Shop Talk

Can Kim's Convenience help fix TV's diversity problem?

Photograph courtesy of the CBC
Photograph courtesy of the CBC

In a film studio on a scrubby stretch of Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard one Wednesday in July, Ins Choi sits perched in a chair, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, watching intently as a pair of actors rehearse. Choi is the forty-two-year-old co-creator of Kim’s Convenience, a half-hour TV show premiering this fall on CBC. As the actors block the scene, he scrolls through the script on his MacBook, following along. “What’s that new line, Ins?” one of the actors calls out. Choi reads from the screen: “Don’t worry about me, it’s all good. Family is family.”

It’s the subject at the centre of Choi’s show. Based on his play of the same name, Kim’s Convenience is a single-camera comedy about a Korean-Canadian family much like Choi’s own. It follows Mr. and Mrs. Kim (Appa and Umma), who bought a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park in the ’80s and are now watching as the neighbourhood gentrifies and their grown children squirm against their influence. Rooted in Choi’s specific family experience, it’s an immigrant story with familiar themes—parents who sacrificed everything so their kids could have a better life, and are then inevitably appalled and dumbfounded by the lives said kids choose. One of the sets is in a church basement that’s been made to look like Choi’s parents’ church basement. The living room is inspired by his parents’ living room, photos of the cast mixed in with black-and-white pictures of Choi’s Korean ancestors, stiff and upright in their Sunday best. When his parents visited the studio a few weeks earlier, they were mortified by the messiness of the apartment and urged their son to tidy up before shooting.

That Choi has managed to transplant this personal world into a prime time Canadian sitcom feels unprecedented, almost miraculous. In the last four years, the faces on television shows have begun to more closely resemble the faces of their audience. Discussions about onscreen representation have become more intelligent and insistent as viewers have demanded onscreen diversity that goes beyond the one-black-friend model. In Canada, a country that has produced multiple mainstream TV shows starring heroic German Shepherds and zero starring Asian families, the mere existence of Kim’s Convenience is a sign of progress. In 2016, Choi and the CBC are filling the screen with raucous Koreans, trusting that audiences in rural Saskatchewan are ready for a heartfelt comedy about a belligerent immigrant store owner and his family.

On a lunch break, Choi walks out of the cavernous studio and into the thick summer heat. Despite being the co-executive producer of a TV show, he comes across as guileless, a showbiz naïf accustomed to the nurturing world of the theatre who woke up one day and found himself on a television set.

“How did this all happen?” I ask.

“What, the TV show?” Choi says, deadpan. He picks at his plate from craft services, shifts a few sweet potatoes around. “Yeah, it’s a big mystery.”

To flick through Canadian television in 2016 is to visit a strange, unfamiliar country—a nation filled with strawberry-blond horse whisperers and turn-of-the-century detectives, a place where every third person you meet is an exhaustingly plucky Newfoundlander with something slightly naughty to tell you.

In reality, one in five Canadians is a visible minority. In Vancouver and Toronto, where many of these shows are shot, nearly half the residents are people of colour. And yet on our televisions, minorities exist at the margins. They’re there for a moment—working the front desk at the gym, mopping up after a group of wacky elementary-school teachers—and then they’re gone, multicultural set dressing against which the paler denizens of TV Canada live their eventful lives.

In a business still dominated by white people—liberal, painfully well-meaning white people—the ethnic characters that do exist can become the victims of a deadening politeness. Little Mosque on the Prairie became an object lesson in the virtues and gentle foibles of Canadian multiculturalism instead of an actual comedy. Rather than risk creating an offensive caricature, creators render non-white characters as boring, flawless, and unspecific—less than fully human. The particularities of ethnicity are cast aside in favour of “colourblind casting,” which too often means taking a character written as white (a “neutral” character) and casting someone black or South Asian—anyone, really, to avoid the mild embarrassment that comes with an all-Caucasian cast.

