The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters

Asia's Tech News Daily

At the beginning of March, it was announced that Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, which revolves around the Kims, a Korean Canadian family who run a suit-all-your-needs store in Toronto, would not be returning for a sixth season.

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© CBC Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Saying goodbye to your favourite show is never easy, but the news was especially difficult for its followers to accept because a year before, both seasons five and six had been given the green light.

The producers shared a post on Twitter in which they explained why the previously promised instalment had been taken off the table: “Authenticity of storytelling is at the centre of the success of Kim’s Convenience. At the end of production on season five, our two co-creators [Ins Choi and Kevin White] confirmed they were moving on to other projects.

“Given their departure from the series, we have come to the difficult conclusion that we cannot deliver another season of the same heart and quality that has made the show so special.”

pic.twitter.com/jDk5KDCaFT

— Kim’s Convenience (@KimsConvenience) March 8, 2021

The producers’ remark about “authenticity of storytelling” has taken on new significance in light of recent allegations made by members of its cast.

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© CBC Kim’s Convenience cast

In a lengthy post on Facebook, Simu Liu, who played the store owners’ semi-estranged son Jung, discussed his frustrations with how his character was portrayed.

“It was always my understanding that the lead actors were the stewards of character, and would grow to have more creative insight as the show went on,” he explained. “This was not the case on our show… we were often told of the next seasons’ plans mere days before we were set to start shooting… there was deliberately not a lot of leeway given to us.”

Liu expressed disappointment that Jung was “in absolutely no hurry to improve himself in any way”, adding: “The characters never seemed to grow. I can appreciate that the show is still a hit and is enjoyed by many people… but I remain fixated on the missed opportunities to show Asian characters with real depth and the ability to grow and evolve.”

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© Courtesy of CBC Simu Liu as Jung, Kim’s Convenience

He went on to say that the lack of input from himself and his cast members in regards to character development was “doubly confusing” because the producers were “overwhelmingly white”. Unlike Liu and his Asian Canadian co-stars, they don’t have the “plethora of lived experiences to draw from”, which immediately raises eyebrows when you consider just how integral the Kims’ culture is to this narrative.

Having that perspective right there in front of you, readily available, and allegedly not tapping into those pools of rich insight is at best brainless and bizarre, and at worst arrogant, entitled and harmful if storylines lean into myth and tropes that perpetuate the systematic dehumanisation of the group in question.

According to the actor, there was just one voice who could speak with any real command or awareness in that room: Choi. But Liu felt that he was not robust enough when it came to championing the East Asian perspective.

Different people will take varying standpoints on Liu’s observation of Choi. As the lone person of colour in an environment teeming with white people, making yourself heard, even on your own production, would be both daunting and challenging, and could well have been impossible on occasion.

We know that people of colour, too, can be agents of upholding the social construct which affords white individuals status and privilege at the expense of Black and Asian ethnic minorities. Without a comment from Choi, we simply do not know what he thinks and feels in regards to this matter.

Liu’s co-star Jean Yoon, who played Umma, defended his comments on Twitter when a TV critic took umbrage with his condemnation.

“As an Asian Canadian woman, a Korean-Canadian woman w[ith] more experience and knowledge of the world of my characters, the lack of Asian female, especially Korean writers in the writers’ room of Kims made my life VERY DIFFICULT & the experience of working on the show painful,” she said.

“Mr Choi wrote the [2001] play [of the same name on which the series is based], I was in. He created the TV show, but his co-creator Mr Kevin White was the showrunner, and clearly set the parameters. This is a FACT that was concealed from us as a cast. It was evident from Mr Choi’s diminished presence on set, or in response to script questions. Between S4 and S5, this FACT became a crisis, and in S5 we were told Mr Choi was resuming control of the show.”

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© CBC Kim’s Convenience season 5

Yoon also said that drafts of the season five scripts contained storylines “that were OVERTLY RACIST, and so extremely culturally inaccurate that the cast came together and expressed concerns collectively”.

The fact that Nicole Power’s Shannon, the show’s only white main character, is set to appear in her own spin-off Strays later this year, certainly isn’t a good look for CBC Television, the series’ Canadian home, given the conversation that we’re now having.

In a statement to Digital Spy, Chuck Thompson, Head of Public Affairs at CBC, said: “Respectfully, it’s not our place to speak on behalf of the producers or cast members of Kim’s Convenience.”

It’s always jarring when the public faces attached to a piece of popular culture, particularly comedies, which ignite good feeling and warmth, reveal themselves to be another beast entirely behind the scenes. The allegations directed at the Kim’s Convenience producers are not only devastating for Liu, Yoon and the other cast members who share their upset, but for its fans, too, many of whom will now be reexamining how they feel about the sitcom.

It’s also troubling because this is not the first conversation we’re having about a pitiful – to the point of being non-existent – lack of representation behind the screens. And depressingly, the reality of the world in which we live tells us that it won’t be the last.

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© CBC Kim’s Convenience, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, jean yoon

The Killing Eve writers’ room has no shortage of women, but Kayleigh Llewellyn revealed a damning fact about the drama when she shared a photo of herself and her colleagues celebrating the completion of season four last year. There was a grand total of zero Black or Asian creatives present, or indeed anyone who wasn’t white, which would have been objectionable even if the series had not cast Sandra Oh, an actor of Asian descent, in a lead role.

A number of viewers also felt that her character Eve had been sidelined in the most recent chapter, despite supposedly being a central part of the narrative.

