I’ve felt quite precious about some of the shows I’ve been watching during the pandemic.
Something about the vulnerability of the characters has made me protective of them. Maybe my heart too needed protection.
As Itaewon Class was coming to an end, I struggled like I had with CLOY, to finish it. Sometimes you don’t want the last chapter written. Good news or bad, it’s over.
With the protests around George Floyd’s death that began in late May in Minneapolis, confrontations and conversations around race, racism, police violence, white privilege, and white supremacy were central to everything happening in June.
I marched. I shouted in the street. I cried. I donated. I got to reading more about anti-racism. Watching Korean TV did not quite fit into this month of action. But I had begun on this project—to immerse myself in K-dramas—and found it soothing to my pandemic anxiety. I needed to keep going. My anxiety had actually ratcheted up in June. I had some panic attacks. It was a really bad month.
In the end, Itaewon Class was perhaps a fair fit for June 2020. Framed as an underdog story, there were story lines about racism and transphobia—topics not widely raised in what I’ve seen so far (but I've only seen 9 shows). It dealt with discrimination, power, and oppression and the simmering rage at injustice in the characters mirrored my own at the world outside.
Park Saeroyi (Park Seo-joon) is a principled teenager with a strong sense of right and wrong, a warm relationship with his dad, and a crush on an girl he goes to school with, Oh Soo-ah (Nara). But his hard-headedness comes up against the intractable force of power, money, and influence in the form of Chairman Jang (Yoo Jae-myung) and his sneering, spoiled son Jang Geun-won (Ahn Bo Hyun).
Geun-won bullies his way through Park Saeroyi’s new school. Park Saeroyi tries to put a stop to that with one punch, but ends up getting kicked out of school. Complicating factors, Park Saeroyi's father works for Geon-won’s dad, Chairman Jang.
Because Park Saeroyi refuses to kneel before Zod, Chairman Jang, Park Saeroyi’s dad loses his job. Shortly thereafter, Park Saeroyi ends up in prison because of something else Geun-won does.
It’s a fucking lot to bear. But that’s exactly what he does. He takes the punches, but he holds onto a clarity of purpose—he will destroy Chairman Jang.
Park Saeroyi serves his time in jail and then sets about to open a pub to rival Chairman Jang’s famous pub chain. Declaring himself the enemy of one of the most powerful men in Korea, his rag-tag pub doesn’t look like much of a match, but slowly other outcasts like him enter his orbit and together they work to defeat Chairman Jang. He brings on another ex-con like him, a factory-worker turned chef, and a slightly sociopathic influencer who dedicates herself to Park Saeroyi and his mission because she is in love with him.
With strong writing and a likable ensemble, calling this a “revenge story” feels too pat. There is a love triangle with sequences of painful longing, broken hearts, and unfortunate cattiness between women.
Park Saeroyi and his employees have a lot of trauma to unpack too, with larger questions of who suffers and survives, who has power over you, and what the costs of fighting power are. All the evil confronted here is deeply of our world, which makes each setback all the harder to take. But each small triumph gives us hope to keep pressing on.
Park Saeroyi has to unwind the difference between surviving and living on his journey. That came a little close to home for me. Pandemic survival brings what living a life looks like into stark contrast.
Actor Park Seo-joon was adorkable in the role with his terrible haircut and warm, wounded sad eyes. Park Saeroyi doesn’t have a lot of normal life experiences to draw from and his social skills are wanting. He grabs his head like his brains will fall out when something beyond his comprehension happens—a declaration of love included.
There’s a sweetness under his hardened exterior. He doesn’t know how to console people, but he wants to. He knows that other people are the key to survival and maybe even living, but his struggle is to figure out how. But he’s got to learn to be a person in the world and not just a man hellbent on revenge. Our pleasure is going on this trip with him and it’s not easy on either of us.
Several characters reckon with a past that has damaged or defined them. Some are trapped in roles they don’t want to be in, but they’ve made choices to survive. Like Park Saeroyi, they struggle to move on and live life differently.
I loved these characters and wanted only the best for them. They all stole my heart.
I blasted through Signal in one weekend. It is a police murder mystery story which involves a “magical” walkie-talkie that somehow connects a police detective in the 1990s with a case profiler in 2015.
