This writeup is destined to be a report card, something I’ll gladly refer back to once I’m more secure in my ability to assess Korean dramas — this is where it began. At the moment, I’ve had a spotty track record. The first drama I’ve watched to completion remains the only: Cheer Up!, which was my QNA pick for greatest entertainment experience of 2019. It’s a colorful, heartfelt melodrama that soars so high yet explores surprisingly wrenching emotional depths. Being used to the 13 or 24-episode counts of American TV shows, I was devastated to find Cheer Up! is 12 in total (and that was before I saw it ends in the middle). I’m currently watching Man in the Kitchen, and by episode three, a thought crossed my mind that draws the sharpest distinction between the two shows: “Okay, I understand why this is 50 episodes long.” It was not a good thought.
The comparison between Cheer Up! and Man in the Kitchen is odd, so I’ll have to explain the one reason how I came to each show. Also, the comparison should be expanded to include the K-drama I attempted to watch following Cheer Up!, that being Strong Woman Do Bong Soon. Also, following a January viewing of Parasite, I checked out Woman of 9.9 Billion before tapping out after one and a half episodes. I got four into Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, but the book remains open. I may one day give it another shot, but the problems I had with it contrast so sharply to my experience with Cheer Up! and form the basis of the comparison. My thought upon reaching the final episodes of Cheer Up! was, “Is this what all K-dramas are like?” I mean, what are the odds that my first K-drama is my best? The three subsequent shows have striven mightily to answer my hesitant optimism.
I’m aware of the popular K-dramas, but what’s mostly drawn me to shows so far is the personnel, specifically the actresses, and this clearly takes me far afield. With Cheer Up!, it was Eunji, whose voice stood out to me first in Apink songs. As mentioned with Woman of 9.9 Billion, I wanted to see more of Cho Yeo-jeong’s work. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon shares an actor with Cheer Up!, Kim Ji-soo, but it was also the rare case that a story premise captured my imagination as much as any actual star. With Man in the Kitchen, it’s all Sooyoung. I’m very new to Girls’ Generation — I see I missed the boat — but I’m immediately taken with Sooyoung. Along with Hyoyeon, she’s the troublemaker of Girls’ Generation, though what sets her apart I think is her unfailing eagerness to troll always. Where I get the sense that Hyoyeon is wittier, Sooyoung never misses an opportunity to look like a moron or a jerk to get the job done, and that’s pretty uncommon with idols, whose livelihoods (unfortunately) carry on their image.
This is from the very beginning, as one of my favorite Sooyoung moments is her imitating Tiffany on stage at a concert in 2015. Baby Sooyoung looks nothing like she does today, and the pink ribbon in her big hair completes the picture offsetting the troll: after Tiffany makes a nice sign-off speech to the audience in English, we hear Sooyoung start babbling in what sort of sounds like English, much to Tiffany’s “surprise,” I’m sure. I especially like that the only words of Tiffany’s that Sooyoung retained were “A lot of people…” before it becomes nonsense. Another great episode is Sooyoung on the train, pantomiming soda-drinking with some very convincing sound effects, and this not only delights Yoona, but fools poor Hyoyeon, who was thirsty. Checking in with modern Sooyoung through her YouTube channel The Sootory, I do see someone a bit more mellow, but maybe she’s saving all that energy for her acting career, which began proper in 2012.
I decided to check out Man in the Kitchen, which promised a lead role for Sooyoung, while I wait for So I Married an Anti-fan, whose irresistible key art is featured just above. And what’s Man in the Kitchen about? Maybe some sort of domestic role reversal, with Sooyoung taking charge? Well, let Viki tell you, displaying the show under its more literal title, Man Who Sets the Table:
“In Korea, no one wants to get married and no one gives birth anymore. The revolution of family has already begun. The futurists predict that birth will not be the sole method of creating family in the world. The number of people living alone have increased drastically, and that is the exact reason why family has become more important. This is a story of a middle aged-man’s fight to stop his family from falling apart begins. After retiring, he was certain that only good days were ahead of him for him and his family. Things were supposed to be good, they were supposed to be better after his retirement, but unexpected twists and turns make that hard for him. His wife wants a marriage graduation, an unexpected person enters the life of his son, and his daughter has always disappointed him. Will he be able to keep his family from falling apart?”
This is either clever satire or a hardcore failure in marketing copy. Since when is a K-drama starring a prominent [former] K-pop idol actually centered on her character’s abusive father? The first episode begins by establishing his abusiveness, as narrated by the idol! This already sets a bad precedent, though more so a confusing one, since it still seems that Sooyoung’s character is the main character. Of course, it’s not just about sympathies and perspectives but screen-time. One the most useful concepts to me in evaluating TV shows is the “Jack Bauer Effect,” or possibly the “Luther Effect” or the “Dexter Effect.” When the main character isn’t on screen, is the show still good, or is it painful like in those three examples? Regardless the case with Man in the Kitchen (it may be too early to fairly assess), the pacing does not trade character POVs by scenes, but sequences. We go long stretches with Sooyoung, yes, but then long stretches without. I don’t think my heart can take it.
