The Brothers Sun has all the makings of a breezy odd-couple comedy. Its titular siblings come from vastly different worlds, one a hardened gangster and one a medical student who’d rather be doing improv comedy. But in the streaming era, that simple premise is no longer enough. There need to be mysteries, hard-won gambits, and big reveals. There needs to be drama, and in large enough quantities to fuel a season’s worth of hour-long episodes. And at that point, the simple premise is no longer so simple – rather than sticking to the inherent humor of its setup, The Brothers Sun overextends and finds itself ill-equipped for the more weighty, emotional territory it blunders into.
Created by Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk for Netflix, the series opens on Charles Sun (Justin Chien), the older brother raised by his father (Johnny Kou) in Taiwan and molded into a loyal enforcer for the Jade Dragons triad. After a passable fight scene that culminates in the shooting of the Sun patriarch, Charles leaves Taiwan to seek out his mother, Eileen (Michelle Yeoh), who took younger Sun Bruce (Sam Song Li) to America and brought him up to be clueless about the family business. Having lived apart for 15 years, the brothers do not hit it off, to say the least. It’s a convoluted setup, but the comedic potential begins to show once the exposition is out of the way.
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Any peaks are found in the early goings, when The Brothers Sun is still reveling in comical mismatches. The second episode sends Charles to dispose of a dead body and drop Bruce off at college on the way. But in true sibling fashion, he decides it’s not fair that Mom gave him all the chores, so he forces his little brother to help. Their odyssey eventually brings them to a child’s dinosaur-themed birthday party, which culminates in one of the show’s best sight gags once they’re confronted by incognito assassins. While Bruce cowers, Charles stabs, shoots, and generally inflicts grievous harm on opponents with utmost seriousness just like he does in any of the show’s other elaborately choreographed fight scenes – but in an inspired touch, the assailants here are all wearing inflatable, floppy-headed dinosaur costumes.
It’s a clever, clean juxtaposition of how these two approach the world: Bruce’s fumbling uncertainty and eagerness to please set against Charles’ tough-guy preference for punching first and asking questions later. And the episode that follows plays to similar strengths while swapping Bruce for Eileen. The role finds Michelle Yeoh operating in the stern maternal mode she often occupies of late, as seen in Crazy Rich Asians or her Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once turn. She’s not just a comic-relief overbearing mother, though she does solicit intel from a mahjong parlor full of older women and squabble with Charles over using the car’s air conditioning instead of cracking the windows. As the former brains behind the Jade Dragons, she’s a planner and negotiator, and she’s often sends her off on subplots of her own, chasing down leads or making deals with shady characters. Yeoh, after all, is by far the biggest name in the cast, and her withering gravitas is the show’s greatest strength.
But The Brothers Sun flounders whenever it splits up the family, and it splits them up often across an eight-episode first season. Both Bruce and Eileen are separately captured, and Charles tends to drop away from the group to engage in a fight sequence or try to run the show on his own. In the process, the protagonists rotate between side characters and love interests. Rather than building on the dynamics of the early episodes, there’s an increased shift toward drama by way of triad politics.
As deaths are mourned, leads are followed, and secrets are revealed, The Brothers Sun becomes a surprisingly plotty show, and it mistakes those plot machinations for its main draw as opposed to effective vehicles for the character interaction. The series feels built for streaming in the worst way, unwilling to invest in small moments because it’s more concerned with laying breadcrumbs for the next big reveal. Bruce and Charles, for example, are functionally strangers – when they first meet up again, Charles has to explain who he is. Yet it’s not until episode 6 that they even think to raise the question of what it was like to grow up apart.
Likewise, there’s precious little sense of what Eileen and Bruce’s lives were like in Los Angeles for the past decade-plus. So much history is glossed over, sidelined in favor of the present predicament. It’s the sort of show where Eileen is told she coddles Bruce far more often than she’s seen doing so – clearly there isn’t time for it when there are secrets to uncover and plans to set in motion. I’d have happily watched more in the vein of the lower-stakes initial episodes, but that mode is left behind in the rush for binge-worthy intrigue, and the characters’ relationships suffer for it across the board.
And without a strong basis for the characters, the shift in tone adds a layer of awkward inauthenticity. As a comedy, The Brothers Sun’s depiction of the criminal underworld doesn’t need to be especially convincing. As a drama, however, it becomes a world of cardboard gangster cutouts whose signifiers of power and decadence often fail to convince. One character is described as a major player in the drug trade just because his restaurant has a few security cameras and a side entrance – not even Yeoh can credibly sell an analysis that laughable.
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The attempt at dramatic heft brings with it a host of themes and concepts like the allure of criminality, the toxic effects of organized-crime customs, or the question of whether people truly can change. But none of these ideas take coherent shape when spread across the tonal oscillations of eight overstuffed episodes – The Brothers Sun is a far cry from something like Johnnie To’s 2005 Hong Kong triad thriller Election, which demonstrates how easily gangsters’ pretensions toward civility and ceremony can be torn apart across a laser-focused 100 minutes.
Perhaps the only idea that comes across clearly is one at the forefront of so much Asian American storytelling: the weight of familial expectation. Here, it works because the brothers so succinctly represent divergent paths, an idea that can be immediately and plainly seen rather than one that must be spoken into existence. Charles has been the obedient son, but Bruce’s interests lie outside the realm of what his mother wants for him. Yet as the plot loses itself in gangster politicking, even this conflict falls by the wayside, and the brothers become more of a constant symbol of the series’ squandered potential.