Breaking Down the Kim’s Convenience Pilot
A Humorous Celebration of Family and Diversity that Just Happens to Take Place in a Convenience Store
So we finally watched the pilot episode of Kim’s Convenience. You know, the half-hour sitcom produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) about a Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto. It’s been getting generally positive press, including kudos for having a positive cultural impact that extends beyond the TV screen. We tweeted out an example of this kind of coverage last month.
The show revolves around the Kim family: Mr. Kim and Mrs. Kim (referred to only as “Appa” and “Umma” in the episode), their energetic 20-year old daughter, Janet, who is a photography student, and their 24-year old son, Jung. The show’s synopsis states that Mr. and Mrs. Kim immigrated to Toronto in the 80’s to set up shop near Regent Park, a brilliantly diverse neighborhood in downtown Toronto.
The exterior establishing shots use a real C-store in the area outfitted with a new sign, a fake upper story to simulate the family’s living quarters, and colorful street art on the side of the building. The clips that play over the credits and scene transitions futher provide an effective sense of place, and being the C-store aficionados that we are, these visuals struck us as authentic. Frankly, they made us want to explore the streets in the surrounding area either by foot or by trolley.
The C-store’s interior, though a studio set, definitely looks like the kind of established mom and pop store you’d find in an older part of town like this one. (Most of the background details are kept in soft focus so it’s hard to identify individual products, but we definitely saw an Old Dutch rack, a box of Kerr’s candies on the counter, and some Unico cans. We didn’t see any alcohol…probably because its sale seems to be tightly regulated in Ontario.)
Over the course of the episode, Mr. Kim spends most of his time running the store. From what we could tell his wife and daughter work there, too, although they don’t spend all that much time behind the counter in the pilot. Jung works at Handy Car Rental after either being kicked out of or running away from (he can’t remember) home at 16. The reason is hinted at, but never fully disclosed. In fact Jung and his father are so estranged that Mr. Kim doesn’t know where his son is—well, at first, anyway. If that sounds heavy, it’s really not; the show has a light touch and if we were betting bloggers, we’d gamble on a reconciliation happening by season’s end given the hints delivered toward the end of this episode.
As for the quality of the show? We’ll start off by saying it is easily better than most half-hour sitcoms you’ll find on traditional network TV in the U.S. It’s funny (always a good thing for a comedy)—sometimes echoing classic screwball comedies—and though it dives head first into the cultural idiosyncrasies of Korean-Canadians (and gay people…more on that later) it does so without being condescending or offensive or flat-out stupid. The Kims aren’t stereotypes; neither do they come across as being too generic.
Take the following example. Umma is a devout churchgoer, who desperately wants her single daughter to join her at church, not only for the spiritual experience, but to meet candidates for a future husband. In fact, she brings out the church directory like it’s some kind of shopping catalog for boyfriends. Free-spirited Janet (we’re not up on Canadian bands so we don’t know what The Darcys poster on the wall of her bedroom says about her) is having none of it, which leads to the following exchange, revealing the flavor of the show better than any description:
Janet: I don’t need your help finding a boyfriend.
Umma: Oh, yeah? Where’s your cool Christian Korean boyfriend?
Janet: Okay, first of all, there’s no such thing as a cool Christian Korean boy.
Umma: What are you talking about?
Janet: If they’re cool and Christian, they’re not Korean. And if they’re cool and Korean, they’re not Christian. And if they’re cool, Christian, and Korean, they’re girls.
(It should be noted that later Mrs. Kim entices possible suitors for Janet by posting a bogus job opening in the church bulletin. First interview question to prospects entering the store: “Do you go to church?” Umma’s strategy actually ends up working!)
Constantly contrasting the cultural singularities of people without demeaning the characters isn’t an easy thing to do, especially considering the episode’s “A” plot line, which covers a cultural clash between the older, somewhat curmudgeonly Mr. Kim and the younger gay customers that are becoming a vital part of his neighborhood.
You see, it’s Gay Pride week, and the parade will be going past Kim’s Convenience. Mr. Kim hates the event because of the traffic, litter, and noise it leaves in its aftermath. When two young men come into the store to ask if Mr. Kim will put up a promotional poster for one of the week’s events, Mr. Kim’s reluctance is initially interpreted as prejudice, which it truly isn’t. To avoid further misunderstandings, he hastily offers a gay discount to celebrate Pride Week. The rest of the episode mines plenty of comedy out of his ability/inability to identify who gets a discount and who doesn’t. The following exchange illustrates Appa’s methodology:
Appa: What’s your favorite movie?
Appa: With Bill Murray? See. Not gay.
Word gets around and an interesting cast of characters begins parading through Kim’s Convenience seeking the discount. In the process, Mr. Kim gets an education on a market segment he probably didn’t really appreciate, again, to great (but always courteous) comedic effect.
We can’t emphasize enough the delicate balance this show has to strike. Veer one way and you’re offensive. Veer the other way and you head into afterschool special territory where “Mr. Kim learns a lesson” and everything is tied up neatly in a bow. Kim’s Convenience avoids both, mining the humor out of a group of characters with distinct cultural identities bumping up against each other as they go through their daily routines. The comedy comes right out of those nascent relationships, and the people seem real, which makes it work. The whole show really celebrates diversity, albeit in a humorous way.
The writers and producers obviously deserve a lion’s share of the credit for setting the tone and creating a show that has plenty of heart, a nice contrast to the mean spiritedness that sometimes passes as “edgy” in so many U.S. sitcoms based on cultures crashing against each other.
But it’s the actors that really sell it and they play a huge role in creating the warmth that infuses the show. The Canadian talent pool is deep and it shows. The comic timing of the four principals is impeccable…you’d think they were in the third or fourth season of the series. And they are extremely convincing as a family. You get the sense that they care for each other, a dynamic that drives the show and keeps it hopeful and positive.
Bottom line: this is a show we’ll watch again, which is the most compelling argument we can offer. If you are in the convenience store industry, or even if you aren’t, try to watch an episode and see what you think.
One more thing: while the show is character driven, we did notice one way in which SSCS technology could definitely help the Kims (the store’s POS looks a little dated, and we bet they don’t use a back office system).
In a subplot, Janet needs the family van for a photo shoot, and when Appa refuses—he never lets her drive the van—she is forced to rent a car from the agency at which Jung works. Later, Appa—balancing the drawer with an old school calculator and tape—discovers that he is short and accuses Janet of taking the money to pay for the rental. Turns out, Appa hasn’t been keeping track of the 15 percent “gay discount” he’s been offering, and that’s why he’s short.
Now if Appa had been using Transaction Analysis, he’d know that there wasn’t a voided transaction to support his accusation. And if he’d been using the Computerized Daily Book, he’d no doubt be keeping tighter control over his pricing and inventory, including discounts on items. Given his personality, though, I’m not sure Appa would be all that open to computerization.
Don’t hold it against him, though. This is a show worth watching.