What Hollywood can learn from the 'Kim's Convenience' scandal — but probably won't

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Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as "Appa" and Jean Yoon as "Umma" in "Kim's Convenience"- Season 4.
Jean Yoon as Umma, left and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa, right, in "Kim's Convenience." (CBC)

The beloved CBC series “Kim’s Convenience” has come to an untimely end, and #KimBits fans, as the show’s followers are known, are mourning the wholesome — if at times wickedly acerbic — sitcom about a Korean Canadian family serving a diverse community of customers at their store in Toronto’s Moss Park neighborhood.

The series, which blended social commentary with stories about the Kims’ careers, romances and church activities, ended abruptly — and inconclusively — with its fifth season, which arrived on Netflix on June 2. After the departure of series co-creator Ins Choi, the production company Thunderbird Entertainment declined to go forward with a sixth season.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who played patriarch Appa, said in a broadcast interview with CBC News: The National that the series’ unceremonious conclusion felt “akin to grieving a death in the family.” And two of his fellow cast members, Simu Liu and Jean Yoon, have spoken out on social media in recent days about life behind the scenes on “Kim’s Convenience”: Despite the appearance of a happy, unified ensemble, both actors claim that Asian cast members struggled with disenfranchisement and alienation from producers and plotlines — a not-uncommon assertion for Asians in North American entertainment.

Yoon, who stars as Umma, the wise, witty, sharp-tongued matriarch, wrote on Twitter on June 6 that working on the series was “painful,” calling some storylines “overtly racist.” Liu, who plays heartthrob prodigal son and car rental employee Jung, posted on Facebook on June 2 about the series’ unraveling, which he ascribed to Thunderbird Entertainment production decisions, explaining: “The show can't be ‘saved’. It was not ‘cancelled’ in a traditional manner, i.e. by a network after poor ratings. Our producers (who also own the Kim's Convenience IP) are the ones who chose not to continue.”

Liu also decried the lack of creative input available to senior cast members, saying, “... it was always my understanding that the lead actors were the stewards of character, and would grow to have more creative insight as the show went on. This was not the case on our show, which was doubly confusing because our producers were overwhelmingly white and we were a cast of Asian Canadians who had a plethora of lived experiences to draw from and offer to writers.”

The social media posts threw into sharp relief the ongoing reluctance of producers and executives from Hollywood to Toronto to trust and empower Asian actors, writers and directors to tell their own stories — and as Yoon and Liu both pointed out, few of the writers for “Kim’s Convenience” were of Asian descent. As Yoon wrote, the “lack of Asian female, especially Korean writers in the writers room of Kims made my life very difficult & the experience of working on the show painful.”

A man and a woman standing in front of a "Happy Anniversary" banner
Simu Liu as Jung and Andrea Bang as Janet in "Kim's Convenience." (Ian Watson / CBC)

The actor also said that in Seasons 3 and 4, problematic plots “undermine core values of characters, cultural authenticity.” Indeed, small departures from authenticity are often a sign that a series’ writers are not familiar with a culture: Yoon noted that “Koreans hardly ever get [multiple sclerosis],” with which Umma is diagnosed, and she is correct that the incidence in Koreans of MS is a minuscule 0.1 per 100,000. (Yoon wrote that the producers responded to her pointing this out by saying, “Why does it matter?” and “Jean doesn’t understand comedy.”)

If one episode stands out among the seasons Yoon called “problematic,” it may be the Season 4 entry “The Help,” in which Umma is mistaken for a server by a white jury member, Mrs. Taylor, at her daughter Janet’s university art competition. While calling servers “the help” and devaluing them as undesirables is troubling enough, the storyline’s most glaring flaw may be an abortive attempt to explore unconscious bias that ends up — perhaps unconsciously — implying that an Asian Canadian woman unfairly won an award mostly due to white guilt.

In the episode, Janet tells her teacher that Mrs. Taylor should apologize to her mother for the mistake — but when Mrs. Taylor arrives at Kim’s Convenience to apologize, she misconstrues Umma’s confidence that Janet will win as a demand — or even as a threat — that she should receive the reward to make amends for the discrimination. Appa remarks on the brouhaha: “Innocent racist mistake, plus Asian lady suggest a daughter should win, multiply by years of white guilt, equal Janet win award.”

