Pandemic Diary August: Zombies, Lawyers, and Sexual Tension

August has been heavily defined by suddenly having homework to do. I signed up for a Korean language class and now I make a lot of flashcards and recite them walking down the street. My brain needed this jolt and maybe I needed something else non-pandemic related (and non-day-job related) to focus on. With my theater and travel life on hold, I definitely needed to give myself something else.

Still haven’t really left Queens. I did make one trip to Manhattan to finally get a hair cut after six months of letting it grow. I suddenly have very curly hair—something I have not had since I was 4-years-old. Is it stress? Is it age? Are my hair follicles freaking out? Who knows.

As for my drama-watching, the Viki app stopped working for me for weeks on end and technical support took forever to get back to me so I was forced back into Netflix-land for much of August. I gave into a couple of the shows they were endlessly promoting. Some greatness, some questionable choices, and some things I should not have watched. 



As I have mentioned before, I had accidentally watched King: Eternal Monarch when meaning to watch Kingdom. I finally rectified that mistake—Kingdom was worth the wait.

This show written by Kim Eun-hee (of Signal fame) pulls together Shakespearean succession issues with a pandemic of zombies, then throws in a little Handmaid’s Tale reproductive horror to boot. Politics, parentage, inheritance, duty, and power all get equal airing and even if you don’t enjoy zombie chomping or horror (I definitely do not), it’s a compulsive watch and thrillingly apt for this very moment.

In it, the aged King has a new young wife, Queen Consort (Kim Hye-Jun) who is pregnant. He also has a grown son, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon) who was groomed to take over upon his father’s death. But if this baby is born before his father dies, then the baby will become the heir.

Behind the pregnant queen is a powerful father Chief State Councilor Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong) who has placed members of his clan in many official roles and has kept others throughout the country in line through fear of his consolidated power.

When the King takes ill, all these fears around succession reach a fever pitch. Suspicion around his illness leads many to believe he has already died and the Queen and her father are just trying to preserve power for themselves and control the heir.

What has happened in reality is that Lord Cho has summoned a doctor to resurrect the dead King with a “resurrection plant.” The King comes back to life, but as a snarling zombie. This zombie illness inadvertently leaves the royal court and begins spreading quickly across the country.

Prince Lee Chang tries to get to the bottom of what has happened to his father only to uncover the zombie plague. With the help of a doctor, Seo Bi (Doona Bae) and his loyal guard Mu-yeong (Kim Sang-ho) they start to figure out what is causing the plague and how they might stop it. The spread of the zombie plague is compounded by self-serving politicians looking to preserve their power first over serving (or saving) the populace. The political maneuverings are so infuriating and yet so familiar

While this might feel on the nose to watch during a literal pandemic being massively mismanaged by the American government, watching the Prince Lee Chang put aside his own self-interest and start to lead the people was the leadership porn I really needed right now. He tears a fumbling minor league bureaucrat a new one and I perhaps cheered out loud.

Photo of my TV of Kingdom on Netflix

Time and time again, the show demonstrates how selfish people ruin everything for everyone else just to serve themselves. One man steals food for himself and accidentally burns down the warehouse of food for everyone else. Despite being warned that these dead bodies will rise again, a mother refuses to let go of her son’s corpse which naturally wreaks havoc upon its reawakening.

The Shakespearean aspects come down to the struggle between father and son, King and Prince, an inherently fraught dynamic where one only gains power when the other loses his life. Prince Lee Chang does not want to be the guy who takes the throne by force, but if he does not fight for his birthright he will watch his nation fall to power hungry nobles who have no sense of duty or honor.

Duty may have been an abstract he was fed throughout his childhood but he has to choose whether to follow that path now and what it means in the midst of <waves arms at burning nightmare of a country>.

As Korean dramas go, this one certainly has a sophisticated visual look with more fancy camerawork than you usually see (there’s definitely a decapitation cam).

Ju Ji-hoon as Prince Lee Chang brings a mix of suffering, nobility, and sadness to his character. Doona Bae can do it all—save children, cure diseases, and fight zombies. She’s the complete package. It’s a strong cast who dig into this rich script and bring humanity to this vortex of creatures and frights.

