Fantastic: Episode 1
JTBC’s new rom-com gives us a peek into the world behind-the-scenes of dramas as it portrays the struggles of a drama writer and the famous-but-untalented actor who seems destined to be a part her life, whether she likes it or not (right now, it’s safe to say “not”). Perhaps “rom-com” isn’t the right word for this show, since the true heart of the story seems to be more about the lasting bonds of friendship than romance, and while there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, there promises to be plenty of emotional scenes to tug at the heart-strings. So let’s dive in to JTBC’s new rom-com-slice-of-life-melo!
EPISODE 1 RECAP
In a shadowy abandoned warehouse, a woman swiftly and effortlessly takes down a dozen gangsters. A mysterious man suddenly jumps into the fray, fighting off the gangsters in order to get the same briefcase that the woman is trying to protect.
Leaping over machinery, the man and woman are well-matched in their acrobatic fighting style. Finally they pause a moment as they square off against each other, and the masked man reveals his face. But his sparkly wink makes the woman sit down in disappointment.
Turns out this all a scene from drama writer LEE SO-HYE (Kim Hyun-joo) and her upcoming drama, Hitman. The rest of the production team are arguing that sparkly-winker RYU HAE-SUNG (Joo Sang-wook) be cast as the titular character, but So-hye is adamant that she’ll take anyone but him. He’s not the type she’s looking for — and besides, he can’t act.
He is a Hallyu star, though, as made evident by the massive crowd of fangirls clamoring to see him while he’s filming a movie in China. He seems more interested in hearing the fans tell him how handsome he is than anything else, though. He also refuses to read the Hitman script, insisting that he won’t do a Korean drama.
His manager OH CHANG-SUK (Jo Jae-yoon) begs him to reconsider. It’s the perfect role for Hae-sung, since he’d be playing the silent, emotionless killer and therefore wouldn’t have many lines or deal with too many facial expressions.
Hae-sung’s phone rings and he cutely answers to talk to his grandmother, who is even more adorable as she asks when he’s coming back to Korea and when he’ll be in a drama that she can watch. That makes him reconsider the Hitman script, especially when he sees who the writer is. When he asks if So-hye specifically requested him for the role, his manager reassures him that she totally did.
Except she’s “totally” against it, stubbornly digging in her heels as she argues with the PD that even if she’s one of the best writers out there, she can’t make a terrible actor look good. But it doesn’t seem like she has much choice, since their major investor has specifically requested Hae-sung as the lead.
Hae-sung returns to Korea and as he prepares himself for the Hitman press conference, he flips a coin which rolls along the floor, only to stop at So-hye’s feet. They stare at each other a long, silent moment until Hae-sung steps forward to pleasantly greet her, remarking that it’s been twelve years since they last met. She just tells him he’s late as she walks into the press conference.
The reporters at the press conference seem more interested in So-hye and Hae-sung’s past history than the drama itself, and Hae-sung reveals that she was the one who first got him his big break many years ago.
He also then admits that he decided to do this drama after being impressed with the quality of the script, and only later realized it was written by So-hye. As for So-hye, she smoothly tells the press that she wrote it with him in mind. Lies, all lies!
After the press conference, Hae-sung childishly blocks her way as she silently seethes at him. But it turns out he’s only blocking her way so that her staff can surprise her with a birthday cake. As she thanks her cheering staff, Hae-sung lurks in the doorway, watching. So-hye apologizes for not being able to stay for the party since she already has plans.
But he still follows her out to the parking lot, where he’s close enough to hear that her date has to be postponed. That does mean she can go to the party after all, except her car is wedged in by the car next to hers. She tries dialing the owner’s number, except the ringtone says it’s an international call, so she assumes the owner isn’t around.
Surprise! Hae-sung reveals that he’s the owner of the car, chiding her for not knowing her top star’s phone number. As he peels out in his fancy sports car, he tells her to follow her to where her birthday dinner is being held (leaving his manager to beg a ride from So-hye, having been left behind).
The party is actually at Hae-sung’s massive house — why bother going out when you have a trained Cordon Bleu private chef? As the rest of the staff arrive for the party, Hae-sung shows So-hye his enormous closet. He thinks that the Hitman character should be more fashionable than the way she’s written him.
