What went wrong with Kim's Convenience? Look to the writers' room

You can't tout a show as inclusive if mainly white storytellers control the narrative of several East Asian leads

What went wrong with Kim's Convenience? Look to the writers' room

Simu Liu and Andrea Bang in Kim’s Convenience Photo: CBC

While watching the sweet and entertaining Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, it’s natural to notice how it helps fill the dearth of diverse Asian immigrant experiences on television. After all, the series stars a primarily East Asian cast as a delightful Korean working class family running a successful convenience store in Toronto. The show reflects the joys and challenges of the Kims’ day-to-day lives and relationships, without focusing on the various hardships of assimilation. During its five-season run, Kim’s Convenience slowly but surely found a passionate global audience, especially once Netflix picked up the streaming rights. The comedy was lauded in cultural think pieces and on social media for breaking a barrier when it comes to its Asian representation. That’s why it’s disheartening, and frankly alarming, to realize that diversity doesn’t seem to have been a priority while staffing the show’s writer’s room. Besides series co-creator Ins Choi, the only other Korean writer and story editor was Jean Kim, who joined the team during the fifth and final season.

Kim’s Convenience’s abrupt conclusion came as a surprise in March because the show had already been renewed for at least one more season. When the news broke, cast member Simu Liu took to Twitter, observing there was more to the cancellation than co-showrunners Choi and Kevin White simply moving on to other projects. Apparently, the producers couldn’t find a suitable replacement to helm season six. Because it would have been impossible to find East Asian creatives who understand the world of the show, right? In the months since, season five arrived on Netflix, Liu opened up in a lengthy Facebook post about the lack of Korean writers on the show (among other problems), and his co-star Jean Yoon then vocalized the ramifications of this issue on Twitter. The composition of the writer’s room wasn’t some big secret, but Liu’s and Yoon’s revelations brought the scarcity of East Asian writers, and specifically those of Korean descent, in the room under the spotlight.

While Kim’s Convenience was groundbreaking, these behind-the-scenes revelations point to a larger problem in the industry about the criteria for when and where to be inclusive. How progressive can a show really be if mainly white storytellers are controlling the narrative of several East Asian leads? What is clear is the need for a writer’s room to include voices from the community being depicted on-screen. When writers of color get the opportunities to tell their own distinctive stories, they imbue the material with candid realism with their lived-in experiences, without catering to a white perspective or knowledge of said community. It’s frustrating that those in charge of Kim’s Convenience disregarded this fact, especially since there are so few Asian families on TV, let alone ones presented in a wholesome, heartwarming way. (Other notable examples include Fresh Off The Boat, Never Have I Ever, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and a couple of well-written episodes of Master Of None.)

Kim’s Convenience’s fresh take on the family sitcom came from the unique perspectives of protagonists like Yong-mi a.k.a. Umma (Yoon) and Sang-il a.k.a. Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee). The loving parental duo moved from South Korea and established a new home in Canada, imparting their wisdom and humor onto their relationship with each other, daughter Janet (Andrea Bang), and estranged son Jung (Liu), and how their bicultural identity shapes their lives. However, the show will now continue in the form of an upcoming spin-off focused instead on its only white series regular, Shannon Ross (Nicole Power), Jung’s girlfriend and former boss.

Titled Strays, this show was in the making before Kim’s was canceled, and may very well prove enjoyable—Power has fantastic comic timing. But CBC and Thunderbird Entertainment (the company that independently produces and distributes Kim’s) could just as easily have commissioned spin-offs to expand the show’s world with stronger contenders like Andrew Phung’s Arnold Han a.k.a. Kimchee, Jung’s best friend who spent the series finale trying to find his dad. Janet’s pursuit of a full-time photography career would be yet another logical option for a solo outing. The same goes for the family of Mr. Mehta (Sugith Varughese), Mr. Kim’s close friend who frequented the store and who ran a buffet restaurant. I suppose that would require the awareness to hire East Asian or South Asian people behind the scenes as well as on camera.

Kim’s Convenience began as a play by Choi, a Korean Canadian playwright and actor, who partially based it on his own experiences growing up working at his uncle’s store called Kim’s Grocery, and on his observations of the Korean Canadian community and churches. It’s yet another example of Asian creators having to carve their own space in the industry, like Mindy Kaling with The Mindy Project and Never Have I Ever, or Ali Wong and Randall Park with Always Be My Maybe, or Nida Manzoor with the recent Peacock comedy We Are Lady Parts. While he adapted his idea from stage to the small screen well, Choi remained the only Korean writer on the show for its first four seasons. This doesn’t mean the writers’ room was completely devoid of people of color: As the show’s social media account shared, the writing staff included award-winning co-executive producer Anita Kapila, who is South Asian, and others like Nadiya Chettiar. This throws off the lid on a bigger problem of how all Asians are banded together despite not being a monolith.

In the case of Kim’s Convenience, the onus of script criticism was put on cast members, clearly causing unhappiness on set. According to Liu’s and Yoon’s posts, the cast apparently had to intervene on multiple occasions against overtly racist storylines or jokes that they observed in the script. Yoon also tweeted that there were no cultural resources to aid with certain storylines, including ones about Korean food; it was at the cast’s urging that a cultural consultant was hired during season five. That same season saw Jean Kim board the show as a writer and story editor. According to Yoon’s tweet, Kim is the first Korean woman to join the writers’ room. That’s just appalling, considering Kim’s Convenience is meant to champion the voices of the Korean diaspora.

This doesn’t take away from the talent of Kapila, Chettiar, Choi, and the other crew members, whose work, along with the cast’s, is crucial to the success of the show. And it shouldn’t stop you from appreciating Kim’s Convenience for being a relatable and funny (if a bit uneven at times) series, especially since it helped kickstart some careers—Liu leads Marvel’s Shang Chi, Lee showed up in The Mandalorian, and Phung will star in Run The Burbs, a new CBC comedy he co-created. But it is an egregious failure on the part of the creators, network, and producers to not hire writers who can bring a wealth of nuance to the source material. While the lives of the fictional Kim family will remain compelling, the show’s legacy now includes a lesson in pushing for representation, on- and offscreen.

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