The Superman Age: Series review
Cable comedy The Superman Age wrapped its run a couple weeks ago, after a somewhat low-key outing on tvN, and is a show I enjoyed immensely, though not necessarily because of a great plot or catchy pacing or even sharp writing. It showed glimmers of those things and had an interesting story, sure, but to me, The Superman Age is remarkable less for the specifics of its plot and more for the space it occupies in the greater drama landscape, tackling an experimental approach tonally and a comedy style that felt bold and fresh (at least, new for Korean television).
I’m a huge fan of genre expansion and experimentation, and am always excited to see storytellers pushing in new directions, which you certainly feel with The Superman Age, which is directed and written by its lead actor, Yoo Byung-jae, a 27-year-old comedian and writer who gained a lot of his name recognition from SNL Korea. He’s a talent on the rise (who just got snapped up by YG Entertainment along with fellow SNL Korea colleague Ahn Young-mi—it makes me excited to see what YG does with this kind of talent), and even with The Superman Age’s unevenness and various flaws, you can see his clear creative stamp at every step—wry, self-deprecating, and cutting.
So while the show is definitely a bit messy and low-rent and off-the-wall, it gives me hope that dramaland will make room for newer voices and keep giving chances to quirky sensibilities. That is, if the TV stations resist their knee-jerk impulses to cater to the almighty ratings numbers and allow their fledgling talents the room to develop.
SONG OF THE DAY
Trans Fixion – “Time After Time” [ Download ]
Premise-wise, the show was a winner from the get-go: Staying a virgin till the age of 25 awards a group of losers with superpowers, which they’ll have to use to save the world from an unspecified doomsday while experiencing the regular vicissitudes of being jobless and hapless, considered by society to be useless. (In case you missed it, here’s the recap for Episodes 1 and 2. Note: Each hour is split into two episodes, so technically there are 14. But that amounts to seven hours, followed by a one-episode special.) In execution, it was flawed in spots; I’d argue that its strengths more than made up for its weaknesses, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Two of these losers, Byung-jae and Kim Chang-hwan (School 2013), are on the cusp of graduating into a society that has no place for them, leaving them poor and starving and without prospects. Byung-jae is a sad-sack pushover, knowing exactly when and how he is being used, but allowing it anyway because, well, he’s just that guy. The guy who helps you anyway, who thinks at the same time that no girl will like him while hoping with all his heart that someone will.
Chang-hwan’s timidity, on the other hand, barely hides a simmering anger underneath the surface, though he speaks quietly and with a pronounced stutter. It’s a hilariously crushing moment when Byung-jae wonders why Chang-hwan’s stutter goes away with him and Chang-hwan replies that it only affects him with people who are cooler or better off then him. Which is to say, Byung-jae is the loseriest loser who ever lost.
Byung-jae and Chang-hwan are sought out by a mysterious man who tells them of their destiny to save the world with their powers, a thought they scoff at until encountering their newfound powers and putting them to use, to mixed results. The group is complete when they find the third virgin, Lee Yi-kyung (Maids, You’re All Surrounded), a blowhard with entrepreneurial aspirations, quoting Steve Jobs and certain that his next startup idea will take flight, even though he’s left a dozen failed ones in his wake. There’s a hilarious moment when the boys puff up in excitement to hear they’re destined for hero-hood… and all they have to do to cover up their secret identities is get jobs and girlfriends. Wah wahhhhh! Like they wouldn’t even be in this position if they could get those two things.
The trio discover their weirdly random superpowers that are both kinda cool and kinda useless: Yi-kyung can hear animal thoughts, and Chang-hwan turns into a Hulk-like figure (aka Julien Kang) when provoked by lust (often prompted by a recitation of porn star names). Byung-jae finds he can jump back in time to a moment of “healing” (which turns out to be a euphemism for masturbation, HA) when incited to feeling shame. He taps into that shame regularly by stripping buck-naked, and when overexposure fails to produce adequately humiliating reactions, he adopts an even more extreme method that I won’t spoil for you here.
Yet even with this advantage, Byung-jae (and his friends) finds that there are limits to what his power will get him; even if you can relive a moment a dozen times, you’ll never not be you. Byung-jae realizes this when he undergoes a job interview thirty-seven times to live out every possible wrong answer and correct it in the next round, only to be rejected anyway. In another instance, a fried chicken deliveryman sees the boys struggle to code a mobile app and helpfully fixes the error for them, having once had loftier goals for himself. Byung-jae sees his future in that moment and sighs, “So in the end, it’s a chicken shop for us.”
