New drama! MBC’s spy-action-romantic-comedy Level 7 Civil Servant premiered today, and performed solidly out of the gates, less than a percentage point behind the leader, Jeon Woo-chi. (First place had 13.6%, Level 7 Civil Servant pulled in a 12.7%, and The Great Seer came in third with 9.6%.)
Speaking of Jeon Woo-chi, fear not, we aren’t dropping recaps—they will be up. But we were eager to weigh in on this drama too, and see if it would live up to the bubbly fun of its movie inspiration.
The answer to that… is mixed. There were good points and some not-as-good. We’re still setting up the world so it feels a bit early to give a definite verdict… although in one sense, that’s a partial verdict already: The first episode was light and easy, but wasn’t firing on all cylinders for either the rom or the com. It’s getting there, but not fully baked yet. Let’s cross our fingers that once the spy setup is complete, we’ll be ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
SONG OF THE DAY
Yoari – “니 이름이 뭐니?” (What is your name?) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We land in Seoul as a woman (our heroine) dashes along the street carrying books, running late for class. She’s KIM KYUNG-JA (Choi Kang-hee), tomboyish and serious-looking.
From the other direction, a young man (our hero) takes his sweet time, pausing to primp in a cafe window and miming firing a gun like he’s a hotshot spy. He’s HAN PIL-HOON (Joo-won), trendy and fashionably dressed. And I’m sure he knows it.
(Note: They bear different names in the character descriptions, Seo-won and Gil-ro. Presumably they’ll adopt new names with their spy identities, but for now I’ll use the names they’re using.)
They arrive in the same lobby at the same time, and Kyung-ja ducks at the last minute and sends Pil-hoon tripping over her. Oblivious, she dashes off to class, which turns out to be a prep class for entering service with the national intelligence—a CIA cram school, if you will.
Kyung-ja pays rapt attention and jots down notes in her spiral notebook, while Pil-hoon sends her a dirty look and taps out notes in his high-tech tablet. So she’s analog, he’s digital. Got it.
After class, Pil-hoon heads to the shooting range, where he hits the bulls-eye with every bullet. Kyung-ja, on the other hand, dashes off immediately to her job as a parking attendant. In spare moments, she sneaks looks at the notes she’s taped up to the side of the parking box, getting in her studying time whenever she can. Ah, she’s one of those. A dramaland Candy, hard-working and self-sufficient, crawling toward her dream one part-time job at a time.
A far cry from Pil-hoon, who drives a fancy sports car and hangs out with fellow rich kids who race their wheels for fun. Pil-hoon’s turn comes up, and he speeds alongside his rival. Both cars cut in front of each other dangerously on a winding mountain road in a scene that takes way too long—yeah, you poured money into this shot, good for you—to show us that Pil-hoon (1) enjoys the adrenaline rush, but (2) not losing.
He starts off smiling as he congratulates the winner, but can’t let the loss stand and challenges his opponent to a rematch. The other guy calls him a newbie for blaming his equipment instead of his inferior driving skills and declines, taunting that if he really wants to, he should at least put his car on the line.
Pil-hoon fumes as the crowd laughs along with his opponent, then agrees to the term. They’ll race again next time, with his car as the prize.
Kyung-ja also teaches at a geomdo (kendo) school, dashing from that job to her next gig at a convenience store, where she continues studying behind the counter. Her friend Jin-ju pops by to offer her another job, this one making decent money and utilizing Kyung-ja’s assets to best effect: “Your top-of-the-line knowledge, your just-above-average looks, and your average figure!” Oh, friends.
The gig: posing as a prospective date for those mat-seon blind date setups. It’s illegal but the pay is good, and Jin-ju runs her own dating service that needs a little help. Kyung-ja turns her down flat since it’s unethical to string along a poor guy who thinks he’s getting a real girlfriend, and her friend huffs that it’s Kyung-ja’s fault if she goes bankrupt.
Kyung-ja immerses herself in her crammed-to-the-gills lifestyle, juggling all her balls in the air with nary a spare second to breathe. In another class session, the instructor puts the students through a mock interview process where the question is “Why do you want to work for the NIS?” (National Intelligence Service, that is.)
