The official statement raised more questions than it answered. Three weeks ago, when the producers of Kim’s Convenience broke the bad news that CBC’s immigrant family comedy would be concluding its run next month, one year earlier than anticipated, they posted a brief announcement to social media in hopes of explaining the move.
“Authenticity of storytelling is at the center of the success of Kim’s Convenience,” it began. “At the end of production on Season 5, our two co-creators confirmed they were moving on to other projects. Given their departure from the series, we have come to the difficult conclusion that we cannot deliver another season of the same heart and quality that has made the show so special.”
Fans were outraged, heartbroken, nonplussed. Even members of the cast seemed taken aback. Simu Liu, whose role as the show’s prodigal son, Jung, helped springboard him into the Marvel superhero universe, seemed to hint at a hidden truth. “For reasons that I’m sure we will get into someday, we must prematurely bid farewell to Kim’s Convenience,” he wrote on Instagram.
John Doyle: The tragic undertow to the final episode of Kim’s Convenience
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays the irascible shopkeeper and Kim family patriarch, Appa, choked up as he told fans in an Instagram video, “I’m not happy with the way this all ended … Life is complicated. There’s no easy answers for why the show isn’t going … and I’m not going to get into any of that right now.” He signed off with Appa’s upbeat catchphrase, “OK, see you!” but he was near tears.
The questions kept coming – from fans, from the Asian-Canadian community, which had taken special pride in the show’s success and its commitment to represent them, from members of the Canadian TV industry. At a moment of rising anti-Asian violence, how could Canada’s public broadcaster let its first Asian-centred sitcom simply close up shop? Creators leave shows all the time; why hadn’t the Kim’s producers prepared for that possibility?
And what were they hiding?
It turns out that the story of the death of Kim’s is at once simple and infinitely complex. It is a tale about the prosaic – and often gruelling – realities of the Canadian TV machine. But it also speaks to our current age of racial reckoning, when a half-hour sitcom becomes freighted with greater social import than it was ever designed to bear. That’s because, baked into the birth, life and untimely death of Kim’s is a parable for the entire domestic television industry, pushing to the surface long-buried fault lines in how Canadian TV gets made and who gets to tell this country’s stories.
One year ago, Kim’s was riding high. Season 4 had just finished its run on CBC, the show was gaining international attention on Netflix, and Liu was expected to bring in a new swath of fans with his role as Marvel’s Shang-Chi. CBC gave producers an order for two more 13-episode seasons.
But behind the scenes, there were strains. The show had grown out of an autobiographical one-act that premiered at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, written by Ins Choi, a Korean-Canadian actor who had followed the dictum to write what he knew. Choi had never worked in TV before, where the culture of writing quickly and with others can be a challenge, but after being paired with the sitcom veteran Kevin White (Corner Gas, Schitt’s Creek), he evolved into a confident showrunner who oversaw every aspect of the machinery involved in creating a modern television show. In the writers’ room, where a small group of writers would pitch story ideas and jokes to Choi and White, Choi was the linchpin; he would act out all of the lines to ensure they sounded authentic. To outsiders, the job sounds like a blast; it can be, but it is also exhausting work.
This week, Ivan Fecan, a long-time Canadian media executive who stepped down as CTV president in 2010 and began producing when he brought Kim’s to the screen in 2016, spoke for the first time about why he made the call to pull the plug on the show.
“From the start of Season 5 [which began shooting last September], Ins wasn’t sure he wanted to go beyond that,” Fecan explained during a phone interview. He and Choi, he said, discussed a range of possibilities that might have kept Choi connected, perhaps in a supervisory role that would be less taxing. “There was kind of a hope that he would continue. But after he finished Season 5, he came to me and he said, ‘Look, I’m dry. I’ve got nothing more to give this.’”
Cast members and others tried to change his mind, but after months of back and forth, Choi insisted he was done.
“You can’t blame the guy. This isn’t some sort of studio show, with a building full of writers that are fungible. This is a show about a guy’s life story. It’s his life. It’s people he met or imagined as he grew up. It’s his truth, and he is the heart of the show. And he spent, counting the play, over 10 years of his professional life on this. The guy’s got a right to a life.”
Fecan consulted with the cast, crew, CBC and others to figure out whether the show might continue without Choi. “At the end of the day, I just made the tough call that, without Ins, there is no show,” said Fecan, who added that he was haunted by the possibility that a sixth season might not live up to expectations. “Even if there was another Korean comedy showrunner who’s Canadian that you could plug in there, I’m not sure it’s fungible. I’m not sure that’s right. Because it’s so personal to Ins. And so, that’s the call I made.”
