How compelling is supernatural police procedural Signal? Well, when I came across it for the first time, I was casually flipping channels in my Korean apartment. It didn’t have subtitles, but I watched for a full hour—even though I didn’t understand a single word. Every scene felt so urgent that I couldn’t turn it off.
Signal is one of many recent K-dramas in which the past haunts the present. The haunting is sometimes gentle, as in the romantic comedy Twenty Again. Sometimes the ghosts of the past are violent—the forgotten traumas of Kill Me, Heal Me, the murdered child in Pride and Prejudice, the scary but beloved lost brother in I Remember You.
Among these stories of lost time remembered, the suspenseful Signal is perhaps the most masterful.
Signal is also the darkest and scariest, which may turn some viewers away. But Signal doesn’t forget that its first responsibility is entertainment. It might not be cute, but it does draw viewers along hypnotically.
Audiences in Korea agreed, watching Signal in large numbers even though it aired on pay cable channel tvN. It was the most-watched show in Korea during its time slot for most of its 16-episode run. This was remarkable for a dark, violent cable show, even one directed by Misaeng’s PD Kim Won-Seok. (It didn’t come close, however, to the viewer records set by Answer Me 1988, the lighter, more comic show that preceded it in this time slot.)
It’s hard to choose Signal’s most interesting character. Park Hae-Young (Lee Je-Hoon) is an arrogant police profiler who moonlights as a celebrity stalker (for a bit of extra cash, one suspects). Cha Soo-Hyeon (an intense, charismatic Kim Hye-Soo) is a pioneering female detective who has suffered herself at the hands of criminals. And Lee Jae-Han (Jo Jin-Woong) is an idealistic and irascible police officer who disappeared years before our story begins. He breaks dramatically into Park Hae-Young and Cha Soo-Hyeon’s world via an aging police walkie-talkie buried in a bag of trash.
When the obsolete walkie-talkie crackles to life one evening in the present, Hae-Young answers and hears Jae-Han calling from the nineteen-nineties. At first neither man can believe they’re communicating with another era, but before long they’re working together to solve difficult, grisly cases from the nineties. (Many of these cases are based on real events.) As they solve these cases with Soo-Hyeon’s unwitting help, they move closer to the biggest mystery of all: Jae-Han’s own disappearance years before.
Part of Signal’s success is the smart way it handles its supernatural elements. The walkie-talkie is a magical object that only comes to life for a few minutes at a time, and only at 11:23 pm. Sometimes it goes dead for days, weeks or years at a time. Our heroes can’t control it. They can only try to nudge the world into the shape they want, through short, sometimes cryptic conversations.
From the beginning, the radio suggests the world is stranger than we imagine. In their first encounter, Jae-Han calls Lieutenant Park by name. “I’m at the place you told me about,” he says. “Why did you tell me not to come here? What’s going to happen here?”
Lieutenant Park is baffled. He doesn’t know this man. He’s never seen this radio before. But it appears their fates are intertwined. And in stories with a time travel element, fates can intertwine in very complicated ways—even if the only thing that travels through time is information.
The supernatural premise succeeds so well because of its limitations. Signal isn’t science fiction or fantasy so much as magical realism. We stick close to the reality of our own world—complete with rape, murdered children, mistaken arrests, and collapsing infrastructure. Yet Signal’s uncanny plot device allows it to avoid the predictability and repetition that can deaden detective shows. Here, day-to-day police work is full of possibility. Anything can happen in this series, especially as the characters work larger and larger changes in the present world.
Eventually, Hae-Young and Jae-Han run up against events that cannot be changed, injustices that cannot be corrected. Sometimes the bad guys win. As is often the case on Korean television, the ultimate bad guy is a wealthy industrialist who operates beyond the law. But Signal doesn’t dwell on his machinations. It suggests rather than spells out the ways that many lives are damaged by one man’s greed.
The concluding episodes are 90 minutes long, but the suspense over Lee Jae-Han’s disappearance makes them go quickly. Can Hae-Young warn him and save him? Or is this one of those things that can’t be changed? Will the warning itself change events for the worse?
The last ten minutes of the series don’t entirely answer this question, but the openness of the ending feels right.
Some have criticized the ending for being an attempt to milk a second season from the highly-rated show, but I disagree. True, a second season would be a mistake for this narrative. But if we set aside the risk of a second season and judge the ending on its own merits, it’s smart.
The final episode turns the heroes’ world topsy-turvy and introduces unexpected twists. But this is in keeping with the kind of story Signal tells. The setting is a world where many things are possible, thanks to that supernatural radio. The ending is simultaneously hopeful and full of tension, appropriate feelings for a world where nothing is ever permanently resolved. The series retains its atmosphere of uncanny possibility until the last frames, which wouldn’t be possible with a more conventional ending.
