Down from the Monastery
Kung Fu: Season 1
As a franchise, Kung Fu has a legacy greater than anything that's actually been featured on screen. The original series, from back in 1972, could have starred Bruce Lee and, depending on the source in question, may even have been an idea that Bruce Lee original developed that was later taken over (read: "stolen") by Warner Bros. However deep Lee's involvement in the development it is known that he was passed over for the role, leaving David Carradine to put on yellow face and take over the role of Kwai Chang Caine. It became a hit but you have to think it could have been even bigger with Lee performing the action in the central role.
Kung Fu went on to spawn a couple of extra movies and a spin-off continuation, racking up a total of over 150 episodes. Still, if you asked people what they thought of Kung Fu, most would probably say some vague things about, "oh yeah, that was a series," if they even knew it existed at all (and didn't think you were just generically talking about martial arts). That makes the franchise, as a whole, an odd duck to get a reboot over on the CW.
Oh, certainly CBS owns he rights to Kung Fu, so making a reboot of the series makes sense from a purely financial standpoint. It's the same reason why legacy reboots like MacGuyver and Magnum P.I. exist. But even less people were clamoring for a Kung Fu reboot than for either of those shows; at least people still remember who Magnum P.I. is. That's what makes the fact that Kung Fu is actually pretty watchable all the more impressive.
The 2021 reboot kicks things off by basically ditching everything from the previous shows altogether. Instead of a Old West-set tale of a wandering monk, the new series gives us Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), an Asian-American who fled from her family to avoid the immense pressure put on her, finding herself in China, living in a monastery for three years. There she learned kung fu under to tutelage of Pei-Ling Zhang (Vanessa Kai), the monastery's shifu. Life at the monastery suited Nicky and she felt a sense of peace, and of place, living there. Sadly Pei-Ling's sister, Zhilan Zhang (Yvonne Chapman), invaded the monastery, stole a sacred sword, and killed Pei-Ling. Nicky was unable to stop any of it.
Not knowing what else to do, Nicky left her life in China and returned home. There she had to make amends with her overbearing mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan), doting father Jin (Tzi Ma), high-fashion tech-genius sister Althea (Shannon Dang), and medical student brother Ryan (Jon Prasida). She also reconnects with ex-boyfriend Evan Hartley (Gavin Stenhouse) works as an Assistant D.A. Together they start tracking down Zhilan Zhang to see what she's up to and just what she has planned for that sword... and more.
Conceptually the new Kung Fu is set as a marriage of two styles. On the one hand there's the classic Kung Fu plotting where our monk, in this case Nicky, goes from case to case each week helping people. She doesn't wander, being set at her family's home in San Francisco, but in all other respects she is able to do the job of the helpful monk, just as in the classic show. It's a simple way to setup the show for episodic storytelling the way most viewers like.
On the other side you have what can only be considered the CW house style. Nicky is our stand-in for a superhero (which the show calls out more than once), working her cases to stop low level crime. Aiding her is her "Shen Team", with Althea being her tech support and Ryan her medical assistance. Along with them is Henry Yan (Eddie Liu), martial artists and Asian history buff who works at the local Chinese Community Center. He's the research guy, and sidekick, just like every good superhero needs. Frankly, if you gave Nicky and Henry costumes you'd have a show that would feel of-a-piece with anything in the ArrowverseWhen it was announced that the CW was creating a show based on the Green Arrow, people laughed. The CW? Really? Was it going to be teen-oriented like everything else on the network and be called "Arrow High"? And yet that one show, Arrow has spawned three spin-offs, various related shows and given DC a successful shared universe, the Arrowverse on TV and streaming..
For good and ill everything about this season feels like a CW show. On the one hand the series does have a grand plan to it, an overarching storyline that helps to carry the season week to week. The case of the week plotting isn't too arduous and it helps to make each episode interesting, and the larger storyline ensures that the characters have motivation to keep moving forward, investigating the villainess and growing the backstory of the Shen family. It works on that front.
At the same time, having seen enough Arrowverse shows I really don't feel like I need yet another one. The show can't quite break out of the mold enough with it's plotting to really give us anything fresh. Nicky hits a problem, has to have her tech person hack something, Ryan offers emotional support, Henry hits the books, and we go through the same beats over and over again. It works, but we've seen a solid 10 years of this over on the Arrowverse and, when it comes to plotting and story, this show really can break that mold. It's super-heroics struggle to stand out.
Where the show shines, and what makes it watchable even still, is its representation. This is a show with a cast almost entirely made up of Asian-American characters (and one token White guy). The show spends a solid amount of time on Nicky's family, her background, how her family is Chinese, but it's never heavy-handed about it. They just go about their lives. When something Chinese comes up the show finds ways to explain it without having character turn to the camera to explain; it's all subtle and worked naturally into the flow of the show. The Asian-American culture is lived in, just a normal part of the lives of these characters while never seeming strange or "other". You have to respect that.
Most importantly, the representation on the show helps to correct the big thing the original Kung Fu screwed up 40 years ago: it's a show about a Chinese monk fighting crime with Chinese martial arts. Having a Chinese cast at the center of the show (instead of white-washing it) makes the overall show stronger. It's plotting may be a bit formulaic, a bit too deep in the CW house style, but the characters are lively and the world works. That goes a long way to selling the show on its merits.
The new Kung Fu isn't perfect but, at least in its first season, it gets enough right to paper over the weakness of its formula. Whether that can carry into its second season, and make for a strong sophomore showing, remains to be seen...