Sunday, December 31, 2017

REVIEW: Stranger (live action TV series)

Stranger is a 16-episode Korean drama. Each episode is about an hour long.


I finished watching this series a few weeks ago. Netflix's brief description:

"As a teen, prosecutor Hwang Si-mok received surgical treatment for his abnormally developed brain, but the procedure left behind serious side effects."

Which is absolutely not what this show is about at all. Si-mok's surgery is barely discussed and only really comes up a couple times in any kind of important way. He tends to come across as very cold, because the surgery affected his ability to show his emotions. He also believes he can't feel most emotions, but that isn't exactly true.

For the most part, the show is a murder mystery/political thriller. The murder mystery comes first. If I remember right, Si-mok was planning on meeting up with an informant (or witness?). Unfortunately, the man was murdered in his own home. Si-mok (who, remember, is a prosecutor and not a cop) thinks he knows who the killer is, chases the man down, and arrests and questions him. There’s a speedy trial and the man is found guilty. He swears he didn’t do it and kills himself to show his conviction.

Si-mok goes on TV and promises that he will find the real killer in two months. From this point on, things get murky. It’s difficult for him to know who to trust, and he views almost everyone with suspicion. Can he trust his bosses, who he thinks may be corrupt? Or his trainee, Young Eun-soo, who has hidden connections to the murder victim? Or Seo Dong-jae, a slick fellow prosecutor who might have acted under orders from higher up. The only person in his life who seems to be 100% trustworthy is Han Yeo-jin, a cop. No, they don’t end up becoming a couple - this isn’t that kind of show. (Although I did think, at one point, that there was going to be a love triangle. That wasn’t the case either.)

Right off the bat, this show and its apparent plot holes and problems annoyed me, even as its political intrigue and slick appearance drew me in. I have to wonder if the show’s depiction of cops and prosecutors had any connection at all to real-life South Korea. Is it really possible for a prosecutor to arrest a suspect, question him, and take him to court without the suspect ever once talking to a cop? And Si-mok was at the scene of the crime - why wasn’t he immediately considered a potential suspect or, at the very least, told that it was inappropriate for him to be questioning the one other suspect?

There were all these problems, and yet I couldn’t stop watching. It was a really engrossing show, and it only became more so when, approximately 9 episodes in, it became what I imagine Mueller: The TV Show might one day look like. If you’re an American keeping track of current politics and feeling appalled at the blatant corruption on display, Stranger is a timely series.

Despite its problems, there were moments when the show was brilliant. My favorite parts were when Si-mok seemed to be walking blindly into a trap, only for it to suddenly be revealed that he knew what was going on all along and had planned for things to go the way they did. He didn’t always know everything, which was part of the fun - you never knew when he had some clever plan going or when he really had no idea what was up.

It took me a while to warm up to Si-mok and Yeo-jin, but I eventually came to really like them. They both believed firmly in justice, to the point of sometimes doing things that they knew might end their careers. Yeo-jin was warmer and more trusting than Si-mok, going so far as to invite the mother of the series’ first murder victim to stay with her, knowing that the woman could have just robbed her blind and then left. And although Si-mok came across as being cold, there were times when he was adorably earnest and awkward. For example, at one point he was told to be good to one of his subordinates, and he asked what he should do to be good to the man - he didn’t always understand how to interact with others in a positive way, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn.

The last few episodes threw quite a few shocking events and revelations at viewers. One of them in particular made sense in hindsight - a thing that I had thought was a stupid mistake on one character’s part turned out to be part of a larger plan. I wasn’t always happy with how things worked out, and one event felt like unnecessary emotional manipulation, but it certainly kept me glued to my TV (and cellphone, since I recently learned I could download certain shows and movies from Netflix onto my phone and watch them anywhere).

All in all, if you’d like a K-drama with lots of political intrigue and almost no romance, this may be for you. It’s been a while since I flew through one of these so fast.

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