Do you remember the original Kung Fu? We do. Starring David Carradine, it aired on ABC from 1972-75 and for many years after that in syndication. It was a very calm, zen show, despite the fact that Carradine’s character, Kwai Chang Caine, kicked major butt, he was also known for the phrase “Patience, grasshopper.” This new version of Kung Fu isn’t anything like that. But does that matter?
KUNG FU: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A young woman in a Shaolin robe, making kung fu movements. “My name is Nicky Shen” she says. “And for the last three years, this has been my home.”
The Gist: Nicky (Olivia Liang) was sent to Yunnan Province in China as part of a “cultural tour,” but she was really being set up with men by her mother; she escapes in the truck of a woman named Pei-Ling Zhang (Vanessa Kai). It’s a monastery that trains female Shaolin, and once Nicky sees how awesome these women are, she decides to stay and train under Pei-Ling. She was on track to go to Harvard, as her mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua) had always wanted.
Three years later, Pei-Ling thinks Nicky is ready to go back home to San Francisco, but Nicky thinks too much has gone on between her and her family, as well as the boyfriend she basically left in the lurch. But an attack on the monastery, led by a mysterious woman named Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) leads to Pei-Ling’s death, the monastery’s destruction, and the theft of its most ancient and dangerous weapon: A sword that burns Nicky’s hand when she tries to use it.
Nicky comes back to SF just in time for the bridal shower for her older sister Althea (Shannon Dang), who is engaged to high school math nerd and current math hunk Dennis Soong (Tony Chung). Her father, Jin (Tzi Ma), is happy to see her, but her younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), a doctor at a local Chinatown clinic, isn’t. And Me-Li pretty much wants to disown her. No matter the fallout, though, Nicky felt she needed to escape the pressure her mother was putting on her.
When she witnesses a couple of thugs beat Jin within an inch of his life, Nicky finds out that both her restaurant-owning parents got a loan from the leader of the Triad, the local organized crime syndicate, and Jin is going to be killed soon if they don’t come up with $100,000. She gets help from Evan Hartley (Gavin Stenhouse), the boyfriend she left when she stayed in China; he’s an ADA for the city and still holds a candle for her, despite moving on with a new girlfriend. She also goes out to canvas the neighborhood with her Althea, Ryan and Henry Yan (Eddie Liu), a friend of Ryan’s who expresses special interest in the history behind Nicky’s studies and the sword that left a mark on her hand.
When the gang leader’s thugs go after Nicky, she defeats all of them, of course, and she’s welcomed back into the family by both Ryan and her parents… at least a little bit.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? While this show is based on the 1972-75 series starring David Carradine, this version of Kung Fu doesn’t resemble that show in any way, shape or form. It more resembles some of the other CW shows like Nancy Drew, filtered through a Greg Berlanti-produced Arrowverse filter (though the series is produced by Berlanti’s company, it is thankfully not part of the Arrowverse).
Our Take: There are things that we really like about Kung Fu and things that made us wonder about this show, especially given the network it’s on. Because it’s so different than the original series and its movie offshoots, it feels like we should consider this a completely new series. But even then, we have some issues.
What we really enjoyed about this show, which was created by TV vet Christina Kim and has a largely Asian writing staff, is that it treats the Chinese traditions and ancient stories that surround Nicky’s quest to find Zhilan with the utmost of respect. The characters, including Nicky, are real people with real reasons for doing what they did. Nicky couldn’t deal with her mother’s pressure to go to Harvard; Ryan was upset that he didn’t have Nicky at his side when he came out to their parents.
We also enjoyed the fact that Nicky, while trying to find Zhilan, is defending her family and others in Chinatown from gangs like the Triad. There’s no mystical element to that, just Nicky kicking ass with a little help from Harry, it looks like. Yes, how she got some of her moves is a little mysterious to her siblings — Ryan is amazed at how she levitated when beating on the Triad loan shark — but at least she’s using those skills for real-world purposes.
Most of the dialogue is fast and smart with the same sense of humor other Berlanti shows exhibit, but there was a lot of situations where it felt like Nicky had to save her siblings from a case of the stupids, like when Ryan brought a huge and loud camera to the factory where the Triad leader was doing an arms deal. We know that both of Nicky’s siblings have skills — Ryan knows the neighborhood via his clinic, and Althea has mad tech skills — and we hope Nicky uses them to help her instead of constantly needing to save them with her kung fu skills.
Also, we’re a bit concerned that Nicky is going to lean on her ex Evan too much, undermining the empowerment and representation messages the show is supposed to be giving. If Nicky has to repeatedly lean on the white guy that she stepped all over when she stayed in China, then what’s the point of her being a Shaolin? Maybe we’re wrong about this, but the structure of that dynamic is worrying, at least after the pilot.
Sex and Skin: None, at least in the first episode.
Parting Shot: As we see Zhilan admiring the sword, we hear Nicky talk about Pei-Ling’s spirit telling her that she’s meant to be back home, “What if she’s right? What if this was what I was meant to do? To protect my family, my community, and to stop Zhilan?”
Sleeper Star: It feels like Henry, played by Eddie Liu, is being set up as either a partner or a love interest for Nicky. Maybe he’ll be both.
Most Pilot-y Line: Nicky apologizes to Ryan about not being there for him when he came out, and he immediately forgives her like the last three years never happened. Usually grudges take longer than that to get over.
Our Call: STREAM IT. While this new version of Kung Fu has been CW-ified to its detriment, there’s more than enough to like about it to recommend it, hoping that the stupids that infiltrated the pilot get smoothed over in subsequent episodes.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, , , Fast Company and elsewhere.
Originally published at https://decider.com/2021/04/07/kung-fu-the-cw-review/ on .