“The make-up of the room should be more racially diverse than it is, and we’re really aware of that and I take full responsibility for it,” executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle said during a SeriesFest panel titled Killing Eve: Behind the Lens’.

“You look at that room and it’s full of brilliant female writers, we’ve got a really strong LGBTQ contingent, but it’s not good enough and we need to do better.

“And we’ve all had long talks and lots of soul-searching and we can come up with excuses, we can come up with platitudes, we can talk about the people that we’ve spoken about in the past, but we’ve got to do better. All of our writers know we’ve got to do better.”

In an interview with the LA Times, Oh discussed how, at the beginning of season three, we saw Eve in “New Malden, which is actually the largest gathering of Koreans outside of Korea”, adding: “I wanted it to be set in a place where Eve could try to disappear for a while. It was just a small bit of the show, but I wanted to bring the flavour of that because we carry our culture, we carry our history.

“And typically, white Hollywood does not write it – does not write our culture, does not write the depth of our culture.”

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© Sid Gentle Films/Sophie Mutevelian Killing Eve episode 2

Netflix’s Grand Army prides itself on a cast which divides its attention equally between its characters of colour and its white actors. One storyline in particular takes a robust stance on how the school system often singles out and punishes young Black men more severely than their white counterparts. But Ming Peiffer, a screenwriter and playwright who was involved up to a point on the YA drama, shared tweets in which she alleged it was a different story off-camera.

“Me and the three writers of colour who worked on the show quit due to racist exploitation and abuse,” she wrote. “The showrunner and creator [Katie Cappiello] went full Karen and called Netflix HR on the Black writer in the room for getting a haircut. Yes you read that correctly. Who wants to interview us?

“It matters who hears you, who says ‘I understand'” This shit just writes itself. Really heard & understood us when we told you how exploitative the show was. Tried to underpay the LatinX writer who just won an Emmy meanwhile creator had never worked in tv b4 but the 3 of us had.”

Digital Spy reached out to Netflix for comment on Peiffer’s allegations at the time.

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© JASPER SAVAGE/NETFLIX Grand Army, Maliq Johnson

In the autumn of 2018, writer and actor Amanda Idoko launched the #ShowUsYourRoomChallenge hashtag to showcase the reality of TV writers’ rooms in the industry.

“Only 52 rooms participated,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “There are over 500 scripted shows on TV, so only one tenth of TV writers’ rooms were proud to share a photo of their staff in support of diversity and inclusion. That’s shameful.

“I also want to point out that 75 percent of the rooms that participated in the challenge are run or co-run by women or people of colour. If this industry actually wants to improve its terrible diversity numbers, studios should hire more women and POC showrunners, because women and POC are clearly the ones hiring diverse staffs.”

We’d all do well to steer clear of assumptions as a rule but on this occasion, it’s highly probable that those who didn’t participate weren’t shining examples of inclusion. If they were, they would have been all too happy to display their efforts.

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© LIAM DANIEL – Netflix Regé-Jean Page, Bridgerton

In 2020, Variety highlighted a report by nonprofit Color of Change, which looked at 353 episodes from 26 different scripted crime dramas on Netflix, NBC and ABC during the 2017-18 season. Those examples regularly depicted people of colour carrying out “wrongful actions” in the criminal justice world, such as lying and intimidation.

Another assumption you probably have in relation to those figures is that the writers’ rooms in question were not diverse spaces, and you’d be right. 81% of showrunners were white men and 78% of the writers were white, with just 9% Black.

“That distance between perception and reality…has [a] real-world impact on people’s lives,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told Variety. “When we miseducate people about how systems work and when we normalise injustice on our TVs, we make it OK for certain people to be treated only as heroes and certain people to be treated only as villains, and that does not move us forward.”

The Kim's Convenience controversy proves that representation on screen isn't all that matters
© Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix Jharell Jerome as Korey Wise, When They See Us

The noise around representation in this current moment is so loud and extensive that productions which choose not to take stock and adjust accordingly are actively opting to keep the doors bolted. Not only are they uninterested in levelling the playing field, their resistance to change in the face of contemporary conversations and movements suggests that they wear their aversion to inclusion like a badge of honour as other productions scramble to right longstanding wrongs.

Instead of pushing ahead with Strays, the previously promised sixth season of Kim’s Convenience should have gone ahead, with Liu, Yoon and the other cast members a permanent presence in the writers’ room. After a 65-episode run, they have a granular understanding of their characters, and they, not the white producers and writers, are the authority on their culture.

Extending that invitation to other East Asian creatives would also have been a responsible move.

It wouldn’t have erased what had gone before, but it would have been an admission of wrongdoing by the series’ gatekeepers. It would also have demonstrated a genuine appetite for reform, and to do right by its cast and those who watch the show to see themselves reflected which, following the scrapping of season six, is an even greater rarity on Western screens.

It’s also yet another reminder that shows which appear to be diverse and networks which champion that content often fall down in areas which audiences are not privy to, such as writers’ rooms and executive boards. Until there is a concerted shift across the industry to tackle that, these stories will remain an unwanted feature.

This month, Digital Spy Magazine counts down the 50 greatest LGBTQ+ TV characters since the Stonewall riots. Read every issue now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.

Interested in Digital Spy’s weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox – and don’t forget to join our Watch This Facebook Group for daily TV recommendations and discussions with other readers.

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