Premiere day (times three)! With a whole slate of new shows out today, let’s start with the one that always drew the most of my interest: Rooftop Prince, the fusion drama that mashes a half-dozen genres into one and somehow makes it all look appealing. There’s court intrigue, murder, parallel identities, betrayal, time travel, and hilarity. What, like those don’t naturally go together?
To get the obvious out of the way: Yes, this premise is cracked. It’s Encino Man and Jeon Woo Chi and Murder She Wrote and The Three Musketeers all rolled into one, with some Women in the Sun makjanginess thrown in, too. So, I had no idea if it would be good, but I did figure it would be entertaining.
And that it is. There are some uneven spots and tons of time-skipping (we jump backward and forward within the eras, as well as intercutting between them), and I don’t know how I feel about the modern-day antagonists. But the Joseon-era setup is quite engrossing, compelled by a murder mystery to keep our curiosity engaged.
Furthermore, the element that had me most leery — the whole doppelganger business, with our prince somehow magically running into his beloved in both time periods — actually has a nice twist to it, to surprise me by going contrary to my expectation. I’m intrigued by what that means for the love story — and in a drama where the love story is sorta spelled out from the outset, it’s refreshing to have a question mark hanging over that part to skirt predictability.
Ratings note: Rooftop Prince took in a 9.8% premiere, while The King claimed the top spot with 16.2%, and Equator Man managed a 7.7%.
SONG OF THE DAY
JYJ – “You’re” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open in 18th-century Joseon times, with a cat meowing on a rooftop. Cat, roof, geddit? (See: Hot Tin. Also, Attic Cat.) I bet somebody’s patting themselves on the back for that one.
Inside his royal chamber, Crown Prince YI GAK (Yoochun) stirs and finds himself alone in bed. He calls out, asking if his princess-wife is outside, but finds no response from anybody. This is a dangerous sign — royals are never left unattended — and Yi Gak is alarmed. A eunuch arrives and delivers bad news.
Guards are mobilized and Yi Gak runs through the palace, coming to a halt by a pond where a body floats: his princess. He calls brokenly to her, fighting the officers who grab him before he falls into the pond, too.
We get a glimpse of the princess’s body floating in the water, and then it’s joined/superimposed with a man — Yi Gak, but now dressed in modern clothing. Hm, wonder what that’s about.
We skip backward in time to childhood, when Yi Gak was asked by his father, the king, what kind of girl he would like to marry. He had answered that he wanted a pretty face, so that he’d want to look at her every day. Sigh, boys. They’re the same in every generation.
The royal decree is issued to begin the search for young ladies to present as potential princess-brides. Two sisters sigh in excitement; as daughters of a minister, they’re on the shortlist for princess-hood. (Elder sister Hwa-yong is Moon/Sun’s Kim So-hyun, which is frankly effing with my brain a little since I can only see her as Bo-kyung.)
To their shock, Dad declares that the daughter offered up for princess selection will be Bu-yong, the younger sister. Everyone is stunned, having expected unni to be the one married off. Hwa-yong is especially crushed, crying angry tears, but agrees to prepare her sister.
Fast-forward to modern times, when the two girls meet again. In this lifetime they aren’t blood-related, though they become stepsisters when their parents marry. Now their names are Park-ha (future Han Ji-min, the younger sister) and Se-na (future Jung Yumi, the elder).
Se-na becomes a reluctant unni to the happy Park-ha and quickly develops into a problem child, shoplifting and blaming things on her sister. One day she leaves Park-ha napping in the back of a covered truck while she runs an errand, and when Se-na comes back to retrieve her, she’s seized with temptation.
After hesitating with her conscience (she does have one, though it’s teeny), Se-na lets the truck driver leave without saying a word to stop him. Park-ha wakes up in time to see Se-na watching the truck drive off, with her in it. She screams for help, but Se-na turns her back.
The same sisterly resentment builds between the Joseon-era counterparts. Hwa-yong pretends she’s happy for her sister and prepares her for princess selection. Bu-yong knows her sister is disappointed and treads lightly, trying to smooth things over. But this isn’t a problem she can fix.
The night before the official selection, Bu-yong offers her unni dried persimmons. Hwa-yong declines, though she forces a smile as she irons her sister’s skirt. She contemplates the hot iron with a deliberation that is unsettling, but it’s ultimately an accident that sends it flying. Hwa-yong trips over her skirt while reaching for a fallen persimmon, and the iron brands her sister’s cheek.
