Review – The Penthouse Season 1

The Penthouse. Oh, The Penthouse.

You know when you were a kid and you wanted to mix all the drinks in the soda dispenser at restaurants? We called that concoction a “Kamikaze.” Most people called it a “Suicide,” or… if you’re from the Midwestern region of America, maybe a “Graveyard.” You basically murdered your tastebuds by including everything. And yet… as a kid… you didn’t care. You were gonna do it and you were gonna drink it and it was glorious. It was muddy, bubbly, excitement in a plastic glass. The Penthouse is the Kamikaze of Korean Dramas. It’s terrible. Just… awful. Just fantastically, gloriously, bad. And you’re gonna love it.

The Penthouse is the drama we all needed during lockdown. When you’ve been stuck in your home for days, weeks, months, and everything just seems… overwhelming and yet boring, too much and too little at once… when the globe huddles together as shivering creatures susceptible to germs and you’re painfully reminded of your squishy organic humanity… then you seek escape. You want as far from normal as you can get. You find yourself watching Tiger King or… The Penthouse.

What is more distant and alien than insanely rich people living in luxurious, high rise condominium suites, far above the rules that govern normal society? What could be more niche than… opera?

If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed I have a soft spot for melodramas. The more outlandish and ridiculous the plot twists and turns, the better. Grudges passed down through the generations, baby swapping, secret identities, cruelty, fits of rage and passion, character’s breaking up, breaking down, and breaking everyone around them as they lash out in the shallow waters they are drowning in… I live for it.

Melodramas are a required taste and have to find us when the mood is right. Was it a coincidence that How to Get Away with Murder also premiered during a global virus outbreak? If you raised a skeptical eyebrow at my pandemic analogy, then you may not be in the mood for The Penthouse. However, if you find yourself watching a bunch of videos on cults, conspiracy theories, and secret cabals that pull at all the hidden strings of the world… then you may be in the right frame of mind. If you find yourself thinking, “Maybe lizards do run the government,” or “I wonder if my backyard is big enough to house a pet tiger,” or “Is some corporation using my social media data to create clones?”… then the iron is hot and you are ready for a good melodrama to strike!

Melodramas thrive in toxic environments. They are irrational. They are the shapes you interpret in shadows, more about the implication of an idea over substance. You know it won’t stand up to scrutiny and so you purposely avoid turning on the light, willing to suspend belief. And if you hang around in the darkness long enough, your eyes adjust and maybe you forget the light switch is only a few feet away…

Melodramas are best enjoyed when you’re feeling subconsciously vulnerable. You aren’t going to learn a valuable lesson or muse about the subtle nuances of life while watching a melodrama, after all. Melodramas are not meant for self-reflection. They are a funhouse mirror, something so grotesque and fascinating that you can’t help but smile at this bizarre distortion of reality they present you.

Melodramas can be the only drink that transports you to the mentality of childhood innocence, back to a time when you could run through the house with your plastic toy dinosaur and lay waste to the imaginary cities around you. To the drama of your pastel princess dolls who ruled kingdoms, raised families, and then became rock stars in the course of a single afternoon. To the improbable wars of action figures and transforming alien robots. Where you can enjoy the godlike powers of ultimate creation and use them in silly, overdramatic ways without guilt or shame or justification of your outlandish plotlines. No one watches a child play and criticizes their worldbuilding skills. You just vicariously enjoy their enjoyment.

The Penthouse gives you both and adult melodrama and a teen melodrama simultaneously.

If someone is going to make a mistake in this show, it will be on stage or in front of a large group of people who will collectively gasp in horror. Think of any common nightmare scenario (like being chased by a killer, falling from great heights, public speaking, being late for a big test) and multiply it by ten. Think of day time soap operas and then boil them in a pot with Latin American telenovelas. Think of having one major problem, then continue to wrap more problems around it, as many as you think of, until you have this big, crazy, hard asteroid of problems.

Here is a visual representation of the plotline of The Penthouse.

