While reboots, reinventions, and reimaginings are having their moment in entertainment, they can be complicated things. Particularly when the thing being given a new take holds an important place in popular culture, there can be high expectations and that is certainly the case for The CW's Kung Fu, a contemporary, female-led take on the classic 1970s series which starred David Carradine. However, whatever expectations one might have going into this new series, the new Kung Fu easily exceeds them, offering up a story that is unique, entertaining, and arriving at exactly the right time.
Going into the pilot episode of the series (the only episode provided for review), Kung Fu distinguishes itself from its spiritual predecessor in nearly every way. In the series, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a Chinese-American young woman from San Francisco goes on a trip to China, but after discovering the real reason her family has sent her on this trip, she flees, instead finding herself at a remote Shaolin monastery where she ends up devoting herself to learning kung fu. When her mentor (Vanessa Kai) is killed by a mysterious warrior named Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), who in turn steals an ancient sword, Nicky finds herself going back home to deal with the family issues she ran from as well as to try to find out why her mentor was murdered and what the deal is with that sword.
It's intriguing enough of a premise, if not one that feels made for television, but the way the story centers itself in its connections -- of family, of community -- sets it apart. Nicky, by essentially abandoning her family for years, is an outsider in her own world at first and must learn to not only face her past but also forge new connections with people she's arguably closest to, all while facing her own mistakes. And it isn't just a story of burned bridges that get resolved by the end of the hour, though there are some moments that do feel too easy. Each of Nicky's relationships have depth and nuance to them, making it clear that there will be challenges to come, even without accounting for the immediate threat of crime and corruption that is negatively impacting not just the Shen family, but their larger community as well. In fact, the more mystical elements of the series -- the sword, the mysterious warrior, the murder of Nicky's mentor -- almost feel exaggerated by contrast, though part of that comes from how almost awkwardly the series pairs the more mystical aspect with the very realistic family story.
Where the series really excels, however, is how it approaches Chinese-American culture. While there are elements that are very specific and deeply rooted in the culture, Kung Fu makes it part of the universal human experience. Familial expectation, the challenges of owning a small business, trying to find your place in the world -- these are all human experiences, and viewers of any culture will easily be able to see themselves in Nicky's story. That universality humanizes the Asian culture at the heart of the story, something that has particular significance given the rise in hate-based crime against Asian Americans.
Kung Fu is a fun, heartfelt series that easily sets itself apart from its spiritual predecessor and claims its own place. It is not perfect -- there's a bit of awkward exposition, the two parts of Nicky's story don't quite mesh just right in the pilot, and the dialogue is fairly weak at some points, despite the best efforts of its very talented cast -- but it's a refreshing and engaging series unlike anything else on television, in the best way possible.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Kung Fu premieres Wednesday, April 7th at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.