Not many people saw The Big Bang Theory coming. It was dismissed as a show about nerds when it premiered nine years and several billion dollars ago. It wasn’t an instant smash hit; people had to find it and come ’round to it.
CBC can only hope to have a fraction of Big Bang‘s success with Kim’s Convenience, a new made-in-Toronto sitcom premiering with back-to-back episodes Tuesday at 9 p.m.
Based on Ins Choi’s hit play, the series centers on the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park. It stars Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as authoritative patriarch Appa, Jean Yoon as his skittish wife,Umma, Simu Liu as their estranged son Jung, Andrea Bang as college-age daughter Janet, Andrew Phung as Jung’s friend/fellow car rental employee Kimchee and Nicole Power as neurotic car mart manager Shannon.
Sun-Hyung Lee is the Kim daddy here, stepping effortlessly into Appa’s shoes. The veteran actor has worn this part for years on stage and the head-start shows. He is the simmering boss behind the counter at the neighbourhood convenience store, passing judgement with raised eyebrows while the locals line up for energy drinks and lottery tickets. He is the Korean King of Kensington, 40 years later.
The folks behind the scenes raise expectations for this series. No programmer on either side of the border has had the career Ivan Fecan has enjoyed. He left his mark as an innovator at City and CBC and turned CTV into North America’s most dominant network. As an executive producer (representing Thunderbird), he is back in the content business and fully hands-on.
Creator/writer Choi has nurtured his baby through various stage incarnations and — as evidenced on my day on the set — bird-dogged the dialogue in this series version, making sure nothing sounds the slightest bit chop-socky.
All sitcom is caricature, but caricature is the last thing Choi or fellow writer – showrunner Kevin White (Corner Gas, Schitt’s Creek) are striving for with Kim’s Convenience. The series feels a bit like Louie meets Norman Lear. That cocktail of bracing reality meets sitcom shtick could eventually add up to funny and game-changing. The first three episodes, however, aren’t quite there yet. They’re a little lurch-y, as the Louie meets Lear clash might suggest.
Kim’s Convenience is co-produced by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. The company has performed the original play many times over the past five years. The character who has benefited the most from this extended dress rehearsal is Sun-Hyung Lee’s Mr. Kim, who slashes through scenes as effortlessly as he raises prices.
There’s plenty to slash, however, in the pilot episode entitled, “Gay Discount.” Here Sun-Hyung Lee is at his Bunker best, determining he has the gay-dar to offer discounts for certain customers. It works when he is toying with one customer who keeps insisting he qualifies; it is unfortunately less funny in the very first scene involving two lads who want to put a gay pride parade poster in Mr. Kim’s window.
Yoon (The Expanse) has the toughest challenge in a role that seems one-dimensional in early episodes. The depiction of an immigrant mom who desperately wants her daughter to marry within the same faith and race goes all the way back to Rhoda. Yoon does have the comedy chops, however, to go toe-to-toe with Sun-Hyung Lee on the snappier patter.
The adult children are well-cast and represent a generational divide that gives the series some needed tension. Their more dramatic scenes are real and often intense, although I wanted to know more about what lead to a falling out between father and son.
The first episode gets better as it goes along. There is warmth and wit to the exchange between a cross-dresser who enters the store and Appa. A scene in the third episode between father and daughter, where she discovers he’s been selling her art project photos in the store, was an emotional high point. They payoff to that scene towards the end, while it felt a little pat, pushed the right buttons.
I was less taken with Power’s performance as Shannon as the manager with a transparent crush on Kim Junior — although even she plays it less broad by Episode Three.
For my money at this Convenience store, Sun-Hyung Lee makes this a series to sample. His Appa could walk into Schitt’s Creek or The Big Bang Theory or Transparent or Louie and steal every scene with a well-placed, “Okay, see you.”
Bottom line: you might not find everything you’re looking for at Kim’s Convenience but you will laugh.