Don’t try to make it useful or decorative or anything other than what it is. A big mess. Why would you want to untangle that? The individual problems have become warped and stretched out and absorbed into the whole. It’s a colorful disaster now and useful only as a weapon… (otherwise it’s just an embarrassing reminder of time wasted… so you gotta hurl it at someone… how else are you gonna get rid of that thing? call it self defense… call it… survival… but it’s gotta go and you know it’s gonna hurt someone on the way out… but… well… what other option do you have? Self destruction is sometimes instinctual. Humans are weird, friends, that’s all I know. We are strange, strange creatures).

If you’re expecting me to talk about the plotline or the characters… well… I have been.

I have not started Season 2 yet. I’m honestly not used to having a second season of a Korean drama and rather enjoyed the unexpected ending of Season 1. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually and it will be just as fun.

Rating – 9/10. Setting off Fireworks Inside a Panic Room & other Bad Decisions with Colorful, Dangerous Results.

Review – Extra-Ordinary You

Extra-Ordinary You was one of the best teenage romantic comedies I have seen in years – for about 20 episodes. The last twelve episodes of this show slid quickly into “good but nothing special” territory for me, feeling repetitive, unnecessary, and considerably less exciting. This is not to say I didn’t still enjoy it, even after the sudden and steady decline of my attention span. Cause I did. Honestly. And when nearly 3/4ths of your drama is amazing, then you really can’t complain too much as you’re already doing better than most shows.

Even the long haul eps at the end, where the first had gone out, where still entertaining enough that I continued watching. Frankly, I felt I had to. The mystery of the show was compelling enough that I could not let it go without the answers I was promised.

The story is thus: A quirky, popular young lady has suddenly started losing track of time. Hours pass and she has no memory of what happened in between. Then, mysteriously, she begins to notice strange patterns – amongst her friends and her routine. Things repeat themselves. Her world seems in flux. What’s going on? Our heroine discovers she is a character in a graphic novel – and now that she’s become self aware, she is able to experience life “between the panels” when the story is not directing her (and everyone else’s) action.

It’s a really fun concept. A similar story line was W, the 2016 hit series that was also really great for quite a long time before kinda dragging on a bit too long for it’s own good. If I had to choose between the two, I would pick W because it was a more expansive story, but Extra-Ordinary You finds is place in the pantheon of cute romance dramas with just enough conflict, love-triangles, bullies, and generalized school intrigue to keep you entertained.

Though the entire series takes place inside a graphic novel – it’s surprisingly “fantasy light.” The drama doesn’t spend much time musing on the particular physics or mysticism involved in this world, nor does it bother to explain how its possible or what controls it. Why are these imaginary characters able to become conscious? What does that mean about the creator of the characters or the world itself? Is this a reincarnation metaphor or meant to provoke us to think about the uncanny nature of religious beliefs, mortality, the broader expanse of the universe, or the vast unknowns of life? Uh, no. This is definitely not a philosophical show. There is no social commentary. It’s pretty much surface level only, and the surface level is very brightly colored. I think if you scratched at the layer, you’d just smell bubblegum. The “but how though?” question remains unanswered, and I suppose it really didn’t matter in the end as it never bothered me much. It’s a cheesy teen romance. It may have been more… maybe… once… there do seem to be hints at more… but nope. It’s just a collection of tropes and cuteness that’s dressed up in a new style.

I’d considered writing a more lengthy review – about the characters and the concept – but could not motivate myself to do so. The teenagers are all lovely and immaculate in their perfect white uniforms. The school is some insane stylized mansion-esque place, always spotless and expansive. The light is pure. The rain is romantic. Hospital rooms are enormous and comfortable. The streets are generic. The angles of the camera mimic typic manga style – with lots of straight on shots, a few up and down views inbetween, and plenty of focus on the dreamy faces of the leads. It’s a graphic novel, after all, a modern fairytale, so everything worked or was easily excused.

The less you know going in, the more you will enjoy it.

It was a perfect escape and exactly what I’d been craving but didn’t realize it. Something comfortable but just different enough that I didn’t immediately recognize it.

