'Kim's Convenience' Shows Thorny Issues of Race and Representation Continue in Hollywood

Kim's Convenience - promotional image (Credit: CBC TV)

Canada’s ‘Kim’s Convenience’ Creates Complex Comedy Controversy, But Should It?

The last thing I would be endorsing is a sympathetic approach when it comes to the Hollywood complex. The industry is a seething cauldron of distemper, sexism, bias, social grandstanding, and other issues, but that does not mean it is always fully at fault. One Canadian television production is reflecting so many of the entanglements involved in doing the right thing.

On Netflix, the new season of the comedy production “Kim’s Convenience” just debuted, and it was with some heavy tones that it was also announced to be the final season. The show has been a hit in its native Canada, even drawing ratings higher than “Schitt’s Creek,” which was wildly embraced here in the States with both high ratings and numerous awards won. After its fifth season, however, there was an abrupt announcement that behind the scenes strife led to the production being brought to a halt.

The show is centered around a Korean family in the area of Toronto, the father being the owner and proprietor of a convenience store in a neighborhood of diverse individuals. It was adapted from a stage production by playwright Ins Choi, who was a member of the writing team for the first few seasons. As the show became more popular, there seems to have been a drift in its focus. Mr. Choi left the show abruptly, and then as the last season was arriving, cast members came forward with their impressions of a troubled production. 

Ahead of the debut of season-5, one of the actors, Simu Liu, made a lengthy post on Facebook explaining some of what was behind the decision to end the show’s run.

“I was, however, growing increasingly frustrated with the way my character was being portrayed and, somewhat related, was also increasingly frustrated with the way I was being treated. It was always my understanding that the lead actors were the stewards of character, and would grow to have more creative insight as the show went on.”

His impressions were bolstered by veteran actress Jean Yoon, who played the mother on the program. 

“Mr. Choi wrote the play, I was in [it]. He created the TV show, but his co-creator Mr. Kevin White was the showrunner, and clearly set the parameters. This is a FACT that was concealed from us as a cast. It was evident from Mr. Choi’s diminished presence on set, or in response to script questions. Between S4 and S5, this FACT became a crisis, and in S5 we were told Mr. Choi was resuming control of the show.”

A number of other issues were raised, including a growing emergence of what were called racist plotlines, the fact that the cast felt entirely underpaid as the show swelled in popularity, and as Liu described it the show, “lacked both East Asian and female representation…a pipeline to introduce diverse talents.” 

These details bring forth something approaching a true paradox when it comes to productions. On one side, it sounds more than reasonable that insensitivities and cultural offenses could have transpired. The blame seems to rest in the lack of enough diversity in the production staff and the preponderance of white voices in the writing team. But also you have to wonder then how much of a chance would this type of show have had at the beginning?

Even as this was, in fact, based on Choi’s play, co-creator Kevin White has to be seen as the force behind the show gaining approval with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He was the creator and writer of a number of previously successful shows, such as “Dan For Mayor,” “Corner Gas,” as well as “Schitt’s Creek.” It is likely that “Kim’s Convenience” may not have come to light without the heft of White’s name and clout attached, and therein lies the paradox. Is it worse to have a show representing an under-represented group with some cultural problems, or to not have it existing at all? 

Yes, you would prefer to have a more fleshed-out production team, but then the question remains, just how flush was the talent pool for such? Part of the reason “Kim’s Convenience” was so hailed was that it was, in fact, a rarity to see Korean characters in the prime lineup because they are so lightly represented. That said, just how large was the pool of East Asian names to be chosen for behind-the-camera talent, and more specifically female East Asians?

Then, another question to be addressed is that despite the dysfunction reported, the show managed to not only strike a positive response, but it was warmly accepted and managed to become a legitimate success. No one is pretending that the on-set environment was perfect, but in bringing to light a rarely seen matrix of characters, they managed to get so much right. Just how racially insensitive could the predominantly white production team be if they earned praise from so many, like the Asians raving in that New York Times link?

Even Simu Liu points out the reality. “I love this show and everything it stood for. I saw firsthand how profoundly it impacted families and brought people together. It’s truly SO RARE for a show today to have such an impact on people.” This leads to wondering then: When it comes to productions involving minority or marginalized people — is there a demarcation line of acceptance?

Sure, it is one thing to request more of an emblematic representation, but the production team of “Kim’s Convenience” did more than bring a South Korean family to the screen. They developed a show that was a rousing success, both commercially and culturally.