Though far from the first or the only sitcom to follow an Asian immigrant family, “Kim’s Convenience” stands out for its simplistic authenticity. This is owed to its beginning as an adaptation of Ins Choi’s semi-autobiographical stage play of the same name, which he created in part due to the lack of opportunities for Asian actors such as himself. After the success of the play, Ins Choi went on to create the TV adaptation alongside co-producer Kevin White.
Praised for being “quietly revolutionary,” “Kim’s Convenience” presents the experiences of Asian immigrants across generations in a lighthearted and genuine way. The show follows the lives of convenience store owners Mr. and Mrs. Kim (played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon, respectively) and their adult children Jung (Simu Liu) and Janet (Andrea Bang). “Kim’s Convenience” also features a massive rotating cast of side characters, including Jung’s coworkers Shannon (Nicole Power) and Kimchee (Andrew Phung), but the heart of the series lies firmly with the central family and their relationships with each other.
Its mix of humor and emotions earned the sitcom a commendable number of awards and a wide audience (including, as it happens, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau). Although it was never a show explicitly about being Korean, many people commented on its representation. One viewer, Mr. Park, stated that it could “serve as a blueprint for any on-screen representation of immigrant characters.”
Unfortunately, Park’s comment may have come days too soon, as the recent controversy over the poor treatment of the show’s actors and the lack of Asian writers have prompted many to take a second look at “Kim’s Convenience.” Allegations of racism and a generally poor work environment have begun to shed a negative light on what was once an uncontroversial and highly regarded show.
“Kim’s Convenience” and the Importance of Representation
Before delving into the sordid details, it’s important to note that this sitcom in large part deserves the praise that it gets. “Kim’s Convenience” became known for its representation, and the show has earned ample praise for its ability to write three-dimensional Asian characters.
I personally think “Kim’s Convenience” is fantastic. As a Korean American, many of the jokes and plots in the show are as endearing as they are familiar. My favorite example has to be the phrase “cool, Christian, Korean boyfriend,” which Mrs. Kim uses as she tries to set her daughter up with the boys from her church. It may as well have been something I heard verbatim from my mother (and she from hers), and it’s just the kind of understated humor that “Kim’s Convenience” excels at. Though it certainly falls short in some aspects, there’s a certain charm to the show that kept me and other fans around for as long as the show would run.
With how significant the show has been for its Asian cast members and audience, it comes as no surprise that CBC renewed it for a fifth and sixth season. But in March, the network announced that “Kim’s Convenience” would end with season 5. Both Choi and White wanted to focus on other projects, and so decided to end the show prematurely. In White’s case, this also includes a spin-off focused on Shannon (Nicole Powers), Jung’s former girlfriend and co-worker.
Is Season 5 at Least Any Good? (Spoilers Ahead)
Since I’m not privy to all the details, I can’t speak to how severely the cast’s negative experiences might have affected the final product. I can, however, confirm that Season 5 doesn’t hit the same marks the previous seasons did.
The season still possesses that same humor, which in many cases quickly goes from strangely heartfelt to hilarious. But multiple ongoing plotlines from previous seasons are brushed aside — for example, at the end of Season 4, Janet set off to Tanzania with her not-quite-boyfriend Raj, who doesn’t appear at all in the final season. Certain moments that could’ve become entire storylines — such as Janet’s exploration of her sexuality or Jung’s desire to establish himself professionally — are also either forgotten at the end of each episode or never quite given the depth they deserve.
Even the finale felt inconclusive and strangely dismissive of the main characters. Jung and his father never get a proper reconciliation (despite all five seasons leading up to one), Janet’s career goals never truly solidify, and Mrs. Kim’s health struggles go largely unaddressed. After an entire season of forgotten story arcs, this hurts even more. Annoyingly enough, while the Kim family and their closest friends’ futures are left undefined, the character with the most concrete plan is Shannon. This is likely to set up for her spin-off series.
Worst of all, the fate of the eponymous convenience store, where so many of the series’s best moments take place, is left entirely up in the air. The entire finale revolves around the family coming together to figure out what will happen to it in the future, but it ends with neither Jung nor Janet choosing to take over. Instead, during the last episode’s final seconds, we see an image of the closed store, leaving us with only a bleak sense of finality and a bitter taste in our mouths.
The rest of the sitcom is still as lovable as ever, even if knowing how it ends colors the experience. Though I don’t think any of the behind-the-scenes issues fundamentally ruin the show, I think the effects can absolutely be felt in the poorer quality of the last season and the unsatisfying ending.
Issues Behind the Scenes
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
A couple of weeks ago, Simu Liu posted a lengthy list of his issues with the production on Facebook. He expressed his frustration with the lack of creative input he and the other actors were allowed and the absence of East Asian and female writers. Although many of the show’s Asian actors were trained screenwriters with lived-in experiences to draw from, “there was deliberately not a lot of leeway given” for any creative contributions. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrew Phung later seconded this criticism. Liu also draws attention to the fact that the actors were paid exceptionally little when compared to those in less diverse shows with worse ratings, as well as points out that the only cast member to get a spin-off also happens to be the only white lead.
Simu Liu’s Facebook post also expressed disappointment with Choi, who never took on the responsibility of recruiting more East Asian writers. Additionally, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who played Mr. Kim in both the play and the sitcom, commented in an interview with Yahoo that he had been “ghosted” by Choi, who felt burnt out as the series came to a close.
Though nobody working on the show tried to hide the lack of Asian writers per se, Liu’s comments were shocking to many (including myself) and sparked a conversation about the need for representation both on and off-screen.
Adding to that conversation, Jean Yoon added to the conversation with a lengthy Twitter thread days after Liu’s Facebook post. She discussed how the lack of Asian female writers (and Korean writers in general) made her life “painful,” repeatedly enduring racist jokes and scripts that were “so extremely culturally inaccurate that the cast came together and expressed concerns collectively.”
Among these jokes is a scene in which Mrs. Kim unknowingly wears a pair of pants that make her look naked from the waist down. As Yoon points out, this is hardly a mistake that anyone would make, especially not someone as image-conscious as Mrs. Kim, and the scene only served to humiliate her character beyond what Yoon was comfortable with. (The scene was eventually cut after Choi was given some more control over the show.)
Yoon also added that many minor cultural details were incorrect, particularly those surrounding Korean food, and that the writer’s room contained “no Korean cultural resources” whatsoever.
The fact that the writers relied on input from the cast to achieve the accuracy that they did throughout the show’s run should be enough to prove that Korean people are needed to tell Korean stories authentically. It comes as a disappointment that, after five years, nobody caught onto that lesson, at least not enough to actually hire more Korean writers or take the time to listen to the cast members.
It’s unfortunate that a series that poked fun at stereotypes and celebrated multiculturalism also suffered from such a severe lack of representation. But if one thing can be remembered from the murky legacy of “Kim’s Convenience,” let it be that good stories require marginalized voices. From its most beloved episodes to its lackluster finale, nothing else exemplifies this sitcom more.