Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 26, 2021)
Back in the 1970s, Kung Fu became a hit TV series – albeit a fairly short-lived one, as it lasted only three seasons. The franchise gets a reboot with 2021’s CW show Kung Fu.
This three-disc set includes all of Season One’s 13 episodes. The plot synopses come from the series’ official website.
Pilot: “After three years as a martial arts student at a Chinese monastery, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) returns home from a life-changing journey find her hometown of San Francisco is overrun with crime and corruption and her parents at the mercy of a powerful Triad.”
On the positive side, I appreciate that the 2021 Kung Fu goes down a very different path than the 1970s original. While both follow young martial artists who go on their own personal quests, the 1970s show took place in the 19th century and focused on a monk’s journey.
With the new show, we stick with modern day, change the protagonist to a female, and make her pursuit less spiritual and more personal. That gives the 2021 series a real spin compared to the original.
As for the content of “Pilot”, it seems fairly meh. The episode spells out the characters and situations in a reasonably concise manner, but it doesn’t present this material in a way that makes me especially eager to see what happens next. Still, “Pilot” exists mainly to convey exposition, and it does that effectively enough.
Silence: “Nicky turns to Henry (Eddie Liu) for help in her hunt for Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman). Jin (Tzi Ma) looks forward to life getting back to normal, but Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) isn’t as optimistic.”
With the exposition of the “Pilot” out of the way, I hoped “Silence” would become more compelling. That doesn’t really occur, as “Silence” offers another decent but somewhat blah tale. It does seem to point toward Nicky’s future as a do-gooder about town, though, so perhaps that will bring better drama in the future.
Patience: “Nicky and Henry follow a lead involving a professor. Meanwhile, as Althea’s (Shannon Dang) past comes back to haunt her. Jin and Mei-Li have a squabble. Nicky helps a young worker.”
Three episodes into Season One and it looks like Kung Fu will follow a clear pattern, as each episode will divide among Nicky’s pursuit of Zhilan, her attempts to help out in the community, and drama with her family and/or potential love interests. It seems early in the series for it to establish such a clear pattern.
Perhaps my judgment will prove incorrect and we’ll get more variety down the road. “Patience” becomes another moderately interesting show but still not one that really hooks me.
Hand: “As Nicky and Henry follow a lead to a private collector in Napa, a dinner with the Soongs leaves Althea to question her worth. Elsewhere, Evan’s (Gavin Stenhouse) suspicions about Henry grow.”
Of the three story patterns in Kung Fu, I tend to dislike the one related to Zhilan leaves me the least intrigued. It leaps to the fore in “Hand”, though the moments with Althea’s potential in-laws fill a lot of space as well. Neither becomes especially compelling and the episode leans a bit too “soap opera”.
Sanctuary: “An officer-involved shooting in Chinatown sends shockwaves through the community. Mei-Li and Jin are forced to revisit a traumatic experience.”
While I usually appreciate it when TV series go for topical material, the Black Lives Matters theme of “Sanctuary” seems gratuitous and little more than a token nod toward recent events. It detours from the main narrative too much and seems like a weak stab at relevance.
Rage: “When the retrieval of a weapon doesn’t go as planned, Nicky takes matters into her own hands. Elsewhere, Jin takes Mei-Li on a surprise date and Althea finds herself faced with an ultimatum.”
A bunch of ordinary people attempt a big heist at a gala – alrighty then. This seems like a strange path, one that the series fails to pull off in a compelling manner
Guidance: “After learning devastating news about Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), Nicky distracts herself by helping a young woman in need. Zhilan confronts her past, and Mei-Lei makes a confession.”
For a series called Kung Fu, we tend not to get a whole lot of actual martial arts action. Most of the time, the episodes trace the (tedious) overall narrative as well as character melodrama, with a couple of minutes of music video-style fights tossed in occasionally.
“Guidance” does toss in some backstory, a factor that makes it more interesting – in theory, at least. In reality, this delivers another fairly mediocre program. Geez, a show that features a cage match still barely shows any real action – what the heck?
Destiny: “Nicky and the Shens deal with the fallout of a family secret, and Althea prepares for her bachelorette party.”
That bash dominates “Destiny” and gives us a looser air than the average episode. We find plenty of the usual melodrama, though, so this turns into another fairly tedious show.
Isolation: “Nicky follows the lead to learn more about her family history, Zhilan joins forces with Kerwin Tan (Ludi Lin), and Jin and Mei-Li find themselves at a crossroads.”
On the positive side, “Isolation” takes Nicky and some others outside of San Francisco, and that change of scenery adds a little spark to the proceedings. However, much of the episode brings much of the same uninspiring narrative and character material of prior episodes. Don’t expect “Isolation” to kick the series into gear.
Choice: “Nicky offers to help Evan when his case takes a turn, Ryan (Jon Prasida) introduces Joe (Bradley Gibson) to his parents, and Kerwin receives a surprise visitor.”
At one point, Nicky goes undercover at a frat party to help with the aforementioned case. This bit shows what the series could’ve been if it took itself less seriously and didn’t focus so much on the mythology.
None of this redeems Kung Fu for me after so many blah episodes, but at least “Choice” brings us some fun. It’s the best show of the season.
Attachment: “Nicky and Henry follow a lead that brings them to Las Vegas and on a collision course with Zhilan and Kerwin. Elsewhere, Jin and Mei-Li make a major decision.”
After the brief gust of wind from “Choice”, Kung Fu reverts to its melodramatic core with the blah “Attachment”. Even a Nicky/Henry trip to Vegas feels contrived and lacks the energy one might hope.
Sacrifice: “With time running out, Nicky and Henry work to translate a cryptic map that could lead them to the Forge. Meanwhile, Althea and the family prepare for Po Po’s (Fiona Fu) arrival.”
With so little time left in Season One, Kung Fu needs to build to a climax. Instead, we find ourselves stuck with more nonsense related to Althea’s wedding.
Sure, we find some of the season’s overall arc, but those elements lack kick. “Sacrifice” fails to bring us a compelling lead-in to the year’s finale.
Odd casting footnote: Fiona Fu plays the mother of Kheng Hua Tan’s character, but she’s only six years older – and honestly, Fu looks younger. It seems odd the producers made this choice.
Transformation: “Nicky learns what is needed to open the forge. Meanwhile, an emergency at home threatens to derail Althea and Dennis’ (Tony Chung) tea ceremony.”
It didn’t take psychic skills to know that S1’s final episode would involve both Althea’s actual wedding as well as a big confrontation between Nicky and Zhilan. Inevitably, both occur in this show.
In theory, this should mean a big, exciting finish. In reality, we get another contrived narrative that becomes an awkward mix of melodrama, comedy and (too little) action.
At no point can I claim Kung Fu turns into a genuinely bad series, but it also fails to become especially interesting. Even with some intriguing components, the end result seems unsure of where it wants to go. Perhaps Season Two will find a groove, but S1 feels mediocre.