I’m not rational when it comes to Ji Sung, so how can I review his new show The Entertainer? I might just start babbling about how great he looks in that ridiculous white suit in episode one. Or in that black leather jacket in episode four.
The show raises deep issues. Does he look better in close-up or medium shots? In indoor scenes, or with the sea at Busan behind him, the breeze ruffling his lovely hair?
But I’m a woman of substance. I definitely didn’t glow for days after seeing him return to the small screen in episodes one and two. And I have absolutely no fantasies about stalking the Entertainer’s shooting locations when I visit Seoul this weekend.
In fact, I have an important question to address here. We’re four episodes into the 16-episode series, in which Ji Sung plays a down-on-his-luck music executive trying to restart his career. I’m enjoying it, for the simple reason that Ji Sung appears in most of the scenes.
But will this show bring any new Ji Sung fans into the fold?
Gush as I might, no one’s going to fall for Ji Sung simply because of his bone structure. He’s one of many good-looking actors in Korea and it isn’t his face that I love. What distinguishes Ji Sung is the charisma and likeability he brings to his parts.
So far, The Entertainer offers few surprises, but makes an enjoyable showcase for the actor. This light-hearted look at the K-pop industry isn’t breaking any new ground. But it’s avoiding the ponderousness and tedium of 2014’s My Lovely Girl, the last notable network drama set in the world of K-pop.
Ji Sung plays Shin Seok-Ho, an executive at fictional talent agency K-Top. The first episode shows us just how unscrupulous he can be, as he pays for an illegal hacking scheme to boost his stars’ ratings in the music charts. He also scoffs at the idea of entertainers falling in love, and argues to a struggling ghostwriter that money is more important than a song credit.
He’s a jerk, but with Ji Sung in the part, he’s a humorous jerk, and we can look forward to his comeuppance and redemption. The Entertainer’s director, Hong Sung-Chang, previously made show biz dramas You’re Beautiful (2009) and King of Dramas (2012-3). The parallels with King of Dramas are obvious. But Shin Seok-Ho is a more immediately charming anti-hero than the cold, calculating Anthony Kim. He’s impulsive but not particularly mean. When he indirectly causes a young lyricist’s suicide, he appears to be acting more out of bad judgment than malice.
Ironically, Korean audiences objected to Seok-Ho’s negative qualities in episode one. The network went so far as to re-edit and re-release episode one to make him more likeable.
Episode one did need re-editing, but for clarity. The first and second episode rush too quickly through Seok-Ho’s business dealings. By the time Seok-Ho hits rock bottom—fired from his company and betrayed by his friends—I was pretty confused about who he owes money to and why.
Given how brilliantly Director Hong illuminated arcane financial arrangements in King of Dramas, it’s disappointing that he doesn’t give a clearer picture of how money moves through the music industry. Also unclear is Seok-Ho’s relationship with his friends Min-Joo and Man-Shik. What did he accidentally do right to have friends like this?
But the Ji Sung factor is real. I don’t understand Seok-Ho’s business problems in episode one, but I do understand that flicker of emotion behind his grim expression, and that solitary (manly) tear trickling from behind his sunglasses as he rides the bus between Seoul and Busan looking for a loan.
And in episode two, the show starts coming together, as we meet our central pairing: Seok-Ho and the teenage musician Jo Ha-Neul (Kang Min-Hyuk from Heirs and pop band CNBLUE). Although there’s a love-line slowly developing between Seok-Ho and Geu-Rin (played by Answer Me 1988‘s Hyeri), this mentor-mentee bromance between Seok-Ho and Ha-Neul is more compelling.
The young Ha-Neul has given up music, despite being a promising singer and lyricist. He was also recently convicted on a trumped-up sexual assault charge, which makes a Korean entertainment career all but impossible. But Seok-Ho hears his voice and promises to make him a star. The odd-couple quarrels between the wheeling-dealing Seok-Ho and the forthright Ha-Neul make for solid comedy. And in episode four, we learn about a past encounter between the two that lends considerable pathos to their relationship.
Early episodes suggest The Entertainer will be a heart-warming story of scrappy outsiders coming together to make the music they love. As Seok-Ho pulls together a band, we meet the guitarist (Gong Myung, who rocked a ponytail as Ja Kyung in last year’s Hwajung), and the bassist, a single dad who brings his adorable six-year-old son everywhere with him. The most enjoyable moments in the show come from their comic squabbles with each other and Seok-Ho. The mid-career Seok-Ho can’t get no respect from these kids, who speak to him in banmal and give him sass at every turn.
In the background, there’s a more serious plotline about Ha-Neul getting framed for sexual assault. This is a pretty heavy topic for a musical comedy. With the plot twist at the end of episode four, it looks like the assault case will be an important part of the story, not just a random plot device. It will be disappointing if the true villain of the show turns out to be the alleged assault victim Ji-Young. We have to watch to find out.
We also have to watch to find out if the young pop idol Hyeri can make a believable pairing with Ji Sung. The 17-year age difference between the two has caused much discussion online, but on screen, the two don’t look so incongruous. They actually appear closer in age that Lee Seo-Jin and UEE in the recently concluded Marriage Contract. (Lee Seo-Jin is 17 years older than UEE, and though the pairing works, he definitely looks a generation older than his costar.)
