The life of police profiler, Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) changes when he receives a radio transmission from detective, Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong) who is 15 years in the past. Their connection leads to unexpected and occasionally disastrous changes in the past and the future, as Hae Young and his team leader, Cha Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo) solve cold cases from Jae Han’s time.
Only 만: ★★★★
Helmed by Kim Won Suk, the director of “Misaeng” and “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”, “Signal” was hotly anticipated even before it premiered. It turned out to be a huge hit for cable network, tvN, garnering 12.8% ratings for its final episode. It’s hard not to be carried away by that kind of hype, but in fact, “Signal” delivers a well-shot and well-edited show with some great performances. Kdramas are not known for their unpredictable story-lines, but “Signal” will keep you guessing to the end.
Starting with the Gyeonggi Nambu serial murder case, “Signal” went on to deal with fictionalized versions of real criminal cases from Korea’s recent past, like the Seongsu Bridge collapse, the Miryang gang rape case, and others. The common thread is rampant police corruption and incompetence, embodied by Jang Hyun Sung’s Kim Bum Joo, a police chief who climbs the ranks by sucking up to a villainous politician, and then corrupting his own cash-strapped subordinates.
If this sounds too dry for you, let me add that “Signal” is one of the rare shows that hits the emotional cues without resorting to melodramatic surprises. The show’s anchor is the relationship between the three leads, especially Soo Hyun’s enduring love for the missing Jae Han. There are some moments of real heartbreak along the way, so keep the tissues handy if you’re a crier.
Jo Jin Woong and Kim Hye Soo are fantastic as Jae Han and Soo Hyun, offering performances that are both nuanced and solid throughout. Kim Hye Soo in particular is a highlight, bringing both strength and pathos to Soo Hyun, as well as convincingly portraying the character at different times in her life.
Lee Je Hoon is less successful as Hae Young, with a weirdly breathless performance that feels jarring. Where Jo Jin Woong is dramatic but believable as the crusading and honest Jae Han, Lee Je Hoon initially comes off as if he parachuted in from an old school melodrama. I’m not sure if he toned it down over the course of “Signal”, or if the focus moved away from his character, but it’s not nearly as pronounced in later episodes, so I can promise it will get better if you hang in there.
Unfortunately, if you do hang in to the final episode, you will find yourself disappointed by a messy resolution, tacked on for the sake of bringing the cast back for a second season. I won’t get into the details, but it was excessively long and far too heavy-handed. I’ve been watching the same show, so I didn’t need the moral spelled out for me quite so explicitly, thanks.
That said, there’s still a lot to sink your teeth into here. “Signal” is beautifully shot, and thanks to a coherent visual style, the switches between past and present are easy to follow. The story is suspenseful from week to week, and there are some truly terrifying moments; I had my heart in my mouth the whole time Soo Hyun was imprisoned by a serial killer. And luckily for the faint-hearted among us, there’s a great love story too. Here’s hoping season two lives up to this one.