My favorite aspect of The Superman Age is its comic timing; its sense of humor is completely deadpan, depending heavily on editing to get the punchline across. The characters themselves are living completely earnest lives and find little about themselves to be funny—there’s no slapstick sensibility, no look-at-me physical gags—so it’s up to the timing to turn moments that feel brutal for the characters into laugh-out-loud punchlines for us.
In fact, for a show that’s so funny, there’s an awful lot of crying from the characters, whose pain is sincere and real. Byung-jae and Chang-hwan are caught in one-sided crushes and struggle to make their feelings known while being scared of rejection—normal, youthful concerns that no amount of time-turning or Hulkifying can fix. (On the contrary, there’s a laugh-out-loud funny sequence when Byung-jae struggles to make his confession, only to be stymied by his cursed superpower that shoots him back in time because the confession itself brings him embarrassment—which means he has to live out the moment multiple times to even get to be able to confess.)
Which leads to the other highlight of The Superman Age, which is the sense of poignancy you feel via its characters despite the absurdity of its plot. I dislike comedies where the acting is so exaggeratedly comical that it feels patronizing (as though we aren’t smart enough to get it without the Big Acting telling us this is funny). Here we have the opposite, where the actors play their characters with sincerity and trust that the comedy will come across in delivery. For being such a low-budget and small show, I’m impressed at the level of acting from the cast; Yoo Byung-jae, Kim Chang-hwan, and Lee Yi-kyung go in with full commitment and don’t break character, and as a result I feel for them when life throws them a bum deal.
I actually found the story at its best when it was being acidly realistic, and the humor through came in the small moments of relatability. It’s hardly Misaeng, but there’s an Everyman aspect to Byung-jae that makes you root for him (and feel that vicarious satisfaction when something goes his way, or he tells someone off).
So I can totally understand why viewership flagged when the story started to stray, losing focus as it wandered around with random side plots. The overall themes were there to tie things together, of young people trying to find their place in the world and figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, but in practice each character’s segments were loosely held together and felt abrupt, and not in step with the overarching narrative. It’s strange to think of how hysterically funny I found this show from joke to joke, but a lot of the in-between stuff felt strangely disjointed, like independent vignettes, or an episode of SNL.
I wonder if it’s a case where Yoo Byung-jae would have been better served bringing on more co-writers, because the show would have benefited greatly if all its various threads were tied together. I recognize the importance of the writer also being the director because visual cues and timing play such a crucial part in making the show work, but another set of eyes to tighten up the story would have done wonders. The ending, for example, is all sorts of WTF—one you feel was implemented more for laugh factor than narrative satisfaction. Would that we had both!
Still, just the fact that Yoo Byung-jae was given a series in which to explore this kind of storytelling and make his stamp known makes this series a win for him, even though commercially, it wasn’t a success. In fact, you could say that The Superman Age was more of a disappointment in the immediate sense, because while it premiered to a modest amount of buzz and a promising 2% rating, interest waned (understandably, as the plot wandered sideways in the middle) and got the show reduced to seven installments (from its initial eight), its finale recording a 0.9% rating.
To speak to how self-deprecating the show (and Yoo’s) sense of humor is, the special episode adopted a mockumentary format wherein the cast gathered at the TV station office to analyze in minute detail the exact reasons for their failings. It was, as in the tone of the show proper, at once dry and straight-faced and therefore totally hilarious.
Here’s where the live-shoot is both a boon and a curse, because sometimes you get really great and unexpected gems out of it—say, when something just clicks and the producers have the chance to draw it out and discard what isn’t working. But on the other hand, I’m constantly disappointed at how quick the stations are to ditch an idea before it even has a chance to take root; when you’re trying on an idea that hasn’t been done before, you have to account for people taking a little time to warm up to it. I recall that reactions to The Office were pretty negative at the outset, until that cringe-inducing mockumentary comedy style caught on with the mainstream, and then it became a critics’ darling. The Superman Age was definitely uneven and had its share of flaws, but the low lows also came with high highs, and I feel like it’s worth it to get those highlights.
This show reminds me quite a bit of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg collaborations, Spaced in particular, which was raw and low-budget but still able to show ample proof of their talents through the writing and editing. With more money and time, I wonder what kind of idea Yoo Byung-jae would be able to produce; if nothing else, I’m glad that this show raised his profile and made him more known so that maybe next time, he’ll be given the resources and opportunity to do more of what he wants.