Review by C.J. Bunce
Put away what you remember (if anything) about the 1970s Kung Fu television series. You didn’t really watch the series for David Carradine, did you? If you were like most of the viewers, you probably showed up for the martial arts. CW Network’s new reboot of Kung Fu is for that same audience, but it also casts a wider net. Wednesday night Olivia Liang showed up to take the new series, CW’s Kung Fu, by storm. You can compare it to the similar-vibed, live-action Mulan, some of your favorite recent martial arts series that have the same dramatic beats like Wu Assassins, or you can compare it to series like Charmed, Smallville, Stargirl, or Riverdale. Fans of all these shows will get a kick out of the ease at which the CW has brought a young Chinese-American hero into our must-watch DVR queue with college student-turned-Shaolin warrior Nicky Shen. She’s a completely modern, updated Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she brings with her an interesting supporting cast while pulling some intrigue into the story via elements of classic Chinese mythology and history. It’s fantasy, and its supernatural, and there’s swinging kicks and swordplay you’re not going to want to miss.
The CW packed a lot in the pilot episode. Viewers hear about Nicky’s backstory and see glimpses of Nicky being sent to China as some quick-scheme to arrange a marriage for her just before graduation from college. Nicky backs out, hitching a ride with a woman who will become her shifu mentor for the next three years, Pei-ling, played by Vanessa Kai (Gotham, Orange is the New Black). While Pei-ling tries to convince Nicky to return to her family, her palace is raided, Pei-ling is murdered, and the show’s villain, Zhilan, played by Chinese-Canadian actress Yvonne Chapman (The Crossing, The 100), takes an important weapon artifact, but not before teaching Nicky a lesson in a final combat scene. In a flash she returns to San Francisco with a new purpose.
And it’s San Francisco where the series takes on that familiar CW feel. Nicky arrives at the preparation for a sister’s wedding and we meet her ex-boyfriend played by Gavin Stenhouse (Black Mirror, Major Crimes) with–oops–his new love interest–and more importantly, we meet Nicky’s new love interest and potential sparring partner in her brother’s co-worker. Liang’s Nicky looks like a superheroine, one that would fit right in with the Arrowverse. Kung Fu also has that fun, positive, brightly lit fantasy vibe we saw in Stargirl.
As predicted, the series has instant credibility with fan-favorite actor Tzi Ma playing Nicky’s father, tying the show to Wu Assassins and Mulan. Shannon Dang (The Romanoffs) is going to be fun for viewers as Nicky’s sister, Tan Kheng Hua Tan (Crazy Rich Asians, Magnum, PI) is sufficiently persnickety as Nicky’s mother, Eddie Liu (Broad City, Silicon Valley) will make a good love interest and fighting partner as Henry, and Yvonne Chapman is a fierce and formidable enemy as Zhilan.
About ten minutes managing family issues, ten minutes developing romance, ten minutes of guidance by the ghost of Pei-ling, ten minutes of hunting the series’ Big Bad, and ten minutes on the issue of the week–if they can keep that kind of story going this could be a show that lasts a few seasons. Look for Kung Fu airing Wednesday evenings on the CW Network.