My journey to Kim’s Convenience began with an article.
The article described the long journey of a Canadian play first performed in 2011, written by (and co-starring) a young Korean-Canadian actor/writer/director named Ins Choi, and how it went from workshop to Fringe Festival to sold out shows to a successful tour to a family sitcom. It was heartwarming and inspiring, one of those stories that reminds you that there is power in art, that good work can find its place in the world, that representation matters.
But it was a Canadian show, based on a Canadian play (they did do a brief off-broadway run in 2017, but flying across the country for a weekend to see a play is definitely a level of financial irresponsibility I haven’t earned yet), which meant it was unlikely that I would ever see it.
Except, of course, that this is 2018, and Netflix is a thing, which is how watching the first two seasons of Kim’s Convenience recently became an option.
The show (adapted by Ins Choi and Kevin White) centers on the Kim family (which, in a beautiful example of good things coming to those who put in the work, includes two cast members from the play, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon, reprising their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Kim) and their convenience store (naturally), along with their grown (but not quite fully-fledged adult) children, Janet (Andrea Bang), who is studying to be a photographer, and Jung (Simu Liu), who works at a car rental company and is estranged from his father.
In a lot of ways, Kim’s Convenience falls into the pleasant rhythms of the traditional family sitcom: gendered clashes between husband and wife, generational clashes between parent and child, awkward banter between outsiders (friends, customers, love interests) and everyone in the family. It’s entertaining and enjoyable and familiar.
But wrapped around that traditional family sitcom is another show, one that’s unapologetically Korean, as foods and phrases and complex Korean church politics are woven in without stopping to explain - not that an explanation is ever necessary. And wrapped around that is a second layer of immigrant culture, represented by the customers who drop by the store for a pop or some chips or just to hang out and try a little Hapkido.
It’s in these smaller moments (several of which are taken directly from Choi’s original play) that Kim’s Convenience finds much of its beauty and strength. Whether it’s in the ways Mr. Kim tries to connect with his customers (he’s only right about half the time, but he tries), to small, specific jokes about being ready to die after having a nice photo taken (although she’s not Korean, this is definitely something my grandmother said to me earlier this year), the characters feel real, and vibrant, and necessary. These are not big stories. But they are valuable stories. And by mixing these with the beats of a traditional family sitcom, the show successfully portrays the immigrant experience without ever becoming something that could be cynically dismissed as “the immigrant show”, and Kim’s Convenience is better for it.
There’s a third and final engine that powers Kim’s Convenience: the complex, contentious relationship between Mr. Kim and his son, Jung. As the show opens, the two haven’t spoken in years after a falling out, and the slow, timid steps they take toward reconciliation are as painful and awkward and funny as any will-they-won’t-they in television (no spoilers, but there was a moment I was wholly unprepared for that was so perfectly set up that I may have been compelled to call my dad right after), and it’s almost impossible to not root for father and son to somehow get over their stubbornness and pride before it’s too late.
But thankfully, it’s not too late, as the CBC has already renewed Kim’s Convenience for two more seasons (which makes total sense, since it’s a hit and has won major awards), so there’s still time for Mr. Kim and Jung to reconcile. Still time for Janet to figure out her place in the world. Still time for Mrs. Kim to reunite her family. Still time for us to spend with the Kims and their friends, in their little corner of Toronto, until it’s time to go, and Mr. Kim tells us, like he tells everyone: