Times, Sisyphus, Vincenzo, oh my! There’s a drama for every day of the week and that is not even an exaggeration!
Because I have not yet learned wisdom, I checked out EVERYTHING. Well, everything except Hello, Me, which my youngers and betters have helpfully reviewed already: check out Paroma in a snazzy video-review, and Anisa in her inaugural Drama Addict outing.
Your requisite spoiler warnings for episodes 1-2 of:
River Where the Moon Rises
Sisyphus: The Myth
I really hated committing some of these spoilers to writing (sorry! so sorry!), but I generally think of opening week spoilers as fair-ish game because they help me to figure out whether I want to pick up a show or not. So read on if the drama spoils tempt you, I won’t blame you if they don’t!
Before we get into the prose, here is a table. In case you thought the whole “drama for every day of the week” was hyperbole, IT’S NOT:
The colours of the boxes reflect something important about the drama. Like, Sisyphus is Park Shin-hye’s plum-coloured leather jacket stolen from the body of a young hunk. (Please note that I only ever say a phrase like “young hunk” highly ironically.) Vincenzo’s grey is that designer Italian suit. Beyond Evil is how dark the show is running. River is, well, a river. Where the moon rises. And Times is a winter coat for a cold day, warm wood panelling and the comfort of home.
It was a tough week, I’m telling you. However: lists! I have a list. A ranked list of all the premieres. It’s mainly ranked by how turbulently I feel about it, it’s heavily influenced by recency effects, and deeply informed by how much I need the next episode immediately.
Do not be perturbed by the (lack of) structure. I have vacillated between paragraphs and bullet points because flirting with format is my hobby …just kidding. I wrote them in different sittings and I decided not to let fixation with format stop me from just writing. So here it is: the list where everything is a winner but I still insisted on ranking it.
1. Times: The undisputed best
This one is my favourite of all the premieres MY GOSH
When we read the plot of this, we speculated it could be like something between Signal and Kairos but no guys! It is totally, entirely its own show and it’s using its conceit to its absolute max. The tension is MAD—all moment to moment and never letting go.
We meet Seo Jung-in (Lee Joo-young) in 2019 as a skilled young reporter cheering her dad into his second term as President. Then she falls asleep one night and some kind of temporal shift happens, and when she wakes up, it’s to a world where her dad was shot dead on his first campaign as a presidential candidate in 2015. So in her new reality, he never even served a first term, never mind a second.
The only part of it I find a little confusing is how/why we launch into the timeline she finds herself in. Is it a real timeline that actually happened, or is it, as her therapist says, some kind of wishful, constructed false reality that rose as a response to her grief and trauma? (I think we’ll get an answer eventually since the show has alluded to it.)
We catch up with her a year later (definitely in an alternate timeline, because she’s in a 2020 that clearly has not experienced a pandemic) where we learn she’s basically forced herself to accept the reality she is in, and that her father is dead, and that other life was a figment of her brain.
But there’s definitely something temporally disruptive going on, because an unexplained communications outage is where things go wonky. She gets a call from a reporter called Lee Jin-woo (Lee Seo-jin), who wants to talk to her about her dad getting re-elected. YES IT IS A VERY 😱😱😱 MOMENT even though you know it’s coming, because it’s all stuff we know from the premise. Jin-woo brings a darker shadow of sadness with him when we realise who he is in the past, and what he becomes in the future that is Jung-in’s now present. Their desperation and urgency is everything to this show.
But the execution, guys. The execution. It is so, so gripping. And I actually literally was on the edge of my seat at so many points! (I even took a moment while watching to appreciate that I had become a cliché, because what is the fun of life if not to enjoy your moments while you’re in them?) And the way it works never makes you question the characters or the verisimilitude of the world. It’s a premise that constantly interrogates itself, and the characters question themselves and their senses just as much. All of that acts to create a real sense of believability to the universe.
