Kim’s Convenience: From Cult Favourite to Cautionary Tale

Long-time fan Darcel laments about the end of the series, and the disappointment of the unanswered questions of the finale.

The main cast of Kim’s Convenience is disappointed with the show’s cancellation [Photo: CBC]

By Darcel Anastasia Al Anthony

Though most of us struggle with Monday blues, I anticipate painting the town red each start of the working week. For me, Monday evenings are reserved for family time and we typically choose a Netflix show to watch over dinner. Usually, my family and I would not manage to watch a whole episode in one sitting, but this was not the case when we watched Kim’s Convenience. Ever since we first heard Appa’s stuttering “homopebic” remarks and Umma’s insistence on finding a “cool Christian Korean boyfriend” for her daughter, we could not tear our eyes away from the screen — except when we had to wipe our tears after laughing our hearts out. This happened when Kim’s Convenience debuted on Netflix internationally in 2018. 

Kim’s Convenience mainly focuses on the eponymous Korean Canadian family running their corner store business in Toronto. It follows the day-to-day life of each family member and their friends, mostly played by actors of East Asian descent. By having many scenes at the convenience store, church, and dining establishments, we as viewers have been introduced to the lesser-seen Korean Canadian culture. We also see how various characters cope with staying true to their Korean heritage while adapting to a less traditional lifestyle in an urban neighbourhood.

Now, Kim’s Convenience has shut its doors for the last time. The cult favourite Canadian sitcom has come a long way since its premiere on CBC Television in 2016. Originally based on a stage play written by Korean Canadian actor Ins Choi, the sitcom was expanded and renewed for five seasons, receiving praise worldwide for its cultural representation and its comedic storylines. However, a different tune is now being sung ever since the fifth and final season was aired in mid-April 2021, despite the series’ initial schedule to conclude with a sixth season.

Truth be told, I was blindsided when I first heard the news that one of my favourite television shows was cancelled. It was only revealed in March 2021 that the series has been cancelled due to the departure of showrunners Choi and Kevin White. Complaints of an abrupt end to the beloved and well-known series began almost as soon as the last episode was aired. Long-time fans, including myself, are disappointed with the many unanswered questions the finale failed to answer. Predicaments that arose in the fifth season never got their chance to be tied up nicely. The matter blew up even more when the whole season was released on Netflix on June 2, gaining further international attention. 

Unlike previous seasons, the highlight of the fifth and final season was not the humour. Funny moments like Appa and Umma pretending to live in an upscale neighbourhood and Appa pranking Janet were overshadowed by serious situations. The characters have been evolved to be multidimensional people with real-life problems that can hardly be fixed in a whole season, let alone an episode. Unfortunately, viewers do not have the chance to see such plots being truly fleshed out. Deeper topics like identity and sexuality were skirted around. Ambiguity is inevitable for the characters since there will not be a sixth season to follow through such plotlines. 

We did not get to see the totality of the Kim family dealing with Umma’s multiple sclerosis (MS) that was diagnosed in the fourth season. This was brushed over and was treated as a comedic subplot, like when Appa ate Umma’s medicinal marijuana cookie and had the munchies. As much as I appreciate adding comedic effects, there is a certain time for it and it did not create a powerful impact in the show. The lack of focus on Umma’s MS undermined the chronic condition as well as the sad predicament she is in. I would have preferred seeing the Kim family and friends taking care of Umma and realising how grave her condition truly is.

Having diversity on the set is essential for the narrative of Kim’s Convenience as many scenes and plotlines are related to culture and identity. Perhaps a reason why Umma’s MS storyline is so flimsy in the fifth season is because of the lack of Asian representation in the production team. Simu Liu, who played Umma’s on-screen son Jung, revealed his displeasure with the portrayal of East Asian culture in a Facebook post shortly after the fifth season arrived on Netflix. He cited how the production team were mainly not of Asian descent which resulted in an overlook of Asian Canadians in the series. It would have been biologically impossible for Umma to have MS due to her Korean genes, but the producers felt that this was a comedic punchline. The star of Marvel’s highly anticipated upcoming movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings claimed that the cast did not have much say with the series’ storyline and their concerns with the script, such as with the MS diagnosis, were almost never heeded to.

