Cable station tvN has entered the midweek prime-time fray with Manny, its new 16-episode romantic-comedy about a male live-in nanny who comes to care for the two kids of a single mom. He’s the consummate pro, she’s the frazzled careerwoman, and together they’ll clash and bicker and romance their way to true love.
I was hoping it would be funny and engaging, and so far my expectations are met (and exceeded) — the drama is pretty simple, but hits that sweet spot of feel-good fun and touching moments. It’s a light, easy watch that makes you smile, bolstered by an engaging cast and amusing scenarios.
SONG OF THE DAY
Monni – “망설이지 마요” (Don’t Hesitate) [ Download ]
KIM YI-HAN (Seo Ji-seok) is the manny, aka male nanny, which is a word he uses unironically and unabashedly. He’s highly sought-after in his native terrain of New York City, because he’s exceptionally good at his job, and earns a handsome living at it. Initially he gives off the impression of being an insensitive jerk, but we soon see that he’s acting in the interest of the child’s welfare, which sometimes includes purposely making one cry to assess the condition of his health (asthma, in this case).
Yi-han picks up clues with the precision of a CSI detective, is sensitive to signs of a child’s psychological troubles, and is skilled in first aid and establishing rapport with even the most troublesome kids. He’s a veritable 21st-century Mary Poppins, only he’s traded the magical umbrella for rock-hard abs.
SEO DO-YOUNG (Choi Jung-yoon) is a thirtysomething single mother raising two kids while juggling her career as a successful one-woman design house. Her chic little shop caters to the women, mostly posh moms, of her tony Cheongdam-dong neighborhood.
Do-young has a sunny disposition and is a caring mother, but is often scatterbrained from being stretched thin between her work and home. Her ex-husband isn’t part of the picture, and we can infer that he doesn’t care to be a regular presence in his kids’ lives. Do-young does the best she can with the help of her older sister and her best friend Hyun-jung, who works in her clothing shop.
Older sister JANICE (Byun Jung-soo) is happily, gratefully child-free, satisfied with her successful career as a former supermodel turned modeling agency CEO. She’s got a pretty high opinion of herself (her trademark phrase: “You know who I am? I’m JANICE!”) and tsk-tsks at her sister’s juggling act, saying she shoulda fobbed off the kids on the ex. Still, she’s a good aunt who cares for her niece and nephew.
Janice is a tough agency president with a hot temper, demanding the best from her models, which usually means nitpicking the state of their six-packs and the quality of their runway walks. Her latest project is to land the job of celebrity judge on a Korean version of Top Model, and is in the running to be its Janice Dickinson-like resident bitch. Heck, she’s more than halfway there already, with the supermodel background and the name. And the ego. And the borderline crazy.
The kids: Six-year-old JUNG-MIN is a sweet, quiet boy who likes to read. He doesn’t talk much in general, but his usual introversion has been getting more pronounced recently.
Older sister EUN-BI is 10, a princess with a decidedly bratty streak. She is Youthful Disdain, Personified; just check out that look of “Oh, puh-lease” she’s shooting our manny. She’s borderline snotty, but there are indications that her stubborn pride is a mask for her softer side. She’s often trailed by Dong-yi, a chubby, happy classmate with a crush on her; their mothers are friends and co-workers.
Yi-han lands in Korea to promote the new book he’s written, Manny In N.Y., which is a hit due to its photogenic author and the novelty of the premise. He’s confident in his masculinity and his skills, betraying no insecurity when various Koreans express their surprise and amusement at hearing that — gasp! — there is such a thing as a man who takes care of kids, as though he is descended from a strange, alien planet. Oh, Korea, we are miles from progressive.
Do-young is a fan, and attends Yi-han’s book signing to pick up a copy. It’s on her way out that she runs into him just as he’s being ditched by his vindictive driver, and he jumps into her car and instructs her to pursue the runaway car. They fail.
Yi-han’s own behavior is partly to blame for his ditching — he ignored the guide’s instructions to attend an interview, getting the guy into trouble with the publisher — and now he finds himself without his luggage or much money. Furthermore, his credit cards have been frozen, because of an incident back in New York when he was jumped by his employer’s amorous wife and discovered by the rifle-toting cuckolded husband. The less said about that flashback, the better. (Cringe-cringe-cringe, but in a hilariously kooky way.)
His lawyer advises him to stay in Korea till the scandal blows over, so he checks into a cheap motel for the time being and starts the job-hunt.