Working as an actor in this environment can be exhausting. Jean Yoon, who plays Mrs. Kim, has an IMDB page that stretches from Hollywood movies such as The Time Traveler’s Wife to Canadian TV shows such as Being Erica. “I’ve had lots of really exciting opportunities, and I’ve had some great roles,” Yoon says. “But I can still count on one hand the number of projects I’ve worked on in film or television where I have a private life, where my primary function as a character isn’t just to move the story along.”

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the forty-four-year-old Torontonian who plays the irascible Mr. Kim, says that before this show, he had given up on his dream of playing lead roles on TV, and instead concentrated on developing his skills as a character actor. “As a young actor, you’ll take anything: thug number one, gangster number three, convenience-store clerk or doctor,” says Lee. “As your career goes on, the parts get a little bigger, but never as a lead. It can be frustrating.”

When Choi approached Lee and Yoon with a play set in a Toronto convenience store and the chance to take on complex, funny, often infuriating characters, the pair eagerly accepted. In 2010, Choi was a theatre actor trying to write something that felt true to his experience of growing up in multicultural Toronto. He spent five years working on drafts of his first play. At one point, low on funds, his Korean church raised $3,000 to help fund a workshop performance of the show, which allowed Choi to see the work-in-progress on its feet.

When it was finished, he sent the play to every major Toronto theatre company and was rejected by all of them. So he applied for the Fringe Festival, funding a bare-bones production just to finally get the show in front of an audience. Choi directed it himself and played the estranged son, Jung (aged down and played by Simu Liu in the CBC version). Lee had to go to his agent and sheepishly explain that he wanted to act in a DIY Fringe show for free. “I know the season is really busy, but in my soul I need to do this play,” he said.

The show was an instant hit. As embodied by Lee, Mr. Kim is an irresistible character. With a thick accent and burly physicality, he’s a cantankerous patriarch from the old world, a man stubbornly trying to navigate life with as much dignity as possible. A proud Korean nationalist, he calls the police whenever a Japanese-made vehicle is illegally parked in front of the store. He has a complex system of stereotypes he uses to figure out who will shoplift. “Fat black girl is no steal. Fat white guy, that’s steal,” he explains to his horrified daughter.

The character felt at once totally familiar, a recognizable Canadian archetype, and also completely new, someone you hadn’t seen before on stage or in film. Or rather, he felt like someone you’d seen a million times, but always in passing—handing a lead character some change, telling a cop about a suspicious customer in a pre-credit sequence—before the camera pans away to tell someone else’s story.

The show set off a bidding war among Toronto theatre companies. Choi eventually chose Soulpepper, where the remount won the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for best play in 2012 before touring the country. The play’s success immediately drew attention from the TV world, and Choi went on what felt like endless lunch dates with producers, directors, and production companies. “Most of them were kind of aggressive, and I was scared,” he says. He didn’t want to make a show he wasn’t proud of, something that wasn’t true to his vision. “In the end of that, I said, ‘You know what, I’m not interested in making a TV show or movie. I just like it as a play. I’m not that ambitious.’”

In 2011, at a Soulpepper rehearsal, Choi met Ivan Fecan, a former television executive. It wasn’t until 2014—when representatives from Fecan’s new production company, Thunderbird, approached him during a Vancouver run—that he decided to move forward with a TV show.

Choi had never written for television. (In the years since premiering Kim’s Convenience, he had written one other play.) And so producers sent him on a series of blind dates to try to find a partner who could help navigate the specific beats of a half-hour show. Choi remembers meeting with a parade of writers, all of whom seemed to have similar resumés and similar backgrounds. “Most of them were white,” says Choi. “Everyone’s white. And that bugged me initially. Until I realized that’s a given right now.”

Choi eventually teamed up with Kevin White, a TV writer and showrunner who has worked on Corner Gas and Schitt’s Creek. At the time, Choi wasn’t much of a television watcher, but after swallowing entire seasons of various comedies, he found himself drawn to shows such as Louie and Master of None, spiky comedies that stray from sitcom rhythms and aren’t afraid to mix pathos in with the laughs. “The whole strategy was, let’s mine what worked in the play and bring that to the screen,” says Choi.