Overall Rating 8/10. A Happy Escape into a Romantic Dreamworld of Teenagers.

Review – Itaewon Class

Itaewon Class. What a strange love story to Capitalism, am I right?

Here is how I imagine this drama was pitched between the writer and the studio executive.

Executive: “So what have you got there? You said it’s a revenge story set in the food industry?”

Writer: “Oh yeah. It’s gonna be great. We’ve got this stubborn, solitary guy who doesn’t need anyone’s approval, he’s just gonna go his own way and do what’s right. Stick to his principles. Never budge an inch.”

Executive: “Like a John Wayne type?”

Writer: “Teenage John Wayne.”

Executive: “But better looking than John Wayne.”

Writer: “Much better looking.”

Executive: “Who does he want revenge against?”

Writer: “A CEO of a worldwide food company. This guy is just super rich and powerful, so it’s gonna be hard to get revenge, ya know?”

Executive: “He’s gonna get his revenge by becoming rich too, right?”

Writer: “Of course. That’s how justice works.”

Executive: “It’s how product placement advertising works too. Sounds like a win!”

Social taboos unveiled in hit South Korean drama Itaewon Class ...

Itaewon Class had all the elements of a quality fairy tale K-drama: A strong archetypal hero with impeccable values and a heart of gold who rises over adversity, meets his goals, finds loyal friends and allies, and of course discovers true love. There was a nice sized cast of diverse characters with unique plot lines and motivations. I was interested in the fates of everyone I’d been introduced to, good and bad. It was far better than the majority of K-dramas I have seen in the past year and not bothered to review.

And yet it had serious problems. The last few episodes really fell off the gas pedal and the plotline slowed down considerably. Ironically, the most dragging episode was the finale – which had a preposterous amount of exciting things happening and somehow managed to muffle all the energy of the climax. And worst of all, in my opinion, there was the problematic underlining theme of the entire show. It’s what I like to call the Capitalist Dream, the lie we all tell ourselves: If you just work really, really hard then you can achieve anything. Entry into the golden palaces of the 1% is possible for anyone willing to work overtime. This idea has tucked the poor into bed since the dawn of time, soothing their anxieties about class inequality with a little fairy tale about how some people sneak into the castle… and get the prince to fall in love with them… and that could be you.

So, yeah, there were issues. But I still highly recommend this drama. It’s 16 episodes, which is a nice length for a series. They managed to fill each episode with enough plot that we didn’t have to over indulge in excessive flashbacks, pointless walking or staring scenes, or other fillers. It was lighthearted and funny at times without being silly or cartoonish. I especially enjoyed the spunky, quasi-sociopathic lead female. And who doesn’t love a good revenge story?

Itaewon Class – Overall Rating: 8.5/10. Feel-Good Capitalist Propaganda.

More – about characters and themes below. SPOILERS GALORE so watch the show first, my dear readers.

Continue reading

Review – Come & Hug Me

Come & Hug Me. What should have been a 10/10 winner – combining psychopathic serial killers, star-crossed lovers, fractured families, societal judgement, and a thrilling story of cat and mouse… barely made it to 7.5/10 due to its excessive use of unnecessary flashbacks, painfully long sequences of staring and slowly rotating cameras, faulty dialogue (and lack thereof), and jarring tonal shifts. Let us all examine this tarnished show as what happens when editing goes wrong.

 

Which poster most accurately represents Come & Hug Me? Unfortunately, they both do… and that’s a problem.

Korean dramas have mastered the art of blending genres – especially when it comes to mixing dark plotlines with beautiful romances. Think of Pinocchio, for example. This is a masterpiece of blended genres – adorable, genuine romance – gritty, urban crime – melodramatic, dark pasts coming to light – and an unflinching commentary of modern society. It had a large cast and plenty of subplots and characters to follow around and not a wasted minute in the entire show. There are also dramas like Just Between Lovers, that kept everything close to the main couple and focused heavily on their inner turmoil, tortured pasts, and slow healing from severe trauma. I Remember You has not one, not two, but three serial killers, a boat load of family trouble, and a whole mess of relational, dark plotlines and it still gave us a swoon worthy romance. These were tightly paced, well plotted shows worth every award and accolade given to them.

