With their take on genre lines and cultural commentary, Delhi Crime and Warrior stand out on the small screen
Warrior and Delhi Crime have little in common on paper.
The first is a martial arts drama set in the 19th century and the latter, a procedural crime series about a gang rape in India.
But both show they can stand out from the glut of similar series by colouring outside genre lines and being daring enough to offer a bit of cultural critique - all the while keeping the viewer entertained with a solid story.
Warrior is about a martial arts prodigy, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who migrates from China to San Francisco in the late 1800s in search of his long-lost sister.
But this is not your grandfather's gongfu show nor the usual cliche-ridden Hollywood pap with Asians spouting broken English.
Instead, the series - based on an idea by the legendary Bruce Lee - is an unusual hybrid: a slick and sexy action romp crossed with a historical drama that feels relevant to the present day.
Ah Sahm has walked into a powder keg: the city needs Chinese workers, but they are scapegoated for falling wages and treated like vermin. The xenophobia results in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major law to restrict immigration to the United States.
He is sold to one of the Chinatown gangs, or tongs, and becomes a foot soldier in the conflict brewing among them.
But no one is quite what he or she seems. Corrupt politicians, policemen and labour leaders are all trying to exploit the situation for themselves and it turns out that Ah Sahm's sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) is secretly fanning the flames in the tong wars.
There is much to savour in Warrior. The action is overly graphic at times, but the martial arts sequences are memorably scrappy and naturalistic - bones crunch and viscera squishes.
Also refreshing are its full-throated sex scenes featuring the predominantly Asian cast, which feels far more radical than Crazy Rich Asians' sexless approach to romance.
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Contemporary touches, including a throbbing pop soundtrack, bespoke suits for the tong warriors and other anachronistic flourishes, also stop this from feeling like an airless period drama.
And the dialogue has some real bite to it. The characters have wit to spare even as they deftly switch among languages, accents and vernaculars - a nice surprise in an action-heavy show.
The trenchant observations about anti-Chinese sentiment are on point as well. As one tong boss observes: "We can't own and we can't vote, yet somehow we are to blame for the economic woes of an entire nation."
Delhi Crime dramatises the real-life 2012 gang rape and torture of a young woman in the Indian city, which made headlines across the world.
It is told from the point of view of the investigating police officers, repeatedly hammering the point that the force was understaffed, underfunded and unfairly blamed for the attack.
There is little interrogation of the institutional and cultural forces behind the widespread sexual harassment of women in the country, although one cop delivers a speech linking it to income inequality, poor education and pornography.
But the show just about manages to get away with its apologism - largely because of how well-written and likeable the investigators are, especially police chief Vartika Chaturvedi.
Played by Shefali Shah, she seethes with righteous fury while muscling and cajoling her men into catching the culprits - and navigating the politicking and growing public outcry over the rape.
At the same time, she is struggling to convince her daughter, who wants to leave for Canada, that Delhi is not completely unsafe for women, as the girl believes.
Whether the city is or is not, and why, is better explored in documentaries on the case. This, ultimately, limits its scope to how the men were caught and what happened to them and their victim.
In doing so, it dodges some of the harder questions. But by placing women in key positions in the narrative and humanising all the officers, Delhi Crime acknowledges just how complex those questions are.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2019, with the headline 'Bold cultural critiques'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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