Before zombies, YA dystopias, and interconnected DC worlds, the CW was known as the WB, and dominated by two kinds of TV shows. There were the teen family dramas, led by 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, and Dawson’s Creek. And the rest of programming stood alongside Buffy, Charmed, and Roswell, forging some of the internet’s most-known fandoms that still thrive today.
Unfortunately, in fusing several different genres together, Black Sash, a messy detective-slash-kung-fu procedural, was unable to gain much traction; it ran for just eight episodes in 2003. While the show retains its early-2000s cheese, Black Sash keeps a refreshing, progressive, miraculously inoffensive premise that would be perfect for TV in 2016.
Chinese-American actor Russell Wong plays Tom Chang, a disgraced San Francisco cop with a fabled reputation. He just spent the last five years in a Hong Kong prison, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Having returned home to find his wife and daughter have abandoned him, Chang resides with his mentor Master Li (Mako), teaching Baguazhang style kung-fu to a group of headstrong, and undisciplined teenagers. All the while, Chang tries to orchestrate his return to the force by solving crimes every week and winning back his family.
If the premise sounds to you like Law & Order meets The Karate Kid, you’re on the right track. The series was created by Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplay for that cult ‘80s martial arts film (and later collaborated with Luc Besson on The Fifth Element and the Taken movies). I can’t tell you where the police procedural stuff came from; the show probably needed that element to achieve syndication, but that never became an issue.
Still, Black Sash deserved a fighting chance, even if everything about it screamed a bad idea; The Matrix-inspired choreography inconceivably embedded within a coming-of-age teen drama ripped off from Dawson’s Creek; offensively attractive actors (among them Missy Peregrym and rapper Ray J) trying to pass off as normal teens; Greenwheel performing its opening intro; and a ham-fisted cop drama sprinkled on top of it all. All that was missing was colorful spandex, and Black Sash could have been Power Rangers.
But either because the show tried its hardest or simply because it’s now nostalgia – there’s a charm and a prescience to Black Sash. Though he is an Asian man teaching kung-fu, Russell Wong’s Chang isn’t a stereotype. He also isn’t a strong lead as an actor, but the character is engaging anyway: He’s not just teaching kids, it’s the kids who teach him as their lives intertwine. That’s the kind of sappy, melodramatic, feel-good premise that never gets old for mainstream TV.
The teenagers Chang teaches are archetypical, even stereotypical, but they work. Sarah Carter’s Allie is the girl next door, Drew Fuller’s Nick is the troubled boy in love with Missy Peregrym’s Tory, a motorcycle-riding boss lady, and Ray J is — well, Ray J uncomfortably plays an earnest version of the token black kid parody from Not Another Teen Movie. But pre-loaded characters aside, they all shared a chemistry potent enough to charm with the bonus of some kung-fu.
Unfortunately, the show’s action choreography isn’t impressive, which is odd, given that it’s a big part of the sell. Hong Kong cinema has bled into mainstream Hollywood reccently, the legacy of Jackie Chan living on in Supergirl, Arrow, Kingsman and recent James Bond flicks. Even Quantico and Banshee owe a bit to Yuen Woo-ping, but Black Sash is an early example, and is consequently rough-looking.
But what makes Black Sash work 13 years later is the appreciated diversity. Wong, as an Asian male lead old enough to conceivably play a hot professor in another show, makes Black Sash still stand as an anomaly – as sad as that may be to say. How, in 2003, did a show have an Asian male lead when in 2016 we still can’t figure it out? TV is still white and male, and for every Underground or Fresh off the Boat, there’s a dozen shows with white-dude protagonists or anti-heroes navigating a changing world where they feel threatened. Pop culture’s resistance to alternate views is very frustrating, and also very boring. Black Sash starring Wong isn’t boring. It also isn’t that good, but it’s still fascinating to witness in hindsight.
With just eight episodes, Black Sash barely told a whole narrative, especially since it was of an age when “binging” wasn’t something we proudly did every weekend. But the show holds up as a weekend dive, as its cheesiness doesn’t overpower everything else that works so well. Of all the reboots that are on and are coming to TV, maybe the one that actually tried something bold should have another shot.