This workplace drama opens on the exotic locale of Petra with a voiceover talking about following a road, presumably a metaphorical one.
In the busy streets of Jordan, Jang Geu Rae (Siwan) tracks down a Mr. Seo to stop the sale of a mystery item. What follows is a chase scene that showcases Jordan and the amazing cardio of Geu Rae and Mr. Seo. Mr. Seo manages to jump from the roof of one building to another, and Geu Rae is making the same leap when the story switches to a Korean bathhouse in Spring 2012.
Geu Rae is a sad sack cleaning the showers of the bathhouse. It is just one of his many low paying part-time jobs. However, his mother uses her connections to get him an internship at a company dealing in international trade.
Geu Rae arrives at the office wearing his late father’s best suit, and it becomes clear that he is qualified to do nothing. At age 26, Geu Rae has only a GED with no postsecondary education, and no work experience.
Meanwhile, fellow intern, An Young Yi (Kang So Ra) meets with the CEO of a shopping mall. Dressed in tight shirt and skirt, Young Yi assumes a series of cheesecake poses then lets the CEO grab her bottom. It turns out to be a demonstration of some breast and hip pads, and the female CEO is impressed enough with the quality to maintain their contract.
After changing back into more professional clothing, Young Yi has a softly lit, slow motion encounter with Geu Rae in the hallway. She does not even notice him, but he is clearly taken aback.
For the rest of the workday, Geu Rae gets underfoot of his harried assistant manager, struggles with the photocopier, then repeatedly drags Young Yi to answer his boss’s phone, because he has no knowledge of foreign languages. Word gets around the office that Geu Rae used his connections to get his internship, and the rest of the office regard him with a mixture of scorn and pity. Having worked so hard to get into the company, the other interns are dumbfounded and resentful about Geu Rae’s hiring. Unbeknownst to them, Geu Rae overhears everything.
In contrast, Jang Baek Ki (Kang Ha Neul) is a star intern who whips out amazing presentations, and makes lunch reservations before even being asked. Baek Ki overhears Geu Rae’s questionable credentials, and goes to introduce himself. He kindly offers advice then later, calls a lost looking Geu Rae over to his lunch table.
Back home, Geu Rae angrily throws a game of Go into his closet. It turns out that Geu Rae was a Korea Go Club student who failed to meet his potential. After the death of his father, Geu Rae is forced out the Club, and must support his mother with dead end jobs. However, he attributes his failure to his own lack of work ethic, because to blame it on things beyond his control is too painful to admit.
The next day, Geu Rae’s boss, Oh Sang Sik (Lee Sung Min) arrives back in Korea, only to find out that the client he is supposed to meet with has arrived earlier than expected. Geu Rae is dispatched to meet the client until Sang Sik arrives. To Sang Sik’s amazement, Geu Rae manages to keep the client amused by introducing him to the game of Go, though Geu Rae is quick to disassociate himself from the game.
Driving back to the office, Sang Sik quickly establishes how lacking Geu Rae is. He plainly states that he would not have allowed Geu Rae’s hiring to go through if he had been present. Under the threat of a dismissal without notice, Geu Rae touts his “brand new effort of high quality and quantity”. Sang Sik decides to charge him with organizing electronic files.
After spending a night worrying tearfully about her son, Geu Rae’s mother stops by his office to drop off an expensive, new suit that she used her cash savings to purchase. Geu Rae has just changed into his new clothes when he and the other interns are sent to search for lower quality octopus mixed into a shipment of fermented squid.
At the factory, most of the interns receive protective clothing, and partner up to tackle the job. Only Geu Rae is left to slosh through massive barrels of fermented seafood, alone in his new suit. When word arrives that the supplier finally admitted to fraud, the interns leave to clean up at a sauna and have dinner. Oblivious Geu Rae is left behind after the interns charged with informing him decide instead to let him continue to slave away.
Hours later, Baek Ki realizes that they left Geu Rae behind, and contacts the factory to stop Geu Rae. A sad and salty Geu Rae makes his way back to the office, with the knowledge that he was left behind. He runs into Young Yi who brings him to the restaurant where the rest of the interns are laughing at the prank pulled on Geu Rae.
Sang Sik arrives at the restaurant, and Geu Rae reports that he will be returning to the office to reorganize the electronic files to Sang Sik’s satisfaction. Geu Rae walks away, determined to work hard from now on.
The first episode of “Misaeng” was a whopping 90 minutes long, and took its time in humiliating the male lead. The only reason that the entire ordeal was bearable was because the series starts with with a self-assured and worldly version of Geu Rae, so we are assured that he and his situation will improve.
Having said that, I did appreciate the care the series took in establishing the characters. There is the seemingly lone female intern, Young Yi, who impresses her superiors, but refuses to fraternize with her fellow interns. Baek Ki is also a star intern, and despite his favoured position, he regards Geu Rae with pity rather than disdain. Sadly, the character I related with the least was Geu Rae, and I am not sure if that is because the character was submissive and useless, or if the idol playing him is not capable of bringing depth to the character.
This was the least glamourous depiction of a Korean corporate office that I have seen, and I liked that. It gives me hope that this will be a funny, cynical workplace drama, and not just a chaste and melodramatic high school romance in disguise.