Prodded to answer with honesty and fervor, Kyung-ja starts to say that she initially wanted to produce educational television programs and shine a light on social inequalities, but the instructor cuts her off—not that kind of honesty. That’s not what they want to hear! She resumes with the textbook answer, which gets his approval: “For my country!”
Pil-hoon arrives home at 3 in the morning to find his disapproving dad waiting up for him. Dad starts in on an argument they must’ve had hundreds of times before, bemoaning the fact that his son isn’t a chip off the old block, eager to join him in his business and pursue the only really worthwhile pursuit: making money. Dad scraped up his current fortune all on his own from a young age and thinks Pil-hoon is barking up the wrong tree with civil service—even the president only gets five years in office. He says that his youthful rebellion is a waste of time. Come and work for the company asap.
Pil-hoon is spared further lecturing by the appearance of his mother, who’s a lot more sympathetic to her boy. She’s not quite the overbearing mother of Lee Mi-sook-ian proportions, but Pil-hoon’s definitely a mama’s boy. He slips away while Mom and Dad start bickering.
Lying on his bed, Pil-hoon sends a wistful look at the 007 poster on his wall, which sends him into a flashback of the time he first saw the Bond movie in the theater and was smitten with the spy life. Man, that movie is Tomorrow Never Dies and he’s practically a baby—does that make you feel ancient or what?
Mom, meanwhile, assures Dad that she has a plan for their boy’s future. I love that Dad’s immediate response is, “Did you get a fortune read?” She launches into her findings excitedly, about how there’s this really awesome fortuneteller who is bang on the money about everything—she even credits her for foreseeing the house fire that almost killed Pil-hoon. She says Pil-hoon’s lack of direction is all due to some cosmic twistiness and bad omens that they need to work out.
Hilariously, the answer she’s been given is a woman. As in, Pil-hoon needs one. In particular, one born in the year of the tiger.
We get a glimpse of that burn scar on Pil-hoon’s back as Mom presents her plan to him, urging him to go on ten mat-seon blind dates. She’ll pick out the ladies with the perfect specs and all he has to go and meet them, keeping his options open for fate.
Pil-hoon scoffs and refuses flatly, thinking this is all a bunch of bunk. Until she starts throwing bribes at him, including a new car. He stops in his tracks.
They settle on the compromise of five ladies, with two dates per lady, each date two hours long. No blowing off the dates, and no dragging out of time just to meet her time specifications.
Kyung-ja gets a call from Mom about her father’s tractor accident and hurries down to the family house in the countryside, where her rural accent reasserts itself. The home is lined with academic awards from Kyung-ja’s youth, so she was always the high achiever.
She was also constantly at odds with Dad, it appears, which we can tell right away from the way they grump at each other and bite each other’s heads off. He gruffly tells her not to come back till she’s got a real job, complaining that she’s always going to school and never actually going anywhere with it.
The nagging is done out of love, but it’s aggravating all the same and Kyung-ja retorts that she won’t ever come back then, and storms out. She stops to give Mom more money, though, urging her to please buy some proper clothing that isn’t ridden with holes. Clearly Kyung-ja cares a lot about her parents, but it all comes out in waves of frustration and she leaves stubbornly ignoring Mom’s entreaties to take her kimchi back with her.
Pil-hoon goes on his blind dates in quick succession, infuriating the ladies one after another by ignoring them the whole time in favor of studying his lecture notes. He calls it multi-tasking; they call it being an asshole and storm off.
No surprise that they all reject his offer for a second date, and Mom takes him to task for not taking them seriously. She orders him to hand over his credit cards, cutting him off and withdrawing the car offer, sighing that she’d gone through such effort to pick out ladies with the potential to be his fated match.
Pil-hoon points out that if they were really meant to be, wouldn’t the girls have recognized that or waited for him? He says flatly that there’s no such thing as fate. Mom counters that there is, and that fate comes “like a thief.” I suppose she means that it catches you unawares, not that it robs you blind and leaves you bereft.
Kyung-ja is turned down for a new loan, since she’s maxed out her school loan limit. Conveniently, her attention strays to her friend’s business card and the date offer…
She wrestles with it for a good long while, changing her mind a half-dozen times before finally biting the bullet. She needs a new identity for the job, though, since she’s been presented as a diplomat’s daughter, and so when she arrives to meet Pil-hoon she introduces herself with the false name Seo-won.
