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Taking Stock Of TV's 'Kim's Convenience'

Kim's Convenience may be breaking ground with its Korean-Canadian focus. But arguably it can still fall into the trap of putting people into "us" and "them" boxes. And, sadly, that too shows how truly universal it is.

Kim's Convenience is a CBC sitcom (airing Tuesdays) revolving around a family-run corner store. Based on an earlier stage play, the series stars Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Jean Yoon, Andrea Bang and Simu Liu and has been getting a bit of notice because the family is Korean-Canadian.

One can quibble whether the series is truly the first Canadian series to feature a predominantly Asian cast. It was preceded by Omni TV's crime drama, Blood and Water (which also featured Liu as the son of immigrants), and some years earlier by the memorable CBC cops n' mobsters mini-series, Dragon Boys. But certainly by virtue of being on a major network, an open-ended format, and the populist idiom of a sitcom, Kim's Convenience is hoping to put a pin in the map of Canada's evolving pop cultural landscape.

Ethnicity aside, it's not perhaps breaking any ground. But that's OK. Populist TV is often about comfort food. Kim's Convenience treats us to the requisite comical misunderstandings and telegraphed conflicts that mostly get resolved by the end of the half hour.

In short: it's a likeable, family friendly American-style sitcom.

Now I'll put my cards on the table and admit that my favourite comedies recently tend to be quirkier and from the U.K. -- Detectorists, W1A and Lovesick (a.k.a. Scrotal Recall) for instance. Kim's Convenience is happy to stay with unsubtle sitcom tropes. But its strength lies in an engaging cast and some wry, clever dialogue that skates around simple set-ups and punch lines.

But I use that analogy of an "American-style sitcom" deliberately because a few short years ago Canadian TV programmers went on a mad hunt for this elusive cultural Jabberwocky -- The American-Style Sitcom. The results were (mostly) awkward, not especially funny, and cancelled within a year or two. The irony that Kim's Convenience has arguably succeeded (creatively at least -- only time will tell about ratings) is that part of the formula employed in the "American-style sitcom" trend was to obscure the Canadianness of those earlier series in the belief that the more generically "American" the setting, the funnier the comedy.

Kim's Convenience proves the opposite is true. It doesn't hide its Canadian setting -- and proudly trumpets its Korean-Canadian identity. And it demonstrates that by doubling down on a distinct identity, you uncover that "universal" resonance. It may filter the episodes through a Korean perspective -- but whatever your race, creed, or colour, you're gonna recognize aspects of the family dynamics.

One can even see antecedents of the series in past English-Canadian sitcoms like Corner Gas and even King of Kensington (convenience stores and parent/adult children dynamics). Heck, one could easily imagine Eric Peterson's Oscar from Corner Gas and Lee's Mr. Kim kvetching together about the modern world. Although Kim's Convenience goes for more realism -- the characters are real people beneath the jokes, with real emotions. The on going sub-plot of the son's estrangement from the dad gives the series a slightly bittersweet edge (so, hey, maybe it's "edgier" than I suggested).

But the series also raises a few questions about how Canadian film and TV reflects the reality of multicultural Canada. Because it's all very fine for industry folks to send self-congratulatory tweets about this "first" -- but what's next? I don't even mean: will there be other Asian-centred series on Canadian TV (or in film)? After all, there are only a limited number of Canadian series made every year. But will it open doors (and level the playing field) for Asian actors (and writers) in non-specifically Asian productions?

A few years ago Little Mosque on the Prairie was also heralded as a demonstration of Canadian pluralism. But in the long run I'm not sure it has done much for the acting careers of Sitara Hewitt or Zaib Shaik.

Now, obviously, the entertainment biz is capricious regardless of your race or gender, and plenty of talented white actors land a juicy role one year and are back auditioning for TV commercials the next. And it's important to acknowledge the spat of recent series with prominent and even lead non-white roles such as Killjoys, Blackstone, Mohawk Girls, Strange Empire, The Romeo Section, Blood & Water, the English-language 19-2 and others. But are these a permanent relationship -- or a brief dalliance?

If you're a filmmaker cheering Kim's Convenience from the sidelines while prepping your own production with its all-white cast (and writer's room), then Kim's Convenience is just two steps forward, one step back.

And now that I've pissed off both racists and Canadian identity deniers (who shoot steam out of their ears like Yosemite Sam every time I write about the importance of admitting the setting is Canadian) I'll see if I can make it a hat trick and piss off everyone else.

Because one philosophical quibble I have with Kim's Convenience is the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Kim themselves. Paul Lee and Jean Yoon are great, no argument there, and the characters are amusing and reasonably nuanced -- for sitcom characters. The senior Kims are played with thick accents, befitting immigrant characters -- and befitting their roles as comedic characters in contrast to their adult children who are, essentially, the straight man roles. But they also speak accented English when talking amongst themselves.

I know it might be too confusing to do in a weekly sitcom, but I couldn't help thinking it might've been interesting to have Lee and Yoon slip into unaccented English when alone together, as we could imagine them speaking Korean to each other. After all, I'm guessing they wouldn't continue to struggle to express themselves in a second language in the privacy of their own home. It could show us a different side to the characters, no longer the outsiders amusing us with their broken syntax and muddled metaphors. Obviously one could object that would undercut the characters, rendering them less comical, less cute. But, y'know, that might be the point.

Kim's Convenience may be breaking ground with its Korean-Canadian focus. But arguably it can still fall into the trap of putting people into "us" and "them" boxes. And, sadly, that too shows how truly universal it is.

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