I have no problem believing that the young Geu-Rin might fall for Seok-Ho. He’s played by Ji Sung! More absurd is the notion that he would fall for her. Hyeri remains a young actress without much depth or substance. But if Ji Sung could make me believe he was a 16-year-old girl in Kill Me Heal Me, he can probably convince me he’s in love with Hyeri.
This is Ji Sung’s first television comedy since 2011’s Protect the Boss (not counting the comic interludes in Kill Me Heal Me), and it makes good use of his comic timing and willingness to look absurd. Though this actor can emote with the best of them, what makes him so likeable is his refusal to take himself seriously.
In last year’s Kill Me Heal Me, he portrayed several very different characters and moved smoothly back and forth between weepy melodrama and slapstick comedy. The Entertainer is less ambitious. But the two dramas have something in common with most of Ji Sung’s output in the past decade: these are stories with a lot of heart, in which the actor’s most valuable quality is his overflowing sincerity.
Early in the series, Seok-Ho says his singers are 딴따라 (ttanttara), which is also the title of the show. The word translates roughly as entertainer or performer, and suggests that K-pop’s mass-produced singers and dancers are interchangeable commodities.
But in a subsequent drunken moment, Seok-Ho says even entertainers have pride. And Seok-Ho’s genuine enthusiasm for music makes him a distant cousin of Hyun-Seung, the idealistic musician that Ji Sung played in My P.S. Partner. Pop culture is a commodity, it’s true, but it’s still capable of moving people. Though The Entertainer lacks the biting satirical edge of King of Dramas, I hope it will suggest the messy mix of imagination and greed that drives the entertainment-industrial complex.
In a nod to the wide-ranging power of pop music, the show has an eclectic soundtrack mixing Korean and foreign hits. Classics from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” make cameos. And newer stuff appears as well, like a Hongdae band performing The Ting Ting’s dance-punk “Shut Up and Let Me Go.” The Korean ballads in the background are unobtrusive, and the incidental music avoids King of Dramas’ bombastic overindulgence.
The Entertainer is unlikely to challenge our ideas about human nature. But it’s potentially heart-warming and funny, the perfect show to heal my soul after this spring’s weepy melodramas (Signal and Marriage Contract) and manipulative blockbuster (Descendants of the Sun).
If it continues with its low-key charm, it may even earn Ji Sung one or two new fans. ♥
Update: As of episodes 5 and 6, this show remains really simple-minded. Why does Seok-Ho suddenly change course in episode 6? Even Ji Sung can’t make Seok-Ho’s behavior seem reasonable or acceptable. If he doesn’t have a new weapon against KTOP, isn’t he just getting everyone’s hopes up again? I’d rather have Shin-Seki managing my band.
My wishlist for this show:
- Give up on the love-line involving Geu-Rin. If we have to have Hyeri starring in this show, let’s just see her learning to be an adult human being.
- Give us more of Min-Joo being a cool, rebellious, indie-music-loving secret chaebol daughter. Chae Jung-An is so likable in this part. I love watching her roll up her sleeves and take charge.
- Bring in another writer, stat! This plot can still be saved, but it badly needs better dialogue—and a main character who makes sense.
But none of these dreams are likely to come true, so for the moment we’re stuck with the exposition-heavy dialogue and Hyeri’s weird, unblinking stare of Concentrated Acting Power. And a lot of cute boys. ♥
Episode 18 (Finale) Update:
Something interesting happens in scene two of episode 18: Hyeri shows a new facial expression. I’m not making this up, she really did! You go, girl!
One of the more interesting things about The Entertainer is watching the novice actors and actresses gain experience over the course of the series. At first, the cast’s pop idols (Hyeri, Kang Min-Hyuk, Gong Myeong and L. Joe) seem thoroughly outclassed by leading man Ji Sung. But Ji Sung dials his performance back and the idols relax around him. The result is an adorable, though slow-paced, bromance.
The implausible romance between Geu-Rin and Seok-Ho is ultimately a footnote to this series. Thankfully. With the capital-R Romance scaled back, the friendship between the young woman and her older mentor becomes more natural and enjoyable to watch.
Most of the show’s emotional energy goes into the Seok-Ho and Ha-Neul’s friendship. The series’ most memorable scenes concern the tragic death of Ha-Neul’s older brother, and how Seok-Ho and Ha-Neul make peace with it. In the end, these two adoptive brothers are so cute together that I actually let out a “squee!” at one brotherly embrace.
The relentless cuteness can’t entirely make up for the slow plot. And the series suffered from a two-episode extension. (SBS extended The Entertainer because of production problems on another show.) There was too much fan service, too many product placements, and not enough narrative meat. Ji Sung played his least interesting role in years—a pity, considering Kim Myung-Min’s great work with this director in King of Dramas.
But although The Entertainer never got deep, at least it remained enjoyable till the end. Shallow, but enjoyable—like pop music itself. ♥