“I’ll tell you something else. He actually believes that Season 5 ends the way he wants the series to end. And I think people should reserve judgment until they see that last episode. Not everybody will agree with me, but that is his position.”
Choi has not spoken publicly since the announcement, and attempts to reach him for this article were unsuccessful.
But The Globe and Mail uncovered something else afoot in the Kim’s universe, something conceived out of a laudable creative impulse that now risks seeming tone-deaf. With Fecan as executive producer, White had been developing a Kim’s spinoff starring Nicole Power, who plays Shannon, the manager of the Handy Car & Truck Rentals and love interest of Jung. That was the “other project” referenced in the cancellation announcement.
Originally, CBC had hoped the fifth season of Kim’s would have aired last fall, enabling the network to promote and launch the new show, titled Strays, in the current winter season. But after COVID-19 kiboshed TV and film production across the country last year, Kim’s wasn’t able to shoot until September; Strays only finally went before the cameras last month.
Choi was not involved in Strays. And even though the show features a number of actors of colour, CBC seems acutely sensitive to how bad the optics are: Cancelling its sole Asian-Canadian show, which is still pulling in an average of 618,000 viewers, and replacing it with one built around its lone white featured player, created by the white co-showrunner. In fact, minutes before a scheduled interview this week with Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager of entertainment, factual and sports, the network informed The Globe that it had greenlit a half-hour comedy titled Run the Burbs, co-created by and starring Andrew Phung, who plays Jung’s excitable best friend, Kimchee, on Kim’s.
“I’m just delighted that we have a series with Andrew Phung, who is a tremendous talent from Kim’s and who will now have a series that speaks to his authentic voice,” said Catto, who was concerned viewers might perceive there was a “one-for-one” calculation that involved swapping out Kim’s and substituting Strays, or trading one Korean-centred show for another.
“In our perfect world, all three [shows] would be running together,” she said. “We will continue to tell stories from all different parts of the country, by different BIPOC writers and actors and talent. We’re very committed to this. "
She mentioned The Porter, a high-profile historical drama CBC has ordered for the coming season, which is being trumpeted in the industry for having an all-Black creative team. “We know we have a journey to go [to better reflect the country],” Catto said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
But those in the industry have told The Globe that the loss of Kim’s and the troublesome optics around Strays are merely symptoms of serious structural problems that producers and networks across the country have ignored for too long. In the wake of the Kim’s cancellation, BIPOC creators took to private Facebook groups and other spaces to express their frustration and anger. Some noted that, while there were some people of colour in the Kim’s writers’ room, no Korean-Canadian other than Choi earned a writing credit on any of the scripts.
That response “is the cumulative effect of what this industry does, in terms of not acknowledging our voices, not giving us a chance,” said Nathalie Younglai, a TV writer and producer (Coroner) who founded the community-based advocacy and training organization BIPOC TV & Film in 2012.
The launch of Kim’s was not just a groundbreaking moment for representation on camera, but “the first time seeing an Asian family on huge billboards all over Toronto. That was unreal,” Younglai said. “I think that, for a lot of us, we felt like, maybe this is our chance to finally get a break in the industry, because we can’t get onto all the white shows.” Too often, she and others say, BIPOC creators are only hired to write BIPOC characters, or not even brought into a writers room because they’re too junior and would require mentoring.
Once Kim’s was established, she said, it should have been used “as a training ground, to bring in Asian voices,” which might have helped fledgling writers secure on-screen credits. “There wasn’t a pipeline [that might have developed talent]. It’s not only this show. I think all shows that are Season 5 and beyond can do that. Murdoch Mysteries could do that. Heartland can do that,” she said.
The burden to cultivate BIPOC creators shouldn’t fall exclusively onto shows such as Kim’s. “If you get a show and you are Black, Indigenous or a person of colour, for some reason it’s on your shoulders to change everything, right?”
“Look at The Porter,” she said. “That’s the very first all-Black writing room. There’s so much pressure on them, and there’s going to be even more pressure as they go into production and when they go to air. And that kind of pressure is not put onto white showrunners.”
Kim’s did work hard to embrace diversity on-screen, and not just among the lead actors. Fecan notes that 90 per cent of the show’s day players – performers brought in for a few lines in a single scene – were people of colour. That gave the show an authentic sense of downtown Toronto.
Still, does he believe he did enough to bring in writers of colour? “That’s a trick question,” he said. “You can never do enough. Of course, I wish I had done more, but I’m not sure at the end of the day it would have changed the outcome.”
“What it might have done is put more Korean-Canadian and Asian-Canadian writers in a place where they can pitch their own shows.”
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