Scripted programming these days is a dime a dozen, but that doesn’t mean shows with devoted fan bases are impervious to an early cancellation. (Tom Hanks and I still miss you, Lodge 49.) But in the case of Cinemax’s Warrior, the circumstances behind the martial arts drama’s axing felt especially cruel. Instead of low ratings or poor reviews sinking the show after its first two seasons, Warrior was victim of a broader strategic initiative: As announced in January 2020, Cinemax was bowing out of the original content game, with the larger corporate entity WarnerMedia turning its focus to launching the new streaming service HBO Max. Before Warrior’s second season even made it to air in October 2020, the series was facing an uphill battle to (often literally, in the case of its characters) fight another day.
Warrior’s cancellation was disappointing for a number of reasons, including the fact that the show was an unfortunately rare instance of a big-budget drama predominantly headlined by a cast of Asian descent. The show’s premise also seemed primed to reel in a larger audience under the right platform. It is, after all, a series based on an eight-page treatment from martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Pulling from Lee’s original vision, Warrior captures the Chinese immigrant experience in late-1800s California under the backdrop of San Francisco’s Tong Wars. It’s rich with period details, featuring a complex ensemble of rival Tongs, brothel owners, corrupt politicians, equally corrupt policemen, and aggrieved Irish union leaders, most of whom inevitably find themselves at the heart of some kick-ass fight scenes. At its best, Warrior felt like a cross between Peaky Blinders and Game of Thrones’ expansive world-building—if either show sprinkled in Bruce Lee homages.
But the same corporate forces at WarnerMedia that spelled doom for Cinemax also provided Warrior a lifeline through HBO Max. The show was made available to stream at the start of 2021 and has made enough of an impression that, by April, a third season has been officially green-lit for HBO Max. As executive producers Shannon Lee (Bruce’s daughter) and Jonathan Tropper tell me, revival conversations with HBO moved quickly once it became clear the series was performing well on the streamer—and that there wouldn’t be major issues reeling the eager cast back in. Below, we discuss Warrior’s second life on HBO Max, America’s ongoing history of anti-Asian bigotry, and what fans can expect in Season 3.
Let’s go back to when Cinemax announced that it would stop making original programming. What was going through your mind? Because I know it took a while for this show to make it to the air in the first place.
Shannon Lee: When the news came down that the show was ending, we were all devastated. It was a difficult time, because we didn’t know what the future would hold and we didn’t know if there was going to be a future.
Jonathan Tropper: It was very hard to navigate, because HBO was in such a state of flux, with the acquisition and then figuring out the HBO Max–HBO balance. They had much bigger fish to fry than trying to figure out what to do with a two-seasons-old Cinemax show. Initially, in the immediate aftermath of the Cinemax announcement, we tried really hard to be heard by HBO and HBO Max and to press the case. But everyone’s jobs were changing—the whole entity was changing—so nobody really knew what to do with us. We’ve been very fortunate that this is probably a rare case where the evolution of the company actually served us very well.
Right, because streaming availability can be so important for shows to find a wider audience. Was there any reason given to you as to why Warrior wasn’t available on HBO Max when the service originally launched last May?
JT: Warrior was part of the Cinemax family of shows, and all of those shows were being segregated off to the side, not part of the launch. There’s a business reason I’m not aware about [as to] why they can’t just pull the whole Cinemax library onto HBO Max. They clearly can’t, because they haven’t. We were the first of now three shows that they’ve managed to put on there. There was [Warrior], and there was Banshee and The Knick.
Obviously they can when there’s an impetus to do that but it’s something about the structure there, which we’re not privy to. It might be a branding thing. Maybe they don’t want the library, but they just want to handpick shows. We don’t know. We’re not invited to those meetings.
Warrior’s second season airs in the fall, and then the entire series comes to HBO Max in January. What were the conversations like about a possible renewal?
SL: There were no conversations, really. We were trying to have those conversations.
JT: We were put on the platform as a direct result of Casey Bloys taking over the entire programming of both Max and regular HBO. His relationship with the show predated HBO Max, because when he was running HBO, Cinemax was under that umbrella, too. Once we were put on HBO Max and the show performed, it was much easier to start a dialogue. I was letting them know it was still possible, because their assumption was too much time had passed. The conversations were very quick.
How quickly was it relayed to you that, like, “Hey, a lot of people are checking this out”?
SL: The show started to perform quite well pretty much right off the bat. But I do want to say that, for Jonathan and [executive producer Justin Lin], they really did the hard work of making sure it was clear that it was possible for us to come back—and that it was really wanted from everyone involved in the show. To marry those things together was really important.
