After the Show Ends: Episode 1
The experimental hybrid reality-variety-drama project After the Show Ends premiered this weekend on tvN, and I was eager to check it out—mostly because I’ve been curious to see exactly how the show would pull off its genre-crossing format: There’s the show-within-the-show, Iron Lady, which is a fully produced mini-drama of its own, and then there’s the meta-narrative on top of that, which follows the making of the show with a focus on whether the actors feel romantic stirrings as a result of acting them out in the fictional storyline. Then there’s also the ad-libbed dialogue, the multiple lovelines, and the awkwardness of getting to know each other in real life as well as in the variety show format.
Basically, there’s a lot going on. I was eager to find out if it would come together in a cohesive package, and if I’d feel drawn to both sides of the show format—or if it would all fall flat in the wake of its ambitious setup.
Is it reality? Variety? Documentary? Mockumentary? Regular ol’ romance drama? Well, it’s sort of all of those things in some form, but not any single one of those things. The show doesn’t quite take the angle I was hoping for, but it does have a pretty solid idea of its format and what it wants to be, which becomes clear once you start watching. (The pre-show descriptions, on the other hand, were all over the place.)
The simplest description might be: Behind-the-scenes footage plus We Got Married, with a drama sandwiched in between. After the Show Ends covers the 26 days of production on Iron Lady, from first meeting to wrap, and comprises eight episodes. (Iron Lady also has eight episodes.)
After the Show Ends’ reality show segments are constructed like a regular variety program, with the standard captions and story flow that will feel familiar to watchers of variety. The actors are given some guidance as to what to do (for instance, arrange one-on-one meetings to run lines), but by and large, the interactions are their own, in all their natural awkwardness.
The prospect of romance is the main draw of this show, since the question driving After the Show Ends is “Can acting like you’re falling in love cause actors to fall in love?” And it’s the trickiest part of the show, because if none of the actors were to have chemistry or show sparks or indulge in flirting over the course of filming Iron Lady, the whole thing would be a flop. So it’s a bit of a gamble, posing a question like that and then leaving it to the whims of fate and casting to make your show’s concept happen. (Well, and likely some behind-the-behind-the-scenes prodding by producers.)
But of course you can’t order people to fall in love for real; all you can do is set the stage and hope for the best (and sure, tweak the editing and exaggerate scenes for dramatic effect). To the extent that a show can encourage romance, the producers have come up with their set of rules:
- We love and respect all of the actors.
- We will neither force nor hinder any romance between actors. (“It feels a lot like forcing,” the cast laughs.)
- We gratefully accept any natural skinship between the actors.
- We also welcome romance between staff members.
THE REALITY SHOW: “AFTER THE SHOW ENDS”
The cast members:
- Ha Suk-jin (Shark, Thrice Married Woman, Legendary Witches, D-Day) playing the role of Park Ryuk (meaning “forceful”). Suk-jin is the main character of the drama and by far the sunbae of the bunch, in age and acting experience.
- Yoon So-hee (Let’s Eat, Marriage Not Dating, Beloved Eun-dong, Memory), playing leading lady Go Al-li, who has a loveline with both Suk-jin and Minhyuk
- Lee Min-hyuk (aka BtoB’s Minhyuk) (A New Leaf, Sweet Savage Family, Nightmare Teacher) as Ma Rok-hee, Mr. Second Lead
- Yura from Girl’s Day (To the Beautiful You, Dodohara) as Jenny Kim, who has lovelines with both Suk-jin and Bo-hyun
- Ahn Bo-hyun (Best Lovers, Descended From the Sun), who’s something of a matched set with Jenny, playing quiet Daddy Long Legs character Kang-woo
It turns out that Suk-jin and So-hee have met before, on an episode of tvN talk program Problematic Men, when he’d been particularly struck by her and turned noticeably flirtatious. Suk-jin interviews that when the episode aired, it drew more attention than he’d expected; he’d been out of the country at the time, but thought that if he and So-hee had run into each other soon after the broadcast, they might have had some sparks.
Enough time has passed that the initial buzz has faded, but he thinks of it fondly as a time that gave him butterflies. I’m sure this must be a large reason for casting this pair in this project.