That leads him to a job interview with Janice that quickly goes sour. Janice is looking to improve her English skills for the Top Model gig, but when she hears about Yi-han’s profession, she scoffs, and he retorts that educating children is a more noble profession than teaching adults how to walk. They emerge from the meeting equally pissy.
Meanwhile, Do-young needs to find a new caretaker for the kids, because she’s maxed out the nanny service she regularly uses. Her kids have acquired the reputation for being unrepentant horrors, so now nobody will agree to work for them.
She’s persuaded by her best friend Hyun-jung to take advantage of her newfound acquaintance, Mr. Manny, and gives him a call. However, another mom shares the juicy gossip that he had to flee to Korea because of his scandalous affair in New York, and when Do-young tentatively asks Yi-han about it, he gets defensive. She assumes it’s true and ends up accusing him of giving gyopos (Koreans abroad) a bad name.
She leaves in a huff, only to get the bad news that her son Jung-min has disappeared after getting into a little trouble at daycare. (He’d sneaked up on another boy and shoved him, then ran away.)
The boy’s fine, if a little smudged and nervous after his unexpected outburst. Yi-han finds him on the street — or rather, Jung-min finds Yi-han, mistakes him for his father, and grabs him in a surprise hug.
Yi-han quickly assesses the boy’s condition and engages him, and it’s this sight that Aunt Janice witnesses. She jumps to the conclusion that Yi-han’s out to no good — kidnapper? ransom attempt? — and calls the cops.
Yi-han insists he’s innocent and says that the boy approached him first, but it’s not so convincing, particularly given the gossip and his less-than-sanguine first encounters with the sisters. So the police detain him overnight, while the boy is reunited with his mother.
It’s not until later that Mom realizes she may have drawn the wrong conclusion, when Jung-min spies a man walking in front of them, runs up to him, and hugs him while crying out, “Daddy!” Oof, talk about a kicker to the heart. It was a little sad when he did it with Yi-han, but now it’s downright gut-wrenching.
Do-young asks her son if he’d done the same thing with Yi-han, and he nods, saying that both men were wearing the same jacket that Dad wears. Understanding the underlying message about her boy’s lack of father figure, she hugs him close, feeling aggrieved and inadequate.
Abashed, she heads to the police station in the morning when Yi-han is released, and offers him breakfast. And while he’s at their home, his eagle eyes pick out the clues in one of Jung-min’s drawings, in which the boy has drawn his family of four — yet with the “Dad” image represented as the tiniest stick figure.
Yi-han explains to Do-young that young children often have difficulty expressing their feelings in words, and that pictures can reveal a lot more. He asks to talk to the boy, whom he suspects is falling into depression, and eases into the conversation with talk about baseball.
He then broaches the topic of why Jung-min got mad at his friend on the playground. Jung-min’s voice trembles as he searches for words, and utters, “I-I… I have a dad, too… b-but he kept saying I don’t!”
Aghhhh. Break our hearts, why don’t you. If the earlier scene kicked you in the heart, this one grabs hold and sinks its claws in and gives it a good, strong twist. Just to remind you what pain feels like.
It’s tough for Do-young, who’s doing a good job as a mother, all things considered — but no matter how great a mom she is, she’ll just never be a dad. And that’s got to be hard for her to come to grips with.
Do-young takes to heart Yi-han’s advice about the boy lacking a male role model, and asks him to work for the family. He agrees, but when he shows up in the morning, Janice freaks out and accuses him of being a creep. Yi-han’s too proud to skulk around where he’s not wanted, and takes off, declaring himself un-hired.
He walks right by Jung-min outside, who’s wearing the Mets cap Yi-han had given him. The boy understands that Yi-han’s not sticking around, and what’s sadder than disappointment is his resignation about it. Like, Sigh, another one leaves. That pricks Yi-han’s conscience, but just then, he gets the phone call from his lawyer that he’s free to come back to the States now, and that a plane ticket awaits him.
Despite misgivings, he heads on to the airport, though memories of Jung-min cause him to hesitate. And when Do-young calls him to plead for him to stay, he decides to give it a shot.
One kid down, one more to go. Now it’s turn for him to meet older daughter Eun-bi, who’s been away at English camp. He greets her warmly, but she eyes him up and down and tells him haughtily that they have no need for the likes of him. Sizing her up (and her antagonism), Yi-han cheerfully agrees to leave of his own free will, if she can solve a riddle.
