Thursday, April 1, 2010

[Review From Javabeans] First episode impressions:Cinderella, Prosecutor, Taste

Finally! The new Wednesday-Thursday battle is off, and the results are pretty consistent with my expectations, both content- and ratings-wise.

First, the numbers: Cinderella’s Sister took the lead with a 16.7%, while Personal Taste was in second with a 12.7%. Prosecutor Princess trailed with a 7.3%. (Those are TNS Media numbers; AGB Nielsen gave the numbers as 15.8%, 12.8%, and 8.0%.)

I think it’s likely this trend will hold. After seeing all first episodes, I think it’s also an accurate reflection (for once!) on the relative quality of the shows. Each series had strengths and weaknesses, but this time I have a clear picture of which ones I prefer and why.

On to the reviews! (To the spoiler-phobes: I have avoided giving away any big plot points that aren’t already known.)


In my latest Oh My Lady recap, I mentioned the issue of a drama making an emotional connection with the viewer, and how Oh My Lady has been slow to build that rapport. In contrast, Cinderella’s Sister is very good about establishing that connection right away, and I felt myself drawn from the start.

Tonally, the first episode wasn’t angsty or tragic, and was surprisingly light. Not light in a fluffy way, but in a way that is humorous and heartfelt. (I suspect that the drama will grow heavier later, but am thankful it starts briskly.) I feel confident saying that of the three Wednesday premieres, this was the strongest first episode and while none of them sucked, it was a pretty obvious first-place. The pacing is assured, the scenery beautiful. The acting is outstanding, not just from the leads but everyone. (That would be Moon Geun-young, Seo Woo, Chun Jung-myung, Lee Mi-sook, and Kim Gab-soo. Taecyeon is not in this episode.)

Without giving away too many plot points, the gist of the story is this: Eun-jo (Moon Geun-young), somewhere in her mid-teens, is the daughter to a woman who keeps shacking up with horrible men — drinkers, beaters, lowlifes. Mom Kang-sook (Lee Mi-sook) goes from one man to another, and Eun-jo bears this stoically although she’s sick of living like this. Hyo-sun (Seo Woo) is a bright, lovable girl whose father owns a makgulli (rice wine) company. Meeting Kang-sook stirs her longing for a mother figure, and Hyo-sun does her best to push Kang-sook toward her father. Ki-hoon (Chun Jung-myung) is a good-natured employee of the makgulli company and a caring, mature older brother figure to Hyo-sun, who adores him. Though his interaction with Eun-jo is brief, he’s the only person who’s able to get through Eun-jo’s tough outer shell.

Moon Geun-young as Eun-jo is the main draw by far, and she does her cynical, hurt, defensive role well. She makes Eun-jo relatable and unique, and acts with convincing intensity. I love Chun Jung-myung so I’m thrilled merely to see him back onscreen again, but I’ll admit he doesn’t have much to do in this episode. However, his gentle, smiling presence in itself gives his character a warm aura. I am keen to see how their relationship unfolds, and by keen I mean VERY. I’m invested already.

That said, I think Seo Woo is almost as strong as Moon Geun-young. Yes, she most certainly overacts as the young schoolgirl. I suspect some viewers will find it annoying. As in Tamra the Island, I find Seo Woo’s girlish exaggerations cute rather than contrived, because they seem genuine to the actress herself, and not put-upon to force cutesiness. I am also being a little lenient because she’s playing a young teen, and will revise my opinion if she doesn’t grow out of it later. All that said, it’s the crying scene where she really stands out, and she makes Hyo-sun’s tears not only sympathetic but entirely believable. I was impressed.

Kim Gab-soo is excellent as the quiet, withdrawn father. You won’t find a trace of his creepy villain (Hon, Partner, Tazza) in this character, who is alternately gruff and vulnerable. Lee Mi-sook is the perfect stepmother to Cinderella, and she plays Kang-sook with layers of complexity. In fact, everyone plays their characters with layers, which is why I have a good feeling about this drama. It’s not simply reversing the Cinderella fairy tale, it’s subverting all the relationships and creating something new with them. I find that really compelling.


The basic plot features Ma Hye-ri (Kim So-yeon) as a fashion-loving prosecutor who is the latest addition in the public prosecutor’s office. With her love of stylish clothing and extravagant shoes (and jewelry, and handbags), she stands out in the low-key, no-nonsense office, and not in a good way. It’s no surprise, then, that Episode 1’s plot largely centers around a pair of fabulous shoes.

As the daughter of a prosecutor, she has made it through school at his prodding, and thinks she’s finally free of all that hard work. Of course, we know her hard work is just about to start. Her first encounter with a case shows us that what she’s lacking isn’t a brain — she’s plenty smart, and she knows the law — but a compassion and connection to her cases. The law is cut-and-dried to her, and developing an attachment to her cases on a basic human level will probably figure largely in her growth.