In the five years since Kim’s Convenience debuted at the Fringe festival, the television world has changed. The success of such shows as The Mindy Project, Fresh Off the Boat, and Black-ish has shown that putting new faces onscreen and behind the camera isn’t some chore that networks must dutifully perform, but an opportunity to find fresh sources of humour and drama. In addition to the endless supply of shows about thirtysomething white people moping through the fashionable neighbourhoods of New York and LA, we get sketch comedians Key and Peele as code-switching biracial nebbishes. We get Aziz Ansari on Master of None experiencing a specific kind of second-generation guilt as a New York foodie who is unappreciative of his Indian parents’ sacrifices. We get characters on Fresh Off the Boat speaking in Chinese accents without the accent itself being the butt of the joke (an idea so radically counterintuitive it must have felt like introducing a cream pie into a scene at a clown convention and then having everyone just enjoy dessert).

“I think we’re in a moment,” Choi says. However silly it may seem as a narrative form, the family sitcom feels like the pinnacle of a certain kind of cultural creation. There has always been art about the immigrant experience—intergenerational novels and reverent documentaries. But a sitcom, with its crass populist ambitions, is a true sign of mainstream acceptance.

There is, of course, no guarantee that this moment will last. The current wave of diverse television shows—also slated for the fall is City TV’s Second Jen, a sitcom with two Asian female leads—could be the beginning of a representative future or simply an aberration. The fact that these stories are still so rare puts an unnatural pressure on the ones that actually make it to air. Lee says he always tells young actors of colour that they’ll have fewer chances to fail. “If you’re a white actor and you’re in a string of bad things, you’re often given other chances,” he says. “If you’re an actor of colour, an Asian actor, they put you in, and if you don’t do as well, they say, ‘Well, we tried.’” The same feels true of TV shows. When the latest historical drama or East Coast comedy fails, there will be another to take its place. If a show like Kim’s Convenience doesn’t work, it could be a long time before you see another East Asian family on Canadian television.

On set after lunch, Choi straps on a pair of headphones and watches as the crew films a scene from the show’s first episode, set during Toronto’s Pride Week. Stung by accusations of homophobia, Mr. Kim has decided to offer a gay discount. “The crux of the story is, how does Appa know who’s gay and who’s not?” Choi says.

While the cameras roll, a customer in drag, played by Thom Allison, inspects the cat food while wearing an enormous blond wig and towering pink heels. “How much is it?” she asks, brandishing the can.

“Normally, it would be $4.99, but this week we have discount only for the . . . uh . . .” Kim fumbles through the question, unsure how to classify a six-foot-tall, dark-skinned, mixed-race man in a pink dress. “You is what kind, trans . . . gender?”

“I’m a drag queen,” the customer says cautiously.

Kim takes his glasses off, puts them on his chest, and looks at her intently. “Why you do like that?” he asks.

Thanks to Lee’s delivery, the blunt question, its genuine inquisitiveness, gets a laugh. The customer’s response is straightforward and honest. “It feels like me,” she says. “Feels like home. Always has.” The explanation makes sense to Appa. If the storekeeper is a sort of Korean Archie Bunker—someone whose prejudices constantly bump up against the complexities of real life—a key part of his appeal is his ability to accept that his stereotypes occasionally need adjusting. He rings up the purchase, gay discount included.

It’s a scene that could be mawkish, but here feels nicely underplayed. The resolution is a bit utopian, sure, but this is the kind of moment that happens in Canadian cities, where people from different worlds are thrown together, where a Korean immigrant and a biracial drag queen might share the same scene without fear of blowing the diversity quota. It feels, in its way, as if a fragment of twenty-first century Canada is finding its way into TV Canada.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue.

Nicholas Hune-Brown
Nicholas Hune-Brown (@nickhunebrown) has written for Toronto Life, Hazlitt, and The Believer.