Episode 1 starts before official work on Iron Lady begins, as each actor is given scripts and a list of the others’ personal phone numbers. Everyone’s surprised to find a number of starred scenes in the script, where only a basic guideline is given (He says a line that makes her heart skip a beat) and it’s up to the actors to figure out what to say and how to deliver their lines. Suk-jin reads the direction to deliver a “unique kiss that surpasses the foam kiss [Secret Garden] and the candy kiss [IRIS kiss].” No pressure or anything.
The cast members call each other in turn, introducing themselves to each other and doing their best to be friendly despite the total awkwardness of chatting with (mostly) strangers. Over the next several days as they head into production, the cast meets for their first group meeting together, the script reading, then teaser shoots.
At the script read, the drama’s writer reveals that seven of eight episodes have been written, but the last is being left open, depending on how the shoots go. Bo-hyun’s first thought is to worry that if things don’t go well for him he might be cut out of the finale, while Minhyuk has the opposite thought—that this means he has the chance to go from supporting character to lead, if things work in his favor.
Bo-hyun jokes that he might end up liking Park Ryuk (Suk-jin) rather than Jenny (Yura’s character), and Suk-jin takes up the challenge, declaring that he’ll do his best to seduce everyone, regardless of gender. (We also get a glimpse of Suk-jin’s unexpected taste for corny humor and old-fashioned gags. It’s counter to his chic image, but this must be where they get the idea to give his character some of those corny lines. Which I think is a huge boost to his charm, because I’m tired of perfect cold professional heroes; eccentric dorks are much more interesting.)
At one cast gathering, the boys ask if they can call Suk-jin “hyung,” which prompts the decision to drop polite jondae speech, speaking familiarly instead. (This is a practice that flows downward; elders can drop speech readily, but the hoobaes generally stick to polite speech longer.) It also becomes a point of jealousy later, when watching one couple using banmal with each other makes another feel left out. (So-hee drops to banmal with Suk-jin to encourage a closer rapport, which he finds it a bold move but doesn’t seem to mind. Minhyuk had felt like banmal was their thing, and admits that it felt like it was being snatched away from him.)
Thus the show lays in some groundwork to create its own meta-love triangle: In the drama, Suk-jin and Minhyuk are both in lovelines with So-hee, and behind the scenes, we start to see a bit of vying for her attention. When Minhyuk pulls her aside to propose running lines together, for instance, Suk-jin tries not to look bothered by it.
Later at the teaser shoot, Suk-jin hangs back while the other cast members chat freely, looking left out. He admits that he’s reserved and doesn’t easily mingle, but feels the desire to get comfortable with his co-stars quickly.
And then, he has to hang back watching as Minhyuk gets a kiss scene with Sohee first, when they film their promo. Suk-jin gets a little agitated and jokingly refuses to film tomorrow—the romance isn’t real, but the competitive spirit and jealous impulses are.
SHOW-WITHIN-THE-SHOW: “IRON LADY” EPISODE 1
And then, we begin the drama-within-the-drama, Iron Lady. In a darkened office, a woman types a message to her boss about her mother being ill, then packs up and heads home. This is GO AL-LI (Yoon So-hee), and she tells us, “I’m an ordinary office worker.”
At Midnight Fight Club, the crowd goes wild over a match in progress. A tall, ripped boxer goes down fairly readily at the hands of a pint-sized woman wearing macabre dark makeup: “Ordinary” employee Go Al-li.
Al-li’s narration continues: “I’m Iron Lady.”
In the morning, Al-li drags herself out of bed with a groan, likening her mornings to spam email: You can hope they don’t come, but they still do. She gets ready for work, putting on simple plain clothes and makeup, and heads out. Her slob of a brother reminds her that it’s “today.”
At work, Al-li sits down in her cubicle and perks up (as do all the women in the office) at the arrival of their handsome boss, PARK RYUK (Ha Suk-jin). The ladies flirt with him and titter, while Al-li goes moony-eyed, conceding that every once in a while, you want to open a spam message.
Ryuk pauses and sniffs the air, and calls Al-li’s name.
Suddenly he’s pushing her against a glass window and breathing in her scent like it drives him wild, telling her huskily that he thought of her as soon as he woke. He swoops in to kiss her, pushing her against the glass. It’s pretty steamy, for a dramaland kiss.
Of course, it’s just Al-li’s fantasy, and she’s jolted out of it by a cranky co-worker.
Al-li’s workplace is a clothing company, and Park Ryuk is a newly transferred bureau director. Her moony-eyed fantasies continue through the team meeting he leads, even when he makes lame puns; Al-li sighs how even his corny jokes sound cool to her ears. Well, as long as you know it’s corny.