Structurally, it was really smart. Rather than one murder mystery, the detectives end up solving a series of cold cases that are all connected in some way. Information flows from 2015 to the 90s or from the 90s to 2015. These events change the past, present, and future. Sometimes for good and sometimes for worse. The pacing was gripping and the unexpected direction solving a crime in the past might have on the future kept the series from falling into easy, predictable patterns.
There are three central characters: the schlubby but driven detective from the past, Lee Jae-han (Jin-woong Cho), the young, wide-eyed recruit who loves him Cha Soo-hyeon (Hye-su Kim) (she becomes a more grizzled detective leading the cold cases in 2015), and the young profiler, Park Hae-yeong (Lee Jehoon) who is personally invested in one of the crimes.
Jin-woong Cho is delightfully rumpled and righteous. He’s the detective constantly fighting his department with their cover-ups and corruption. He is also hiding a sensitive heart with outer bluster and gruffness. Always a delightful combo. When his heart gets broken, mine did too.
Hye-su Kim is stuck with a character who is used poorly. Cha Soo-hyeon is so ridiculously doe-eyed in the 90s, it’s impossible to believe she becomes the sharp-edged detective of the present. I appreciated the show dealt with the sexism in the police department in the 90s and what Cha Soo-hyeon had to tolerate to just get by. I just wish they’d spent more time building her character beyond her love for Lee Jae-han.
That aside (a big fucking aside), it's addictive and even if I used the phrase "magical walkie-talkie" just go with it.
At a totally different speed was Romance is a Bonus Book. I’d heard this was a remake of the American TV series Younger. It feels like a distant cousin with more differences than similarities.
Both shows are about a divorced, stay-at-home mother who needs to lie to find herself a job in publishing after years of being out of the workplace. But the narrative commonalities mostly end there.
Psyching herself up before each job interview, Kang Dan-i (Nayoung Lee) is shot down over and over. She’d worked in marketing and advertising before, but after 7 years away raising her daughter no one wants to give her a chance. In fact, some women are appalled she would try to take up space in the working world after being so “lazy” for seven years.
She hides her situation from her childhood bff, Cha Eun-ho (Jong-Suk Lee) and pretends to be his housekeeper without him knowing to get some money while also working part-time cleaning a spa. She’s barely scraping by and living in her foreclosed-upon house with no water or electricity (her daughter is at boarding school--another cost she is trying to carry herself, since her deadbeat ex-husband is not paying support).
She lies on her resume, erasing her college degree, to “qualify” for a job which requires someone with only a high school diploma. The job is at the publishing house where Eun-ho works and she gets it, but they must pretend they don’t know each other.
The show deals with both the societal issues Kang Dan-i faces as a woman trying to return to the workplace, the challenges of working mothers, as well as women who opt not to have families in Korean society.
There are hints at the financial precarity of others too. Kang Dan-i is not the only one in Korea today barely hanging on. The sense that it would not take much to drag people under financially is sprinkled throughout this show.
Yet, the show has its frothier side. There are two love triangles, a mystery around a famous author, and it is a generous love letter to book publishing too.
Moments of uncomfortable paternalism pop up when Eun-ho talks about the role of Dan-i's husband and his “responsibility” for her. I was not a fan of Jong-Suk Lee overall. I know he's beloved model-performer, but a bit too ice prince, pretty boy for my taste. Do not get me started on his fashion-y dumb camouflage jacket. I hate it.
I was much more into the young upstart book designer Kang Dan-i befriends, Ji Seo-joon (Wi Ha-Joon). He’s charming and doting and needs someone loving in his life.
The show benefits from starting with romance, but then expanding it into a larger workplace story, giving space to each character in the publishing house.
Most importantly, Kang Dan-i and her efforts to start her life over again in her late 30s (interesting that the American show had her in her 40s) are at the center. She wants to give herself a future and the small steps back to employment mean everything to her. Simply having business cards again allows her to participate in Korean life in a different way than when she didn’t. These moments are heart-breaking. She’s been so beaten-down by life and these hard-fought small wins are huge for her.
While Itaewon Class on the surface might have little in common with Bonus Book, both shows were about someone fighting their way back to acceptance and success in a world that wants nothing to do with them.
They were characters worth championing in these fights.