The CW’s new take on “Kung Fu” has a lot to like: Olivia Liang is an enjoyable series lead and gets to flex her talents in a handful of great action sequences, while the show’s emphasis on family and community make it a more positive chaser to the deluge of dark and gritty action series that have popped up over the last few years. That said, after the pilot episode it’s still not clear if the new series will lean on its strengths or fall back on clichéd plotting and clunky exposition.
The original 1972 “Kung Fu” series, which starred David Carradine as a white Shaolin monk who roamed the Old West, was undeniably a product of its time. The CW’s show, which is billed as a “re-imagining” of the original instead of a straight reboot, updates the setting to contemporary San Francisco, features a predominantly Asian cast, and boasts a more cohesive central narrative. The CW series makes little effort to subvert viewers’ expectations or otherwise add a wrinkle to traditional martial arts/coming-of-age stories, but there’s still fun to be had in the show’s action sequences and lighthearted and upbeat tone.
Liang stars in the series as Nicky Shen, a college dropout who is sent to China by her mother to enter an arranged marriage. That deal doesn’t suit Nicky, who cuts off contact with her family and joins a Shaolin monastery, where she becomes a kung fu expert over the course of three years. The monastery is attacked by a mysterious group of warriors several hours after Nicky’s mentor encourages her to make amends with her family. A mysterious antagonist steals the monastery’s magical sword/macguffin and leaves Nicky for dead. The heroine’s efforts to identify the assailants are fruitless, so she treks back to San Fransisco to reconnect with her siblings and parents. This all happens within the show’s first eight minutes.
To say that the “Kung Fu” premiere suffers from pacing issues would be a massive understatement. The episode covers a lot of ground in its roughly 40-minute runtime — two potential romantic interests are introduced, tensions in Nicky’s family are explored, and there’s a criminal gang terrorizing Chinatown, among other things — which leaves unfortunately little time to dig deeper into the show’s key characters. On one hand, “Kung Fu” will definitely wear out its welcome quickly if subsequent episodes maintain the frantic pacing in lieu of fleshing out any of its characters, but at least the episode gets most of the team-up and origin story business out of the way earlier than similar shows; “Kung Fu” might not feature any caped crusaders or a Green Arrow, but the premiere follows similar story beats and tropes that have defined the CW’s various superhero shows in recent years. It should come as no surprise that The CW veteran Greg Berlanti (“Batwoman,” “The Flash,” “Arrow”) is an executive producer here.
There’s reason for martial arts fanatics and fans of more lighthearted action shows — there’s soaring pop music during the premiere’s climactic fight scene! — to want to stay invested. Liang and the rest of the show’s key talents are plenty likable, despite not being given much dramatic material to work with, and the emphasis on Nicky’s family and Chinatown’s community are a nice contrast to the show’s slightly fantastical elements. “Kung Fu” might not bring anything new to the table, but there’s something appealing about the show’s earnest simplicity and lack of seriousness.
“Kung Fu” definitely has potential, but the premiere episode also boasts a few other warning signs. There’s an enormous amount of exposition throughout the premiere and characters discuss their backstories and talents with the subtlety of a bag of sledgehammers. Nicky’s brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) is a medical student — it’s explained as such and he also wears a lab coat at home. Henry (Eddie Liu) is introduced as Nicky’s presumed crime-fighting sidekick and love interest — he’s toned and wears a sleeveless shirt in his introductory scene. There’s an opportunity for the show to dig deeper into Nicky’s relationships and her ability to emphasize with Chinatown’s residents, but the show has a ways to go to make its characters stand out.
The show’s fight scenes are a similarly mixed bag, but fare better than its plot-driven elements. Of the premiere’s three main fight scenes, the two that primarily feature practical effects and grounded choreography excel. There’s a surprising physicality to several of the fight scenes and Nicky’s brawls with nameless criminal goons strike the perfect balance between empowering her character while still making it seem like she might be in actual danger. Still, “Kung Fu” would be wise to stick to more grounded action scenes, because things really go off the rails when special effects and slow-motion are heavily incorporated into the fighting. The premiere’s first action scene, which takes place at Nicky’s Shaolin monastery, is the episode’s worst by a considerable margin: People’s kicks clearly fail to connect with their intended targets and you can practically see the background being rendered on a computer in real time. The budget or technical skills for even remotely believable CGI is clearly not available here, but “Kung Fu” has already proved it doesn’t need those things to create enjoyable action sequences.
There are caveats upon caveats to “Kung Fu,” but despite all of its quirks, the show has potential, and with a tighter focus on its characters Nicky’s adventures to defend her community could be worth the investment.
“Kung Fu” premieres on April 7 at 8 p.m. on The CW.