On a coffee break in the kitchen, Al-li tenses when joins her and makes conversation. In a moment of distraction she spills hot coffee on her hand, and he immediately pulls her to the sink to wash it in cold water.
Park Ryuk puts Al-li in charge of the new brand launch, which makes her day, then assigns her aloof co-worker MA ROK-HEE (Minhyuk) as her partner, which she’s much less excited about. She sees Rok-hee as the third wheel, impeding her chances for one-on-one face time with the boss. Sigh.
A co-worker gets fired when she’s caught working a side job (strictly forbidden at this office), and Al-li gulps a little to hear it. Her co-workers inform her of an office dinner tonight, but she says she can’t make it due to family issues. They narrow their eyes suspiciously and ask if she’s working another job too, and she nervously exclaims a denial.
Does fight club count as a side job? That night at Midnight Fight, Al-li’s back in her Iron Lady guise, made up and sporting a fierce don’t-mess-with-me attitude (and extra disgruntled to be missing out on dinner with Park Ryuk).
As Al-li takes her place in the caged ring, and a stylish woman, JENNY KIM (Yura), announces the fight. She’s a famous event planner, and Al-li describes her as the one “who made me this way.” Then Al-li looks Jenny up and down, thinking wistfully, “She’s pretty.”
Jenny takes a seat on the sidelines with her companion, KANG-WOO (Ahn Bo-hyun)—and out in the audience, co-worker Rok-hee cheers for Iron Lady. He misses hearing an urgent call from his co-workers, who are in an uproar over an office emergency.
At first Al-li doesn’t look quite up to form, and her opponent sneers that it’s a waste of energy fighting her. But her gaze hardens and she comes back strong, firing off a string of punches before launching herself into the air, going at him in earnest. A whirling kick sends him to the mat. KO.
As she’s announced the winner, Al-li looks over at Jenny, wondering glumly, “If I were as pretty as her, would the director [Park Ryuk] like me?”
Still, she takes in the cheers of the crowd and admits that in this moment, she has just as much confidence as Jenny.
After the fight, Jenny speaks to reporters about Midnight Fight as an event that allows people to play out some of the feelings and desires that they normally suppress. Asked about the success of Iron Lady (and the suspicion that her wins are rigged), Jenny replies simply, “Iron Lady is special.”
Rok-hee finally checks his phone and reads the message from his co-worker: Their new design proposal has been leaked.
Jenny congratulates Al-li on her win and extends a hand, but Al-li glares and leaves her hanging. Al-li’s brother (and manager) smooths things over, then scolds Al-li for being cold when she owes Jenny for her livelihood.
Al-li explains in narration that her name was given to her by her father, who loved boxing (must be after Ali) but wanted her to grow up to be ladylike. He raised her and her brother alone after Mom died, and Al-li mostly learned about being a lady from books, only to fall for boxing instead.
Her talent was discovered by chance when she visited her brother at the boxing gym and let fly a kick, and now she supposes her talent and her name were all part of her fate.
She only now sees the many calls she missed during the fight, and steps outside to take a call from Rok-hee, who’s heading back to the office to deal with the design leak.
Al-li makes up a lie about her brother being in the hospital, only to have Rok-hee pass by and see her huddling by the wall. He comes up behind her and taps her shoulder, and she turns—and at the sight of her half-made-up face, he screams. She screams. They both recoil.
He recognizes her, asking, “Iron Lady?” Al-li realizes, “I’m screwed!”
BEHIND THE SCENES
That’s the end of Iron Lady Episode 1, and we return to the variety portion, where we join Suk-jin and So-hee filming the fantasy kiss against the office window. Having already seen the scene in the context of the show, this now feels like an extended behind-the-scenes extra, of the kind you see on entertainment shows.
Suk-jin worries over the direction to make this kiss particularly unique, and he and So-hee work their way through the blocking of the scene, such as how he’ll grab her and initiate the kiss. It’s interesting to watch the actors figuring out this on their own, monitoring the footage, and deciding themselves that they didn’t get things quite right, or asking the director to go for another take, or to include an insert shot to add impact.
This time it’s Minhyuk’s turn to stand on the sidelines feeling left out while Suk-jin and So-hee shoot their kiss, thus kicking off our first cast-member love triangle.
