NBC next month – a project that, I confess, I will check out solely because of Liu's participation.

Last month, the CBC renewed Kim's Convenience for a second season. It will return with new episodes in the fall.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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