For this week’s recommendation, I feel I have to ask something of you. As Bong Joon-ho very simply put it in his Golden Globes speech, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” so with that in mind, I’d like you to keep an open mind if you decide to watch what I’m about to talk about.
Signal is a tvN drama that aired in 2016 for a total of 16 episodes, with the writer hinting at a strong possibility season 2 is in the works (pretty rare thing for kdramas). It received critical acclaim and was even remade in both Japan and China, but I can’t comment on those versions as I have only watched the Korean original.
This is a drama that’s very dear to me, one that I’ve always held at the highest regard. Whenever I find a drama that I consider interesting, I think to myself “where does this sit on a scale from okay to Signal?” The answer is very rarely “close to Signal,” although there have been some that exceeded my expectations.
In this drama, profiler Park Hae Young (the always wonderful Lee Je Hoon) and detective Lee Jae Han (Cho Jin-Woong) are connected through a mysterious walkie talkie which allows them to communicate and work on cold cases from two separate timelines (the ‘80s/’90s and present time). As you might have guessed, the show addresses the question: what would happen if you could change the past? It delves into the price you have to pay for doing such a thing, but it also explores the rewards.
Now here’s why you should give Signal a try. Minor spoilers ahead.
1. With the shining Kim Hye-Soo playing the female lead (team leader Cha Soo Hyun) and an amazing supporting cast full of familiar faces if you’re a kdrama fan, Signal promised a variety of incredible performances, and boy did it deliver. I have to remark SF9’s Chani, who played Park Hae Young’s older brother in the past-timeline, especially stood out to me because, while he really only appeared in the latter part of the show, he engaged me emotionally from the first time I saw him and until the show ended. Kim Hye-Soo and Lee Je Hoon also deliver incredibly emotional performances, but I may be biased since I’m a huge fan of both of them.
2. The story is fresh. Although time-altering shows have been done before, the concept of communicating and solving police cases in 2 separate timelines only through a walkie talkie (and only having a few minutes whenever the universe decides to make said walkie-talkie work its magic) is a really fun, gripping idea. I think it’s the concept itself that made this so loved by fans, nation-wide but also in other countries like Japan and China. Add to that the classic debate and how altering events is handled, and you’ve got yourself a dynamic story that packs as much drama as you want.
3. You’re free to decide why the walkie talkie works the way it does. Is it God, the Universe, destiny? The writer doesn’t force you to accept their vision. Whatever works for you, works for you. To me that’s a smart play, as some viewers would be put off by the answer regardless of what would be considered “canon”.
4a. Some of the cases are inspired by real life, and the original ones are just as detailed and gripping. Despite the show being described as a procedural, I wouldn’t use that word as the detectives don’t work on just any random cold case, but cases related to their personal lives as well, and which tie into the overall story. The first one we’re introduced to and the last we see both hit close to home for Park Hae Young, with others exploring events in both Jae Han and Soo Hyun’s lives. Episodes 9 and 10 are probably my favorite because of this, the case being both emotional and necessary, as it shows Soo Hyun’s growth as a cop. It will make you have conflicting feelings about who exactly is the bad guy and it only helps that Lee Sang Yeob delivers an incredible performance as the troubled Jin-Woo.
4b. The profiling isn't cringe-worthy and is actually logical and makes sense.
5. The first case and the setup are some of the best I’ve seen. Maybe my standards have evolved since I’ve watched the show (it’s been a few years), but at the time I was thoroughly impressed. Without giving too much away, the first episode knows exactly how to surprise you and keep you entertained on the journey to its solution while also doing a bang-up job of introducing all the players in both timelines.
6. It could be said it’s a bit slow paced at times, but if you’re used to dramas it’s not really noticeable. Patience is a virtue after all, and the show rewards you enough with a good time throughout its run anyway, so battle through the “boring” moments.
7. Although I wasn’t exactly a fan of Cha Soo Hyun of the ‘90s, it was great to watch the duality of the character throughout the show. Present-Cha Soo Hyun is a cold hard badass, while past-Cha Soo Hyun is a sweet darling, a darling who was a little bit too foolish for my taste. It did feel a bit odd, but thanks to the aforementioned episodes 9 and 10, we get to see how she evolves and becomes the Soo Hyun of our time, and the series takes care to develop her even further as she grows closer to Hae Young and discovers his secret.
8. While there is a sliver of romance, it is not in your face like western shows, and it’s only used to show devotion and loyalty and provide a bit more dynamism to character interactions. The focus is 98% on the cases though, which I appreciated.
9. The bad guy is never who you think it is. Sure, the cases themselves are always solved, but when you think you’re gonna get to a “boss fight” with the criminal, you find out there’s a bigger boss. And a bigger one. And a bigger one. This web of evil is so well woven, you’ll be really satisfied watching it through and seeing everyone’s reasons and motivations for doing what they’re doing.
10. Lee Jae Han is an inspiration. He never gives up, he always believes the world will be better, and he actively does something to help it along. It’s he who’s the real hero of the show, and his goodness will make you shed a few tears. We need more cops like him.
Bonus: Watching Lee Je Hoon for 16 hours is worth it. He’s just amazing.
With all this said, I know kdramas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re willing to try them out, definitely start with Signal. If anything, it might give you some ideas on how to create something outside the box for your own works.
As always, thank you for reading! See you next week!