Dad is furious, and has to swap out names. And so, Hwa-yong is married to the crown prince while Bu-yong spends the rest of her days wearing a half-mask to cover the ugly burn.
They grow into adulthood, and Bu-yong (Han Ji-min) becomes a sort of perpetual shadow-bridesmaid to her sister (Jung Yumi), tagging along on walks in the palace, trailing a step behind the happy couple. She spends her time embroidering beautiful designs that her sister takes credit for; Hwa-yong preens while Yi Gak heaps her with praise for her silk butterfly.
Yi Gak quotes verse and looks to his wife for a witty reply. Hwa-yong darts a nervous look at her sister, who answers instead. Aw, it’s like Cyrano in reverse. Bu-yong loves the man who was supposed to be her husband, who thinks her work is that of someone else, who doesn’t know what she even looks like.
Yi Gak is impressed with his sister-in-law’s answer, and they spar back and forth in poetic repartee. It’s cute, which is why Hwa-yong stews and inserts herself back into the conversation — but he’s caught up in the fun of wordplay and offers Bu-yong a riddle to solve. Okay, how awesome is it that the shallow prince thought he wanted a pretty bride, but is much more stimulated by the brain of a smart girl? I love that Hwa-yong can only comment on superficial things, like “Look at that pretty flower,” while the riddles go over her head.
Yi Gak’s riddle: What dies despite living, and lives despite dying? She mulls this over, and Hwa-yong laughs prettily about not knowing the answer. Yeah, you wouldn’t.
Another time leap. We return to the opening scene, as Yi Gak deals with the aftermath of his wife’s death. Taking charge, he orders an investigation into last night’s events and vows to find her killer, so he can rip him to shreds. As he sobs, the butterfly from the embroidered design becomes real, returning as a motif in our next time-skip.
Modern-day New York. Sketching by the street is Yi Gak — er, Tae-yong in this life. (No Quantum Leap? Hm.) Seeing a butterfly, Tae-yong reaches for it, which draws his attention to the girl in the distance: Park-ha, selling fruit.
Two boys pilfer apples and she throws one at them; it flies through the air and knocks him in the head instead. His cousin YONG TAE-MU (Lee Tae-sung) arrives, fresh off the plane from Korea, in time to help him up, allowing Park-ha to go after her thieves.
The boys go out for a drink, where they again run into Park-ha, this time working the bar. Like a good hyung, Tae-mu clocks his cousin’s interest in the girl and plays matchmaker, urging him to ask her out. Hilariously, Tae-yong has no game and misses his chance.
Park-ha gets happy news: She’s located her father and is heading to Korea. (I’m trying to decide which is worse: Decent acting with poor English, or bad acting in fluent English. Right now, I’m putting them at a draw. A draw called Use Mute, For Your Own Good.)
The cousins head out on Tae-yong’s yacht, since they’re both filthy stinkin’ chaebol-rich, although they have vastly different work and life ethics. The family corporation is run by Grandma, and both their fathers also work there. Tae-mu, the sharp businessman, works hard for the company while Tae-yong’s the artist who wants to stay here in New York and pursue his own interests.
The difference is rooted in their “unequal” birth; Tae-mu’s father is an illegitimate son and therefore his family line is not blood-related to Grandma CEO. Thus they never feel quite good enough, and Tae-mu has never dared call their CEO “Grandmother.” Meanwhile, Tae-yong is the favored grandson and tells his hyung they’re all the same family.
Tae-mu reveals that he’s here to drag him back to Korea, on Granny’s orders. It’s time for Tae-yong to take his position at the company. Tae-yong has no desire to inherit and wants to leave it to his cousin and uncle.
Tae-mu yells this exposition at Tae-yong, reminding him of their places in the family. Tempers rise and Tae-yong pushes his hyung in frustration, who punches him back… and sends him over the rail and into the water, hitting his head on the way. Somebody’s been watching Ringer!
Tae-mu starts to dash to save him, but at the last minute he hesitates. Ooh, shades of Se-na. He watches Tae-yong floating away, then starts wiping away fingerprints from the boat. He finds Tae-yong’s phone, which contains photos of them taken today, and throws it into the water. Then he jumps into the water to
attempt rescue swim away.
When Tae-mu returns to Korea, his girlfriend welcomes him back — Se-na. Aw, these two backstabbers found each other. There is somebody for everybody!
He reports to his family that Tae-yong has disappeared, not betraying that he knows (or believes) him to be dead. He says that he couldn’t find him in New York, and that nobody knows where he could be.