It’s like, the problem is: she’s very good. Her performance has me laughing at the kind of comedy I thought I put to rest in puberty, things as simple as “she’s sweating too much while eating dinner with the love interest.” In her capable hands, it’s hilarious. And much like the actual Sooyoung, her television counterpart is constantly upside down, like a turtle on its back. However, oh, my God. The labor to get here. I don’t like the setup for this show. Out of the gate, even, I’m confused. After our narrated introduction to Sooyoung’s character Roo-ri, we’re reintroduced to her as an adult on her way to a job interview. I assume, seeing her in business clothing, that she’s got her life together in the untold years since, but this isn’t actually the case. So when characters talk about how she’s a constant screwup, the evidence arrives too late, and too late again to counter my initial assumption that both the clothes make the man and that any given time-jump signifies change. On the way to the job interview, she beats a man on the head who was trying to pull her skirt out of the subway doors, thinking he was a train pervert. Unfortunately, the show will go on to frame this incident as a false accusation, which I hardly find necessary, and the earliest recurring gag (yo — Cheer Up! did not have recurring gags) is about the state of the guy’s manhood, seared as it’s been by boiling hot water during Roo-ri’s rampage. (I hate to admit it, but I laugh every time it’s brought up).
So Roo-ri finds her way to Guam instead, inciting my curiosity in the tourist relationship between Guam and South Korea (that’s a real bastard of a flight), and wouldn’t you know it? Guess who’s her new boss: the train pervert. And while he’s not a train pervert, and only sort of harbors a grudge — nothing a little romantic tension can’t settle, though Roo-ri does her level best to sabotage it — his position over her, coupled with her desperation to keep the job? It’s giving me hives. And when watching shows like these, I can’t get over how funny it is to my Asian-American sensibilities that the Asian guy is so disgusted by the Asian woman, who in another life could be so acclaimed for her beauty as an idol. I realize she falls into puddles sometimes.
The thought about “Good Lord, this is how they get 50,” came from one of the many sessions of repeated exposition between the abusive father Shin-mo and Roo-ri’s mother Young-hye. We come to an immediate sympathy with Young-hye, and through flashbacks where she and Shin-mo are de-aged old-school style (with wigs), that sympathy is furthered. Shin-mo is and always has been a jerk, and goddamn it, I want to divorce him and we’re not even married. This results in not one but what feels like a dozen conversations on this very singular subject. First an extremely guarded Young-hye floats the idea that she’s been long-suffering and wants either a divorce or a “marriage graduation,” which is sort of like a separation, and possibly originates in Japan. Then, Shin-mo gets all huffy and downplays her claims of misery, talks himself up as the victim, and then Young-hye restates the thesis, Shin-mo retorts identically as before, and the cycle continues within the same scene and across multiple scenes. It’s unreal.
The conversations play on repeat, and with them the evidence that Shin-mo is a jerk, already confirmed by his denials which are textbook, antiquated gaslighting. It throws Viki’s copy into greater relief: “This is a story of a middle aged-man’s fight to stop his family from falling apart begins.” And here I am, just utterly perplexed. I can accept that this is just a setup (during the literal setup), but then there’s the son character. Every time the son shows up on-screen, I just barf. This motherfucker again. Geez, could he be more meddling, and yet too sullen and put-upon to be framed as anything other than morally center? If your mom wants to divorce her terrible husband, please realize you’re a grown man! Again, if we’re supposed to dislike what he’s doing, I need to know that now, not later.
I don’t like being dangled between the soft landing of “recognizable mindset” (read: “agreeable politics”) and the spike pit of patriarchy apologia, especially since I want to believe in the best of my nation of origin, though I know that boat’s sailed, too. Sailed all the way to Guam. The fact that I can’t immediately tell where the show’s sympathies lie is what’s really bugging me out. I get that we’re gonna be with these characters for 50 hours, roughly the run of Breaking Bad and The Wire, so redemption for Shin-mo must be one of the many stops along the way. I’m sure that by hour ten, even, I’ll barely remember the gaslighting. But this is where I am with Man in the Kitchen. It’s for you to judge if my assessment so far is fair, but the fact remains: I’m here writing about it, not watching the show. When I went into Cheer Up! just to see Eunji, I got so much more. I went into Man in the Kitchen for Sooyoung and similarly got so much more. Too much — way too much.
Also, I have no idea who this second family is, so every time we cut back to them, or introduce startling plot-twists, I laugh out loud. Who are you people?!