'Kung Fu': TV Review

Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen in Kung Fu
The CW
Timeliness helps compensate for tackiness.
4/7/2021

The CW's latest stars Olivia Liang as a Shaolin-trained woman who returns to San Francisco after three years in China only to discover a triad menacing her family.

As near-trends go, The CW's devious recent pattern of using macho "dad" brands as a Trojan horse for heartwarming family dramas is one I'm partial to. Like Walker, the network's Kung Fu has its own share of problems. But the inevitability that fans of the '70s show of the same title checking out this semi-remake will freak out and then tune out is absolutely a feature and not a bug.

While Kung Fu and Walker have a lot in common — namely, they both do some things well, just not the things most associated with their respective brands — Kung Fu has an added asset of timeliness. In a moment of rising hate crimes against Asian Americans, this is a show with a breadth of representation that feels astonishing on broadcast television. Yes, that fact should embarrass the industry to no end. But Kung Fu definitely derives value from the ways it looks and feels different from any other show on TV, amid all the ways it still feels very similar.

Created by Christina M. Kim, with Greg Berlanti leading the big names on the production team, this Kung Fu has much more in common with The CW's Arrow than it does with that original series about a Shaolin-trained monk traveling the Old West seeking to right wrong and whatnot.

Olivia Liang plays Nicky Shen, a young woman who chafed under her controlling mother's (Kheng Hua Tan) watch and went AWOL during a "cultural tour" of China that turned out to be a matchmaking mission in disguise. Nicky ended up at a Shaolin monastery known for training female warriors. Three years into her study, Nicky's world is rocked when a rogue assassin (Yvonne Chapman's Zhilan) breaks into the monastery, kills Nick's mentor (Vanessa Kai), bests Nicky at slo-mo combat and steals a sacred sword of some kind.

This unfortunate situation forces Nicky to return to San Francisco, where her timing is rather tremendous, for better and worse. Her older sister Althea (Shannon Dang) is on the eve of her marriage, which is good, while her father (Tzi Ma) is dealing with some debt issues tied to a local triad, which is bad. Not everybody is immediately willing to embrace Nicky after her unplanned absence. Her brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) feels betrayed and her mother goes through an assortment of "I have no daughter!" guilt trips. Nicky's ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) isn't really sure what to think, but since Nicky is very quickly introduced to hunky Asian art historian Henry (Eddie Liu), who really cares what Evan thinks?

So in Arrow-esque fashion, you have a prodigal child coming back to her hometown after an unaccounted-for period of training/absence; discovering that said hometown isn't as she left it; and sticking around to clean things up and repair relations with her family. That's almost the opposite of the migratory, injustice-of-the-week premise of the original Kung Fu. The original show's hook was based on Kwai Chang Caine's wandering exoticism and this Kung Fu is anchored in stay-at-home normalizing (Evan's character could almost be named Token White Guy).

Or at least I think it is. After just the pilot, it's strangely hard to tell how the show will actually function. There's a big mythology arc tied to Zhilan, the mythical sword and Nicky's desire to avenge her mentor, and I'm sure it will connect in some way to the unconvincing triad storyline in San Francisco. But man that triad storyline in San Francisco is completely of the "Let's put a rogue triad as her hometown adversary and we'll swap it out if something better comes along" variety, only nobody swapped it out.

The triad stuff is so generic that it almost drains the potency of the ripped-from-the-headlines assault on Nicky's father, the instigating event that makes Nicky want to clean up the streets. I would assume the show's creative team will find a way to work a patina of current events into storylines at some point, and I can imagine why they didn't want the key adversary in the first season to be "burgeoning xenophobia in America." But it feels like a slightly missed opportunity to plant a flag with the pilot, the only episode sent to critics.

If a pilot is your opportunity to establish premise and put your best resources forward, Kung Fu is a mixed bag anyway. The action stuff is fine, a little on the deliberate-and-slow side, but boasting glimpses of Wuxia gravity-defying beauty. None of the pilot's fights are prolonged, yet they stand out as memorable because of how unrelentingly cheap and meekly shot the rest of the episode is. Every interior is over-lit and generically decorated, every conversation is blandly staged and the doubling of British Columbia for San Francisco is unconvincing. I don't know if Kung Fu had a lower-than-usual budget by CW standards, if COVID restrictions forced corner-cutting or if the action scenes were deceptively costly and they had to compensate. But this is way shoddier than a broadcast show in 2021 should look.

"Properly lighting non-action scenes" is a low bar, and one Kung Fu deserves to reach since it's generally so likable when it's nothing but the main characters interacting. Liang, Dang and Prasida have respectively solid presences and instantly appealing sibling chemistry in a show that has been written to given them layers of affection and history. Ma, a character actor who has dealt with more than his share of one-off heavily accented Asian bureaucrats and authorities, is always wonderful when he's given the opportunity to simply be light and caring. There are definitely characterizations that are trope-y here, with the difference being the variety of representations and the likelihood that, given more than an episode or two to play out, even the things that look like stock types in the pilot will evolve and add depth.

That's where Kung Fu has me interested, if not hooked. I would almost be more intrigued if the martial arts moved to the background and the show became more and more just an Asian-American family drama that the producers tricked The CW into making. I won't tell if you won't.

Cast: Olivia Liang, Kheng Hua Tan, Shannon Dang, Eddie Liu, Gavin Stenhouse, Vanessa Kai, Tony Chung, Tzi Ma

Creator: Christina M. Kim

Episodes air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, starting April 7.