Kung Fu – the CW’s newest action adventure drama – mixes martial arts, mysteries and mommy issues in its extremely fast-paced pilot. Read our advance review before the series premieres on April 7.
Re-imagined for the 21st century by Christina M. Kim, Kung Fu is a present-day adaptation of the 1970s series starring David Carradine. The inspiration from the original concept is, of course, baked into the show’s framework: a young person who trained at a Shaolin monastery in China returns to America in order to come to terms with a family situation, and ends up using their kung fu skills and sense of social responsibility to fight for justice as a sort of vigilante hero.
Beyond that, Kung Fu spin-kicks on its own two feet and introduces Nicky Shen as primetime’s latest female action hero. Olivia Liang leads a primarily Asian ensemble cast to share the story of a heroine who must balance solving a mythical mystery that may lead her to the woman who killed her Shaolin mentor with navigating the difficulty of repairing the delicate family dynamic that was upset when she ran away three years ago, all while doing what she can to help her community fight back against the organized crime threatening the Chinese-American neighborhood she grew up in.
The official CW description of the Kung Fu pilot reads:
SERIES PREMIERE — A quarter-life crisis causes a young Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), to drop out of college and go on a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China. But when she returns to San Francisco, she finds her hometown is overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) are at the mercy of a powerful Triad. Nicky will rely on her tech-savvy sister Althea (Shannon Dang) and Althea’s fiancé Dennis (Tony Chung), pre-med brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), Assistant District Attorney and ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) and new love interest Henry (Eddie Liu) as well as her martial arts skills and Shaolin values to protect her community and bring criminals to justice — all while searching for the ruthless assassin who killed her Shaolin mentor Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) and is now targeting her. Hanelle Culpepper directed the episode written by Christina M. Kim.
Here’s what it doesn’t say: This show also has a magical twist to it. For whatever reason – maybe because I found out that the original series didn’t – I had not been expecting Kung Fu to include any mystical or magical elements, beyond the potential of highlighting some Chinese mythology or folklore in more of a cultural sense. As a lifelong fan of fantasy and sci-fi, the fact that it does makes me just that little bit more excited to see what fate has in store for Nicky – not that she, personally, believes that anything surreal is going on yet.
I won’t give too much away, but the pilot leaves you with the sense that this may very well be a little bit of a Chosen One narrative, complete with glowing blades seeking rightful owners, scars that contain secret messages, hints about the role of destiny and a villain (Zhilan, played by Yvonne Chapman) on the hunt to unlock a power of legendary proportions.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a story that focused on the central character having to slowly accept that there’s more to the world – and maybe even more to her own power – than she previously believed, but I find that premise an entertaining one, and while it’s likely that Kung Fu will stay relatively grounded in the real-world problems that Nicky faces in San Francisco, there’s clearly a bigger picture – and dare I even say, something of a quest – in her future. Fans of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer will enjoy the premise, and supporters of Supernatural should also take note – Wayward Sisters creator Robert Berens is Kim’s co-showrunner here, and you can probably assume that his knack for combining empowered young women with both literal powers and powerful support systems is a transferable skill.
The Kung Fu pilot also includes visitations from Nicky’s dead mentor Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), but so far those seem more metaphorical than magical – a projection, a narrative representation of the Pei-Ling of Nicky’s memory, rather than an actual ghost. Much like in the original series, the shifu-student relationship is set to be an important one – both a driving force for Nicky’s momentum and a source of stability and guidance to reflect back on, not only via these spiritual moments, but also in actual flashbacks to Nicky’s time in the monastery in China.
As a matter of personal preference, I would have been quite happy to spend the majority of the episode delving into Nicky’s life in China and the things she was working through there, returning home to America only in the final act. If I had to criticize the Kung Fu pilot, it would be to say that parts of it unfold almost too quickly – we speed through the explainer of Nicky’s initial retreat to the Shaolin monastery as well as the violent inciting incident that forces her to return home to San Francisco for the first time in years.
If this was a show designed for a streaming service – with a different sort of structure, and a whole season waiting for fans to binge immediately – I feel like it could have paced itself more slowly, but as an hour-long prime time drama on the CW, I understand the constraints of the formula and the need to use a premiere event like this to immediately offer a hard and fast impression of what the audience can actually expect to see when they tune in week to week – namely, the relationships between Nicky and her family and friends. So the trade-off for the lightning-fast backstory is that you get heaps of character interaction, in all sorts of directions, between the body of Kung Fu’s deeply charming ensemble cast.
