October 4, 2016

Cashing in on big laughs

Brad Oswald / Winnipeg Free Press

Full disclosure: I was completely prepared for Kim’s Convenience to be terrible.

After all, the CBC’s record — and for that matter, the record of the entire Canadian TV industry — has been rather spotty when it comes to situation comedies. The public broadcaster has a long history of excellence when it comes to satirical comedy (Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer Report), sketch comedy (CODCO, The Kids in the Hall, Baroness Von Sketch Show) and unconventional TV humour (Still Standing, anything by Ken Finkleman), but when it comes to the traditional sitcom genre, well, that’s one that the CBC hasn’t often been able to get right.

If you dig deep enough into history, you’ll find King of Kensington, which ran for five years (1975-80) and could legitimately be regarded as a success. But since then, the giggle-inducing pickings have been slim. The late ’80s and early ’90s brought us such quickly forgotten titles as Mosquito Lake, In Opposition and Material World, and the CBC’s sparse 21st-century selection of sitcoms has produced mixed results — among its most notable titles, Schitt’s Creek has scored genuine laughs while Little Mosque on the Prairie met all the requirements of a diverse and culturally sensitive family comedy except that really important one that involves being funny.

Kim’s Convenience, which begins Oct. 11 with back-to-back episodes, seemed like a cause for concern. But as it turns out, this bright, fresh, fully entertaining series is about as far from terrible as television programming gets. It really is a very funny show.

The series, based on the acclaimed like-titled play by Ins Choi, focuses on a Korean-Canadian family that owns a convenience store in downtown Toronto. The patriarch and primary proprietor is Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), known as “Appa” to his family, a typically set-in-his-ways sitcom dad who’s perpetually out of step with the changing world around him.

He and Mrs. Kim (Jean Yoon) — Umma to her kids — have two grown children: Janet (Andrea Bang), who’s a student in art school, and Jung (Simu Liu), who has been estranged from Appa for years as a result of a mostly unexplained dispute involving some stolen money, a criminal charge and Jung’s dropping out of high school. He works at a car-rental agency alongside his roommate and best pal, Kimchee (Andrew Phung), and Umma and Janet have secretly kept in touch with Jung since he left home.

Against that backdrop, the Kims confront a bunch of ordinary problems in the course of their hard-working days; in the series opener, Mr. Kim deals with the consequences of a spur-of-the-moment decision to offer a special “gay discount” during Pride Week, while Janet finds herself in the midst of yet another campaign by Umma to set her up with an eligible young Christian man from the local Korean church congregation.

Each of these storylines has the potential to veer into preachy political correctness, but instead Kim’s Convenience attacks them with a caution-to-the-wind attitude that favours funnyover any other consideration. The jokes are frequent, smart and consistently on target, and the performances of the cast are both charming and razor-sharp amusing. Every time the conversation seems headed for the same, tired punchline, the show drops in a topical reference or an out-of-left-field zinger that will take viewers completely by surprise.

And as good as the series pilot is, the show gets better in the two subsequent episodes provided for preview.

Based on this early sampling, it’s not unreasonable to think CBC might finally have captured and harnessed the one TV-genre creature that has eluded it for decades: a really good, really funny Canadian-made sitcom.

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