The big lure here is certainly Kim So-yeon, whose take on frivolous Ma Hye-ri is bubbly and entertaining. I am not by any means comparing her acting to Mi-shil in Queen Seon-deok, but both roles gave me a similar sense of watching a skilled actress diving into a character with gusto and enjoying playing around. Kim has altered her intonation and speech patterns and completely changed her image, and it’s particular fun to watch her because it was only a few months ago that she was so tough and fierce in IRIS.

This is essentially Legally Blonde set in a public prosecutor’s office, and I think the similarities are pretty deliberate, down to Hye-ri’s offbeat candidness, overaccessorization, and near-garish fashion sense. For some reason it doesn’t feel like a total copycat to me, though, and I wonder if maybe the cultural differences are enough to set it apart.

Where Prosecutor Princess falters is in that everything feels just a little too familiar. I’m always looking for a drama to show that one flash of inventiveness, a twist on a trope, or a jolt of new energy — it doesn’t have to be completely new, but there’s got to be something that feels different. I don’t get that feeling from Prosecutor Princess.

The characters and plot setup are straightforward thus far. They’re aiming to give Park Shi-hoo’s character a tinge of mystery, and to their credit they achieve that, since I’m curious to know what his deal is. But that’s a purely intellectual curiosity, not an emotional one. Neither he nor Han Jung-soo’s serious prosecutor character have been explained much, but I don’t find that I’m very interested. They haven’t really broken through to give their characters life, and I thought Han Jung-soo was stiff.

There’s a yet-unexplained subplot regarding a case Han Jung-soo has been following for three years, but like with many dramas with a legal (or business) angle, the pace drags when we linger on the case. Partner lost me with its dry legal storylines despite the chemistry between the leads; I fear the same may happen with Prosecutor Princess. (At least this drama is working in an additional angle with Hye-ri’s professional and personal growth, which may save it.)

Based on the first episode, my prediction is that Prosecutor Princess will have a small but loyal following. It’s not bad, it’s just in a tough timeslot — I think those who want something more substantial will gravitate toward Cinderella’s Sister, while those who want a light romantic comedy may be more drawn to the zippier Personal Taste. I’ve been wrong before, but that’s my gut feeling.


I said that Cinderella’s Sister had the best first episode, in that it’s the best-produced and most cohesive package. But Personal Taste is my pick for the most fun and laughs — it’s cute, well-cast, and has a freshness to its humor. The jokes aren’t wildly original, but they’re presented well and feel new for a kdrama. (I mean, a gay-blowjob joke on Korean television? Ha!) Also, every deviation that the drama has made from the novel has been for the better (so far).

If you’ve been following the novel posts, you’ll get the gist. If you haven’t, here’s the deal: Kae-in (Sohn Ye-jin) is an upbeat and good-hearted furniture designer, if naive and rather dense. She is badly hurt by her boyfriend, whom she believes is going to propose to her when he is in fact marrying her friend the next day.

In a series of chance encounters, she gets off on the wrong foot with Jin-ho (Lee Min-ho), an architect who works at a rival firm to her ex. She thinks he’s a pervert at first, but then gets the impression that he’s gay. Jin-ho, who considers her a clueless blunderer, doesn’t bother correcting her. In the next episode (we aren’t there yet), Kae-in agrees to let Jin-ho move in, fed up with straight guys and liking the idea of having a gay roommate. Little does she know that Jin-ho has an ulterior motive: he badly needs to win a building project, and needs to study her house in order to do so, as she is the daughter to the famed architect who built it.

Spot-on casting, for sure. Sohn Ye-jin is perfect as Kae-in, showing the character’s positive personality even as she bumbles through various encounters. She also lets a naivete and vulnerability shine through, making it easy to root for her. Everyone, from the main cast to the supporting members, has that extra spark that draws you to them and their roles. I have a feeling the sidekicks are going to be a hoot. I even like Kim Ji-suk’s take on his character, who is nowhere near as awful as the book character; you can see he’s conflicted and remorseful. He’s just also a wuss.

Lee Min-ho may be young (he’s even younger than Im Seulong despite playing his hyung), but he wears Jin-ho’s airs perfectly. I’ll be the first to sing Lee’s praises, but I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to emerge from the Boys Before Flowers shadow — which is considerable — or live up to expectations, particularly since he’s taken over a year to choose his next project. I think he does quite nicely.

You might say that of course I like Personal Taste because I expected to like it — but I think liking the idea actually makes it harder to live up to the hype. Episode 1 is a little unstable at times and the pacing is uneven in the first half, but in the second half it starts to gel and really work. At the end of the hour, this is the drama whose second episode I wanted to see the most.

credit : javabeans+as labeled

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