The first week of January is not the time for emotionally intense, intellectually challenging prestige dramas. Weighed down by holiday hangovers and winter lethargy, what we really need right now is easily digestible entertainment. In this regard, Netflix's The Brothers Sun arrives with flawless timing.
Co-created by first-time showrunner Byron Wu and Ryan Murphy's longtime creative partner Brad Falchuk (Glee, American Horror Story), The Brothers Sun blends crime drama, dark comedy, and martial arts. The titular Sun brothers are the heirs to a criminal empire, raised by different parents on separate continents.
Growing up with his ruthless triad boss father in Taiwan, Charles (Justin Chien) is a steely-eyed killer whose only sign of vulnerability is his love of home baking. By contrast, his younger brother, Bruce (Sam Song Li), is a hapless goofball with zero knowledge of the family business. Raised by his mom, Eileen (Michelle Yeoh), in Los Angeles, Bruce is an unenthusiastic pre-med student whose true passion is improv comedy. He's far too soft for the bloodthirsty, honor-bound world of triad disputes: a juicy premise for fish-out-of-water antics when mysterious assassins target the Sun family, forcing Charles to fly to L.A. and reunite with his estranged mom and brother. They're soon embroiled in a gang war, further complicated when Charles bumps into a childhood crush (Highdee Kuan), who is — inevitably for this kind of story — an A.D.A. investigating his ties to organized crime.
Despite its high body count, The Brothers Sun treats its subject matter with a light touch. When Bruce discovers his mom dismembering a corpse in their small suburban kitchen, his shocked reaction is more of a punchline than a moment of real trauma.
Meanwhile, the show regularly undercuts Charles' tough guy persona with absurd action set pieces (e.g. gangsters dressed in inflatable dinosaur suits at a child's birthday party) and scenes where he gets bossed around by his mother. It's pretty obvious that he'd be happier as a baker or homemaker than as a crime boss. Some of Charles' most endearing scenes revolve around mouthwatering food porn (Taiwanese pineapple cakes; egg custard tarts), and while he has all the right training to take over the Jade Dragon triad, you have to wonder if improv-dork Bruce might grow into a better strategist.
The Brothers Sun delivers an American riff on classic urban kung fu cinema, introducing a parallel society where rival gangs follow a strict code of honor, and settle conflicts with choreographed hand-to-hand combat rather than guns. This also represents an interesting crossover between two eras of Michelle Yeoh's career: her iconic status as a martial arts superstar, and her recent Hollywood resurgence playing complicated mothers in movies about Asian American identity (Crazy Rich Asians; Everything Everywhere All at Once).
Much of the humor in The Brothers Sun hinges on the family dynamics between Eileen, Charles, and Bruce, with Charles being held to impossibly high standards while Bruce gets coddled. (To be fair, Bruce is adorable. It's easy to see why Eileen's mahjong buddies love him so much.) In some ways this functions as a remix of familiar coming-of-age stories about the immigrant experience, featuring clashes between strict parents and kids who want to forge their own path. The difference here being that while Eileen's expectations for Bruce are pretty straightforward, Charles was trained from childhood to eliminate all weakness and kill without mercy. Casual, low-stakes rebellion is not an option.
This is kind of a backhanded compliment, but The Brothers Sun achieves the increasingly rare feat of feeling Netflix-flavored while still being lively and original. In recent years, Netflix has leaned into making TV designed for background viewing: forgettable dramas where one episode blurs into the next while you fold laundry or keep half an eye on your phone. The Brothers Sun is the good version of this formula, relying on classic tropes and a supporting cast of simple stock characters, but with clear, engaging relationship arcs and a smart balance of comedy and action. In other words, it's easy to watch but far from disposable.
On several occasions I found myself thinking back to Netflix's horrendous Marvel spin-off Iron Fist, which offered an incompetent and racist take on a similar martial arts/crime drama concept. In everything from casting choices to fight choreography, The Brothers Sun succeeds where Iron Fist flopped. It also offers a more thoughtful take on the moral ambiguity of using organized crime for light entertainment, deepening Charles and Eileen's roles as the season shifts from hijinks to more serious themes.
Later on, one of the coolest fight scenes doubles as a pivotal moment in Charles' attitude to violence, with the camera ducking and weaving around his incapacitated opponents before ending on a close-up of his tearful face. Given that Michelle Yeoh is the only well-known name in the cast, it's notable that both of her co-leads hold their own like this, positioning Justin Chien as a potential action star while Sam Song Li dominates the show's comedic side.
Going in with no particular expectations, The Brothers Sun comes as a pleasant surprise. Well-paced and featuring plenty of fun little subplots, it has enough heart — and enough specificity in its setting — that there's no need to overthink its sillier side. It's a chill choice for your first show of 2024.
Premieres: Thursday, Jan. 4 on Netflix
Who's in it: Michelle Yeoh, Justin Chien, Sam Song Li, Highdee Kuan, Joon Lee, Madison Hu
Who's behind it: Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk, writers and showrunners; Kevin Tancharoen, director
For fans of: Warrior, Daredevil, Michelle Yeoh
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 8