Park-ha also arrives in Korea, and gets a positive match from a DNA test. Her father has been eager to locate her and had his information in the DNA database. The problem is… he’s dead.
Park-ha arrives at his funeral parlor, just days late. Se-na arrives dressed in her obligatory blacks but not the least bit sad, and wonders about the sobbing girl at the altar. She tenses upon learning it’s Park-ha, bracing for the truth to come out — but to her relief Park-ha doesn’t remember her. She sustained a head injury from a car accident and doesn’t recognize Se-na, which buys her some time. For now.
Back to Joseon times. Yi Gak finds resistance from the court regarding his investigation. He argues that it was a murder but nobody else wants to open a political can of worms and isn’t willing to make that judgment. The princess’s own father argues in favor of an accident, saying that Hwa-yong liked to take walks at night.
The police chief reports finding a witness: A court lady says that the princess was walking by the pond and slipped. The court lady ran away out of fear, fought her apprehenders, and was killed in the tussle. It’s likely this story has been fabricated, and based on everyone’s reactions I’m putting my money on the girls’ father. But the prince has no recourse, and no momentum to press his argument.
Time to go rogue and assemble the prince’s entourage. First up: SONG MAN-BO (Lee Min-ho), who lives as a playboy because his illegitimate birth prevented him from taking public office. But he’s highly educated and smart, and has put those brains to good use solving a recent murder case. Now Yi Gak seeks him out with a new murder case to solve.
Next, Yi Gak saves a man from execution: WOO YONG-SOOL (Jung Seok-won) is charged with the murder of a nobleman who killed his mother and defiled his sister. Furthermore, he killed seven of the man’s bodyguards, and now his swordsmanship will serve Yi Gak.
Then there’s DO CHI-SAN (Choi Woo-shik), whom we meet dressed as a gisaeng and peeing at a man’s urinal. HAHA. He was raised as a eunuch to serve in the palace, but was kicked out for being too friendly with the court lades. But… he’s a eunuch. Isn’t that sort of like nipping that problem in the bud?
In any case, now he’s part of a top gisaeng establishment, a position that allows him access to a lot of high-ranking officials. Using his stealth and wits, he’s able to pick up on all sorts of top-secret information. Oh, Korea, always taken down by your two biggest weakness, liquor and libido.
Now the trio is gathered, cleaned up, and dressed in what will become their trademark colors — woot, Voltron complete. They’re brought to court under the prince’s aegis, as his own private task force. Aw, he’s fulfilling their unfulfilled potential; that’s sweet.
Yi Gak walks them through the last night the princess was alive, which wasn’t particularly unusual. Bu-yong had dropped by to solve his riddle, he had a drink, then he slept. When he woke up, the princess was gone.
Scholarly Man-bo retraces the princess’s steps, and reports that it’s feasible that she was poisoned. She could have walked to the pond before the poison kicked in, and fallen in the water.
Warrior Yong-sool tracks down a dealer of arsenic powder, who’s dead when he arrives. Looks like somebody’s covering up some tracks. But with this information, the Voltron task force deduces the culprit: the dried persimmon, with poison sprinkled on top.
Oh, damn. Could it be?
Gisaeng-eunuch-womanizer (how is he all those things?) Chi-san keeps his ears open for gossip about the princess’s death, and is able to track down a witness. Yi Gak insists on going right away, so the foursome heads out that night, coming to the meeting point in the forest.
But as soon as they arrive, they’re ambushed. Arrows fly at them in the dark, and Yong-sool springs into action, defending his party from attackers. The prince and his men ride off, pursued by archers who keep shooting arrows after them.
Bad news: They fast approach the end of the line, coming to a cliff. With no choice, Yi Gak spurs his horse to make the jump across the abyss, to the opposite cliff…
…but as their horses leap, the men are bucked into the air like ET defying gravity, at the exact moment that the moon is eclipsed. The horses land safely down below, but bearing no riders — the guys are nowhere in sight. Voltron go poof.
2012. Two years have passed since Tae-yong died and Park-ha returned to Korea. She has scraped together a modest living, opening a tiny shop in the marketplace. She’s on good terms with her stepmother, and materialistic Se-na is as pouty and bitter as ever.
Mom and Se-na leave, and Park-ha closes up for the night. She heads to her rooftop home, breathing in happily as she makes her way into the cozy, cramped home.
