The Everything Everywhere All At Once reunion we definitely knew we needed comes in the unexpected form of a coming-of-age series on Disney+ with two teenagers that steal the show and draw us into the world of the Jade Empire, but also simply into the life of a young boy who’s finding himself. I know it sounds slightly cringy; on the contrary, the show is self-aware, funny, and highly entertaining. As someone who hasn’t read the legendary graphic novel the show is based on, I’m intrigued enough to stop writing this review and spend my weekend binge-reading the source material. American Born Chinese, or “ABC,” tells the story of a “regular guy,” Jin Wang, as he falls into a swirl of celestial civil war while simultaneously going through puberty (ouch). If Beef was A24’s answer for impeccable representation, Disney+ approaches the subject with a family-viewing experience in mind (of course), and it works almost as well. Contemporary fantasy can either make you feel like you want to be a part of the world or make you turn off your screen ASAP. “ABC” definitely falls in category 1, at least for kids between the ages of 8 and 15. What’s really fantastic about this show, other than the actual fantasy bits, is how relatable it is for someone who is a teenager right now or for those who were teens 15 years ago. There’s no pretense by the writers to give the illusion that they know what kids these days are doing, and that works to their advantage, mainly because of how marvelous the young actors are.
This square peg in a round hole story has been told a dozen times in the last three years alone. We are always stuck with explanations of how we should believe in ourselves and be our authentic selves so that everything around us will automatically fall into place. I still don’t know how true this is, but every time I see a story like “ABC,” I feel a little relief, even if it is momentary. The show follows a young boy named Jin Wang (Ben Wang), whose parents are first-generation immigrants. He reminds us ever so often that he doesn’t understand Chinese very well because he’s been born and raised on the other side of the world, but he does try if one were to speak slowly enough. Jin’s regular life flips upside down when another Chinese boy named Wei-Chen joins his school, claiming that Jin is his guide to saving the heavens from a disastrous uprising by the bull demon. Wei-Chen is the famous Monkey King’s son, who had a dream where a crane spoke to him, making him come to Earth to go on a very important quest—to find the fourth scroll! The prosthetics and costumes are super fun, even if sometimes they look like they might’ve been picked up from high school drama class. The same cannot be said about the choreography, which oozes grace and beauty. I mean, Michelle Yeoh is involved; can we expect any less? There’s also a sweet little reference to “everything everywhere all at once” While the overarching complication of the series is that the actual heavens are in danger, there are many other things Jin is facing himself. First is understanding his identity, being accepted by his fellow football teammates, understanding why his parents are fighting all the time, doing well in school, and, recently, impressing the girl he likes. This makes the series extremely grounded, and Ke Huy Quan’s character Freddy Wong perfectly puts into perspective that “people like him” need to be shown that they can be heroes too.
Kids are like reflections, and sometimes it’s challenging to face what we have to look like. Mirrors are a fun motif used throughout the show, giving family life lessons as expected from a Disney show. The show is emotionally charged, but not in a way that would have you reaching for the Kleenex, just in a way you might want to go give your parents a tight hug. For those of us uninitiated in the world of Chinese mythology, such as myself, “ABC” is a well-appreciated foot in the door. Amidst the array of veteran Asian-American stars, who all give exquisite performances, Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu are incredible as Jin and Wei- Chen and give standout performances. Ben has wonderful comic timing, making awkward but really funny Jin a compelling protagonist. It also beautifully balances the collision of the different generational immigrant problems and the heaven-ending part.
Along with all the fun, the show addresses the conflict that young Asian people might go through when faced with racism: is it a simple joke, or is it an insult to the entire race? How can I get what I need from this and make it all go away? Difficult questions with answers that are non-judgemental (an awkward moment where one of the characters mentions Korean band BTS to Jin while apologizing, and Jin just replies, “Thank you”). All the characters are on their own journeys, and each has a special side that makes them stand out in a show that may seem congested to some. They’re all well-written and are fun and relatable in their own way, even if they are from a different realm. Whatever language it may be, the message is very clear: look within, and you will find your answer, power, or self, whichever suits you best. Episode 4 is like a filler episode that is a flashback of what happened in heaven and is interesting enough, but the missing lead characters make it a little bit of a drag. Nevertheless, it is still very creative! The last episode is a delight to watch, with a fun action scene that is somehow unlike anything I’ve seen in recent fantasy movies.
I would say American Born Chinese is a binge-worthy family show that ticks the right boxes for what it’s trying to bring to the table, and I can only applaud it for the same. It’s every geek’s fantasy, and if you’re remotely interested in comic books, then this has to be on your list. Of course, the series ends with a half-baked opening to another season, which means the showrunners hope to bring it back for another season. Honestly, I would eat that up. I give American Born Chinese four stars out of five, but that’s because I don’t necessarily fall into the target audience, but I still watched the eight 30-minute episodes within a day, which speaks for itself.