New Take on ‘Kung Fu’ Is Sharp, Thoughtful Look at a Chinese American Family: TV Review

Greg Berlanti’s domination of the CW continues with “Kung Fu” — and the new drama he executive produces is proof positive that the super-producer is using his powers for good. The show is a revival of a drama starring David Carradine that aired on ABC from 1972 to 1975. The whitewash of Carradine in the role of the Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine, who is depicted as half-American and half-Chinese, is a painful part of TV’s legacy. Now, in the hands of showrunner Christina M. Kim, “Kung Fu” reframes the story to be about a young Chinese American woman, and foregrounds a cast of Asian American actors in place of the original series’ white male lead. The pilot of “Kung Fu” suggests a sincere interest in the story of a Chinese family in the U.S., with an amount of complexity and sophistication that one might not necessarily expect from a network action series.

Olivia Liang plays Nicky Shen, a young woman who interrupts her college career to live in a monastery in China and learn martial arts. She’s on the run from her family’s expectations as well as from a sense of uncertainty: Like Sydney Bristow on “Alias,” she’s a bit adrift as a student but finds herself in righteous pugilism. After her mentor (Vanessa Kai) is killed, Nicky returns to San Francisco to find that life has continued without her. Her sister (Shannon Dang) is now engaged and fulfilling the family’s ambition to have a married daughter. Her brother (Jon Prasida) has tried, without much success, to be honest with his family about his sexuality. Her ex (Gavin Stenhouse) has moved on, too.

Worst of all, her parents (Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan) are in debt to the mob, and organized crime has taken deeper root in the city. It’s Nicky’s mission both to free her family and to fight for what is righteous. The complicating element here is that the skills Nicky is using were learned in a sort of abandonment of her family and its principles. Nicky picked up kung fu specifically because it represented a break with her family — she notes in a conversation with her mother that she had to learn the Harvard fight song on piano as a young child, beginning a life of strictures and tough expectations. And now she is using it to save parents who aren’t sure they understand her at all.

Kim, previously a writer on “Blindspot” and “Lost,” writes the pilot with verve and insight, once the show gets past a rushed beginning that delivers a ton of information we might have been better served later on. (We see, in a rapid sequence that feels like a “Previously on” segment, Nicky enroll in the monastery, spend three years there, and lose her teacher, all before the opening credits.) In all, “Kung Fu” presents a compelling heroine, ably played by Liang, who feels obligations to community and family both generally relatable and specifically drawn. The mystical element of Nicky’s skills is treated matter-of-factly and with engaged interest — nothing here feels rote.

At a moment when hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are on the rise, the image of an empowered young woman fighting for what is right feels worthy and well-timed. Nicky will have you cheering her on; so too may TV fans root for “Kung Fu’s” success.

“Kung Fu” premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 8 p.m. on the CW.

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