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November 7, 2016

Speechless, Kim’s Convenience bring awkward humour back to TV


JOEL RUBINOFF / Toronto Star

After relocating the annual bonfire from an inaccessible beachfront to the crappy school gym, to accommodate a special needs kid whose mom demands equal access, the student body on Speechless (8:30 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC) are encouraged to express their disappointment in a respectful, inclusive way.

“I just think it’s unfortunate that the best activity of the year got ruined to accommodate one student,” offers one long-faced teen.

“Very good!” coos the diversity-minded principal, a font of political correctness.

“No one’s mad at JJ,” explains another. “He just wants to have the same high school experience as the rest of us.

“But if anyone else got it cancelled, we’d be mad at them. So isn’t it demeaning to JJ to notblame him?”

“He’s right,” crows another. “We should respect JJ as an equal and be mad at him!”

The principal nods intently: “And in that spirit of respect, what would you say to him?”

“Screw you for ruining everything!” shouts one student, newly emboldened.

“For someone who doesn’t walk,” bleats another, “you sure do trample on our rights!”

“Your mom might be hot,” sermonizes a third, “but your behaviour’s not!”

Outrageous? Insensitive? Politically incorrect?

Come on, that’s so 1995.

In 2016, after years of plodding, feel-good dramas that paint people with disabilities as saints, caricatures and pariahs, the reset button has finally been set to “reality.”

Speechless, which breaks ground by casting an actor who has cerebral palsy as a character with the same condition, isn’t interested in quaint homilies about how the disabled must be treated with kid gloves and worshipped as “special.”

Nor is it interested in lecturing, hectoring or preaching to the converted.

What it does explore, in sublimely comic fashion, are the tempestuous ironies of real life: what happens when thumb-sucking educators who trumpet feel-good equality come face to face with the very people they purport to champion?

It also speaks to a cultural moment where the idea of diversity has moved from incubated silo to sprawling metropolis, acceptance trumps awareness, and people unsure how to react are a comic gift that keeps on giving.

“Our job at the show is plain and simple: to tell good stories and make people laugh. This is no documentary about disability,” creator Scott Silveri told disabilityscoop.com.

“That said, we’re committed to presenting a character with CP in a way that is informed, respectful and authentic.”

Authenticity, coincidentally, is also the key ingredient of Kim’s Convenience (9 p.m. Tuesdays on CBC), a hilarious depiction of a Korean-Canadian family that, in its fearless desire to stir the pot, comes off like Archie Bunker meets The King of Kensington.

“I have no problem wis da gay,” the heavily accented Korean proprietor of a corner variety store tells mortified customers on the eve of Toronto’s annual Pride parade.

“But if you is da gay, why can’t you be quiet, respectful gay, hmm, like, uh, Anderson Cooper, no? Neil Patrick Harris, y’know?”

The two customers, who just want to post their parade flyer on his wall, fidget uncomfortably.

“Some people don’t like Korean,” he goes on, determined to make his point, “but we don’t making big parade yelling at people, ‘WE DA KOREAN! WE DA KOREAN!’”

Called out on his homophobia and threatened with legal action, Mr. Kim (played by the brilliant Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) attempts to defuse tensions by offering a “gay discount.”

“Gay discount?” respond his intrigued yet horrified accusers. “But how do you know if someone is gay?”

“I can tell,” he insists, unaware he’s getting himself into deeper trouble. “I have gaydar: 100 per cent guarantee!”

I can’t imagine a more incendiary or hilariously topical approach to the subjects of inclusivity, gender and race relations in multicultural big city Toronto.

The genius of Kim’s Convenience is that despite its intentionally rough edges, its main characters are sympathetic, flawed beings who make occasional missteps but learn from their mistakes.

And they feel real, not — in grand CBC tradition — like generic holograms mouthing platitudes about diversity.

“There’s a lot of support out there for the show because it checks off certain criteria,” Ins Choi, a South Korean native who based the series on his award-winning play, told Toronto Life.

“CanCon, diversity. But it’s still got to be good. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter what boxes are ticked.”

We saw this firsthand with Little Mosque on the Prairie, an earnestly plodding Canadian sitcom that was hailed as a breakthrough for its depiction of Muslim Canadians as something other than terrorists, but squandered its platform on feel-good banalities and the kind of hokey humour people might have laughed at 40 years ago.

Kim’s Convenience — the edgiest Canadian comedy since Trailer Park Boys and the funniest since The Newsroom — is a different animal.

“We focus on what makes us laugh,” noted Choi. “We don’t worry about offending. I don’t even think we’re having fun with stereotypes.”

In their own ways, Kim’s Convenience and Speechless provide a road map for the world ahead, a detour around society’s obsession with social mores and covering one’s butt, pushing through the weeds and thickets of obfuscation to a paradigm of true understanding.

From a comedy perspective, of course, those weeds and thickets are crucial.

“We have a 15 per cent gay discount only for dis week,” Mr. Kim informs one horrified customer who doesn’t identify as gay. “Is a lucky day for you!”

And on he goes, foot in mouth: well intended, sure, but as flawed and culpable as the rest of us.

And every bit as relatable.