“Protect the Boss” (Series Review)

protect the boss english poster image optNote: I wasn’t watching K-dramas in 2011 (that was my anime and manga era), so my window to the “old days” has mostly been the archives at Drama Beans. Alas, that meant it took me a long time to discover “Protect the Boss.”

I think it’s possible DB didn’t pay “Protect the Boss” much attention because it came right on the heels of the massively satisfying thriller “City Hunter.” I wouldn’t be able to follow watching “City Hunter” with a light comedy either. But looking back now, “Protect the Boss” is a long sight better than most of the romantic comedies Drama Beans did recommend from 2011. 

Or, possibly, as much as I love DB, we have differences of taste. It happens in all good relationships. A little disagreement will make us stronger. So while I look for a new drama to obsess about post-“Kill Me Heal Me,” I’ll share a few reviews of older things that remain interesting when, like me, you’re looking for good stuff in the “back catalog.”

 

“Protect the Boss” is fantastic comedy with a dash of unconventional romance.

protect the boss confrontation choi kang hee ji sung med optProtect the Boss comes impressively close to capturing the true spirit of a screwball comedy—a balance of high and low humor, sarcasm and sweetness.

This 18-episode romantic comedy about a feisty secretary (Choi Kang-Hee) and her hilariously immature boss (Ji Sung) emphasizes comedy over romance. Viewers looking for melodrama will be disappointed. But it’s original and refreshing.

A screwball comedy (named after an erratic, unpredictable baseball pitch) takes an irreverent view of love. The great Hollywood screwball comedies of the nineteen-thirties like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday remain unsurpassed. Yet most romantic comedies contain screwball elements and the quirky, gender-bending style doesn’t feel stale when it’s done right.

As its title suggests, Protect the Boss starts with the quintessential screwball role reversal, pairing an incompetent hero with a take-charge heroine. The romance takes place through a battle of wits. The “weapons” of screwball comedy include clever verbal wordplay, but also an ample supply of goofy visual humor.

And the gorgeous main characters may look like sophisticated stars, but they act like kids. The screwball style suggests that the world is chaotic and absurd, but that ironically, silliness is a way to find joy in the confusion.

On the surface, the “boss” Cha Ji-Hun (Ji Sung) and his secretary No Eun-Seol (Choi Kang-Hee) are stock K-drama characters. He’s an arrogant, third-generation heir to a conglomerate, and she’s a hard-working and unsophisticated girl from a family without means. A familiar framework.

But from there on out, we’re in screwball territory. The hero, Cha Ji-Hun, secretly has an anxiety disorder that hampers his future in business. His overbearing CEO father (played to blustering perfection by Park Young-Gyu) wants the unambitious Ji-Hun to inherit the company. But Ji-Hun has other plans: avoid germs, public speaking and crowded places, and sleep as late as possible in the morning. His main activity at the office seems to be reading comic books.

The new candidate for secretary, No Eun-Seol, is a former juvenile delinquent with a knack for hand-to-hand combat. As an adult she’s cleaned up her act and graduated from college. But her search for a professional job is hampered by a lifetime of weak grades and badly-paid part-time jobs. When she finally gets her first real desk job working for the prickly Cha Ji-Hun, she’s willing to endure almost anything to hang onto that employee ID badge.

Protect_The_Boss-elevator large opt
Broad comedy, screwball style: the hero (Ji Sung) and his father (Park Young-Gyu) clashing in the office elevator, the setting for some fantastic silliness.

Keeping her job will require No Eun-Seol to “make a new man” out of the feckless Ji-Hun—a major project. Ji-Hun’s relatively mild anxiety disorder isn’t holding him back so much as his lack of motivation. Much of the humor in early episodes arises from Ji-Hun’s scatter-brained attempts to avoid addressing his problems. Ji Sung exaggerates Ji-Hun’s timidity to perfection: when he complains that he’s afraid of the dark, for example, it’s hilarious not because of his anxiety but because of the wistful self-pity in his voice.

A comedy, even more than a romance, lives and dies according to the talents of its stars. Ji Sung and Choi Kang-Hee are outstanding at this kind of broad comedy, both of them quick with a quip, snarl or double-take. Their romantic chemistry is good, but their excellent comic rapport matters even more here. And the script provides them with great lines, like Ji-Hun’s unforgettable neuroscientific declaration of love, “You’re stuck in my limbic system.”