JT: The other thing we had is that Shannon, through the Bruce Lee platforms, has access to the fan base in a way the rest of us don’t. She was getting tremendous feedback from large numbers of people that there was a fan base to support this. We were actually prepared for it to do well on HBO Max, just by virtue of the amount of feedback that she gets.
I’ve talked with showrunners for other shows that were canceled and then brought back, and one of the big concerns is essentially making sure you can bring back the same cast and crew and that they hadn’t moved on to new opportunities. So is everyone back on board for Season 3? Are the sets still intact?
JT: The backlot we built is still intact, which is better than starting from scratch. Our other sets are gone and will have to be rebuilt, but every television show does lidar scans of their sets and has all the architectural drawings. It’s not any harder than building the set the first time. The cast, the entire Warrior family, has never lost touch. And in a sense, the pandemic almost helped because everybody was home, and all sorts of online communications were happening. And also, a lot of actors didn’t run off and get under option on other shows, so we’re pretty optimistic we’ll get everybody back.
With the awful incidents of anti-Asian violence springing up in the United States, I couldn’t help but think of the end of Warrior’s second season and what happens with Jacob and the racist mob. When you set out to tell this story about a period of American history, did you expect to see the ugly side of it reflected so much in society?
SL: Certainly, you hope not. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself, and given where we are and with the anti-Asian sentiments that have been passed around at high levels, we’re experiencing something that was probably always there. But I think in part that’s why our show is important.
It tells an American story about immigrants, about politics, about prejudices and violence. And of course our show is a wonderfully entertaining show as well, but it’s reflective, unfortunately, of what’s happening in the world right now. It’s not like we knew that that was going to happen, but it’s a part of that history.
Warrior underlines how America is a nation of immigrants, built by immigrants, and yet we continue to have a hostile relationship with the very thing that can make this country great. Do these outside forces impact the way you continue to approach the show?
SL: I think it’s always naturally a part of it. Even when my father was coming up with his initial idea for [Warrior], he talked about discrimination as a theme. He certainly experienced it in his own lifetime and it certainly had happened in the historical past of this country. And it’s certainly a part of our show and will be going forward.
JT: If I were to surmise as to why Bruce Lee pinpointed this period in time for the show, I think it’s largely because this was the beginning of the Chinese immigration that he was a part of many years later. And this was a way to tell that story without telling it in a contemporary way. But the story is the same. It’s about, like you said, immigrants coming to the country and to a country built by immigrants that has a really troubled relationship with immigrants.
If you think about the backstory of how this was something that he tried to sell and he couldn’t, because nobody wanted to put a Chinese lead actor on screen, that had to be sprinkled into everything we did. The whole notion of creating a show that tells the story of the Chinese immigrant experience from the perspective of the immigrants, but in a way that makes them very accessible to the American audience, there was no way the show wasn’t going to have that in its DNA.
Looking ahead, you’ve got Season 3 to work on. How far ahead are you mapping out the show, or are you taking it one season at a time?
JT: Well, after this experience, I think we take it one season at a time. [Laughs.] But it’s going to be a lot of work to put this back together, so none of us are thinking we’re only going to go in to do one more season.
Since the show is pulling from history, are we going to see Warrior tackle the Chinese Exclusion Act? Are there any other historical events you’re looking to pull from?
JT: We do look at historical events to weave in as a backdrop, but the Exclusion Act is four to five years in the future of our show. We’re not eager to set the show at the time of the Exclusion Act because what we like is being in the world where the pressure is building towards the Exclusion Act. It’s going to inform all the different levels of governmental and political persecution that went on in Chinatown.
But I don’t think it’s our desire to really become a docudrama and start documenting the Exclusion Act; that’s not what the show is. But there are other things—we did a riot in Chinatown in Season 2 that was based on a number of riots that happened on the West Coast in that time period. What we like to do is pick historical events and then distill them through the Warrior prism into something that is still fact-based, but doesn’t become a documentary.
I don’t want people to get the wrong idea: Warrior tackles some serious and timely topics, but it’s also a really fun martial arts show with awesome action sequences. Do you have any ideas on what you want to incorporate next, action-wise, and in terms of Bruce Lee homages?
SL: We’re always looking at the action as “how does it help us to tell our story, and how does it represent the situations and the characters?” We can use the action to express the story and the depth of emotion and the depth of anger running through the characters and running through the show.
But of course, we’re always trying to weave in our Bruce Lee Easter eggs and homages—which is always a lot of fun—but in a subtle way that also serves the story. At the end of the day, we’re always just trying to serve the story and tell the most entertaining, powerful, and hard-hitting story that we can, with lots of style and fun at the same time. It’s a big recipe, and we always want to deliver on the action sequences. Whatever that means, we’ll continue to strive to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.