There are aspects I really enjoyed about After the Show Ends, as well as things I didn’t care for, but mostly I’m glad to see new types of shows being experimented with. Even when experiments aren’t successful, I like seeing attempts at innovating with TV formats; it shows more creativity than sticking to the tried-and-trues.
For instance, the starred scenes in the scripts strike me as a clever addition on the part of the producers. Ad-libbing drama dialogue is nothing new, but in the context of big romantic gestures, it’s a twist—because what writer would entrust their actors with coming up with their big crescendo moments? It works in this particular scenario because the ultimate goal isn’t just a well-written moment; you’re hoping this moment of fiction sparks something with your actors. And if you’re hoping to get the actors really immersed in their emotions (and receptive to romance), tasking them with deciding how to act gives them agency and ownership of the moment—what better way to encourage blurring of the reality-drama lines?
I initially wondered why the show felt it necessary to create a full drama within this program, because we’ve seen so many dramas-about-dramas where the interior show was only ever shown in glimpses: Queen Inhyun’s Man, King of Dramas, Best Love. By inserting Iron Lady wholesale into the middle of the episode, it felt like two disparate parts—I was looking for more seamless integration, but it ended up feeling like we were just watching the “making of” clips after the movie.
Still, I suppose it was a necessary move, because cutting either part out would give us an incomplete picture, and we can’t feel immersed in the actors’ feelings if we haven’t seen the scenes they’re working on. We have to be given access to the full-fledged drama in order to buy into the relationships, possibly shipping the Iron Lady characters and wanting to see that onscreen chemistry play out behind the cameras. It’s a more immediate experience this way, and more voyeuristic.
It’s too bad, then, that I just didn’t find a lot of the variety scenes very exciting. There wasn’t anything wrong with them, necessarily, but they felt like standard behind-the-scenes footage—standalone moments that provide glimpses, not stories. No matter how “real” the setup, we still need story in variety, and the best ones are the naturally occurring ones, teased out of footage, rather than pushed along by an overbearing hand.
It turns out there’s a difference between moments that are discovered, and those that are set up. It’s why real reality is exciting, even when it’s mundane, because it arose out of natural circumstances; it just happened to be unearthed by sharp-eyed PD. On the other hand, setting the stage for a certain narrative and urging everyone in that direction can’t help but feel contrived on some level.
Which is why ultimately I’m let down by After the Show Ends, even though I’d figured it probably wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be. I wanted either something more scripted, or more real. Right now it occupies that strange in-between space between reality and fiction, in the way that We Got Married purported to show real interactions between stars within the fake construct of a pretend marriage. We Got Married has a lot of fans who really dig this kind of blurring-the-lines dynamic, but this show reminds me of why I could never really get into it: Fictional romance, I get. Real romance, I also get. But staged “real” interactions within a fictional framework always struck me as odd; I want it to be either extreme, but not that nebulous middle ground.
I was hoping that After the Show Ends would be a true mockumentary, where the overall project would be knit together tightly to give the appearance of a documentary, with no gaps or breaks in the narrative to betray the construct. (Mockumentaries don’t have to feel realistic, but the world does have to be airtight.) The Producers attempted that but was riddled with breaks in reality, which caused the documentary framework to lose meaning. I had hoped this show might improve upon that structure, and while it has a more concrete format, it is, sadly, not as interesting as it could be. Perhaps it needs better editors? More realism? More kiss scenes?
I don’t think the interactions and feelings are necessarily fake, so it’s not a matter of being too staged. I can buy that these scenarios can prompt unexpected feelings of jealousy, such as Suk-jin standing by watching So-hee’s kiss scene with Minhyuk, or Minhyuk’s admission of feeling jealous to see the other two get closer. But it does feel like the show is picking the parts that fit the narrative it wants to convey, rather than just letting cameras roll freely.
I intend to keep watching the show (though I won’t keep recapping), because I do like Suk-jin (funny in his corniness) and So-hee (bubbly) and Minhyuk (cute but doomed!), and I actually enjoyed Iron Lady on its own merits. I’m not so sure about Yura or Bo-hyun yet, but I haven’t seen enough of them to have an opinion. It’s a show that I find better in concept than in execution, and admittedly it’ll take me a few days to let go of my lingering feelings of What Could Have Been. (As in, something great. See: The Actresses.) But once I adjust my expectations, I’ll probably find it a pleasant variety hour, where the cast members mostly flirt and laugh and talk about romance all day. There are worse things.