At the same time, the characters’ emotions in the end are clear and logical. We know where we stand and how events have affected our heroes and heroines. This is in contrast to a show like tvN’s 2013 Nine Time Travels, where the final twist arguably didn’t make sense either emotionally or narratively. (Nine Time Travels: Good show, but I’m still trying to figure out the ending.)
One of the things that gives Signal its eerie intensity is the acting. Jo Jin-Woong, Lee Je-Hoon and Kim Hye-Soo give top-notch performances (minus a smidgen of overacting from Lee Je-Hoon in the early episodes). So do the many fine character actors in secondary roles, in particular Jung Hae-Kyun (as Section Chief Ahn) and Lee Sang-Yeob. This last actor gives a memorable performance as a serial killer who is genuinely horrifying yet ultimately pitiable.
The series is a pleasure to look at, despite a drab, subdued palette. The scenes that take place in the past use a golden, slightly sepia-toned color scheme, while current-era scenes have a vivid blue cast. The past also appears in a slightly squashed aspect ratio—possibly a nod to 2003’s award-winning Memories of Murder, which addressed similar crimes and themes.
The fluid camera work gracefully ties together Signal‘s past and present. There’s no sign here of the rushed, slapdash editing that sometimes mars even the most thoughtful K-dramas. Early in the first episode, for instance, one thirty-second traveling shot moves smoothly from present action, to memories of the past, to past action. We traverse decades as easily as other series traverse rooms. It’s the kind of audacious shot that film geeks will want to watch again.
And despite the heavy subject matter, the occasional moments of humor are executed with a deft, light touch. Director Kim is the guy, after all, who brought us the dark humor of Misaeng and the delightful silliness of Sungkyunkwan Scandal. The humorous moments prevent Signal from taking itself too seriously.
Among the many things Signal gets right, it features a great heroine. Cha Soo-Hyeon is no-nonsense policewoman whose heart of gold is hidden under layers of professional competence. She’s the kind of every-woman heroine that we don’t usually find outside of movies starring Sigourney Weaver and a giant alien.
When we first meet Soo-Hyeon in the middle of her career, she’s a dignified, commanding presence. Kim Hye-Soo plays her like some ancient Greek goddess of Shrewdness, always one step ahead of the men she works with. When the series goes back in time to Lee Jae-Han’s period, we see her at the beginning of her career, and we witness her growth from an overawed new policewoman into a leader. She’s a woman to reckon with, which makes her occasional fears and emotional pain riveting.
She’s also a formidable opponent to Park Hae-Young early in the series, when she’s suspicious of the young man’s motives. Eventually a collegial relationship and delicate friendship grows between the older woman and younger man.
Crime shows are too often a showcase for the great clichés of television. In the earliest episodes, Signal does present a few over-familiar elements—the grieving mother of a dead child, the statute of limitations ticking down, the expository dialogue about clues. But with its brisk directing, thoughtful acting and touch of the unreal, Signal is unpredictable and emotionally deep, one of the best shows of the year—not just in Korea, but anywhere. ♥
Overall: 10/10 (Well, technically I’m giving it a 9.333 out of 10, but it would be petty not to round up for a show this good.)
Production & Directing: 10/10
Reasons to Watch:
- Gripping suspense and unpredictable narrative twists and turns
- Memorable three-dimensional characters who stand up for what they believe
- The eerie music, the eerie atmosphere, the eerie supernatural premise
Reasons not to Watch:
- It’s not for the faint of heart. The team handles disturbing crimes and accidents. (Though this isn’t American television; most violence is implied rather than shown. But it’s implied so well that this is a scary, scary show.)
- If you can’t suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the logical impossibilities of time travel stories.
- Although the series contains a sort of romance, it’s very muted. This is the furthest thing from a romantic comedy.
Notes from the Meta-verse: In the first present-era scene, Signal alludes to Director Kim’s previous drama hit, 2015’s Misaeng. Park Hae-Young is selling celebrity gossip about the love lives of three of Misaeng’s stars. The journalist he’s meeting with says he knows the show, and “the Chief Oh character was great.” In fact, I think this journalist is an uncredited cameo by Lee Sung-Min, who won the 2015 Baeksang for his portrayal of Chief Oh in Misaeng. Another flash of meta-humor in this scene comes when Hae-Young flashes the photos of the latest celebrities he’s been stalking. The journalist is shocked by the news: Ji Sung is dating Lee Bo-Young! In the real world, the two celebrities have been an established and well-known couple for years. (They are now married with a daughter.) Glad to know they are finally getting together in the fictional world of Signal!