“The Itchy Onion”, despite a wavering tone and some sloppy writing, suggests a lot of promise for Cinemax’s new martial arts drama.
This recap of the Warrior Season Premiere titled “The Itchy Onion” contains spoilers.
Warrior, the much-anticipated Bruce Lee brainchild about Chinese immigrants in lawless 1878 San Francisco, is a flawed show. It wavers tonally, the dialogue is often try-hard and almost always slightly cornier than it ought to be, and there isn’t much sense of a cohesive narrative throughline. All of this was made evident in the Warrior season premiere, “The Itchy Onion”, which graced Cinemax on Friday. But that debut also made clear that the show’s kind of awesome regardless, and has enough swaggering confidence to carry it for a while.
If you ask me, there’s always room for more martial arts dramas on television, and with the recent return of AMC’s Into the Badlands, there’s plenty of face-punching to go around. But whereas that show revels in fantastical and colorful homage to classic wire-assisted Wuxia, Warrior is a much more desaturated, grimy affair, with a fraught period backdrop and a sometimes too-obvious desire to appeal to an older, more jaded demographic.
It’d be too easy — and probably useless — to waste time drawing political parallels between the late 19th Century and today, with the fear of immigrants among the working class and the intentional weaponizing of racial animus by the political class taxing an inept and corrupt law-enforcement body to such an extent that various criminal tongs basically run s**t. “The Itchy Onion” makes reference to new boy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a recent immigrant who has “crossed the salt” to find an enigmatic woman and to fight just like Bruce Lee at any given opportunity. He’s quickly recruited by the tongs as a hatchet man in one of many rather obvious devices that ensure hardly any time passes in Warrior without an action scene of some kind. And this is by no means a bad thing.
The ever-expanding Chinese population can sometimes feel slightly too expansive in “The Itchy Onion”; there’s a lot going on here in the Warrior season premiere, from a disenfranchised labor force plotting “another Civil War” and murdering immigrants in the street to jaded cops bending the rules to get things done, smugly corrupt politicians attempting to manipulate the narrative, gang bosses vying for turf, conflicted loyalties, old grudges, and deviations for bare-knuckle brawls and unwinding in brothels, not all of which necessarily feel integral to the plot. But it helps to build specificity and flavor into the setting, and the show’s immersive visual style is a clear highlight.
Among other good elements are strong female characters — Olivia Cheng’s Ah Toy and Dianne Doan’s Mai Ling — and charismatic supporting players — Jason Tobin’s Young Jun and Hoon Lee’s playing-both-sides fixer Wang Chao — who help to offset Koji’s stoic hero figure. Warrior also pulls from a range of classic and contemporary influences in both its aesthetics and tone, but the overall effect is something that feels a little bit different to anything else out there, even if it is occasionally hamstrung by its own breadth and desire to do so many things at once.
Still, the Warrior season premiere, while by no means perfect, suggests a lot of promise for the series. Its combination of kinetic action and gangland posturing will have a wide appeal, and its generally solid execution will likely keep that audience engaged through a rough and efficient portrait of American history, one that — perhaps most importantly — tells its story from an uncommon perspective. Let the Tong Wars begin.