And even with the relentless plague bearing down, political machinations, and secrets a plenty the show also throws in comic relief throughout. A great deal comes from the inept magistrate (Jeon Seok-ho) who endlessly and gloriously fails upward.

And if the real pandemic ever ends, there may be a Season 3 of Kingdom when the actors can get back to filming.


Coming off of Kingdom, I wanted to see another Ju Ji-hoon show. So, I opted for Hyena. It had a vague description and I had no idea what I was getting into.

I will say upfront I DEEPLY struggled with the premise and it was hard to push past it. But once I did there was more to this show and a fun frisson between Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hye-soo.

The show sets up a love/hate dynamic between two lawyers. Jung Geum-ja (Kim Hye-soo) is a woman with a mysterious background, questionable ethics, and will do just about anything to win a case. Yoon Jae-hee (Ju Ji-hoon) is a wealthy, successful lawyer at the number one law firm in Korea who has literally everything going for him. But he falls for a mysterious woman he meets in a laundromat. He thinks he’s in love. She’s however duping him about everything. He discovers she’s lied to him about her identity and it’s actually Geum-ja who is his opposing counsel in a big case. She’s stolen his case materials after sleeping with him and humiliates him in court. She makes such a big splash on the legal scene that she gets hired at his firm and now he has to face her and her questionable methods all the live long day.

While the show is written by a woman, I truly HATED how the show frames this woman and has her sleep with this man to win a case. Beyond it being a massive ethical WTF (which the show does address), the show makes clear she’s smarter and better at problem solving than all the men she encounters. 

The show thinks it needs her “unthinkable” actions to pit her against Jae-hee, but DOES IT? I wish it was not her using sex to pull one over on him, because it just plays into such an old and damaging stereotype.  I think the show wants us to fall into the trap of judging her and then questioning our basis for doing so. But the show largely comes from Jae-hee's perspective and it takes a while for him to get over himself. 

The upside of the show is that Geum-ja exposes the hypocrisy of the men in these law firms, because at the end of the day it’s not that the polished, fancy lawyers are more ethical or better lawyers than her, it’s that they have the cozy old-boy network to lean on and other men in power to protect them. Everyone is terrible, but one group gets unearned respect at the expense of the other.

The show also reveals how much male egos drive all the mistakes. I mean no one would need a lawyer if these men were not allowed to touch things. And like in other shows, competent women will be overlooked over and over again for idiot sons to hand corporations to. You cannot unsee this. Society may be patriarchal, but the show shines a big bright light on why that may be the central problem.

While I didn’t love how the show started, the show ends up is a much more interesting place. I liked the fraught sexual tension between Jae-hee and Geum-ja and how they perfectly get on each other’s nerves. An undone Ju Ji-hoon is actually quite fun to watch. There’s a talented and colorful ensemble of supporting characters too.

Also Kim Hye-soo is 50. I love a show that centers a sexy 50-something woman.


This show is basically a very sloppy version of a much better show, Signal. The difference is here there is a magic tunnel and Signal had a magic walkie-talkie. 

Tunnel on Netflix
Photo of my TV & IG commentary of Tunnel on Netflix
Do not recommend. It’s another serial killer mystery, but the stylized, gratuitous violence towards women was unwelcome. There was a generic relentless score to push things along because the writing was not doing it. They tack on a message about the way victims suffer from failures by the police. But it’s not a strong through line.

It’s a high concept show without careful character work. I didn’t get invested in the individual journeys and the pain the show was selling. There’s some really unfortunate paternalism.

I came away from this show asking “Why do smart women do dumb things in Korean dramas just to move the plot along?” Discuss.

Because This Is My First Life 

I got quickly and deeply invested in this romance, but writing choices made at the end undid a lot of my goodwill. Grumble, grumble. There was a spirit of rebellion here I really responded to but then the show's efforts to subvert "traditional" narratives (and possibly even traditional "values") betrayed their own intentions. 

Much like Romance is a Bonus Book, financial and housing precarity are at the center of this story. Focusing on the “88 generation,” it also addresses marriage, hooking-up, and dating.

Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) went to the best university, but she has been struggling as a writer’s assistant in television dramas for awhile. She longs to write her own show, but she doesn’t even have a roof over her head. Through a friend-of-a-friend, she finds a perfect rental and sets about to dig into writing. But it turns out she’s scandalously living with a male roommate Nam Se-hee (Lee Min-ki), each not realizing the other was of the opposite sex since they’d been on opposite schedules and never met.

