Kim’s Convenience: Ground-breaking TV series goes way beyond funny immigrant themes | By Joanne Rhim Lee (Winter 2020 issue)
Kim’s Convenience, Created by Ins Choi, Netflix, Seasons 1-3
Umma and Appa run a busy convenience store and live in a small apartment right above it. They attend their local Korean church, where they help out with bake sales and socialize regularly with other church members. Their young adult children both live nearby, and frequently stop by the store to help out, grab snacks, and take part in witty exchanges.
This sounds like the story line of a bland sitcom about a stereotypical Korean immigrant family, but creator Ins Choi is a witty, perceptive writer who successfully elevates this typical plot in his ground-breaking television series Kim’s Convenience. Originally developed as a play for the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival and met with great acclaim, Choi adapted the material for Canadian television, which premiered in 2016. In July 2018, the first three seasons were introduced to American audiences through Netflix, and the show has become a bona fide hit, with Season 4 debuting January 2020.
Choi, whose family immigrated to Canada from Korea when he was only a year old, based the show on his experience of growing up in Toronto. Umma and Appa are first-generation Canadian Koreans who moved to Toronto to provide a better life for their children. Their daughter Janet works part time at the store while attending college at a local art school. When the show begins, she lives at home with her parents, but both sides find it difficult to maintain boundaries, so she moves into an apartment nearby with Gerald, a close friend and classmate in her photography program.
Even though Janet often gets frustrated with her parents’ traditional beliefs, it is clear that she is the apple of her father’s eye. In contrast, her older brother Jung is the rebellious child. When the show opens, he is working at a car rental shop, does not have a college or even high school diploma, has been in trouble with the law in the past, and is not speaking to his parents. Despite looking bad on paper, he is very good at his job, and manages to win over Shannon, his boss at the car rental, and has a great relationship with his best friend, Kimchee.
Of the six main actors, only Paul Sun-hyung Lee as Appa and Jean Yoon as Umma reprise their roles from the original play. Lee brings gravitas to the show, and has won Best Actor awards for both the play and the television version. His stern but warm portrayal of the patriarch of the family anchors both the show and the family.
Like creator Ins Choi, Lee moved to Canada from South Korea when he was only a few months old. He does not have an accent, but he adopted one for the role of Appa. Similarly, Jean Yoon, who was born in the U.S. but has lived most of her life in Toronto, uses a Korean accent in her portrayal of Umma. Though these accents are a bit awkward and distracting at first, Lee and Yoon have such an easy chemistry that their quirky Korean mannerisms quickly become endearing.
Kim’s Convenience starts out slowly in Season 1, falling back on a few worn-out clichés about Korean immigrant families such as their frugality and their inability to confront each other effectively. It would be easy to dismiss the show as a temporary successor to Margaret Cho’s All American Girl or Eddie Choi’s Fresh off the Boat. However, viewers who stick around for Seasons 2 and 3 will be rewarded, as the show finds its footing and the writers and actors really begin to flesh out the characters and their relationships, including the supporting characters of Shannon, Kimchee, and Gerald.
By then, Janet is no longer the frustrated daughter who stomps out of the store because Umma and Appa are stuck in the dark ages, and Jung is more than the dim-witted but handsome player. Andrea Bang infuses Janet with sweetness and vulnerability as she seeks to find true love among new boyfriends and old. And instead of a revolving door of boyfriends, there is one particular boyfriend who got away… or maybe didn’t.
Likewise, Jung (Simu Liu) is maturing and evolving, and shows his aching desire to get his life back in order, including healing his fractured relationship with his parents, particularly his father. What began as an innocent flirtation with Shannon, his boss at the car rental agency, may be evolving into something more. As Shannon, actress Nicole Power is hilarious; at first a bumbling, rhyming, nerdy valedictorian type, and later becoming more complicated as she tries to balance her professional and personal life. As Jung, Liu oozes charm. He was recently tapped to play the first Asian Marvel superhero, Shang-Chi.
The comic relief award goes to Andrew Phung as Kimchee, Jung’s coworker, roommate, and best friend. Kimchee grew up with Jung and Janet and knows all of their quirks and insecurities better than anyone. He has always been Jung’s wingman at school, work, and in social situations, but is struggling to emerge from Jung’s shadow.
Shows featuring people of color are often simply known as the “black show” or the “Asian sitcom.” So when a show breaks out of its limited demographic and reaches a wider audience, it is cause for celebration, both on an entertainment and a societal level. Kim’s Convenience has clearly achieved that goal, as it was the highest-rated new show in Canada in 2016, and has a dedicated fan base of “Kim-bots” who follow the show and cast members on social media, often organizing “meet-ups” and t-shirts with the show’s catch phrases, such as Appa’s “Okay see you” and “Sneak Attack” emblazoned on them.
Season 4 debuted on Netflix in January 2020, and audiences are looking forward to finding out what happens with Janet and Jung’s sticky situations, and to follow Umma and Appa’s varied exploits with their convenience store customers. As Appa would say, “Okay see you then!”
Joanne Rhim Lee has written for KQ for the past twenty years, and is a huge fan! Originally from Chicago, she has lived in St. Paul for the past 25 years with her husband and three children. She currently teaches History at Century College, and is a graduate of Carleton College and Stanford University.