Plagued by accusations of racism, the popular CBC show about Korean immigrants gets an early hook
The back story behind Kim’s Convenience, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s sitcom about a Korean immigrant family and their convenience store, has taken an unwelcome front seat in the wake of the worldwide release of the show’s fifth season on Netflix earlier this month. The CBC had already renewed Kim’s Convenience for a sixth season all the way back in March of 2020–so news of its abrupt cancelation naturally upset its worldwide fanbase.
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Fans clamored for the CBC to reconsider. This prompted lead actor and rising Marvel Cinematic Universe star Simu Liu to make a surprisingly open statement on social media, where he explained that the issues leading to the end of the show were on the back end rather than the front end.
According to Liu, the show had long given the four core Kim family members who make up the sitcom’s leading cast short shrift both creatively and financially. Though he later apologized in statements to Vanity Fair magazine and elsewhere, Liu initially said that the show paid him and his costars “horsepoop,” and that the writer’s room did not have enough female or East Asian writers working on scripts.
This took people by surprise. The main family’s ethnic identities have been a critical part of the show’s marketing, and led to most of the program’s positive reception. When Liu faced pushback on social media, his co-star Jean Yoon, who plays his mother on the show, backed him up.
Apparently playwright Ins Choi, responsible for the stage play on which the CBC adapted Kim’s Convenience, had relatively little input into the show’s actual production. Purportedly Kevin White was the real showrunner, and while he receives the same creator co-credit as Choi, prior to these revelations few people even knew who he was. Choi’s life story is the one the CBC features prominently in all the Kim’s Convenience marketing material to emphasize the program’s authenticity. Kevin White, by contrast, doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page.
This story has surprised a lot of people. But not me, for an admittedly smug reason. I never much liked Kim’s Convenience to begin with. I’d first heard of it in South Korea. The Family Channel company, which manages eleven cable channels, owns most syndication rights there. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, South Koreans tend to be excited about any English language programming that features ethnic Koreans. They see it as a sign that Korean culture has really made it worldwide.
With minimum prompting as to what Kim’s Convenience even was, I started watching it mostly blind, and was horrified by the reliance on crude stereotypes. To be clear, these are crude stereotypes of Koreans as understood in a North American context. I doubt many South Koreans saw the subtext at all.
People like the elder Kims, with weirdly archaic beliefs about such topics as their adult children’s dating lives, certainly exist in South Korea, as do weird trend-obsessed amalgam girls like the family’s wacky cousin Na-young. But they’re not the norm. It’s just, when other Korean people surround you all the time, any random Korean person on television is just going to seem like that person, not a representative of the whole culture.
This tension is at the heart of the Asian-American identity, and is a big part of what’s been promoting the current shift toward representation mattering, a shift of which which Kim’s Convenience took great advantage. Yet on a textual level, Kim’s Convenience never truly engaged this flawed framework. What’s especially frustrating is that you can see the actors themselves trying. In one episode of the latest season, a conflict seems to hinge on Liu’s character realizing that he’s over-ethnicizing his mother’s possible reactions to his live-in girlfriend.
Despite realizing he’s the main one at fault for a disastrous lunch date, the writing still goes out of its way to make it seem like Liu’s stereotypical assumptions about his mom are basically correct. The closing punchline of the mother assuming he and his girlfriend sleep in separate rooms is particularly absurd. Korean culture tends not to have the same kinds of hangups about premarital sex that American culture does because it’s assumed that a couple living together are already basically married and just trying to save money for a wedding.
There still are other kinds of hangups, of course. But the exact nuances are difficult to grasp for someone not in the culture. This is part of what makes the idea of the majority white male writing staff putting words into the mouths of Korean female characters while ignoring their input that much more absurd.
Even stories explicitly about prejudice in Kim’s Convenience were coming from a majoritarian perspective. The show hard-codes the few unsympathetic characters that it allows to be racist. They have no real personality beyond the fact that they make bigoted remarks with little to no provocation. When we’re talking about people trying to sell a pair of basketball shoes on CraigsList, or just hanging out at a church bake sale, the pointless antagonism is just a bit absurd. It’s racism as white people imagine racism to be, just a random bad thing done by bad people that only needs to be called out to be solved, not a structural problem in society.
Yet far from suffering workplace discrimination, Liu’s character always seems shockingly comfortable working at a car-rental store, where he even has the benefit of his goofy Korean best friend Kimchi. The show plays off apparent racisms by his white boss and eventual love interest, Shannon, as poorly timed malapropisms, the kind of racism for which you can forgive a sympathetic white person. But the things she says are functionally identical to deliberately bad jokes that are in the script for walk-on roles who exist solely as props so that the leads can call them out for their racist beliefs.
Beyond race issues, the whole workplace dynamic is troublesome in light of Liu’s postcript. The show portrays the managers of the car rental store, which eventually include Kimchi, the goofy Korean best friend of Liu’s character, as overly magnanimous. One episode actually makes a conflict out of Kimchi being too much of a friend to his underlings. In another, emotionally needy employees guilt-trip Kimchi for not doing enough to comfort them in regards to personal matters that have nothing to do with work.
It’s hard not to see these moments as psychological warfare perpetrated by the writers on the cast. The actors of Kim’s Convenience, much like the lesser employees at the show’s internal car-rental setting, are unreasonably whiny while the writers/managers are trying to get the real work done. This is exactly the kind of casual belittlement that defines racism in the real world, particularly in a managerial context where white overseers rationalize their improved pay and perks as thanks to their brainpower being superior to the so-called unskilled laborers who work in more obvious ways. I doubt the writers themselves ever made this connection. If your understanding of racism is based around woke representationalism, then anyone working to make Kim’s Convenience for broadcast has to be not racist by definition.
With Liu making the jump to the big screen with the upcoming Shang-chi movie from Marvel, woke representationism in this case at least beget more woke representationism. Which is probably why Liu felt he had a solid enough position to bluntly explain the situation to fans in the first place. Disney has already invested in him in such a way they can’t back out. Jean Yoon lacks such immediate job security.
By contrast, anonymity so cloaks the writers of Kim’s Convenience that consequences of any sort are highly unlikely for them. With Kim’s Convenience and its troublesome minority cast dispatched they’ve moved on to Strays, a spin-off that will center around Shannon, Liu’s white boss and love interest from Kim’s Convenience, played by Nicole Power. Another Canadian sitcom, Strays is highly unlikely to approach Kim’s Convenience in terms of worldwide popularity, as it lacks the main gimmick that made Kim’s Convenience special.
And that’s really the main thing to keep in mind. While I wasn’t a fan of Kim’s Convenience personally, there’s no denying that the strength of the cast was the show’s big selling point. It’s how Liu was able to move on to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even if Liu and his co-stars were not, in his words, paid “horsepoop” rates compared to similar Canadian television shows with lower ratings, I don’t think there’s any question they had to have been underpaid just by definition. Someone made a lot of money with Kim’s Convenience. It just wasn’t the actors who were the face of the program.