And then you have the thing itself: Jung-in is desperate to save her dad, and has to recruit Jin-woo to the job. They have nothing but this weirdly malfunctioning black-hole phone, and…I hate that I am spoiling this, but guys, the present/future changes in real time and not only is it really strikingly presented visually, but what it means to have to deal with a constantly changing reality is, without exaggeration, downright harrowing. Especially as the ending closes in and you realise that a) they’ve done it, but b) all hell has now broken loose. Damn.
2. Beyond Evil
This one surprised me by being not at all how I thought it was going to be. I was thinking Good Detective-style light antagonism that turns to a bickering, deeply heartfelt camaraderie, but nope, this drama is going all in on the dark stuff. I keep forgetting that the Korean title for this is Monster.
- Shin Ha-kyun is diabolical. How have I never watched him before, in all this time?
- HEY THAT’S LEE DO-HYUN! HE IS BABY SHIN HA-KYUN!
- Yeo Jin-goo gets his turn as a detective! Except he is the opposite of scruffy. He is, in fact, like me. Always wiping down other people’s things and generally annoying them with his sticklery approach to life.
- The premise? It’s not new, you’ve seen it before. The execution? Is GREAT.
- It’s got this atmospheric, small-town noir feel, and a cast of characters to match. Full of uncomfortably close shots that get right into people’s faces—just like the small-town gaze of the inhabitants
- So everyone comes off a little off-centre, a little weird, and the way they’re framed always keeps you a little off-balance
- There are no secrets in this town, we’re told repeatedly. Everyone knows your business, someone is always watching you. Yet this is presented alongside an equal and opposite truth:
- Everyone has secrets.
- Underscored by a dark but weirdly upbeat country guitar, that also comes in a little too early after finding those grisly fingertips at the top of the first episode, come on!
- BUT THAT ENDING
Okay so I don’t ultimately believe we are going there (re: the ending), because I have gone and reread the synopsis, but I am digging that the show and Shin Ha-kyun are making me feel a frisson of doubt nevertheless. And for a short sharp moment, I thought the thought they wanted me to think. Therefore, the show succeeded.
And this anti-partnership between Shin Ha-kyun and Yeo Jin-goo isn’t the sum of the show’s relationships, though it is building up into a very compelling one. I like how Yeo Jin-goo’s outsider character is the focus through whom we can examine their deep strangeness and see it for what it is, while Shin Ha-kyun (and everyone else) provides an equal and opposite counterpoint in presenting their intertwined existences as absolutely normal.
My takeaway: NOBODY AT ALL is a reliable narrator. It’s a tangled web of relationships, friendships and histories such as only a small town (a village, really) can hold that makes this a weirdly spooky character study just as much as it is a grisly murdery suspense thriller.
3. Sisyphus: The Myth
I think I’ve said all the things about this in my reviews and perhaps it’s not really fair to list it here at all because, for my follies, it has an undisputed place on the watchlist regardless of whether it’s good or bad.
I was insanely drawn into the opening week’s episodes, but after exposure to other people’s critical viewing, my rose-tinted thrill has ratcheted down and I think I am scrutinising it harder than I am anything else right now. I’ll say this: it’s deliciously flashy, Jo Seung-woo is in every way bringing it as a nerdy, slightly broken charmer with hidden pain and brains too big for his head. Park Shin-hye still needs more to…not do. To be. To inhabit a self and have an independent arc.
I think so far I am enjoying the drama most as a string of moments. All of the moments give you something—a glimpse of sweetness, a thrill, a laugh, a wish for everything to come together gloriously, but so far, the thread connecting all of these individually fantastic moments haven’t hasn’t been pulled tight, and there’s no big picture to see yet.
However, I trust that that big picture is there, and the slow build comes from having to construct this whole new world, with its rules and characters and agenda, and fit it in seamlessly with the world we know. So it’s a slow-burn start that focuses heavily on creating that context. From my experience, it generally doesn’t take more than four episodes to set the stage, so I think we can expect both plot and pace to pick up by next week.
