Kung Fu

Pilot Script Review of Kung Fu

Will the third time be the charm for this reboot of the hit 70s series?
  • Legacies' Olivia Liang stars as Nicky Chen in the CW's Kung Fu pilot. (Photo: David Jung/The CW)
    Editor's Note: Ever wonder how TV executives wade through the dozens of pilot scripts they're pitched each year? They have staff script readers, who provide what's called "Script Coverage," an executive summary and a recommendation for each script. Now, thanks to Primetimer's own resident script reader, you too can preview some of the season's most buzzed about pilots. Note that all opinions are our own, and all plot, casting and other creative details described here are subject to change.

    One of the most popular television series of its time, the early 1970s series Kung Fu has become a hot property once again as TV's current reboot craze has hit fever pitch. Two different incarnations of this project have been set up in recent years at Fox, both featuring a female protagonist. Mega producers Berlanti Productions and Warner Bros. Television were behind both projects, but neither went to pilot.

    In the original 70s series, David Carradine starred as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who traveled the American Old West armed only with his spiritual training and his skills in martial arts. For the first reboot attempt, Carradine's character became Lucy Chang, a Buddhist monk and kung fu master who travels through 1950s America in search of the man who stole her child years before. The second attempt had fewer direct parallels with the original, described as an action-driven procedural about a young Chinese-American woman who inherits her father’s kung fu studio, only to discover it’s actually a secret center dedicated to helping members of the Chinatown community who have nowhere else to turn. 

    For this third attempt, Kung Fu has moved to The CW, where Greg Berlanti has an impressive track record for making successful shows out of projects that Fox has rejected. (Riverdale and Black Lightning were both originally developed for Fox.) The script was written by Christina M. Kim, who began her TV career on Lost as story editor, then worked as consulting producer on Hawaii Five-O and co-executive producer on NCIS: Los Angeles. Her most recent credit is Berlanti's Blindspot. The lead role was snatched by newcomer Olivia Liang, who recurred on the CW's Legacies earlier this season.

    WRITTEN BY: Christina M. Kim
    DRAFT DATE: Network Draft 01.17.2020
    PAGE COUNT: 61 pages

    SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: We open on an extreme close-up of determined, focused eyes. They belong to NICKY CHEN (26), described as a young Constance Wu. She's meditating, sitting in the lotus position while contemplating a breathtaking view of rice paddies in Yunnan Province, China. We cut suddenly to Nicky and other young chinese women practicing fight moves and martial arts stances as their master, PEI-LING (50), watches them carefully. Her eyes land on Nicky as she loses her balance and falls. She asks her to try again. There's a golden statue of Buddha behind. We're introduced to Nicky's daily life as a Shaolin monk: training, traveling, helping the poorest... And then we're back at the first scene. Pei-Ling arrives and explains to Nicki that she lacks something that's needed to be a truly master Kung Fu: a quiet mind. She knows she's preoccupied and she thinks that Nicky is redirecting her pain into training, which isn't the solution. Nicky doesn't want to go back home. Later, she's in a small farm house when she sees Pei-Ling talking to another woman, ZHILAN (50s), who's accompanied by two large, intimitading men. Pei-Ling decides to leave, and Nicky follows her. She doesn't want to explain who this woman is and what just happened, but Nicky finds out that the woman is looking for an ancient sword Pei-Ling posesses. She shows it to her and explains the story behind it.

    In the monastery at night, Nicky can't sleep. She studies an old photo of what appears to be her family. Suddenly, she coughs: the room is filled with smoke. She goes outside and discovers the whole building is going up in flames. She's searching for Pei-Ling but it's chaos, she can't find her. When she finally does, her mentor is fending off three intruders. That's when Zhilan appears behind her, out of nowhere. They fight, Pei-Ling falls into the Buddha statue. It crashes down and reveals the ancient sword. Zhilan grabs it and drives it through her enemy's chest before Nicky has time to react. Pei-Ling falls on the ground, while Zhilan runs off with the sword. Nicky tries to save Pei-Ling but it's too late. Full of tears and rage, she catches up to Zhilan and tosses her to the ground. They start to fight; Nicky is impressive but Zhilan is stronger and stabs her in the shoulder. Zhilan escapes into the night while Nicky is on the edge of a cliff. She's breathless and hanging on for dear life, but she's alive. Smash cut to the title.

    COMMENTS: With ABC's groundbreaking comedy Fresh Off The Boat just ending its run after six seasons, it's nice to see another Asian American-fronted show being considered. Despite the relative success of that series and the big screen blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, precious little of its ilk has found it way to broadcast TV in recent years, apart from the one-season-and-done sitcom Dr Ken, also on ABC. With Disney's Chinese-set live action Mulan coming this March, there may be a place for a show like Kung Fu on the younger-skewing CW next season. Sadly, this pilot script is far from groundbreaking, and the show seems unlikely to catch on in its current form.

    While it's generic and way too predictable, at least it feels contemporary, which is more than can be said of the other reboot on the CW's development slate this year, Walker (read my script review). And Kung Fu at least promises some great action and martial arts sequences for fans of the genre. The problem with this script is that it's clearly trying to be all things to all people. First and foremost, it's an action thriller with a conspiracy on the background, but it's also positioned to become a semi-procedural in future episodes. If you're looking for a love triangle, there's a giant, can't-be-missed one, thanks to Henry Chu, a martial arts instructor and Chinese art history buff who has instant chemistry with Nicky. If you're more into family stuff, there's some of that, too. A dash of mystery? Of course! The only thing it's not is sci-fi, but our heroine does have recurring flashes of her mentor's ghost talking to her and giving her wise advice. So there's that, as well.

    Nicky's father Jin Chen and mother Mei-Li are husband-and-wife restaurateurs whose secrets threaten to destroy their lives. Meanwhile, Nicky has a larger-than-life older sister, Althea, who’s newly engaged and planning her dream Chinese wedding, and a gay younger brother Ryan who's a quick-witted medical student. There's no question these family dynamics have potential, but for now, they're competing with a lot of other plot points, and as such -- like everything else in the show -- are way too one-dimensional for their own good.

    FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Greg Berlanti has a solid track record for turning projects like this around for The CW, but this most recent iteration of Kung Fu suffers from an-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its plotting, with its creative team and network seemingly afraid that it might skew too old, too male, or too female. The result is both too busy and too bland. Unless they're able to turn things around with the already-ordered pilot, it may be time to finally call it quits with this project.

    OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
    [X] PASS
    [   ] CONSIDER
    [   ] RECOMMEND

    BEST FIT: Paired with Batwoman somewhere on the schedule.



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