This includes her two siblings, who have both been a little bit traumatized by Nicky’s absence and express it in very different ways – older sister Althea, whose bubbly demeanour I already can’t wait to see eventually shatter (this is a compliment to Shannon Dang, who is imbuing her character with the kind of positivity that’s somehow both genuine and a coping mechanism – you know the type) and younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) who clearly worships Nicky but is bitter about being left behind while coping with being in the closet – and, having since come out, having his announcement dismissed and ignored by his parents.
Nicky’s instantly loveable restaurateur father Jin (Tzi Ma) is just happy to have his daughter home, and her rather more rigid mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) who was, we’re told, the source of the stress that caused Nicky to panic and flee in China, greets her with classic “you’re dead to me” reunion.
I referred to Nicky’s mommy issues in the lede mainly for the alliteration factor, but in truth it’s much more complicated than that – there’s an story here about the kind of pressure that first generation children of immigrants will recognize immediately, and a universal element about the disparity between parents and children in regards to happiness and opportunity. Although Nicky and Mei-Li end the pilot in a good place, there’s no way that’s a done deal – the friction between mother and daughter is going to bubble over again, and in fact I suspect it will be the emotional center of the show.
One of – if not the biggest – sources of anguish between Mei-Li and Nicky is the matter of Evan, (Gavin Stenhouse) Nicky’s white boyfriend who Mei-Li apparently wanted Nicky to break up with. Evan, an assistant DA, has a new girlfriend, but there’s clearly unfinished business between him and Nicky, as one might expect after your long-term significant other goes on a cultural tour and then ghosts you for three years. Evan quickly gets pulled back into Nicky’s aura as a helpful friend and while I think that we need to see more examples of genuinely healthy exes on television, this feels more like it’s heading into love triangle territory.
The other point of the triangle – Chinese art history buff Henry (Eddie Liu), a fellow martial artist who Nicky meets upon her return to San Francisco and recruits to help research the sword and the mythology behind it that Pei-Ling’s killer seems to be fueled by. There’s clearly an instant attraction, but their bond as friends is also quick in a way that feels really realistic to me. You know how sometimes you meet someone and it’s just like “Okay, new guy, I’m going to just load you up with my Entire Deal and now we are friends?” It’s like that.
It helps that Henry is a willing and able second for any fights that Nicky might get into – after taking down a group of armed thugs together, Henry falls straight into clear “mark me down as scared and horny” meme territory. What’s better than an impossibly cute guy knowing that his girlfriend could kick his ass and loving every second of that? Nothing, that’s what.
Honestly, it’s a large cast, and there’s a plot involving the local kingpin shaking down Chinese business owners including the Shens, so there isn’t enough time to deep dive into any one of these dynamics – but that’s what the rest of the series is for, right? The Kung Fu pilot leaves you with the sense that there is a lot more to be unpacked within all of these relationships. It poses a lot of questions about what kind of conversations or altercations, three years ago, led to Nicky dropping out of Harvard, falling out with her mother, breaking up with her boyfriend.
Despite the shaky peace Nicky seems to find with her mother, her siblings, and her ex by the end of the pilot, there is a need to circle back to how these relationships collapsed, what needs rebuilding, and what issues might crop up again. It lets you know that there is more that you need to know – which in my opinion, is a good thing – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more context about that unfold via flashbacks to both Nicky’s time in China and to critical moments before she left America.
I’m curious to see how Kung Fu progresses in terms of the wider story arc regarding Pei-Ling’s killer and the potentially procedural-esque element of Nicky’s local Chinatown crime-fighting heroism. I really want to know more about the magic of it all, too. But this show will sink or swim based on the character beats. This warm and talented cast is a group worth welcoming into your home, and it would be remiss to not note the fact that there are no other Asian-American family dramas currently airing on TV. At the core of Nicky’s story, there’s a network of relationships that have the potential to be fascinating, and that will ultimately be the reason people keep watching Kung Fu.
‘Kung Fu’ premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 8/7c on The CW