As usual, Pil-hoon takes out his tablet to start studying. Far from being offended, Kyung-ja figures that is as good a time as any to get in extra studying time for herself, too, and takes out her books. It catches him off-guard, and they stay like that reading in silence for the whole two hours, at which point she promptly gets up to go.
By now he’s pretty intrigued, and for a moment he even sees her in a prettified light, replete with rosy haze and flattering backlighting. Heh. He asks for a second date, but is actually surprised when she agrees to it. She doesn’t much care either way and says, “Or not, whatever”—and that pricks his ego. He agrees to the second date for tomorrow, same time and place.
When her friend Jin-ju gets the recap about Kyung-ja’s date, she’s amazed to hear that they both spent the entire time in their books and mutters that they’re both abnormal. Kyung-ja shrugs that the guy turned out decent after all—because he left her alone and let her study. Ha.
On the other hand, Pil-hoon mulls over her odd reaction and the “Or not, whatever” reaction to his request for a second date. Petty, petty boy who can’t stand the idea of the girl not liking him. He considers Mom’s words about fate, and then briefly flashes back to how pretty she looked. Lol. Proof that playing hard to get sometimes does work, I suppose.
On to the NIS call center, where a beleaguered middle-aged agent, KIM WON-SEOK (Ahn Nae-sang) mans the phone line. A frivolous call sends his temper shooting, and his boss, the NIS director, reminds him to keep calm and carry on.
Won-seok takes out the director for lunch and presents him with concert tickets—he calls it a “bribe” and asks for the favor of being put in charge of picking the top new recruits. For some reason he’s got his heart set on the job, and he makes his case to the boss.
The second date starts out much the same way, with Kyung-ja getting out her timer and her book to study away the two hours. They even get to quizzing each other on test questions, which they both answer knowledgeably.
But things soon head south when Pil-hoon asks why she came to the second date, still unable to figure her out. He guesses that it was because of the money, which briefly makes her freeze guiltily until he clarifies that he means his family wealth. He starts to go off on her as being the “kind of woman I hate most,” the kind who sell themselves off for the highest price and who go to college to score a successful marriage. It’s women like her who have ruined courtship, he accuses. Well, she picked the wrong guy, since he has no intention of taking over daddy’s business.
It’s not that he’s totally wrong but he IS shooting off in the wrong direction, and Kyung-ja sets him straight: she has no interest in marrying into a chaebol family. She merely signed up for the date because she put her faith in the reputable service to find her a good man.
Pil-hoon actually invokes fate, saying that’s what brings people together—can the matchmaker serve up fate too? He calls this date over and gets up to leave.
Kyung-ja panics—she’s got to fill the two hours to get paid—and calls him back to turn the question around on him. He must have nothing but money to recommend him, which is why he’s got a distorted view of the situation, assuming everyone’s only interested in money. He retorts that she knows nothing about him, so she suggests they sit and talk to get to know each other more.
He says he’s got plans, saying she’ll have to tag along if she wants to keep chatting. “Or not, whatever,” he adds with a smirk. Ha, I wouldn’t be surprised if you planned this whole conversation just so you could toss those words back at her.
As he drives, he wonders why she studies so hard when she could just ask her diplomat father to hook her up. Wouldn’t it be better just to live life comfortably, without thinking too hard?
It chafes to be treated like the spoiled dilettante he thinks she is, but she can’t exactly defend herself honestly, so she can only speak generally about hard-working people who don’t get by on their connections. That actually pisses him off a little, and Pil-hoon tells her not to compare herself to the poor hardworking person she purports to sympathize with. It’s an interesting dynamic where both have these defensive walls regarding money, though they’re coming at them from different sides. He makes a glib comment about how she should live with more on the line instead of sitting back in her easy life, and then gets ready to race.
Only after Pil-hoon starts the engine does Kyung-ja register what they’re here to do, and that she’s now stuck in the car. Zoom zoom.