So it can be done, this contrast of light and dark. It has been done. Come & Hug Me just didn’t manage to do it and that’s a shame. It felt like a significant chunk of the writers quit halfway through the project. Or maybe the studio said, “I love this 12 episode drama – let’s make it 32 episodes!” and then tossed it to an editing crew to pull on it like taffy. There were sooo many spaces that just felt empty, drawn out, padded, and needlessly prolonged. Every character in it could have used additional development – there were plenty to choose from, too. It would have been easy to tighten this drama into a finely crafted show. Instead, it just unspooled into a mess on the floor.

The plotline of Come & Hug Me is amazing, though, and thus despite its many editorial flaws and awkwardness, it’s impossible to deny the plot is pure melodrama. It’s a blood soaked cocktail of murder and romance and that just so happens to be my favorite drink… so let’s discuss…

Continue reading

Review: Kill It

Kill It is a twelve episode action-mystery drama that feels like it started out as a six episode drama that was handed over to an intern in editing who then chopped it up into a billion unnecessary flashbacks (flashbacks to what happened, literally, ten minutes before in the same episode) and excruciatingly long staring scenes where no one moves (did time stop? are there photographers on set? why do they keep doing this in dramas?).

It stars the handsome, tall Chang Ki-Yong as a brooding, introverted assassin… who is also a veterinarian. There are two ways to make scary men lovable, and that is to surround them with cute small children or cute fluffy creatures. This show chose the latter, as all children were too busy being horribly abused in this drama to enjoy even a  moment of cuteness.

Continue reading

Review – Remember

Review – Remember

Wow.

Seriously.

One of the best shows I have ever watched, ever.  Anywhere.  And it seemed kinda “eh” starting out, but a few episodes in and I was hooked and then… I just ate it up.  The characters!  The plot!  Honestly, the last episode was so emotionally draining (good and bad) that I think it may be a while until I can write up a decent review.  So for now… I just wanted to put this placeholder in, saying:  WATCH IT.

This is a finely crafted work of art.

Plot Basics:  A young man’s father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is accused of murder and sentenced to death row.  The young man, who has incredible photographic memory, dedicates his life to clearing his father’s name.  Add to the mix one of the most memorable villains of all time, and you have this amazing show… that just keeps getting better as it goes.

Overall Rating – 10/10.  The Truth Does Not Speak For Itself.

More about the characters and mild spoilers follow

Continue reading

Review – Jealousy Incarnate

Review – Jealousy Incarnate

This show really shouldn’t have been as entertaining as it was.  The plot was kinda lame, the territory worn… but due to the amazing cast, it somehow managed to still be an enjoyable show for 20 something long episodes.  I think the reason this show appeals to people is because the premise is appealing.  Who hasn’t had a crush on someone who just didn’t feel the same way?  And how awesome would it be if they suddenly changed their mind – at the exact time someone as equally awesome came along and also liked you?  And… let’s shoot for the stars… how incredible would it be to date them both, with their permission, and even set up house together while they generously allow to figure out your feelings?  Geesh.  It’s so ridiculous and in the realm of fantasy, which is exactly why it was entertaining for twenty episodes.

The love triangle is really the only reason to watch it.  There are better shows about broadcasting (Pinocchio) and there are better shows about cancer (Padam Padam), though I will admit the male breast cancer angle was interesting.  The side story about the warring moms was funny and I enjoyed their love triangle as well.  The side story about the teenagers, eh.  I have a serious crush on Choi Hwa-Jung, who played the rich guy’s mom, Madam Kim, so I loved watching her prance around and try to reign in her empire and heir… oh my God, she was rockin’ in this show.  Her stylist deserves a special award for fitting those curves to perfection.  Damn.

Overall Rating – 7/10.  Two Boyfriends Are Better Than One.