So-hye silently tolerates his ridiculous suggestions until she bursts out that he hasn’t even read the script, so he doesn’t understand the character. He just wants to try and cover up his terrible acting with his flashy outfits. If he wants to give opinions about the character, he should try to become a proper actor first.
Angry, he asks if she’s purposefully writing a script that will show off all his weaknesses. Or maybe she’s just taking revenge for what happened years ago. So-hye scoffs — how can she take revenge when there was never anything between them? Oh, wait — does he mean when he tossed aside loyalty after being blinded by greed and fame?
He insists that it wasn’t like that, but she furiously orders Hae-sung to quit the drama. Fine by him — he’d rather go back to China, anyway. As she storms out, Director Yoon begs her to reconsider, but she says it’s either her or Hae-sung. Manager Oh and the rest of the Hitman staff try to wheedle Hae-sung to come out of where he’s locked himself in his bedroom. He seems genuinely affected by So-hye’s comments as he curls up in bed, hiding beneath his covers.
The next day, doctor HONG JOON-KI (Kim Tae-hoon) thoughtfully studies some mammogram x-rays. But when So-hye pops into his office, he’s all smiles. He’s the one she was supposed to meet last night except he had to cancel to take care of a patient. He’s been her source for research, since one of her main characters has cancer, and when she sees the mammograms, she’s pleased that her knowledge now means that she can accurately assess that the breast cancer has spread to the lungs and is likely terminal.
But her smile fades when she sees the patient name on the slides: Lee So-hye. Dazed, she says that if this is what it feels like to be diagnosed with cancer, then she’ll need to rewrite some scenes. Joon-ki gently suggests that perhaps the script can wait, but she stubbornly persists as she focuses on going over the medical details. Life or death, the script must be finished.
Afterwards, she tells him that she will see him later, maintaining her composure until she reaches her car. Overcome by the realization that she has cancer, she sits lost in thought as the hours go by.
A phone call from her older brother breaks her out of her reverie, and she answers. He congratulates her on her new drama, and then cuts her off as she hesitantly starts to say something. He asks if she has any extra money to help pay for his rent, and she sighs as she tells him she’ll figure something out.
When she gets home to her office-studio, she’s surprised to find her older sister there. She brought So-hye the traditional birthday seaweed soup, along with some other dishes. She apologizes for not bringing it sooner, but her husband got into a financial issue and now they’re forced to sell the family home.
So-hye is angry to discover that her childhood home will be going up for auction, and after her sister begs her for help, So-hye shoves all the food she brought back into the bag, yelling that she should make her healthier meals. She continues to bombard her with frustrated questions: Why doesn’t her sister ever ask about how she’s doing? How will she live without her constant financial support? How will she survive if So-hye is dead and gone?
Her sister storms out of the studio, hurt by So-hye’s accusations. But when she cuts her finger opening the packaging on her box of instant food, it’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and she finally breaks down and sobs.
In the morning, she wakes up to find CHOI JIN-SOOK (Kim Jung-nan) at the door. Jin-sook owns the agency that represents Hae-sung, so So-hye assumes this is about him. It is, in a way — Jin-sook has bought out the production company for Hitman, so now it means that she essentially owns So-hye as well, and if So-hye refuses to continue with Hae-sung as the lead, Jin-sook can sue for indemnity.
There seems to be a history of bad blood between the women, and as Jin-sook has rental agents look around the office-studio, she smirks that So-hye wasn’t actually living there, was she? Because then it’ll too bad when she’s forced to move out.
On his way to the airport, Hae-sung stops by the nursing home to visit his grandmother. They’re so cute as they happily greet each other. Later, the doctor informs him that his grandmother’s diabetes is worsening that she’ll soon lose her eyesight, and the last thing she wants is to be able to see Hae-sung in a Korean drama. He thoughtfully watches his grandmother brag to her friends that her grandson will soon be in a drama (which she calls “Heaterman” and assumes it’s about someone who fixes heaters — too cute!).
So-hye reluctantly agrees to work with Hae-sung, provided Jin-wook pays $100,000 upfront. As she signs the agreement, Jin-wook says that she may have a hard time getting Hae-sung to agree, since he’s supposed to be on a flight to China right now.
So-hye literally blocks his van’s path in order to meet with him, and it takes all of her self-control to apologize for her actions previously and ask him to return to the drama. Hae-sung milks her apology for all he can, and even though steam is practically coming out of her ears, she somehow is able to maintain her composure.