Se-hee is never expressly described as neurodivergent, but he’s a computer engineer who fixates on logic over emotion and lives a strictly organized closed-circuit of a life that involves work, his cat, and his house. Once they find out who the other is, they agree to keep living together. Eventually Se-hee calculates that this arrangement is financially beneficial for the both of them and he suggests they marry—purely for financial reasons. It provides Ji-ho with the stability she’s long craved, and her paying rent gives Se-hee a leg up on his hefty mortgage which he will be paying for a long time.

While these are the mechanics of how they end up in this predicament (of course, feelings of attraction do come in and upend the balance), the show spends a lot of time inside Ji-ho’s head giving us her perspective on how hard her life has been. She is sexually assaulted by an old colleague and then other colleagues try to cover it up. 

Having a safe, comfortable home and someone she gets along with, after a life of struggles and discomfort, is for her an achievement. But this broken sadness around settling for something less than her dreams gnaws at the edges of this new life.

The show also brings into the mix Ji-ho’s two best friends from childhood—one obsessed with getting married to her longtime boyfriend and another fighting non-stop sexual harassment at work while trying to climb the corporate ladder as a woman.

Ultimately, the show is about all of these women trying to figure out where they belong and what traditions to embrace and what ones to shed. 

The show rides a pretty strong wave of sexual tension and longing between Ji-ho and Se-hee. But then Ji-ho makes some dramatic choices at the end of the series that don’t quite fit with her character. It feels like they were needed just to goose the plot and generate a fake crisis at episode #14 etc.

Otherwise, I really liked its tone of sad nostalgia, lost promise, and drowning in a life that has not quite measured up to one’s dreams. It gave the entire romance a pensive, grounded edge. So even if there is romantic heart-thumping longing it crashes into a world that is very real. All the more reason for the incongruous missteps in the writing at the end to crush much of my enthusiasm for the show. 

Photo of my TV of  Because This Is My First Life on Netflix 
It was nice to see the show address issues around disability and even flirt with bisexuality in a tingly moment. 

I was not expecting a major queering of a K-drama text, but the sense of challenging expectations around marriage and relationships felt progressive and even transgressive. Yet, the show could not sustain that transgressive energy in the final reel. 

As an aside, the actor playing side character Bok-nam, Kim Min-kyu, has the face of a Disney cartoon prince and he was delightful. Also, the cat who plays Kitty is maybe the floppiest muppet of a cat ever and I would watch a TV show starring just that cat. 


If First Life had a sense of grounded reality, Vagabond has le none. This is an action-romance about a stunt man (Lee Seung-gi) trying to get to the bottom of the plane crash that killed his young nephew in Morocco. He teams up with a low-level covert intelligence official (Bae Suzy) to try to solve the mystery.

At some point, I started to wonder if this was a deep satire on the poor state of the Korean intelligence agencies because the most “sophisticated” thinker about conspiracies and terrorist plots is a stunt man. Even if everyone is corrupt, and he is the only pure being left in Korea, I found him endlessly annoying for constantly getting involved in everything.

Lee Seung-gi seems sweet and charming, but the writing and plot was just doing my head in. It is truly ridiculous with a side helping of WTfuckery.

The show is also notable for one assassin having the worst hair in the world. It’s like they looked at No Country for Old Men and said, “How can we make that bad hair worse?” And they succeeded.

From the way this ends, I assume there are plans for another season. I do not know if I will tune in. I like closure, but I may have reached my limit for nonsense.

Melting Me Softly 

Finally, the Viki app started working for me once I paid for a subscription. And what I did with that opportunity was watch a truly terrible show that even I could not believe I was watching.

I should have stopped when I read this was about cryogenically frozen humans. But I watched some trailers and thought this might be a kind of cute look at what happens when you literally sleep through 20 years and have to deal with the world that has changed. But it’s not really about that.

Photo of my TV of Melting Me Softly on Viki
I tuned in for Ji Chang-wook, but alas even he couldn't convince me this show was watchable.

While there is a TOTALLY NARRATIVELY JUSTIFIED shower scene (perhaps the only one in the history of K-dramas), I do not think I can defend watching this dumb show in any way.