She perks up at that, until he lays out a story of the rabbit (of the Tortoise & The Hare fame) wanting a rematch with the turtle who beat him, and a second race taking place. Alas, the results came out the same: So how did the turtle beat the rabbit the second time?
Stumped for now, Eun-bi has to grudgingly accept the new member of her household, although she’s determined to solve the riddle to get rid of him asap. She’s not alone in her dislike, since Aunt Janice also has a few grievances against him: He put in a call to his friend that took her out of the Top Model running, and then played a prank on her by agreeing to set up a meeting for her to get the job back…which turned out to involve a hotel room and a scenario involving escort services. Heh.
In the meantime, Yi-han quickly establishes a firm, authoritative presence in the household, which requires a bit of an adjustment from the family members.
The family aren’t the only ones needing adjustment: When the moms have one of their regular meetings, the ringleader (mother of Eun-bi’s classmate Jong-seok) is put off at the way Yi-han contradicts her decision and gains the approval of the other moms.
(Note: In Korean, the moms are referred to by their children’s names, which is used almost as their name. As in, “Hi, Jong-seok’s Mom, this is Eun-bi’s Mom.” One way to interpret this common practice is that it’s one of the many ways in which the patriarchal culture has institutionalized the marginalization of women — by stripping them of their own names and building their identities in relation to other people. Once a woman marries, she becomes so-and-so’s wife, or so-and-so’s mother. One of these days I’ll have to write my screed on it. I have Things To Say about this, I do.)
Jong-seok’s Mom doesn’t take kindly to this interference, and she retaliates by taking it out on Do-young, spreading gossip that Do-young is involved in a sordid affair with her scandalous manny. Do-young tries to fight back, but nobody does the Mean Bitch routine as well as Jong-seok’s Mom, who slyly continues to undermine Do-young at every turn.
As a result, Do-young irritably orders Eun-bi not to play with Jong-seok anymore, ignoring the fact that the kids have activities planned.
Yi-han continues his plan to draw Jung-min out of his depression, which involves provoking the boy out of his gloom. He prods at him until Jung-min gets angry, and encourages Jung-min to work out his aggression outwardly.
Finally, Jung-min has enough poking and starts to pummel him back with his tiny fists, shouting, “I don’t need any of this! I hate everything!” Yi-han urges him to let it all out, until Jung-min breaks down sobbing, “I miss you…Daddy…”
(Heart? Rip. Floor. Stomp.)
Eun-bi’s acting more withdrawn as well, but Do-young chalks it up to her daughter’s usual fussiness and doesn’t worry. But it’s clear that she’s got something weighing on her mind, and from the way she and Jong-seok send each other conflicted looks, we can see they’re both feeling caught between their mothers’ petty warfare. The two used to be friends, but now that they’ve been ordered not to associate with each other, they reluctantly obey.
It’s bad enough being a kid who has to deal with the usual issues of precarious friendships and school cliques, but this just makes everything worse. And it looks like Jong-seok has come out on top of this friendship divorce by bagging the friends, which leaves Eun-bi alone and ostracized. (She’s still got the loyal Dong-yi by her side, but that’s a friendship she’ll probably not learn to value till she’s well into her adulthood, siiigh for pretty princesses who don’t realize what a good thing is until she’s lost it.)
Yi-han picks up on the extra tension and tackles the issue in his usual way — not head-on (the kids’ll never open up that way), but by gaining a bit of trust and then working with that. He offers to teach her a cool move in a video game in exchange for a favor, and thus gets Eun-bi to draw him a picture. As we know, a lot can come out in self-expression, and he sees the clear signs of anxiety and stress in her drawing.
He brings this to Mom’s attention, but she’s feeling defensive herself (Jong-seok’s Mom is working her own insecurities to the hilt) and isn’t ready to hear Yi-han’s suggestions.
So he tries another tactic, this time engaging the boys to help in his plan. Dong-yi invites the other classmates to a party (the lovable little lunkhead is a terrible liar and stumbles through the explanation), while Jung-min brings his sister.
There, Yi-han kicks things off with a cool magic show that engages the kids’ interest, then calls Eun-bi as his volunteer. For this trick, he’ll turn the girl into a boy, and asks her to enter a covered box.
Inside, she’s disgruntled to find Jong-seok sitting in the dark, having also been called forth as magical accomplice. While they unhappily sit there in tense silence, outside the boys quietly instruct the partygoers to exit quietly. (Hee! It’s a move worthy of 1N2D.)
