A few months ago, when it was announced that the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience wouldn’t be renewed for a sixth season, the economist Noah Smith, who usually writes on themes economic and political, took a reprieve on his blog to discuss the show. He noted that during the politically fraught and moral draught of Trump’s presidency and the subsequent COVID-19 outbreak, the show provided him a sort of refuge.
The word “refuge” is often romanticized and overused in the personal-essay boom where every show that provides some semblance of distraction is given the status of “refuge”. But with Kim’s Convenience there might be more to this word — the show’s sitcom format that keeps things consistently low-stakes despite the potential for explosive confrontations and deep pits of melancholy. Yet, like the other Canadian sitcom sensation Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience never goes there, not because it can’t, but by design it wants to keep things lite. The narrative tension is often that of humour — a missing spider, trespassing a wealthier neighbourhood’s tennis court, or sending sexy videos to the wrong person. The tension doesn’t make the stomach churn, propped instead by the humour, Canadian kindness, and a spirit of happy bearings. Especially if your binge muscles were trained by the earlier 4 seasons, you know the show won’t sneak-attack a heavy emotional swerve. There’s an obviousness, often convenient, with which these small conflicts are plotted and resolved.
The show that debuted in 2016 follows a Korean immigrant family in Toronto, a multicultural hub that is established with brief city shots of b-roll in between scenes. The titular convenience shop is helmed by Mr and Mrs. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon), or Umma and Appa to their two kids — Jung (Simu Liu) who is working at a car rental, trying to paper over a stint in juvenile detention and Janet (Andrea Bang) who is a photography student. Mr Kim’s relationship with Jung is fraught after the stint in jail, so he lives with his close friend and coworker Kimchee (Andrew Phung). The three other Kims live on the floor above the convenience store, resembling a work ethic that cannot distinguish between the office and home. There is no resentment or complaints about this. In the fifth season Janet makes a cursory remark that owning the shop means no vacations, (the shop’s marquee sign reads “7 DAYS A WEEK”) and suddenly, it dawned that throughout the seasons we rarely see leisure as a prolonged experience. It’s often small snacks of it in between long work hours of stacking shelves, and waiting for customers. (There is a brief Cuban detour in season 3)
Their tether to the outside world is formed by people coming into the shop, sometimes their lonely oddball friends, sometimes their pastor, sometimes strangers who challenge their traditional calcified norms — either gender identity, pronouns, fat-shaming (Mr. Kim refuses to give vape pods to a woman whom he thinks is pregnant). But these are not gags to punctuate humour into the proceedings, but small character arcs that get resolved quickly. The Kims learn to be in the new world, and never resent that. They don’t see it as a trade-off as much as a reluctant learning opportunity. Because this is a world that is incapable of holding rancour. Even when its characters are edging towards being unlikeable, a quick detour of kindness seals the day. As a viewer you don’t, you cannot hate anyone.
At its best, the show lingers on Mr and Mrs. Kim as they try to navigate the world together, with their pride intact, even if it is lightly bruised now and then. Their banter, their flirting, their solid sense of Church, community and family is a fine example of old-world charm. Even when it reeks of arrogance, it is tinted by humanity.
In the last episode of the fifth season there is a family dinner, and each character brings to the table a tension that is easy to boil over the course of a Korean meal. But here, it’s civil, kind, and even warm. After shutting the shop, saying goodbye to their kids — Janet is going out with friends and will come home later and Jung is going back to his home — they walk between the aisles towards their home, their silhouette lit by the refrigerator in the back. It’s hard to wonder what retirement will look like for them, but as long as they are together, they’ll figure it out.
A lot has been said about how the show fronted representation in the best possible manner. But the cancellation of the sixth season after its creators walked out sparked a bigger conversation on representation behind the scenes. On the day the fifth season dropped, Simu Liu took to Facebook to describe what exactly happened — the only non-Asian character in the show, Jung’s boss and later, lover Shannon (Nicole Power) is getting a spin-off show; the producers and the writer’s room were overwhelmingly white; the actors were paid “horse poop”.
The saddest aspect then, of both the post and the lack of closure with the characters, is that the fondness we cultivated over the years has now been given an abrupt, almost rude machete. We don’t know how Mr Kim and Jung will circle back to each other after nudging each other’s periphery with care and caution. We don’t know how Janet will navigate bisexuality, coming out to her conservative but caring parents. We don’t know how Mrs Kim’s MS will snowball, and how the family will deal with a medical darkness that it never experienced before. We don’t know how Jung and Shannon’s relationship, on the rocks, will weather. The season ends with a kind of abruptness that now neither has the promise of resolution, nor the semblance of self-sufficiency. We needed more to complete this story, but the commercial acrobatics of streaming have created yet another lovely, but incomplete one.