This time Pil-hoon gets off to the lead and he’s making good time, cutting off his rival effectively by swerving back and forth. Only, a freaked-out Kyung-ja starts hitting his arm and yanking his hair, demanding that he pull over. Yes, beating the driver is the best way to get out of this alive.
Pil-hoon does the best he can to drive on with the distraction, but when an oncoming truck nearly flattens them it takes everything to swerve out of danger and their car skids sideways across the finish line, slamming into (now-empty) chairs. He starts to rail at her furiously, but registers that Kyung-ja’s sobbing and shaking like a leaf.
She stalks out of the car and turns on him in a rage: “I do live with everything on the line. But I won’t put it on the line for crap like this. Do you know what living is? So you’ve got some money—that lets you look down on people? Jerks like you are trash. You’re worth 235,000 won.” She gives him a mighty kick in the shins, then starts the long trek down the mountain road.
Pil-hoon’s smug rival demands his prize, and Pil-hoon has to hand them over before making the long walk himself. Rival boy drives his new wheels down the road and offers Kyung-ja a ride, saying it’s the least he could do since she won him the car. She hadn’t realized that, but at everybody’s shockingly cavalier attitude, she mutters, “Crazy jerks.”
When she finally reaches the base of the mountain, she puts in a call for Chinese delivery, asking merely for the cheapest thing on the menu. I guess she must be hungry?
She waits out in the cold for a long while, and the food doesn’t arrive until Pil-hoon arrives as well, his eyes lighting up with a vengeful smile—she is DEAD now.
But then she asks her delivery man for a ride back to town with him, and he misses his chance. Ha, was that her plan all along, to pay a few bucks for a free ride? That’s pretty clever.
NIS agent Won-seok treats his colleagues out to dinner, encouraging them to eat up and support him in their upcoming vote to pick who gets to lead the recruitment process. He really wants the job and is all smiles, despite the fact that the mood in the room is markedly unfriendly. None of his co-workers responds, and he has to assure them that although he may be a bit of a blot on the agency’s record, he surely won’t disgrace them.
The leader of these co-workers seems to have their loyalty much more, and had in fact been asked by the director in private to take the job. Guess the “bribe” wasn’t enough. And he seems the honorable, charismatic sort who would command that kind of respect. He’s the one who challenges Won-seok now, and hits a nerve with a loaded question: Is the reason he wants this job related to the botched mission five years ago? The one where Choi sunbae died?
Immediately Won-seok gets angry, and a flashback shows us why. It’s Uhmforce! We watch as the eeeevil spy (we can tell from the smirk, and the hair) turns his gun on Won-seok, just as Choi sunbae leaps in front to grapple with the baddie. A shot goes off, and Choi sunbae rolls over, bleeding.
Won-seok says yes, Choi sunbae died because of him, and storms out of the dining room. Mere seconds later, though, he comes back quietly and tells them all in this sweetly resigned voice that he really, really wants this job. Promising to do it justice, he bows respecfully and asks for their support.
It’s surprising, then, that after Won-seok leaves it’s the leader who stands up for him to the rest of the room, reminding them that this is the kind of decent guy he is—Won-seok takes blame for things that weren’t even his fault.
The others argue that Won-seok should have protected Choi. The leader counters, “If I die, I die believing in Won-seok.”
Airport. Our resident baddie returns to Korea, and from the greeting he receives from his taxi driver (a disguised agent on his side), it’s been a while since he and his colleague (played by Kim Soo-hyun) have been here.
He seems the paranoid sort and reminds his partner to be extra-vigilant about NIS agents everywhere. Furthermore, mere mention of the name South Korea sends his lips in a curl.
He opens up a new casefile… and sees a photo of Pil-hoon. Hm, their new target?
Pil-hoon calls Jin-ju, the dating agency CEO, to complain about the bad match who cost him his car. Jin-ju pesters Kyung-ja for the details, worried about a lawsuit, and threatens not to pay her for her work. But Kyung-ja returns the pay she’d already received and says it wasn’t honest money anyway: “I’m not sure I can live well. But I won’t live badly.”
The NIS holds its open recruitment test, and from the looks of it Pil-hoon
and Kyung-ja both ace it easily. They advance to the next round of interviews, and have a few near misses where they juust barely escape an encounter.