Week 2 update: This one’s unfolding really interestingly, if slowly. I do have the lurking worry that it may all end badly, but I never let that steal from my present enjoyment. I am enjoying everything the drama is doing but I want just a little bit more: more Park Shin-hye backstory, more glimpses of the dead future, more quality interaction (and communication) between the leads. All the seedling factors are there, now just dial it UP.
4. River Where the Moon Rises
This isn’t ranked here because it’s bad! In fact, pretty much everything in this list is very good, but this is the inherent injustice of ranking. But make no mistake: River Where the Moon Rises is really good in opening week! It has some a few confusing points for sure, but I don’t expect them to remain confusing for long. Thoughts:
- Cold open on a bloody battlefield! This is Goblin-level epic and painful. 😱
- Okay I am shallow but what I like best about Goguryeo sageuks are their clothes and styling and hair. so pretty! Unlike Joseon era sageuk, where it’s always hair-up and back, and the hanbok are always gorgeous, but somewhat restrained in comparison to the lavishness in the Goguryeo ones. I have no idea how historical this all is, but I know I like the sageuky pretty aaaahhh, sort of like the Western medieval finery which I also love.
- Ooo is Kim So-hyun playing her own mother? You know, I wouldn’t have thought that would work, but it does. Really does. My complaint about her in, say, Radio Romance, was that adulting her up really didn’t work. But the adult…ery 😅 that sageuk requires is a different kind. She’s got gravitas and presence here, and even her voice is lower and…darker.
- Hey isn’t that Kang Haneul?! I didn’t know he was going to be in this!
- Oh wait…I forgot that epic sageuk always starts with some foundational tragedy 😭
- One thing I did NOT expect was Kim So-hyun losing her place as princess, and actually being set up as actively against the crown. I wasn’t quite clear on whether she remembered who she was (she doesn’t), but it adds an extra level of 😱 to the proceedings.
- WAIT A MINUTE, those obelisks look… like…
- Are you there, Lee Min-ho? It’s me, Ji-soo. 🤣
- Update: It really is the same, I’m 99% sure. While I was looking for that shot of The King, I found some closer shots that showed a particular square-shaped peg on one side…and bingo, it’s also there in River. What a strange recycling! But fun 😂 Kingdom of Corea to Goguryeo:
- OH LEE JI-HOON I FORGOT YOU WERE HERE TOO
- Best line: “Should I kill him…or seduce him?” Them be real problems. I relate. 😂
- I really like this role for Ji-soo. He’s an actor who, if the director forgets about him or the script underdevelops him, ends up wibbling around like a lost jellyfish. Sorry Ji-soo, I 💙 u but it’s true!
- And VITALLY he gets to speak above that almost inaudible rumble some people leave him to languish in (*cough*BadGuys2*cough*). He even shouts a bit and does warrior-roars! Even though I am also yelling at him for yelling out Kim So-hyun’s secret assassin name through the whole forest. But then that’s also her fault for telling him, he doesn’t know she’s a killer!
- With his proven chemistry with Kim So-hyun (in 2016’s Page Turner), this is a connection made good. He’s bright and cheerful, and his sad hidden history gives his character the texture he needs to be someone you are curious about. And knowing that we’ll get to the events of the cold open? Well that’s just oof. 😢
- Though it’s less of an urgent watch (compared to the top two shows), I am very emotionally invested in this show and characters, and they’re easy to glom onto quickly and just keep going. It gives me Tale of Nokdu vibes (also a Kim So-hyun drama), but edging darker and giving her a more physically active role, which adds a lot more esprit and range to her interpretation of her character.
- I think she’s an actor who, the more she is given to do, the more she thrives, and matching her with a co-star of a similar energy level creates far better interpersonal chemistry—which, in turn, makes a far better show, unlike some of her earlier pairings, for example, her sageuk-before-last, Ruler—Master of the Mask.
