‘Kung Fu’ Co-Showrunner Robert Berens Understood the Assignment [Part 1]

Robert “Bob” Berens has a really difficult job. 

As co-showrunner of the first drama on a broadcast network centering around a Chinese American family, Berens knew he had a responsibility to get Kung Fu right. The 1971 series of the same name starred David Carradine, a white man playing Chinese, and had a dfew other problematic moments. Along with fellow co-showrunner and executive producer Christina M. Kim, Berens really wanted to do right by the Asian community. 

“I think getting it right for the Asian audience was really the thing that consumed us the most,” Berens said during a phone interview with The Nerds of Color. “Christina and I both worked on a lot of white television. No shade.”

Kung Fu — “Sacrifice” — Pictured (L-R): Eddie Liu as Henry Yan and Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

In order to ensure authenticity surrounding the story, Berens and Kim made sure the writers’ room reflected the stories they wanted to tell. They also left an open door policy for the cast to be able to give their thoughts and concerns surrounding storylines and particular moments for their character. Jon Prasida, who plays Ryan Shen in the series, recalled giving Berens his input in a scene where Ryan is talking to his parents about Chinese food. 

“There was a bit where I really wanted to mention MSG because [there] was a time to do it,” said Prasida. “So, I quickly mentioned that to [writer] Bob [Berens] and he was like ‘cool’ and he just wrote a couple lines. So, I had the confidence to be like ‘yeah, dude, let’s talk about this MSG because I don’t think it’s ever been talked about on television.’”

Prasida isn’t the only one who came forward with ideas. Berens mentioned that for every episode, there is always a cast member with significant questions about the content. Kim and Berens embrace these conversations. 

“It’s just a process of trying to stay open and hearing as many voices as you can before Christina and I made final decisions about what things are going to be,” said Berens. “It’s an ongoing process.”

With the finale of Kung Fu airing last night, Berens knows a lot of the viewers have questions about what’s going on and reflects on this past season and how he plans on upping the stakes next season.

[Part 2 of this interview — which contains a lot of juicy information about Season 2 will be published later this week.]

The Nerds of Color: That was an intense finale. There was just so much going on — Althea got married! Ryan is in charge of everything. Nicky and Zhilan go head-to-head, the Tan family — Kerwin’s reveal, and the truth about biàn gé. What made you come to these decisions when it came to Kerwin’s survival and Zhilan being arrested rather than killed?

Robert Berens: I think there was always an open question. I think as far as Zhilan, [she] was one and done baddie at the start of the season. But I think, once we started really seeing what Yvonne [Chapman] [brought] to the role, the challenge of the finale was how do we find a satisfying combination of Nicky and Zhilan’s conflict as well as finding us as an opportunity to dig even deeper into Zhilan’s character, but to do it in such a way that left the door open for more appearances somewhere in the future. No spoilers as to hat those will look like exactly, but we knew we needed to keep her in the family. I think from a moral place, Nicky killing Zhilan, even with her hand forced — Zhilan is a killer — Nicky is not. At least at this point in our story, it feels like an important sort of moral [and] ethical distinction between the two of them as warriors to uphold. So we knew very early on that was not going to be the case of Nicky killing Zhilan in the finale.

Kung Fu — “Choice” — Pictured: Ludi Lin as Kerwin Tan — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

And Kerwin Tan, aka Ludi Lin?

You just fall in love with actors and characters. In the case of Ludi Lin, I felt really lucky to get him for this meaty guest star [role] in the first season. His career is really taking off. We wanted to leave the door open for future stories with Ludi. When it came down to the finale, our original plan was probably to hold that little reveal for whenever we could schedule him in season two. There’s so much culmination of the first season that we got excited about sort of [giving hints] and teasing future stories, including the future story of Kerwin. We didn’t know we were gonna get Ludi to even be able to shoot for the last episode. Once [we found out that he] could for a day, we locked him down for the dream sequences with Zhilan, which was a really important piece we wanted. Once we had that, we’re like ‘well let’s just go for it. Let’s just show our hand here at the finale to tease people for the next season.

The renewal news came before the finale was shot. Did the renewal news change a lot of the story for the finale?

Knowing we were coming back, I think we may have leaned in a little bit more in the last few minutes of the episode — really teasing up the next season with [the new] story elements, like Nicky’s cousin, Kerwin being alive and Mr. Tan. I think if we felt like the show might be ending where it ended, I don’t know that we would have taken the swing of those big cliffhangers. But I will say, I think Christina [Kim] and I really believe in completing the season. Our primary goal was to lean into the progress that Nicky made this season with herself and her family and really just try to stick the landing with that satisfying finale [as she] defeats Zhilan. 

Everyone on the internet knows my love for Zhilan. She’s part of the hot villains discourse that people cheer for, but she becomes irredeemable after killing off everything and everyone she loves to get this revenge. I’m glad she wasn’t killed off and she’ll probably escape with her amazing skills, but is she truly redeemable or will we continue to see this trend from Zhilan of the femme fatale?

