'Rush Hour' could have been exactly the diverse TV show we needed—what went wrong?


Last Monday, CBS announced the cancellation of their lackluster Rush Hour TV reboot. (Yes, CBS made a Rush Hour TV show. Yes, based on the movies.) In the face of steadily deteriorating viewership and tepid reviews, the network decided to cut its losses after just seven episodes of the series inspired by the enormously popular buddy cop film trilogy, which began nearly 20 years ago. And while this may just be part of the circle of life and death and reboot and death that is TV, it does seem like a wasted opportunity.

For a hot second, CBS aired a show that featured more people of color than roughly every program in its primetime lineup put together. Rush Hour stars Justin Hires, a black actor, and Jon Foo, a Chinese-Irish actor, in lead roles, and its key supporting characters include another black man, Gerald (Page Kennedy), and a Latina woman, Sgt Didi Diaz (Aimee Garcia). Taken at (literal) face value, it certainly checks the boxes of diversity, but it’s clear from the pilot episode that the show’s understanding of race and identity is outdated. Unfortunately for me, I didn't stop watching there.


The Rush Hour movies were crazy successful—the first two were among the top 10 highest grossing films in 1998 and 2001, respectively—so it’s easy to see why executives would be eager to reboot it. But Rush Hour wasn't popular just because the franchise paired up an Asian cop and a black cop, "the fastest hands in the East” and “the biggest mouth in the West." It was a hit because the chemistry between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan—both comedic powerhouses in their own right—was magnetic.

Unfortunately, that chemistry was lost in the reboot. Frankly, unless Tucker and Chan had personally reprised their roles, it probably would have been impossible for anyone else to capture. Recreating that magic is a lot two ask of two newcomers. Justin Hires, who has taken on Tucker’s role of Detective Carter, is certainly charismatic. Jon Foo, who inherited Chan’s role of Detective Lee, is a very accomplished martial artist and stuntman. But their on-screen bond is weaker than one of those thin Domino’s Pizza fridge magnets you got in the Yellow Pages (speaking of cultural references to the early 2000s).


The conversation surrounding race has changed a lot since 1998. Many of the jokes that made the original movie so iconic might be considered fairly tasteless by today's standards (~all Asians look alike~, etc.). Don't forget that the famous pool hall fight scene in the first Rush Hour—a version of which appeared in the pilot episode of the CBS show—was incited after Chan's character uses the n-word without realizing its implication. Unsurprisingly, the Rush Hour TV show's writers ditched the slur from that scene and, as a general rule, steered clear of the movie's more jarring racial punchlines. What's left is basically just Detective Lee's accent.

Here’s the thing: It’s one thing for Jackie Chan, who naturally speaks with a Hong Kong accent, to indulge in some confused wordplay and poke fun at himself. It’s another thing to make Jon Foo to affect an accent and say things like "The booty is noted” and “I do not need a pool and hotties” simply because somebody thought that would sound funny.


When race is actually addressed in the show, it's mentioned only as a jokey adjective. In almost every episode, Lee is referred to as the Asian or Chinese version of something: "Chinese robot cop," "Chinese robot nerd," or "Asian Batman" (Carter is then named his black Robin). At one point, Carter explains the concept of good cop, bad cop to Lee as “good cop, Chinese-cop-who-shuts-up cop.”


But aside from relating to a serial bomber from the Czech Republic about the immigrant experience and not having a home for about 15 seconds, Lee’s updated character remains an unexceptional (and still pretty much asexual) mash of Asian stereotypes who happens to kick ass. While there was more of a two-way cultural exchange in the movies, the TV show remains one-sided—the humor is derived from Lee’s attempts to assimilate into American culture, and the representation of Asian culture is relegated to the Chinese mafia boss drinking water steeped with a snake.

It honestly feels like CBS realized that their neighbor ABC found success with their one show about a black family and their other show about an Asian family and thought, "Huh, we can do that! In fact, we can put them in one show! And here's a premise already exists, so why don’t we just do that again?" Perhaps part of the issue is that the writers of the series were almost entirely (you guessed it) white men. Only two people of color, Brian Chamberlayne and Cindy Fang, have writing credits on one episode each.


Either way, this is sort of just how TV works, right? Rush Hour is the latest in a long line of failed TV shows based on movies, like Minority Report and Blade: The Series (yes, that was a thing). Still, it's disappointing to see a POC-starring effort go down the drain. Despite the network's efforts to reboot the blockbuster franchise for 2016—the only tangible proof of the year being characters' iPhones and a reference to Pinterest—they ended up just watering it down. And the few attempts that were made to engage with the main characters' racial backgrounds ultimately fell short. If you can’t make a solid effort to address race in the golden era of diversity on television, then what is your show good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, SAY IT AGAIN Y’AAALL.

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