Appa’s pointed comment, though clearly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, also gives credence to the myth that people of color win college admissions, art competitions or jobs because of affirmative action. Though the writers attempt to turn this tired arc around with Mrs. Taylor’s hilariously mortifying — and all-too-real — comment that she feels horrible and understands because her daughter-in-law is Sri Lankan, in the main the episode squanders its opportunity to explore the school’s unconscious bias — the same kind of unconscious bias that plagues many writers rooms.

The episode ultimately implies that Janet should be happy with the award, despite not knowing whether she really earned it or not; the onus is on Janet to accept or deny the award, and Umma to allow or refuse her, rather than on Mrs. Taylor to do the right thing. It’s a happy-go-lucky conclusion that not only clashes with the principled, stubborn artist we’ve come to love in Janet, willing to stand up for her beliefs often to her own detriment, but it also undermines the claims to equity and inclusion that “Kim’s Convenience” and series like it claim to uphold.

A group of people standing outside a storefront
The cast of "Kim's Convenience": Simu Liu, from left, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andrea Bang, Andrew Phung and Nicole Power. (CBC)

“The Help” is part of a pattern that emerged in the series’ writing in these seasons, in which cheap punchlines about race, ethnicity and nationality supplanted the observational humor that brought the series its legions of fans. In another episode, for instance, the staff at Jung’s car rental company begin to call their white coworker Terence “Wasabi,” after his love of the Japanese condiment; Shannon, Jung’s white girlfriend, says she can handle piquant ramen because “I’m dating a spicy Korean”; and Terence makes a joke about how “going Indian” had gotten him “sent home on Halloween.” Whether you find these jokes offensive, they cannot exactly be called inspired comedy. Coupled with other cultural insensitivities, like the mispronunciation of Korean words, they add up to a series that fails both its Asian cast and the Asian people it was meant to represent.

Whether this devolution was a consequence of Ins Choi’s absence from the set is difficult to say conclusively, but Yoon described the situation as having reached a “crisis” between Seasons 4 and 5, for which Choi, the sole Asian in the writers room, returned. Yoon said the scripts drafted by co-creator and showrunner Kevin White without Choi were “so extremely culturally inaccurate that the cast came together and expressed concerns collectively,” including one — in which Umma attends a Zumba class wearing flesh-colored tights and doesn’t realize she looks naked from the waist down — that further elucidates the writers’ failure to grasp Korean concepts of physical propriety and filial piety, in addition to respect for women’s intelligence.

Indeed, as Jung languished in his dead-end job instead of succeeding as a model, and Shannon continued to crack the same stereotypically race-based jokes from season to season, the lack of character development surpassed the semi-stasis of the traditional episodic sitcom to suggest something else: That the writers and producers of “Kim’s Convenience” saw their characters as flatly-imagined stereotypes of the immigrant Canadian experience.

Thankfully, the actors behind these characters broke the “model minority” mold to reveal a tale of disenfranchisement, worsened by the obligation to smile, nod and feign gratefulness, that reflects an all-too-common entertainment industry experience for people of color. When North American pop culture chooses to tell Asian stories at all, they are usually the fabled and palatable tales of happy, hardworking immigrants and their assimilated children, not the more painful truths.

While Lee believes the fallout from the recent controversy can be a lesson to subsequent projects — “Kim’s was the first show of its kind, and a first show is always going to make mistakes, but for us to grow as an industry, we need to learn from those mistakes,” he told CBC News — the fact that the one non-Asian character, Shannon, is being awarded a spinoff may say more about how far the industry, in Canada and the States, has to go.

It’s impossible not to wonder whether Janet could have had spinoff potential had her storylines been brilliantly and authentically written by an Asian woman writer, instead of being one-dimensionally dominated by her fascination with one man after another. Or, for that matter, what happens to Umma, Appa, Jung and Janet. In the absence of the Kim family squabbling and laughing together while closing the book on their romances, careers and retirements, KimBits will simply have to imagine what could’ve been for Season 6 had the series made more diverse behind-the-scenes representation a priority in time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.