Most of the show took place in Kim’s Convenience store [Photo: @KimsConvenience via Twitter]

Kim’s Convenience initially received much acclaim for its cultural richness as it was rare for a Korean family to be in the spotlight in western media. As much as it was unique to have a show that dictated the various perspectives of Korean Canadians, it was also vital to highlight the stories of these rarely included minorities. However, after learning about the lack of Asian representation in the production team and the struggles some actors faced with their script, the fifth season of Kim’s Convenience has left a sour note. Actress Jean Yoon, who played Umma in the series, created a Twitter thread detailing some cultural inaccuracies and unfortunate incidents with the show, describing her experience as “painful” and “frustrating”. All of these comments by the actors have opened my eyes into seeing the cultural shortcomings on the show.

I believe that having appropriate cultural representation in the media is even more necessary in today’s world as multiracialism is on the rise worldwide. Not only will having proper representation make the storyline authentic, but it will also shine light on the multidimensional characters and settings. Including East Asian writers and listening to the actors would have diversified and strengthened the character arcs and plots — which would have allowed the beloved series to end on a sweeter note. 

The fifth and final season of Kim’s Convenience also saw the rise in prominence of the perpetually chirpy Shannon, played by Canadian actress Nicole Powers. Many main storylines and subplots in each episode centralised on the Handy Car Rental manager, with each episode featuring scenes in either Shannon’s apartment or office. Shannon also became more emphatic and likeable in this season, as compared to previous seasons which depicted her as loud and obnoxious. I believe that the finale was set up to increase Shannon’ popularity among viewers to  pave the way for her upcoming spin-off series, Strays.

Though Kim’s Convenience built its success off the stories of Korean Canadian immigrants, Strays is, ironically, based on the only non-Asian main character from the series. Many have seen this move executed by White (who is also a producer of Strays) as a snub to the formidable Asian Canadian cast of Kim’s Convenience. However, it should be noted that Shannon is the only character not reprised from the original play, and therefore does not belong to Choi. This would afford the producers of Strays the creative freedom to develop a show with the beloved character.
While many die-hard fans are still on the fence about Strays which is due to premiere in September 2021 — the cast of Kim’s Convenience remains steadfast in their support of co-star Nicole Power. In the same Facebook post, Liu wrote that he is “proud” of his on-screen manager and romantic interest. Four-time Canadian Screen Award winner Andrew Phung, who played fan-favourite Kimchee, also displays his support for the show and encourages the public to watch it. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who played the family patriarch Appa dedicated a touching Instagram post to Power, and is “very excited” to watch her in Strays. Personally, I have decided to give Strays a shot and am hoping for better media representation of the diverse ethnic groups in Canada.

One of the show’s central plotlines focuses on Janet (Andrea Bang) living as a second-generation immigrant and coping with her parents’ traditionalism [Photo: CBC]

Though Kim’s Convenience is cancelled, there are still upcoming television shows that can be a new beacon of hope for proper Asian representation in western media as well as a new guilty-pleasure for fans of Kim’s Convenience. Run the Burbs, which is co-created by Phung and will feature him in the lead role, will highlight the theme of having a mixed Asian heritage in Canada. Another upcoming Asian-led television show is Ms. Marvel, which stars Pakistani Canadian Iman Vellani as the titular character, and eminent Indian actor Mohan Kapur as her on-screen father. This mini-series is scheduled to debut in late 2021 and will be the second Marvel project to feature a main Asian protagonist.

Despite my disappointment with the cancellation of Kim’s Convenience and the lack of proper Asian representation, the fifth and final season of Kim’s Convenience was still addictive and feel-good. I enjoyed watching the endless banter between Appa and Umma and Jung’s profound bromance with Kimchee. It was also touching to see how matured and responsible Janet has become while keeping her passion for photography. The season was wholesome and ended with a bittersweet scene with all of the main characters reuniting for one last authentic Korean meal together. 

I would give the fifth season an overall rating of 3 out of 5. For me, Monday evenings are the same as before, merely watching short sitcom episodes with my family and laughing heartily over deliciously cooked meals. However, I must confess that I have never watched a similar show that captivated my attention and pulled on my heartstrings this much. Signing off and borrowing Appa’s iconic phrase, “Okay, see you”.