I think the bottom line is Zhilan is a killer. She has killed people. I don’t think we will ignore that aspect of her history when we see her again. But, I think the humanity that Yvonne brings to this character and, and the story we’re able to tell about her backstory and why she is the way she is. I think that there’s only more opportunities to keep turning cards with her character and revealing more and more.

We’ve had a lot of conversations in the writers room about Zhilan as a figure and sort of the archetype of the femme fatale, and the archetype of the dragon lady and those sorts of tropes. It’s always kind of our goal to both deliver a satisfyingly terrifying villain who [is] delicious, cutthroat, and ruthless in so many ways in context while also turning over cards and revealing just how human she is and how smart she is. And if you look at it one way, her mission is actually quite righteous, and I don’t think we’re done telling that story of coming to understand why she does what she does. I don’t think that there’s any going away from the fact that she’s not an evil or irredeemable person. Just exactly how we turn those cards and at what rate, in terms of any kind of future redemption arc is a spoiler and [it] remains to be seen as we start building season two.

Kung Fu — “Sacrifice” — Pictured: Yvonne Chapman as Zhilan — Photo: The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

The season finale also introduced us to a few new characters — including Nadia and THE DAUGHTER OF MEI-XUI who we only see the back of her head. Is Nadia Mei-Xui’s daughter who is pretending to be helpful to Evan to get in with Nicky? What can you tell us about these two new characters or one character?

I love [that] as a fascinating theory. I almost don’t want to comment in case we decide to go that route but — no. They’re two distinct characters, for sure. Nadia is a woman in Evans’ orbit who is keeping a secret that we will come to understand at the top of the next season. And I think with Mei-Xui’s daughter, the reason we only see the back [of her head] is because she remains to be cast. So, we will be casting that role shortly. But, she’s going to be a very pivotal figure next season.

Honestly, all my theories have been wrong this season. From Zhilan/Pei-Ling being related to Nicky somehow to Kerwin ending up betraying Zhilan. None were correct. Were there ever any moments that you guys wanted these things to happen but changed your minds or was this the story you had what you had planned all along?

A lot of times it was a story we planned, then we had to change it and ended up at the same place anyway. In a lot of cases, when people have guesses that are not borne out, it’s because we talked about it, [but] found something that sparked us a little bit more and felt a little fresher. I speak for all of us when I say, I love hearing that we may have surprised you, and that we actually sorted your attempts to predict where things were headed. That’s very gratifying.

The series thrives on having stories that are relatable to the audience — with the hate crimes, Black Lives Matter, sexual assault, and standard Asian family conflicts, there’s a lot of deep stories that Kung Fu dived into and it worked because of the experiences from the writers’ rooms. Will there be more in depth stories to be told and how do you ensure the authenticity of it with your staff and actors?

In my case as a white man, it’s about listening to what other people [have to] say and their experiences. It’s never presuming that my first idea is right or accurate in any way. All this stuff gets discussed at-length and in-depth in the writers room [and with] the cast. We had a very open door policy with all of our performers. With every single episode, one cast member would have significant questions about the authenticity of something or whether something would really occur that way. Those conversations were always happening. It doesn’t mean that some details didn’t get by, it’s just a process of trying to stay open and hearing as many voices as you can before Christina and I made final decisions about what things are going to be. It’s an ongoing process.

It’s really a joy because the fact that everyone has thoughts and contributions is just a measure of how invested everyone [is on the] project — in terms of getting it right and being as good [and authentic] as possible.Maybe it’s a common experience but it feels like there’s something very unique about the cast and the writers’ commitment to this project and the possibilities of this project. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen in Kung Fu, a CW reboot of the classic TV series.

The series is praised and loved by all types of audiences. We’ve seen the reaction from both Asian and non-Asian. With the series being the first predominantly Asian cast and Asian storyline, was there pressure to make the story relatable to both the Asian American community and the CW audience?

I think getting it right for the Asian audience was really the thing that consumed us the most. Christina and I both worked on a lot of white television. No shade. We were reasonably confident in our abilities to construct compelling stories and to get that stuff off the ground. [For the] first season, there was a lot of pressure.That’s why our policy was just so open. If there’s anything that’s bugging someone or if something isn’t feeling right, [they will] bring it to us. Let’s discuss it. Let’s make it right. Let’s make it as authentic as we can.

Team Henry. Team Evan. Team Zhilan. Who are YOU personally cheering on? 

I’m rooting for Team Nicky. I’m rooting for her to find what makes her happy and what fulfill her destiny. There’s a lot of stuff that Christina and I know what we want to do down the road and [for] future seasons. When it comes to what will fulfill our characters, that’s something that we really discover episode by episode. For Nicky’s endgame, it remains to be written for us as well as for the audience. For season one, we always knew that Nicky was going to end up with Henry. We were Team Henry for now. But, the question of what’s right for Henry and what’s right for Nicky long-term over many seasons or into their future, I think they’re going to face a lot of challenges. We’re going to explore aspects of their lives that might tear them apart. We will see. But, like I said, it’s something that we try to be open to so that we can sort of take this journey along with Nicky. 

Come on, you know, I can’t take that as an answer. Olivia [Liang] will probably want to know.

Oh? She wants to know where she’s headed! Okay, I see how this goes.

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