More musings…

Continue reading

Review – Let’s Eat

Review – Let’s Eat

This is a unique show focusing on food (oooh so much yummy food in ooooh so much detail) and how it brings people together.  The main character, Lee Soo-Kyung, is a divorcee who lives in a singles apartment complex and works as a legal secretary at a law firm.  I loved this character – her suspicious nature, her bristly demeanor, her begrudging acceptance of her single fate – she was strong yet vulnerable with a great personality.  Most of all, I loved her love of food.  She took pleasure in food the way children take pleasure in their new toys on Christmas morning.  It was divine to watch her eat, moaning and grinning and stuffing her face.

Around Lee Soo-Kyung are her best friend, a stay at home mom with two rambunctious children.  Her best friend’s husband, who is also a legal aid at the same firm.  The two lawyers who run the firm, the hysterically delusional Lawyer Oh and the petty, gloriously geeky Lawyer Kim.  We also are introduced to Lee Soo-Kyung’s two neighbors on either side.  One is a young lady whose father has gone to prison, her family fortune lost.  She’s naive, optimistic, good-natured, and was (in my opinion) the weakest link in the storyline.

The other neighbor is our second lead, Koo Dae-Young, an insurance salesman who is also a foodie.  I also really loved this character.  First of all, his job is interesting.  An insurance salesman?  He’s someone who knows every illness and disease and spits out scary little fun facts with a pleasant smile during conversation, ever the salesman.  He’s charming, carefree, and seems to just glide effortlessly through life.  When he does get himself into sticky situations – such as girls falling for him left and right – he’s actually quite mature in handling it face to face with no drama, setting things straight.  I also loved when people would set him off on one of his food rants – “What?!” and he’d go into a soliloquy about the history and beauty of some questioned nature of the meal.  It was hysterical and eloquent and just made an already cool guy ten times cooler.

This show decided to develop all its characters before it even bothered to get started with a romance, which was unusual.  I think we were about ten episodes in before any real flirting started.  And yet… I think that improved the plot greatly.

Overall Rating – 8.5/10.  Unique Characters To Be Savored.

Final Thought – I loved the main female’s dog, Vara.  Only our quirky female lead would chose to name a tiny Pomeranian dog after Che Guevara.

Review – Bad Guys

Review – Bad Guys

This show asks the question… are we humans or are we beasts?  Clearly we’re a little bit of both and it’s a delicate, fragile balance for a lot of people.  Especially the people in this show.  The plot is basically this:  Three hardcore criminals are let out of prison to help track down hardcore criminals.  They are lead by an ambitious young detective and a hardened old detective nicknamed “Mad Dog.”  Much violence ensues.

It’s a short drama, at only 11 episodes, and keeps up a consistent pace of action throughout.  The actual narrative of the story revolves around the death of Mad Dog’s daughter – and how these three criminals may be related to her demise.  I admit, I kinda loved the whole bloody festival of butchery and tears.

Overall Rating – 8.5/10 – The Beasts of Seoul and How to Catch Them.

More about the beasts of Seoul… with no real spoilers this time…

Continue reading

Review – Bridal Mask

Review – Bridal Mask

Bridal Mask is one of the most epic, emotional, action-packed, gut-wrenching shows I have ever watched.  It takes place during the 1930’s, when Japan had colonized the country.  The hatred between the local “Joseon” people and the Japanese is palatable.  Though some have been striving to live and work in peace, overall it is a volatile time rife with government, military, and police corruption.  The plot centers around a young Korean man who has betrayed his people by joining the Japanese military to help them end the rebellion, in particular catch the infamous masked crusader known only as “Bridal Mask.”  He is despised by his own people and distrusted by the Japanese, with the exception of his best friend, a kind-hearted elementary school teacher.  A series of tragic events lead both of these men into their terrible fates.

Overall Rating – 9/10.  When Elementary School Teachers Embrace The Dark Side… (also known as:  The Problem With Eye For An Eye Is There Are Always More Eyes)

It would be a 10/10 but I confess it could have probably cut about ten entire episodes and not suffered from plot loss.  More discussion (and spoilers!  sorry, I can’t help it) follow.

Continue reading