Dramas and comedies about the justice system are nothing new, with shows tackling subject matters from court room trials to the prison system, and they have their own followings. As for me, I usually go more for crime procedurals and court room dramas, but I decided to take a chance on “Prison Playbook”, as it’s trailer sort of intrigued me, and because it was listed as a black comedy. What it is, however, in the end, is so much more, as it is a heartwarming story full of bromance, comedy, and life lessons that only the makers of the famous “Reply/Answer Me” series can bring. (Also, it should be noted that this is my first official review for the 2018 Korean Drama season, as it ended on January 18, 2018.)
“Prison Playbook” or “Wise Prison Life” tells the story of Kim Je Hyeok (Park Hae Soo), a star baseball pitcher who is incarcerated after excessively assaulting a man who attempted to rape his younger sister, Kim Je Hee (Lim Hwa Young). While in prison, he has to manage and adjust to prison life with the help of his cellmates, and his old best friend, Lt. Lee Joon Ho (Jung Kyung Ho), a corrections officer in the prison Je Hyeok is in, and who used to play baseball with him when they were younger.
Aside from those three, the show also stars Krystal Jung as Kim Ji Ho, Je Hyeok’s ex-girlfriend; Kim Kyung Nam as Lee Joon Dol, Joon Ho’s younger brother who idolozes Je Hyeok; Ahn Chang Hwan as Crony; Choi Moo Sung as Kim Min Chul, a “cell boss” and gangster serving a long sentence for murder; Park Ho San as Kang Chul Doo or Kaist, an engineer who was sentenced for gambling; WINNER’s Kang Seung Yoon as Lee Joo Hyung or “Jean Valjean”, who was sentenced for theft; Jung Min Sung as Go Park or Dr. Go, who was imprisoned for embezzling ten million won from his company; Lee Kyu Hyung as Yoo Hanyang or “Looney”, who was imprisoned for illegal drug use; Kim Sung Cheol asa Kim Young Cheol or “Jailbird”/”Lawman”, who knows the jail system inside and out as he keeps on coming back; Jung Woong In as Lt. Paeng, a prison guard who loves to curse; and Jung Hae In and Yoo Jung Woo or “Captain Woo”, who was imprisoned for beating a subordinate officer to death.
The show keeps things simple as it follows the daily lives of the inmates of Seobu Detention Center, and later on, at Seobu Penitentiary. It shows the daily routines that they go through, and it also touches on the stories of select prisoners, such as the ones in Je Hyeok’s cell, and also touches on the lives of some of the correction officers as well.
The show is listed as a “black comedy” as there are many situational and offbeat comedic moments, but the show never forgets what its about; and just as we are feeling comfortable with things, they slap us in the face with the harsh reminder that they are in prison, and with the many injustices that occur within the prison and the justice system itself.
Aside from the situational comedy, one thing that will draw many to this show is the bromance that the mostly all male cast has with each other, whether it be Captain Yoo and Han Yang, to Je Hyeok and Joon Ho.
The acting in this show is definitely praiseworthy, as they were able to portray characters that were very much grounded and believable, not only as their characters, but in the relationships they have as well with others.
Park Hae So knocked it out of the park with this one, and proved himself to be able to carry a show as this was his first time to portray a leading role. He was amazing as the clueless and adorable gentle giant that is Je Hyeok, with the subtle nuances of expression and with how he carries his more emotional scenes. His comedic timing was also impeccable.
I’ve seen Jung Kyung Ho as a leading man in “Missing 9”, but although he was great there, he was even more amazing here as Joon Ho. He was able to portray someone who is arrogant, coasting through life, but a devoted and loyal friend underneath all of that. There were so many layers to his character, and he proved that he can play a variety of roles.
Lee Kyung Hyung AMAZED me in this one as his character here is completely different from the stiff prosecutor that he portrayed in “Stranger”. His story is also heartbreaking among all the inmates, but still very much realistic.
Lim Hwa Young was great in “Chief Kim”, but her role here proved that she can do both comedy and, to a degree, melodrama. I’m definitely looking forward to see what she does next.
Jung Hae In and Jung Woon In were also both big revelations to me, as they played their characters really well as both Captain Yoo and Lt. Paeng respectively. Their performances were truly notable for me, and I cannot wait to see what else they have to offer, whether it be in past or in the future projects.
I love the way that they frame the narrative with flashbacks, whether it be a flashback from hours ago, or years ago, music, and sound effects that signal a failed punchline from one of the characters. Plus, it seems as if all of them are just great at delivering punchlines with such great deadpan expressions.
“Prison Playbook” is very much a character driven show, in which the characters themselves are all grounded and realistic, something that you honestly don’t often see that often with Korean dramas.