Won-seok is indeed the man running the show, although you wonder if he thinks it’s worth it from the canned answers given by all the potential recruits. It’s all “for my country” this and “for my country” that—like they got their interview tips from a recruitment brochure.
They’re called in simultaneously to interview in different rooms, where they have a go at their own responses to the question. Pil-hoon is all confidence and smiles, saying he wants to live “a cool life.” Won-seok informs him that if he’s thinking 007, he’s got it all wrong because their jobs are not at all glamorous.
Pil-hoon has a glib response, saying that there’s nothing as cool as living a life for one reason—and his reason is for his country.
Kyung-ja’s interviewer (Jang Young-nam, yay) is much more of a hardass about her canned response, cutting her off to say that she must’ve picked it up at an academy where they coach everyone to say the same thing. Did she come here to play around?
Both get challenged further, as Pil-hoon is asked how exactly he supposes he’ll love his country forever. Pil-hoon lists all of his many qualifications — all the SCUBA and shooting and racing training he’s undergone, all with his eye on becoming an NIS agent. He boasts, “I have the confidence that I can follow this One Path [han gil-ro] forever, in my love of this country.”
But Won-seok notes, his grades aren’t so hot.
Yet in the other room, Kyung-ja is told that her exemplary grades aren’t enough, either. The NIS isn’t interested in merely good grades—what is country to her? Kyung-ja fumbles to answer, and her recruiter informs her that she’s out of the running.
So our hero and heroine are both dismissed, for seemingly opposing and contradictory reasons, and leave their rooms in a confused whirl. Just as they spot each other. Oh crap.
All in all, the first outing was something of a mixed bag. Not definitively great or terrible, and certainly solid enough to keep tuning in. But too bad it’s not the home-run hit I was hoping for, especially since I loved the film version of Level 7 Civil Servant so much. (By the way, yes I see that the show has called itself “7th Grade Civil Servant,” but I am pointedly ignoring that translation for the errant picture that conjures up of a 13-year-old Joo-won in braces and pimples, brandishing a toy gun and yelling, “Piu-piu!” I already have a hard time seeing him as a grown-up man and not an adorable wee pinchy-cheeked boy without literally calling him a 7th-grader.)
The good: There’s potential here. The leads seem interesting, though him more than her, since she’s every Candy we’ve seen before and therefore sort of old hat. I want to see more of her personality and inner thoughts, and we’ve got hints and some deeper issues with her family background, as well as her frustration with living her life diligently and unspectacularly. But there’s room for growth and development on that front.
The not-so-good: This episode felt a bit empty, in that it took longer than it needed to in almost every instance. I felt like we were ahead of the game at every step, so I wanted the story to just get there already.
This director has a tendency to belabor points, too, which can get a little annoying. It’s the type of storytelling where they clearly don’t trust you to be able to put two and two together, and so they hammer in the point. Again. And again, just in case the first two tries didn’t get the message across.
In a rom-com, this kind of hammer touch can really put a damper on the zippy fun, which needs to snap and crackle. I hope that the show learns to pace itself more crisply, because Spy vs. Spy is always a fun concept, especially with romance on the line and campy uber-villains on the loose.
Speaking of whom, Uhmforce is cracking me up, although admittedly I’m not entirely convinced this is intentional. I’ll take it even if it’s not, but I do hope the show embraces the over-the-top darkness they’re shrouding him in, because they’re definitely not pulling off the straight version of the cool mystery man.
So, I’m a little disappointed that the show isn’t as funny as I was hoping, or as fast. As consolation, it IS a light and fluffy show that is easily watchable. But we’ve barely scratched the surface of the actual premise, so I’m hoping that the leads and the spy world will get us up to speed soon.
- Joo-won: 007 Civil Servant
- Level 7 Civil Servant’s ballroom flirting and agent training
- Uhm Tae-woong’s Level 7 Civil Servant guest appearance
- Winks, finger guns, and blind dates for Level 7 Civil Servant
- The bickering begins on Level 7 Civil Servant
- Joo-won shoots (hur hur) for Level 7 Civil Servant
- Level 7 Civil Servant starts shooting
- Level 7 Civil Servant adds to its spy count