And then, a strange sight catches her eye: four very strangely dressed men sitting in her living room, still gleaming with moonlight.
She demands to know who they are, jolting them out of their trance. She brandishes a frying pan, and they jump back in fear.
What a whole lotta setup. I’m surprised they managed to squeeze in so much plot to the premiere, but glad they managed to do it — we all know about the time-warp, so the sooner the boys make it, the better. No need to tease that out; we just want it to happen.
The time-skipping actually helps move the story along briskly, because it allows us to get to the meat of each scene without lingering too long in aftermath. It also develops the parallels between past and present, in a shorthand that I’m grateful for since I don’t need lots of heavy-handed dramatics hammering in the point. I suspect it’s tougher to follow the time-skips in the recap than in watching the drama, because I found it fairly easy to keep track of which timespace we were in, despite the abundance of them.
I loved everything about the Joseon era, because I found the conflict there refreshing — it’s basically a whodunnit, cloaked in sageuk garb. It’s not about royal succession or clan warfare or high treason; it’s a straight-up murder mystery.
I find it an interesting choice to make the victim somebody we don’t like, although the prince is deeply mournful. But it’s also a great twist to point the finger at Bu-yong, because surely our heroine can’t be the murderer, can she? But who else has a motive? Why here, why now? There’s always the suspicious father — but why would he kill his own daughter? The use of the persimmons was a nice touch, because it seemed like a throwaway bit early on, and then came back to be a crucial clue. I’m pretty sure it can’t be her, and that it’s designed to make us worry it might be her… but in the absence of an alternative, it’s an effective twist.
The sisterly strife is an interesting reversal of expectations, because of Bu-yong’s sorrowful feelings for the prince and what she could have had. It’s not a repeat of the Moon/Sun dynamic, where one princess usurps the other one, because in this case Yi Gak clearly loves his wife. It’s a missed chance, but not a cosmic injustice. Yet we can see that perhaps he would have been just as happy with Bu-yong as his wife, because they’re so well-suited on an intellectual level. Nice touch there.
So, the Joseon plot is a win for me. I was onboard when the guys were in crime-solving mode and doing their Reservoir Dogs strut, and I anticipate I’ll be even more onboard when they go comedic for the fish-out-of-water stuff.
I’m glad to see how much better Yoochun’s gotten, which is a bonus. It’s refreshing to see the growth; it’s not that his Sungkyunkwan and Ripley turns were poor, per se — but seeing him exhibiting so much more range here shows what we were missing in those other roles. It’s like he turned up his energy dial. Part of that is the way the characters were written, and part of it is due to being more comfortable in the role.
The show isn’t without downsides, though, and with so many pieces in motion, not all of the tonal variants mesh perfectly together. I like the present-day stuff that we’ve just barely gotten to see, but I’m more skeptical about the stuff from the sisters’ childhood (circa late 1980s) and the yacht death. I get that the parallels are intentional, but having both our hero and heroine ditched by sibling figures, who then end up dating? Erm, I’m not sold.
Plus, I’m not sure about this whole two-heroes thing. Yi Gak AND Tae-yong? Really? Okay, I suppose if we’re building a world of doppelgangers — a sort of alternaverse — then it makes sense that everybody gets a double, not just the two girls. So yes, I see what you did there. But I was all ready to root for Yi Gak, full-force, and now you throw me another poor hero and split my rooting powers? I feel like I don’t know who’s the “proper” hero when you’ve got the second guy floating around (hur hur) to play spoiler.
The one thing that does make the two-heroes bit worth it, I suspect, is seeing Tae-mu’s reaction when his long-lost cousin reappears and turns his world upside down, but starts talking all funny and acting like a royal pain in the ass. ‘Cause he’s going to be an ass, right?
Verdict: Well-paced, nice overarching whodunnit to maintain suspense, and some refreshing conflicts that deviate from the usual suspects (mixed in with a few familiar ones that don’t get me excited, but which I’ll tolerate). I’m waiting for the show to bring the funny, but I expect that’ll come sooner than later.
- Rooftop Prince in a box
- Rooftop couple cuddle up for poster shoots
- Rooftop Prince’s cast pose for sel-cas
- The Rooftop posse assembles for a test shoot
- Jung Seok-won turns into Rooftop warrior
- Lee Min-ho goes from Moon/Sun to Rooftop
- Jung Yumi fills out the Rooftop love triangle
- Han Ji-min to play princess to Yoochun’s Rooftop Prince
- Yoochun turns into a prince for new drama