Also, there are life lessons to be learned a plenty in this drama, and sometimes, they come from characters that you least expect.
However, for those who are familiar with Lee Won Jung’s and Shin Won Ho’s work with the “Reply/Answer Me” series, “Prison Playbook” may seem familiar and different at the same time, given that the setting here is a prison. However, for all intents and purposes, they were able to reuse their proven formula and gave it an interesting twist that people loved. In fact, “Prison Playbook” has crushed ratings from the moment it started airing.
“Prison Playbook” is a heartwarming story full of life affirming lessons, a great bromance, and full of situational comedy that never forgets its dreary setting. “Prison Playbook” is definitely a great break for those who are tired of melodrama, romance and gritty crime and mystery thrillers, but be prepared to be a little bit patient as this drama is very much dialogue driven.
Now, you know the drill, from here on out, there will be spoilers!
What was interesting about this particular show is that it focused on the mundane daily routines that the inmates go through, but is enhanced by its offbeat humor and a colorful set of characters that you routinely want to check on because you know that not one single moment will be boring, whether it be labor in the greenhouse or in the wood shop, or meal times.
And while this is all happening, through character interactions, and the unfolding of the story itself, each main character’s story gets touched upon, without anything feeling too forced or too rushed. And yet, throughout the entire show, and despite the comedic and emotional moments that it had, it never shied away from the harsh environment of its setting and showed us the harsh realities that they also have to live with there.
The pacing and direction of the entire show was well done, as it had the right amount of pacing, and never made me feel bored at any given moment.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest draws of this particular show are the character interactions and the bromance that Je Hyeok’s cellmates and friends have with one another. Most of these moments were just plain outright funny, such as Kaist and Han Yang, or Han Yang and Captain Yoo fighting, to the entire cell becoming Je Hyeok’s personal protection squad, and later on becoming Crony’s new gang as well. The father-son bond that Valjean and Min Chul was great as well, and the bromance between the reunited friends Joon Ho and Je Hyeok was great to watch as well.
I love how Joon Ho’s and Je Hyeok’s friendship bloomed in this situation, and you also saw their own journeys unfold as well.
I must admit that I related a lot more to Joon Ho, because I’ve been in his situation before- having a lot of talents, but not really deciding on one thing yet, and not as successful as my other peers. In the end, he discovered that he is a really good corrections officer, and along the road, also learned that being fair to the inmates doesn’t always mean being kind to all of them, just as Lt. Paeng was.
Lt. Paeng was a character I didn’t think I’d like until I got to learn more about his character more. He’s really a softie, and cares about his inmates, but doesn’t coddle them that much, and doesn’t hesitate to curse at them, if that’s what’s needed.
I loved Park Hae So as Je Hyeok, as he was a gentle giant who really was clueless about everything except for baseball, but I also loved the fact that a lot of the life lessons and advice actually came from him. He also showed a little bit of cunning, as he knew how to manipulate things in order for justice to be correctly served. It’s also amazing how much of a temper he has, and how much he bottles up to survive.
The romance was also well paced, and felt natural. Although Ji Ho’s and Je Hyeok’s relationship was realistic, my heart went out to Je Hee and Joon Ho’s blossoming relationship throughout the series. I also like the fact that the romance wasn’t too over the top, and that even though they had their respective guys, it’s not like the entire world stopped and only revolved around them.
The most heartbreaking story here, even though Dr. Go’s was one of them, was what happened to Han Yang in the end. He did manage to stop taking drugs while in jail, but kicking the habit is definitely easier said than done, which is why his taking drugs again and being arrested for it again right after he was released is a tragedy, but realistic.
Jung Woo’s plight was heartbreaking as well, as he went to prison for something that he didn’t commit at all, and had to endure months to be able to file a petition for the retrial, and then two years more for the retrial.
But with every tragedy, there is hope- Je Hyeok was able to take the mound again, and grow as a person; Min Chul met his long lost daughter and lived with Valjean; Je Hyeok smartly took Lawman/Jailbird under his wing as he recognized that without proper direction he’ll end up in jail again; and Captain Yoo will shortly be freed.
Another important message that this show seems to want to give out is that there is always room for improvement and that people do deserve second chances. However, there are also those that take second chances for granted, and those who refused to do better as well.
In the end, “Prison Playbook” is a wonderful gem that you shouldn’t pass up, as it contains heartwarming moments, a great emotional ride, great performances, realistic characters, great offbeat funny moments and a bromance to last the ages, and life lessons that hit home all the time.
Image Source: Official tvN Prison Playbook Facebook Page; tvN