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 Beyond Evil Vincenzo Times 😵
He mocks me.
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.
More of this please!
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:
“You are my Goguryeo. You are my nation.”
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…
Left: The King and his fave bodyguard; right: Ji-soo’s forest hideout
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!