So, I watched Sudden Master, but I’m not sure whether or not you should. I know, usually the point of a review is to help people figure that out, but this is such a weird case, because whether or not you should watch Sudden Master has a lot to do with whether or not there’s going to be any more Sudden Master.
Sudden Master’s first season runs about thirty minutes long, and not coincidentally, feels a lot more like the shaky-but-promising pilot of a show that will eventually be really good than it does like a complete story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly entertaining, and there’s some very real potential there, but as a stand-alone product I’m not sure there’s enough there to recommend it.
The show centers around Alex Cheng (Samantha Wan, single-handedly keeping the show’s weaker episodes afloat with nigh-superhuman charisma and pluck), the estranged daughter of a recently deceased kung fu master. She’s quickly sucked into a feud between her father’s favorite student Eric (Allen Keng, playing about a by-the-numbers a part as you’ll ever see) and a rival school run by Eric’s ex-girlfriend and former pupil, Vienna (Casey Hudecki, devouring every last morsel of scenery with a sneer). She’s also got a boyfriend, Jude (Richard Young), who gamely stars in a subplot that’s about four scenes long and probably needed to be double that to land properly.
And that’s probably the show’s biggest problem; it’s got way too much story in mind to tell in thirty minutes, and almost everything seems undercooked because of it. This is both good writing and bad writing; on the one hand, it’s clear the show’s writers have crafted rich, detailed personal histories for all of their characters, and that these people have wants and needs and pasts; that’s usually one of the biggest signs of good storytelling, and sadly rare on most serialized television these days. Unfortunately, another part of good storytelling is telling your story in the space allowed, and Sudden Master’s got too many ideas to quite pull that off. Reasonable men can differ on what plotlines should have been cut or trimmed- assuming the thirty-minute length was a hard limit- but adding an extra five minutes of story to whatever wasn’t cut would have helped the show a lot. Might have even been worth cutting a fight scene for it.
Speaking of the fight scenes, it’s more or less the same story there. The actors are game, the scenes are well-shot and, given the show’s production limitations, well-choreographed… but in a martial arts series, that’s not really enough; if we’re only watching for thirty minutes, and ten of them are spent on combat, you really need to blow our minds with that ten. The big finish is particularly messy, though part of that guilt belongs, again, on the writing and the condensed space available.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on the show, I’m not. I did enjoy it, mostly, and given its budget and format, it’s very nearly as good as it could be (the only budget-less improvement would be the tighter writing mentioned above, but that’s easier said than done). All four actors are at least decent, and Wan and Hudecki are near-stellar (the show’s generally at its best when they share the screen, which unfortunately they do very little). There’s a fun, punchy sense of humor to the proceedings that’s especially in Wan’s wheelhouse, and there are loads of nice little character touches here and there that make (most of) these people work way better than they ought to given their screentime. If Sudden Master were a television pilot, it’d be a better than average one, and I’d definitely be back next week to watch it grow.
But it’s not. It’s a web-series, and it’s a web-series that may be over. If it is over, it’s probably not worth your time, particularly since the ending is rushed, muddied, and an overall low-point for the show.
But if it’s not over? If it comes back next year with more episodes, more runtime, more budget, and maybe one more writer? Man, that show’s gonna be good. They’ve really laid the groundwork for something potentially special, with two very strong, original female leads, solid action that’d likely be more than that with some money behind it, and a uniquely charming voice that blends classic kung fu tropes with a spunky modern sensibility*. I’ve picked on their writing a bit here, but it’s mostly excellent, and where it falters I’m inclined to blame the format over the writers; you can tell there’s a bigger story they wanted to tell, and couldn’t. I’d love to see that bigger story.
*Makes a lot of sense that Sudden Master ended up on Kinda TV, even if it didn’t start there, since “classic old-school tropes meets modern storytelling” is basically their brand. I previously reviewed Kinda’s excellent Carmilla here, and while I haven’t gotten to it yet, it’s my understanding that they’ve got a Three Musketeers update in that same vein.
So, final verdict? Wait for the renewal, then jump on it. Or, if you’re not too worried about being left wanting more if it doesn’t come back, jump on it now. It’s only thirty minutes of your life, and while it’s not a perfect thirty minutes, it is a decently entertaining thirty minutes with some real bright spots that feels like it’s laying the groundwork for a truly special couple of hours down the road. I recently reviewed Banshee, which has a good-not-great first hundred minutes or so before becoming a modern classic in hour three. It’s not alone there, either; Chuck, Arrow, and about a million other action shows took at least half a season to find their footing (Arrow has since cut off its feet, set them on fire, and tossed the ashes into the Mariana Trench, so don’t take this namedrop as a recommendation). Almost no serialized action show arrives fully formed (except maybe Dardedevil). These things take time. I hope Sudden Master gets it.
Sudden Master is available from Kinda TV on YouTube. Check out episode 1:
If you like the idea of reading about an Asian American heroine who kicks ass instead of watching one, and also about an Asian American who can’t fight to save her life, you should check out Mina Davis.