American Born Chinese S1E1: What Guy Are You

There are a hundred better ways to open a story than with a bunch of expository text on screen. Some nonsense about the Jade Emperor ruling the Heavenly Realm, a Bull Demon, an Iron Staff, and a Monkey King. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it leads into a cold open that clumsily pays homage to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with an older warrior fighting a younger one over an ancient weapon, and the younger one plunging off a cliff into the clouds. But the CGI wire-fu looks less convincing than Ang Lee’s did over 20 years ago, and this sequences hits the same basic beats before we’ve got a chance to care about these characters or understand what any of it means.

Frankly, the show would have been better off starting with Jin Wang. We meet the teenage Jin undergoing that most grueling of rituals, going shopping with his mom for clothes before he starts tenth grade. He’s a comic book nerd who’s hoping he can make a fresh start socially, but neither he nor Mom have the money or taste to make him look cool. Her best suggestion is a hoodie that says “Hot Stuff” on the back with a picture of a chili pepper. (Even the too-expensive item he ends up shoplifting is a wool-lined jean jacket that was not cool in any era.)

School’s not much better — Jin’s trying to climb up from the bottom of a social hierarchy that largely ignores him, trying so hard to impress the bros on the soccer team that it costs him his friendship with Anuj, his cosplay-enthusiast best friend from freshman year. Those soccer bros alternately encourage him to try out, and make him the butt of their jokes — even moreso since a clip from a ‘90s sitcom has unexpectedly gone viral, in which Ke Huy Quan plays a heavily-accented stereotype whose catchphrase is “What could go Wong?”

Jin’s just supposed to take the racist jokes in stride, and he’s desperate enough to fit in that he largely does. His mother berates his overworked, underpaid father for not standing up for himself, and Jin seems to be caught in that same trap. Although it’s less that he can’t assert himself and more that he doesn’t really know what he wants, or what kind of person he’s trying to be (the “what guy are you?” of the title.)

What makes Jin work is that he’s not the clichéd ostracized nerd who embarrasses himself at every turn (although the soccer kids are thus far exactly the clichéd “cool kids” who are so dickish it strains credulity that Jin would want their approval), he’s just a quiet kid trying to survive high school who doesn’t really know how he fits in. Then to make everything worse, he’s going to be shadowed by the new kid.

The principal pulls him out of class and introduces him to Wei Chen. Actually, she introduces him to 80s synth-pop band Wang Chung, but Wei quickly corrects her. (She also calls Jin “Jim”, and he doesn’t correct her.) As the only two Chinese kids in the largely white school, she assumes they have “so much in common.” Jin, who barely speaks Chinese, and was not in the market for an even less-socially-adept new friend has no idea what to do with Wei, but he’s been assigned to show the new kid around.

But Jin isn’t the clichéd “new immigrant who doesn’t understand anything” either. If anything, he’s far more adept at navigating high school social life, because he doesn’t have time for any of it. He could care less what the other kids think of him, and while most shows would play the new foreign kid as awkward and oblivious, Jin quickly realizes his new friend has a quiet confidence. He has no real desire to fit in, because he already has a strong sense of who he is, far moreso than Jin does.

They quickly bond over manga — Wei’s read books in China that won’t be out in the States for years, and Wei also encourages Jin to ask out Amelia, his lab partner who had earlier caught him trying on the “Hot Stuff” hoodie.

While the show does a nice job of steering around some of the obvious clichés, it’s all typical high school stuff until the last few minutes, when the Monkey King shows up at school. Wei Chen is the young warrior from the intro, the Monkey King is his father, and Wei has the Iron Staff in his backpack. And while we understand Disney’s impulse to put the mystical stuff up front to let us know what kind of show this is, we all watched the trailer, we already know what kind of show this is. It would have been far more effective to give us an episode of adolescent drama, and then take a sharp left turn into magical weapons.

The show intercuts Wei’s martial arts-heavy fight with his father with a verbal sparring match between Jin’s parents, and to be honest, the juxtaposition doesn’t really work. There isn’t any kind of parallel between the two scenes apart from rising tension, and one fight gets cleanly resolved while the other is left open-ended.

Part of American Born Chinese’s hook is that it includes nearly the entire main cast of Everything Everywhere All at Once — Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and James Hong. But the fact that it’s thematically similar (immigrant family drama interrupted by metaphysical mayhem) just means that, so far, it suffers by comparison nearly as much as the intro suffered from the obvious Crouching Tiger homage. 

Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, which the series is based on, was quickly hailed as a classic, largely because it wasn’t like anything that had come before in the comics world, as it served as both an update of Chinese classic story Journey to the West, and a semi-autobiographical story of Yang’s own childhood in suburban California. The Disney series would do well to tell its own story, instead of just trying to remind us of other, better movies. But we’re only one episode in, and we’ve only seen hints of where the story is going.

Stray thoughts:

• We’ve also only seen hints of the Everything Everywhere cast. Ke Huy Quan appears in a few sitcom clips uploaded to TikTok, so we’re guessing that’s the extent of his involvement (which is a shame, because the guy deserves to get a lot more work from here on out.) Yeoh shows up for a moment at the very end, but it ends up being a smart move to keep the familiar faces in reserve while we ground ourselves in Jin’s world. 

• As dramas about teenagers from immigrant families who end up tangling with otherworldly magical beings, the show’s no Ms. Marvel. But we’re big enough fans of Yang’s graphic novel that we’ll give the TV adaptation plenty of chances.

• As part of Disney+’s wildly inconsistent release schedule, all eight episodes are already available on the service. We’ll parcel out our reviews once a week, or more often if we’re feeling ambitious.

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