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Prison Playbook
1 people found this review helpful

by PurpleJem

Apr 4, 2019
16 of 16 episodes seen
Overall 8.0
Story 9.0
Acting/Cast 10.0
Music 10.0
Rewatch Value 8.0
This review may contain spoilers
I have been meaning to watch this ever since it came out, and I’m SO glad I finally got around to it, because, despite having high expectations, it managed to exceed them!! It came so close to becoming my new favourite kdrama and earning five stars – I’ll get into why it didn’t later.

There are few kdramas that have as high quality, clever writing as this one; it reminds me of Reply 1988 but with less romance, which I never would’ve expected before I started! It’s similar in that I barely think of it as a kdrama; it doesn’t use any of the genre’s tropes or stereotypical characters, typical plot devices and twists, the formula, none of it, and it all feels so real, but with a sufficient amount of fictional dust covering it to make sure it’s not depressing or boring.

A key requirement for a kdrama to get on my favourites list (which this show is, by the way, just not the top favourite) is great characters. I’m big on character development and character-driven stories, and this show ticks both those boxes. With it being set in prison there are a LOT of characters, and they essentially fit into two categories: criminals and prison workers (mostly guards). It would have been SO easy for the characters to blur together, but no, every single one stands out, has a personality, a past, varying relationships with the rest of the characters, and reasons for doing what they’re doing. So many of them also aren’t what they first appear, which is so true to life.

A concept I always love seeing explored in fiction is how real people are not wholly good or bad, which this drama excels at – the prison setting couldn’t be more perfect for it. For some characters I assumed I knew all there was to know about them and didn’t like them, but would then learn that they had so much more to offer, and I ended up loving them. When Lieutenant Paeng was first introduced, I never would’ve guessed that he would become my favourite character. He had the most unexpected character development for me; even once he’d become empathetic, I wasn’t expecting him to then go and become completely loveable. So, so many characters did a huge turnaround, yet every time it still managed to be surprising.

I love how I was able to connect on a human level with ninety percent of the characters (the only exceptions being the few bad guys who stayed bad); no matter how much I hated someone, I’d learn their motivations and it would all make sense, and I managed to empathise with them if not learn to like them. And it was revealed at the perfect pace, and gradually, before I knew it, most of the many, many characters were near and dear to me and I desperately wanted them to be happy.

As well as consistently introducing and humanising new characters, the humour and emotional investment of the show stayed consistently impeccable. I laughed and cried the same amount from start to finish, which NEVER happens, in shows it usually always peters out! Plus, it wasn’t just because of the main character, and it wasn’t just over romance – I laughed and cried because of almost every character, and over platonic and familial relationships far more than romantic. I wasn’t sure about the humour at the very beginning, but once I got into it I ADORED it! I even feel like I have inside jokes with the show!

Along with the obviously incredible writing, the acting, cinematography, and even editing are impeccable. I can’t believe what clever, original things they did with sound and even transitions. Down to the last detail, this show has clearly had so much work and love put into it, I can’t praise it enough! Even the music is superior to other kdramas; the choices are fitting for the moods, and they aren’t overly repeated as is SO common in kdramas. In fact, no song is repeated (except the theme song and Kim Je-hyeok’s baseball theme, which was used within scenes rather than as a bgm on multiple occasions, so doesn’t really count) until half way through the show – a whole twelve hours in! For a usual sixteen hour kdrama, they would barely go one hour without repeating a song. And once they were repeated, they weren’t repeated too often.

One of the reasons I put off from watching this show for so long was the episode lengths: an hour and a half per episode – sounds crazy, but it works! Within each episode the right amount of events happen, nothing is stretched out or unnecessarily added in. I binged the show over three days, hooked from the start, and it flowed beautifully.