He makes a big deal about the expensive cost of canceling his flight last minute (even though his bewildered manager says that they hadn’t even booked tickets yet), and then agrees to return on one condition: So-hye will always answer his calls. She agrees and springs up to leave, but he grabs her hand in a forced handshake, promising that they’ll make a big hit — better than last time.
When she gets home, she vents her fury by gulping down a bottle of water. Except when she sees that the celebrity face on the water bottle is none other than Hae-sung, she throws it across the room, where it topples one of her many precariously balanced stacks of books. As she picks up the mess, she discovers an old photo from her school days. Tears appear in her eyes as she remembers that birthday celebration.
Back when they were in high school, So-hye and her two friends, BAEK SUL (Park Shi-young) and JO MI-SUN (Kim Jae-hwa), were like three peas in a pod. On that particular day, Sul surprised her with a birthday present of a laptop, and when Mi-sun suspiciously asks if she stole it, Sul said that her father’s factor has a bunch of them piled up. Besides, if So-hye is going to become a famous writer, she should have the proper tools.
Then one of the teenage boys taunting the schoolgirls threw a milk carton which landed right on So-hye’s new laptop. Sul immediately defended her friend, catching a milk carton mid-air and whipping it back to knock one of the boys out. Soon it was an all out war between the schoolgirls and the boys, but the girls definitely had the better hand, especially with Sul’s impressive fighting skills.
Manager Oh helps Hae-sung read through the script, barely able to contain his laughter as Hae-sung struggles to convey the various looks that the intense hitman is supposed to portray. He also seems to have a little trouble with the action scenes, although he’s enthusiastic as he runs around with his fake gun, going “pew pew” as he pretends to fight off bad guys.
At least Hae-sung seems aware of his limitations, and sighs at how difficult it is to act with “just his eyes,” wondering if they can use CG instead. He’s determined to request a character change, and calls up So-hye who ignores him.
She stops by her sister’s restaurant, and it’s sweet that her sister had already purchased the quality ingredients that So-hye had complained she never gave her. So-hye gobbles down her lunch, appreciating that her sister’s cooking tastes just like their mother’s. But her sister is concerned by how tired So-hye looks, wondering if perhaps she’s pregnant.
So-hye laughs so hard she nearly chokes on her food and then has to go lie down. Her laughter fades as she sighs that she wishes it could be something like that. Then she tells her sister that she’s sent $50,000 to her account — but this is the last time she’s helping her. Overcome, her sister thanks her, knowing how hard she works to support her and their brother. But So-hye is already passed out, snoring.
Later, So-hye stops by the police station. She’s a welcome guest there, presumably from time spent researching past dramas, and she asks if they’ve found the person who defrauded her. He has, and the cops barge into a hair salon where the grown-up Mi-sun happily attends to her clients perms.
She insists she’s done nothing wrong, but when So-hye steps out to reveal that her crime is not keeping in contact with an old friend, Mi-sun starts to cry. The woman tearfully greet each other with their elaborate schoolgirl handshake.
Mi-sun and her husband (also an old classmate) invite So-hye to have lunch with them on their farm, and Mi-sun reveals that their other friend, Sul, recently returned to Korea after living in America, and now she’s married to a wealthy high-powered attorney.
In a beautiful, expansive old-fashioned home, Sul’s phone rings — but the person to pick it up is her stern mother-in-law, who orders the meek Sul to not leave her things about the house. In order to talk on the phone without her mother-in-law’s disapproval, she slips into her bedroom to quietly answer it, pleased to hear from So-hye after all these years.
Her conversation is cut short when her mother-in-law orders her to attend to their guests. Or, actually, one guest — an assemblywoman who is discussing the possibility of Sul’s husband running for politics, just like his late father did. Also in attendance is his sister, none other than Hae-sung’s agency owner and new producer of Hitman, Jin-sook.
She and her mother treat Sul as little more than a servant, and as she pours them a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine, they hint that Sul’s background isn’t perhaps as proper as they would like, especially since she’s infertile. But the assemblywoman praises Jin-tae for staying with such a woman, since it shows a strength of character. Sul, as she’s taking back their empty glasses, hears all this.
