There’s a moment halfway through the first season of Kim’s Convenience that encapsulates the show: Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), the co-owner of a grocery store in Toronto, is peering at a black dude sifting through snacks by the register. As the customer moves along, Kim asks his daughter, Janet (Andrea Bang), “What you think, steal or no steal?” When Janet asks her father if the man took something, with more than a little skepticism in her voice, Mr. Kim dismisses the question: “He’s a no steal, because he’s a black guy, brown shoes.”
This, Mr. Kim claims, is a “cancel-out combo.” White guys with white shoes are a “steal.” Brown women with blue jackets are a “no steal.” “But,” he says, “a lesbian — that’s a girl who is the gay — if she’s whistling, that’s a steal. But two lesbains? Surprise. That’s a no steal. Even if whistling. That’s a cancel-out combo.”
Naturally, Janet asks her father about “a fat Asian gay man long, straight hair, and a black lesbian with a ponytail and cowboy boots” — steal or no steal? After a blip of confusion, her appa deems that scenario impossible: The fat Asian gay nudges the hypothetical into fantasy. “Gay Asian is never fat,” says Mr. Kim. “Only skinny Asian is the gay. That’s rule. That’s how they doing like that.”
In just over 90 seconds, the scene tackles racial profiling, privilege, and queer stereotypes at a breakneck pace; flubbing any one of those runs the risk of turning whole viewerships off of a show. But the delivery is so effortless, and the scene’s flow is so natural, that the viewer has no choice but to laugh, gasping intermittently for air over the rest of the episode. In this way, Kim’s Convenience is both a balm and a riot: The series reached audiences beyond Canada through Netflix in mid-July, despite airing in its home country since October 2016. The story was created by Ins Choi, who originally wrote it as a play, and saw that script rejected by every major theater company in Toronto. Later, it would go on to earn the Best New Play at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, following an entirely sold-out run. Today, production is wrapping on the series’ third season, with a fourth already waiting in the wings.
Insofar as anything approximating a pure sitcom exists anymore, Kim’s Convenience is the ideal. The show’s concept is simple, and it’s executed within an inch of its life. We have a family, the Kims, with all of the entrapments and plotlines a family unit can entail. Mrs. Kim (Jean Yoon) and Mr. Kim manage the store in relative harmony. Janet, their daughter, juggles photography school and her life around the shop. Jung (Simu Liu) is Janet’s brother, kicked out of the home by Mr. Kim for stealing, but he works at a car-rental spot in the city and is adored by his umma and Janet.
While the fault lines for conflict are in place, the series doesn’t force itself into them. Jung is estranged, but not in a particularly extravagant way: He simply, mostly, avoids his father whenever possible. Mr. Kim, the family’s patriarch, is a devoted shopkeeper who loves his family, even if he’s a little mystified by them. Mrs. Kim dotes on her husband, although at least once every episode she delivers a line so cutting that it pierces through the screen. Janet lives between the pull of taking over the store, her passion for photography, and her umma’s attempts to set her up with “cool Christian Korean” boys. And when a professor of Janet’s wonders why her “background” isn’t informing her photographs, she gently tells the lady that her parents aren’t refugees.
“Well,” says the professor, “boat people.”
“My parents flew here,” says Janet.
“You mean fled,” says her professor.
“No,” says Janet. “Flew. Air Canada, probably.”
Kim’s Convenience launches from these potential tensions, and virtually always sticks its landings. The show doesn’t pretend to see reality differently than you and I do, nor does it attempt to sell you on what life actually is, so much as what life can be. We get a mirror of a very specific world — one that is extremely funny — and watching the Kims interact with their neighbors is a joy in itself: They are Latino and black and white and Asian and queer and old and young. Mr. Kim escorts his buddy, Mr. Chin, on a double date with a Russian love interest. Jung’s childhood friend, Kimchee, plays the jokester to his straight man. Mrs. Kim’s social circle is wildly mixed, and from the first episode where Mr. Kim tests his fledgling “gaydar” to watching Janet flirt with Jung’s black childhood friend later on, Kim’s Convenience is the rare sitcom that understands that not every joke needs to be explained to the molecular level, because its viewers live in the world as well.
The air between bits gives them more weight. But there is, maybe, a preexisting burden placed on the narratives we consume today: If they’re entirely divorced from our current political hellscape, those stories are deemed willfully blind. If they lean too far into it, they run the risk of playing to an affectation. And then there’s the art that reads the room, attempting to decode how life is endured alongside it — with the magnified warmth of Coco on one end of the spectrum, let’s say, and the hyperanxiety of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation on the other — and I don’t know where Kim’s Convenience falls, exactly, but I do know that I haven’t laughed as hard all year, with feeling, as I have alongside the series.
It is one thing for a show’s narrative thrust to be the tension of living, and another for it to reject that notion entirely, but watching Kim’s Convenience, you just want to live in their world. It’s very much like the corner store you visit to buy a six-pack or an iced coffee or a lighter you don’t really need; you’re only looking to soak in the ambiance. You learn to love the owners. You learn about their lives. You learn what to ask about, and which subjects to avoid. You’re not exactly missing anything, and the rest of your life is waiting on the other side of the door, but you linger for a little while, because you can, and because the space makes you feel good, and because this is real life, too. And Mr. Kim, regardless of who you are or where you’ve come from or where you’re going, is unflinching with his farewell, one you grow to expect and to look forward to, delivered from the heels, with feeling, unvarnished and unchanging: “Okay, see you!” It’s less of an announcement than a promise, because you’re certain that it’s true.
Kim’s Convenience is available to stream on Netflix.