Ji Sung and Choi Kang-Hee’s talents for romance and comedy come together well in the romantic scenes. In one early “confession” scene, Ji-Hun admits to liking Eun-Seol in a rapid dialogue so full of double negatives that neither of them can figure out what he said. Then Ji-Hun suddenly sags in defeat and whimpers, “I like you,” in a hilariously woebegone tone of voice. It’s a wry send-up of love confessions, but it also has sincere emotion behind it, as does Eun-Seol’s immediate and characteristically honest rejection.

Curiously, Ji-Hun is endearing despite having the emotional maturity of a litter of golden retriever puppies. It helps that he’s as cute and exuberant as a puppy. But it also helps that Ji Sung plays the role with sympathy. Ji-Hun is a comic character, not an outright jerk. In the earliest episodes, he throws a few tantrums, but as the series progresses, he looks increasingly harmless. When he wears his earnest expression, he looks as vacant and well-meaning as a chaebol Derek Zoolander.

Thanks to Ji-Hun’s many weaknesses, this is one romantic comedy that doesn’t need to fall back on contrived misunderstandings. The story initially grows out of the young man’s problems and Eun-Seol’s need for a job. A coincidental, disastrous meeting between the two at a bar provides a “meet cute,” but their real conflict arises from socio-economic and personality differences. Ji-Hun’s boyish and stumbling attempts to understand Eun-Seol’s world and become a reliable adult provide great material for comedy, while also showing he has a romantic streak.

The plot does include a drawn-out love triangle, which causes a number of comic confrontations between Ji-Hun and his cousin Moo-Won (played by Jaejoong). And late episodes introduce a typical family conflict over whether Ji-Hun can marry someone from outside the elite. But Ji-Hun’s coming-of-age is at the center of everything, giving the goofiness a heart.

Eun-Seol is a K-drama heroine with moxie. Whether she’s going Michael Corleone on a sexual harasser or fixing a fallen skirt hem with an office stapler, this woman can take of herself. Choi Kang-Hee is superb with physical humor, producing a fantastic set of tough-girl facial expressions and postures. Even in a secretary’s high heels and skirt, Eun-Seol doesn’t really walk—she strides through the office like a gunslinger heading into a showdown.

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8 thoughts on ““Protect the Boss” (Series Review)

  1. I tried this after my first foray into Ji Sung’s filmography which was after I randomly watched my PS Partner on a rec. I watched the first episode and wasn’t interested enough to continue in light of some of the unenthusiastic comments I’d read on it. Maybe I should try it again because this sounds right up my alley: a screwball-esque rom-com with emphasis on the “com”? Just how I like ’em. I may skip the last 4 though. I swear, the third act seems to be the bane of k-cinema, especially when it comes to lighter fare. Have you noticed that?

    • I was thinking of you, Muse, when I wrote this! 🙂 I was trying to figure out why PTB gets dismissed. I can definitely see why it didn’t make an impression in 2011, because it came right after City Hunter, which has Seriousness and Revenge. But it’s interesting that PTB hasn’t gotten a second look. It’s possible that most K-drama viewers don’t want a show to be this irreverent about romance. For instance, I’ve read reviews on Drama Fever that complain the show doesn’t get good until the last four episodes–which is when it slips a little towards melodrama. I agree about third acts and sometimes I wish they’d move towards shorter series! That would improve quality so much. Sigh. But, even though PTB flags at the end, the final episodes still offer lots of scenes in which Ji Sung’s character shows he’s become a grown up–and he’s at his absolute MOST adorable. For Ji Sung fans, this show is a treat.

      A lot of the time with K-dramas, I feel like I’m watching scenes I’ve seen before–even when they are good–because the elements and lines are so familiar. But PTB keeps throwing in unfamiliar stuff. Like the first minutes of episode 14 have a bedroom scene that is made of WIN, because of how it uses laughter. (I think this show is best with Viki’s subtitles, especially in that scene, because Viki captures the jokes more literally.) So if you’re skipping, it’s worth watching the start of ep 14 and sampling ep 18 for a few scenes of pure cute.