That affords plenty of time for Eun-bi and Jong-seok’s fight to brew as they start name-calling about “Dummy” and “Piggy” and “Your stupid mom” and “My mom’s not stupid, yours is the mean one!”
The fight escalates as both mothers arrive at the restaurant, called by Yi-han, and hear their children crying and yelling at each other. And where common sense didn’t work, the sound of the kids’ misery is enough to recall their forgotten sense of shame, and they both look uncomfortably at each other while Yi-han asks them if this was what they wanted to come of their stupid little battle.
Do-young’s the first to approach and tells the kids she was wrong to tell them they couldn’t be friends anymore. Grudgingly, Jong-seok’s mother agrees, and the kids adorably perk up, tears forgotten.
Another problem solved! Yet Yi-han’s still plagued by one more enemy in the household: sore-loser Janice, who has to deal with the ignominy of having a VIP client insist he wants Yi-han (seen in passing) to be the model for his clothing ad campaign. Janice grits her teeth to request the favor of Yi-han, who agrees, but not without a price: She has to throw out all her fancy exercise equipment, which are child safety hazards.
Forced to put on a smile, Janice goes along with his demand, but can’t resist her chance to get back at him for his prank. After he finishes his shoot, she swipes his clothing from the locker room as he showers. Feigning innocence when he makes the discovery, she gives him some temporary clothing to wear till he can find a change of clothing…and then sets up a hidden camera, snickering all the while.
Which, naturally, ends up on the internet. Heh.
The drama started out a little loose and wacky, but by the end of the first episode it had settled very nicely into its groove, hitting an emotional nerve to lend some depth to the light comedy of the rest of the show.
The show is a little simplistic, maybe, but it’s shaping up to be a guaranteed pick-me-up show. A feel-good 50 minutes with cute kids, a nice message, and some poignant beats thrown in the mix. It’s sort of what I think Oh My Lady could have or should have been — it doesn’t have some of the lame outside plotlines cluttering up the main characters’ storylines, and it looks like each episode will center around a small, everyday sort of issue and how Yi-han brings the family together while addressing the issue. There’s no huge dramatic arc here, no big mystery, no birth secrets — just a cute cast and a refreshing series of small (but no less interesting) stories.
Although the mom/manny relationship hasn’t gotten romantic, there are a few hints, such as when Do-young puts a bandage on Yi-han’s shoulder and gulps nervously at their proximity. I’m not sure whether he’ll get romantic beats with Janice as well, but I can see where that would emerge, because they’re so constantly at each other’s throats. If that doesn’t develop any further, though, I’m fine with that because I’m satisfied just watching those two adults acting like little kids in their petty revenges.
But by far, the emotional center of the show is the relationship between Yi-han and Jung-min. While watching Episode 1, I was enjoying it in a general sense, right up until Jung-min’s first scene with Yi-han, which was unexpectedly moving. Each encounter built on that progressively and by the end of the episode, the drama had wrung a few tears with their budding rapport.
There are hints that Yi-han has father issues of his own — not big angsty issues, but perhaps an absentee dad, and the whole baseball motif is his stand-in for that. Maybe that’s why he’s perfectly fulfilled being a manny, and doesn’t have any snobby airs or insecurity issues about it. In fact, one of the things I find so refreshing is that he’s so matter-of-fact about his job, while everyone else is doing the exaggerated pearl-clutchy reaction shots, gasping, “A male? As a nanny? HOW can this BE?” And he’s like, “Yeah, so what of it?” — like he’s daring you to have a problem with it.
In fact, while I have no complaints with the show, I’d say the one concern I have is that the manny is TOO perfect. Sure, we never get into Mary Poppins’ deep-seated emotional issues, either, but she wasn’t a romantic lead. Whereas, Yi-han is going to be a romantic hero, and as much as I like ’em dreamy, I also like them to have substance — growth, development, conflicts. Right now he’s mostly there to swoop in and save the day, and I don’t know how long that’ll be interesting. I’ll be hoping he gets more opportunities for growth in the coming week.
Argh, I don’t know what I’m going to do about Manny. I’d LIKE to keep recapping it, but I’m aware of the upcoming clusterfuck of trendies, and don’t want to commit if I can’t follow through. I may have to do some reprioritizing.
RELATED POSTSByun Jung-soo, cable programs, Choi Jung-yoon, featured, first episodes, Manny, Seo Ji-seok