Kung Fu season 1, episode 1 recap – the pilot kicks things off with style

April 12, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 0
Weekly TV
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Kung Fu season 1, episode 1 recap - the pilot kicks things off with style


The Kung Fu pilot gets things off to a decent start, with solid action and a welcome focus on family as well as ancient magical weapons.

This recap of Kung Fu season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.

Kung Fu, a gender-flipped reimagining of a same-titled David Carradine show from the ‘70s, is obviously significant. It’s a network drama comprising a predominantly Asian-American cast when anti-Asian sentiment, thanks to the obviously misunderstood Coronavirus pandemic and certain clearly racist remarks made about it by the only recently deposed Commander in Chief, is rife in America and elsewhere. That feels like a middle finger, or at least a high kick, in the direction of bigotry and a clear win for representation, but, as we know, representation alone isn’t to make a show work in the long term. Luckily, the Kung Fu pilot, despite boasting its share of fights, weird plot turns, and set up for later episodes, mostly hones in on a believable family dynamic that should hopefully give the show the storytelling bedrock it needs to develop.

Most of the “huh?” stuff is frontloaded anyway. In a blocky bit of exposition in the opening moments, Kung Fu episode 1 introduces us to Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a Chinese American woman whose life has progressed according to the strict itinerary of her tiger mom Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan); she’s a musical and athletic prodigy and a Harvard student, mostly against her own wishes, so when Mei-Li tries to organize her romantic future to a worryingly specific degree, as befitting cultural traditions and all that, Nicky decides to get really cultural by hiding in a pickup truck that spirits her to an all-female Shaolin monastery led by Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai).

With this out of the way, we fast-forward three years so that Kung Fu can establish its action bona fides and tee up the next few weeks of plot. Now a full-fledged member of the monastery and a devoted student of Pei-Ling, Nicky wakes up in the night to find the place under fiery attack from a gang of raiders led by Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), who’s after a magical ancient sword – this is airing on the CW, roll with it – which she promptly discovers and uses to stab Pei-Ling to death. Nicky gives chase, tries to recover the weapon, fails because she isn’t worthy to hold it, and then gets booted off a cliff “This is Sparta!” style. Quite an opening.

It’s easy to worry about shows on the CW. They tend to lean on ropey visual effects and overedited choreography, relying on the fact that none of them ever seem to get canceled so that the budget and physical performances can catch up with the showrunner’s ambitions. The Kung Fu pilot seems a step ahead in this regard since the effects are (relatively) understated and the choreography is good, all things considered. There isn’t too much obvious stunt doubling, and the shots tend to be wide and clear, held for long enough not to be jarring. It isn’t The Raid or anything, but it’ll definitely do.

Following her brush with death, Nicky returns home to San Francisco to mixed responses from her family. Mei-Li isn’t keen to see her, and neither is her younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), who reckons Nicky ghosted him during her self-imposed exile, which was particularly egregious in his eyes since, as we learn later, he came out as gay to his parents a year ago and they haven’t spoken about it since – Nicky left him without an ally. But her father Jin (Tzi Ma) is a bundle of charm, and her older sister Althea (Shannon Dang) is writing out an invite for her wedding to Dennis Soong (Tony Chung) almost as soon as Nicky walks through the door. This is a lot of people to get to know at once, and Kung Fu episode 1 isn’t finished with the introductions, but I kind of like that. Families are complicated – even more so than magical swords and far-flung monasteries. Focus here is time well spent.

Kung Fu is obviously giving itself a leg-up, though, by having virtually everyone of Nicky’s acquaintance be useful in some way when it comes to finding Zhilan and the sword, which obviously remains her goal. Her ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), who she dumped before leaving for China, is an assistant district attorney. Quite by chance, Nicky also meets Henry (Eddie Liu), a martial arts instructor and Chinese art-history student, who occupies the third point of the love triangle and is on-hand to decipher all matters related to mythological esoterica. Nicky’s family and friends form a kind of local superstar tag-team, beginning by targeting the powerful Chinatown businessman Tony Kong, whose goons hospitalize Nicky’s father for not repaying a hefty loan.

Despite the family’s community standing, though, they’re only able to convince one local, Cindy, to turn on Kong, and even then, only because she’s so impressed with Nicky’s kung fu abilities, which she’s forced to display in a rather contrived action sequence. It does lead to my favorite scene of the Kung Fu pilot, though, when Evan finally agrees to give Nicky and her family access to classified documents that they can all help translate, and everyone sits around together like they’re cramming for a test in the morning.

Things get very CW at this point. For one thing, Kong is operating out of a warehouse at the docks, which is just classic villain stuff. Ryan and Nicky end up taking matters into their own hands despite Evan insisting they call the cops. Everyone has a fight on a rooftop. That fight has a couple of leaps, one physical and one logical. The physical one raises Nicky several feet above the ground; it also raises some interesting questions. As Ryan keeps insisting, she was up there for an unusual amount of time. Is that a result of her training, or is she developing some burgeoning Shaolin superpowers? Time will tell.

The logical leap allows Nicky to put two and two together regarding a connection between Kong and Zhilan. This realization comes right in time for Henry to layout some backstory regarding the ancient sword, which is apparently one of eight weapons enchanted by an ancient Chinese sorcerer. If someone were to collect them all, well… sounds like we’d have a CW show on our hands, doesn’t it? Kung Fu season 1, episode 1 leaves us with that assurance, at least, but also the suggestion that this might just be a better one than usual.

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