- Though I think the failure of chemistry in Ruler—Master of the Mask was much more to do with how her character was written and directed (flatly and with way less screentime compared to Yoo Seung-ho and L), and the problems in the show itself overall. Of course I enjoyed all of it 😂 (Though Ruler was also a weird one in that she and Yoo Seung-ho had loads of chemistry, outside of the show…what on earth went wrong in it that they pretty much had none?)
- Although it also is worth noting she is just older now, and that makes a very big difference—she turned 18 during Ruler, and she’s a few months short of 22 right now. Although the age difference between her and Yoo Seung-ho isn’t huge in absolute terms (just under six years), it is definitely one to take care with when the younger of the pair is not yet 18. I think in a year or two, I would dig these two for a reunion.
- Can I also take a moment to say that Yoo Seung-ho’s Ruler mane of glory was his best:
5. Vincenzo: The easiest to watch…but also the hardest?
- Full disclosure: I have only watched the first episode
- Because dang, these episodes are LONG
- And long episodes are tiring, even when they are good!
- Although tbh, Vincenzo’s first episode flew by, it didn’t feel like 80+ minutes
- But it was, and even if time is relative and all that, we are still enslaved by the clock
- Or was it? Didn’t I speed-watch? At x1.2?
- Its best virtue is how easy it is to watch. I don’t have to watch it at 150% attention like I do the first three—I just let this one unfold, which is a nice and relaxing way to watch things and you should do it more.
- And it unfolds really quite enjoyably—you think it’s going to be this dark, serious mafia drama, and instead it’s how everything goes south for Song Joong-ki as soon as he lands in South Korea.
- No, really, everything. From his ill-fated taxi to his ill-fated flat to his VERY ill-fated suit (which, do not doubt, was probably handstitched by a Milanese craftsman…) and ohh that shower. I have never enjoyed a shower scene so much!
- That is to say, I’m not really a shower scene person, but this one definitely gets ALL my approval.
- Really. Man just tryna have a shower lolllll
- And every time the ahjummas call him “Vincenzo Casanova” (his name is Cassano!) it cracks me the hell up. Every single time. I’m laughing even now.
- I had to remind myself that he’s a cold-blooded killer despite his homeland haplessness
- What I like about this show also is that it doesn’t ask me to like Song Joong-ki. I’m sort of ambivalent about him in that I’ve really enjoyed a couple of his roles (Sungkyunkwan Scandal; Descendants of the Sun, though the latter more as a complete package, less as individual pieces), but the whole post-divorce weirdness left me feeling a bit meh (which isn’t really fair, and very vibe-based and subjective).
- And don’t get me wrong, he’s good! Funny and invariably the butt of the joke, and you gotta like an actor who lets himself be laughed at. And comedic timing is a gift, even when it looks effortless, and he’s had it since 2010 at least, if not longer.
- Plus he is so evidently enjoying himself, and it’s infectious 😂
- And though the weekend is busy for dramas, this was the one I reached for first, so that means something, doesn’t it?
- Bonus: Yoo Jae-myung pulling a double-duty weekend? He’s a careworn and humane attorney in Vincenzo, before he goes off to be an undercover sniper in Times! Here is Yoo Jae-myung vs. Yoo Jae-myung:
- Update: I’ve watched Episode 2
- It’s still too long, but it’s also still funny and weird, and it’s bringing me around to Song Joong-ki again. I wonder if the show will ever let him have a full meal 😂
- I’m really tickled by the way our pal Vincenzo, who is trying to save a building from evil chaebol developers (so he can knock it down himself and retrieve the gold hidden in a secret vault inside), outwardly comes off as some kind of champion of the underdog rather than the underworld. The fact of the matter being that he is 100% looking at his own interests, but the other residents of the building end up being unwitting beneficiaries. Which sort of makes him their hero, though he is the furthest thing from it.
- There’s a whole lot of prominent faces floating around as satellite characters…does the drama have enough room for all of them to have their day?
- It’s still too long.
So there it is, my madcap week. What shows have you picked up in the new cycle? What are your keepers and what are your droppers? Will you ever sleep again?