Now onto the reason I wanted to watch this show in the first place – it has two gay characters! In a relationship! This is truly ground breaking; barely a handful of mainstream kdramas have depicted gay characters and relationships, so this was amazing to see. I was sceptical of course, in how they’d handle it. I quickly guessed that Han-yang was the gay character because he was a comedic character, and at first I wasn’t happy about this. BUT they never made his gayness a joke, and in the end that’s what matters most. Plus he was genuinely hilarious, and he had good reason to be. His storyline was a joy to watch (well, the whole show was, but this one was dear to my heart), I loved finding out his backstory and seeing him interact with his boyfriend, and it was good representation. They’re just ordinary Korean men who happen to be gay. What astounded me the most was that he even revealed he was gay to a few other characters, and only one of them reacted negatively, but it was super mild, and he improved over time. There was nothing at all triggering for me as queer person, which made my gay heart so happy. Han-yang had also done the mildest crime out of everyone; he was very much framed as a loveable and empathise-able character. But, unfortunately, right at the end, it went downhill, leading me to remove a star in my rating and not see this show as my new favourite kdrama. His storyline does not end well; while it’s realistic and not literal death at least, it was incredibly upsetting for me. I’d been rooting for him for so long in his journey, and then it ended like that. It definitely could’ve been a lot worse, but it was disappointing, especially when what followed was seeing the rest of the main group of characters all get their happy endings. But this is life – to be able to include him as a character and have his storyline be otherwise so great, a condition may have been to give him an unideal ending, and including him with a sucky ending is far preferable to him not being included at all.

Another element of the show I was worried about, but thankfully loved, was how it dealt with the sexual assault of the main character’s sister. It wasn’t shown on screen or discussed in detail, so shouldn’t trigger anyone, but it also wasn’t brushed over or just used to make drama and then unrealistically never come up again or have consequences. It was clearly still on characters’ minds deep into the show, and showed up in subtle details. This show never has something happen just for the drama, it is handled in a real way, with consequences.

Going into this show, I expected it to be quite dark and heavy, but I was surprised to find it heart-warming and wholesome. There were sections of the show that were so domestic and sweet, even uplifting! And the emotional, tense sections never went on too long, and were always resolved in a way I’d never guess – and, being a writer, I’m really good at foreseeing how storylines will go!

Speaking of the unexpected, before I started I hadn’t thought about the fact there would be so few female characters; with eighty percent of the show being set in a male prison, there were only two female characters with a decent amount of screen time, and a handful of other women at all. But, the female characters – no matter how short an amount of screen time – were strong and awesome! This may be because I usually stick to romance kdramas, but they were refreshingly realistic. They were smart and took initiative in love and work. The few kiss scenes featured were real kisses, and the relationships in general were very realistic and well done.

HOWEVER, I really disliked the age gaps between the two main (straight) relationships in the show; it was gross and weird to see memories when the girl was in primary school and the guy was in college, it was so damn weird and I did not like it at all. And it didn’t just happen once, or even with just one couple! Both couples on multiple occasions! I wasn’t too pleased about the age gap when they were adults, but it was crossing the line to then see them as kids and realise just how huge the gap was. Of course their romantic relationships didn’t start until both parties were consenting adults, but it was still unpleasant, thus I didn’t hugely enjoy their romances, but thankfully we didn’t see too much of them until the second half of the show, when at times I must admit I considered skipping, but it was never too bad. Still, it played into my rating of four stars.

My final point of praise for this show is how naturally it inserted past memories and such in; information was always provided just when the audience needed it, so we weren’t left in the dark confused about anything, but also didn’t always know everything. I LOVE how this show played with perspective; I’m so used to seeing and knowing everything the main character has done in chronological order that it was joyously refreshing to be surprised and see twists due to not being shown him doing certain things until it became relevant. It’s incredibly original in a kdrama for a plot twist to come from a change in perspective or new information like this, instead of a cliché, dramatic event!

It was so hard to write an articulate review about this show because I love it so much and I had so much to say! It’s fantastic from start to finish, and I only had two complaints, which for such a long drama is impressive. I can’t recommend this show highly enough; if you haven’t seen it you are missing out on a masterpiece! It is clever, unexpected, and original in a way I’ve never seen before, it’s a genuine delight.
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