      If you watch some of it, let me know what you think! It might just be that PTB is too slapstick for people who think something has to be Heavy to be Smart. But romance is way too important NOT to laugh at it. That’s why I like “My PS Partner,” too, which goes even further by laughing at sex. I don’t think I would have liked My PSP when I was younger and Took Sex Seriously. But now that I’ve lived through enough sex farces of my own, that movie feels so honest and beautiful. Looking at that movie, plus PTB and Kill Me Heal Me, I really respect how Ji Sung chooses contemporary roles as oddball, undignified heroes. It fits his public image as a guy who says he’s going to spend lots of time taking care of his kids. My kind of man: modern AND sexy. 🙂

  2. Yup I definitely agree, life’s too short to take stuff seriously all the time. It makes Ji Sung more appealing in that he understands the monotony of being too cool for school all the time. I’ll have to re-add this to my watch list. Thanks for putting this back on my radar! As for the movie I was sooo not expecting what it was because that was the first “sexy k-movie” I’d watched (I’m usually a regular in gangster/thriller land) so I was surprised at its boldness because dramas tend to tame sex and even when being funny go for the puerile joke (i.e. screaming bloody murder the morning after). But I had no time to pearl-clutch because I was doubled over laughing the next second. Every girl deserves to be serenaded by an inappropriate-around-elders-and-young-kids-song at their wedding. You just can’t get a better wedding crasher scene than that.

    • Damn, yes, my pearls got a lot of clutching during that one (wait–that sounds dirtier than I meant it to!). Greatest. Wedding. Crash. Ever.

  3. Thanks for this. I am a fan of Protect the Boss. Loved the scenes in the elevator where employees are trying to cover up the security camera when Ji-Hun’s father starts hitting him (funnier than it sounds, I swear). I also thought the character of the father was much more human than most wealthy father characters in K-drama. Light, funny, good-feeling humor, although I agree it was a bit too long. Just started on Swallow the Sun, since I am obsessed with watching all of Ji Sung’s work after loving Kill Me, Heal me so much. It’s certainly worth seeing so far (1st 2 eps) just to see a much younger Ji Sung.

  4. I remember watching PtB in 2011 and not really into city Hunter because I didn”t have time.
    City hunter was too heavy and I want some laugh,and I am not regret it.
    I don’t even think a lot and until now,I re-watch some of the ep with clicking random just for fun.
    The best memory I about this drama is how I love the cousin bromance and the girls interaction.
    They depends on each other even-though they knew that they maybe into the same man.
    I hope ji sung and Jae joong will do some drama together as brother.
    and Jaejooong handsome quality meter is as much as ji sung’s ridiculous hair+office outfit.
    Secret that you mention is a traditional melo-drama, warning, you may hate ji sung’s character and every man character there
    but I love all the cast in Secret, just the angst meter is high.
    I do watch my PS partner but Ji sung scene was not revealing one,it strike me as clean scene, since we didn’t see that happen
    even in old K-movie,their exposure level or bed scene is in high quality,
    I think drama(especially public network) didn’t show any relation to that acceptance
    while the amount of bed scene to be inserted in K-Movie is as much as people complaint about the “dead” eyes kiss.
    I even get one(more open that my PS partner) in mystery/action movie and now, I am gonna googled 1st before seeing any k-movie just for caution.
    but I can’t lie, that song is hilariously funny and works best to ruin a wedding.

  5. @ Jane: I’m glad you liked it too. The elevator scenes are so funny, pure goofball humor. The father character works really well–I love that he thinks he’s on top of things, but he’s always a few weeks behind in noticing what’s going on in front of him. I’ve got Swallow the Sun on my radar now, too–serious Ji Sung obsession lately.

    @ Ara: The bromance! Yes! It’s one of the best things in PtB. It’s hard not to stare at Jaejoong. Secret is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I’m till trying to figure out why I like it so much. Since I’m not normally into angst–and it is 100% angst.

    It’s funny about My PS Partner–the movie is only surprising from my American point of view, because since the eighties and nineties most American movies have stopped including love stories. And if the plot does include sex, even our R-rated movies keep it very conservative. For me, watching PS Partner feels like going back in time–I’m like, oh, that’s what a well-done, clean sex scene looks like! I’d forgotten about those! We used to make those here in America! Kind of like how we used to make reliable compact cars.

    Now our movies are more conservative–I think because Hollywood needs to sell tickets to teenagers. And American movies were pretty conservative to begin with. The ratings system is okay with lots of violence but doesn’t tolerate much sex or (God forbid!) nudity. So nowadays, even a classy romance with top stars like Ji Sung and Kim Ahjoong can seem risque in American eyes. We’re sheltered. 🙂

  6. Coming across this review made me wanna read —– scratch that, – watch PTB! (don’t mind me for I’d read more korean drama recaps than I’d watch them :))
    Thanks for taking the time to review dear Odessa! After watching Kill Me Heal Me, It won’t hurt to watch another of Ji Sung’s drama.

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