Hae-sung works out while staring in the gym’s mirror, impressed with his “visual.” He tries to do a video call with So-hye, who once again ignores him. He then sighs over the fact that it’s so tiresome taking selfies, but when you’re this handsome, it’s a burden one just has to bear. Then he poses as he holds the shutter down, taking hundreds of pictures to find the perfect angle.
Later, as she sets her mother-in-law’s hair, she endures with polite patience as the elder criticizes her spending habits. Why should she eat out when they provide everything here at home for her? Besides, they already spend a lot of money on Sul’s mother’s nursing home fees, which Sul says she’s grateful for.
Jin-Sook asks Sul to give her husband some documents, since she’s going to be seeing him tonight. Sul hesitates but agrees, since she doesn’t want them finding out she’s actually meeting with her friends, having convinced her husband to tell his family that she was going out to an event with him so she could leave the house for a few hours.
Director Yoon and So-hye’s writing assistant arrive at the office-studio, and now she can’t use the excuse that she hasn’t heard her phone ring because it’s obvious that Hae-sung is calling. So she picks it up, where he complains that her not answering his calls is a breach of contract. Then he sends her “expensive gifts” as inspiration — ha, they’re all the selfies he took at the gym.
She’s headed out to meet up with Sul and Mi-sun, when her texts between the friends are rudely interrupted by an incoming call from Hae-sung (or “Foot Acting”, as she has him saved in her phone). She hits the “ignore” button, but she can’t ignore the fact that he’s standing right in front of her.
She tells him she has plans and he assumes it’s a date. He offers to give her a ride, insisting his schedule is clear because he’s “all in” for Hitman. They can talk in the car while he drives, since he has go her direction anyway. So-hye points out he doesn’t know where she’s going, but that doesn’t stop him.
Sul goes to her husband’s office to deliver the paperwork, but gasps in shock when she finds him in flagrante with the assemblywoman. In stunned horror, she flees the office as her husband struggles to put his pants back on and run after her. He begs her to get out the car and talk about it, but she just does a u-turn — scraping the side of her car in the process — and speeds away.
Meanwhile, Hae-sung keeps pitching his character ideas to So-hye. How about if the hitman is a cold-blooded killer at night, but during the day he’s a normal guy, like, say a reporter? So-hye points out that’s Superman. What about an heir? Batman! A college student? Spiderman! A rich playboy? Ironman! Unfazed, Hae-sung says that just means his ideas are Hollywood worthy.
She points out the restaurant where she’s meeting Mi-sun, and Hae-sung pulls over to let her out. He’s pleased to discover that she’s not meeting a boyfriend, and puts on his shades (despite it being nighttime) to go introduce himself. Mi-sun is thrilled to see him, and he asks if she’s So-hye’s aunt or older sister.
He’s surprised to discover that it’s Mi-sun, who he knows from years past due an unfortunate-sounding hairstyle she gave him. She invites him to stay, which he gladly accepts. But So-hye tries to get him to leave. As the three of him them argue about it, an emotionally distraught Sul speeds along, ignoring her husband following her, his horn honking and lights flashing as he tries to get her to pull over.
She drives around the corner to the restaurant and smashes into Hae-sung’s fancy sports car. Hae-sung instinctively protects So-hye, but when he sees that his “Baobei” (Chinese for “baby” or “darling”) has been destroyed, he abandons her to inspect the damage to his beloved car. When So-hye goes to check to see if the driver is hurt, she’s shocked to realize it’s Sul.
I’m generally fond of JTBC dramas, although I feel that their foray into rom-coms has been less than successful (at least for my tastes), so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this first episode. It was mostly setting up the characters and conflict, but I felt like I immediately understood everyone and their stories. Or at least understood their motivations, if not the exact details, because clearly there’s some history between So-hye and Hae-sung that will eventually explain why she despises him so much. It can’t just be the fact that he’s a terrible actor, especially when she yelled at him for abandoning his sense of loyalty in pursuit of fame and money.
There’s also something compellingly childlike about Hae-sung that makes me wonder about his early life. He can put on a brash movie-star swagger, but he knows exactly what everyone says about him, good and bad. Watching him curl up in his covers argument with So-hye made me think there’s more depth to him that he lets on. Perhaps it’s just easier to hide behind the façade of the dumb actor who just gets by on his charm and looks. There’s a story here, and I want to know more about it — which is undoubtedly proof that the show is doing something right.
My biggest hesitation about the show is the main conceit: the lead dying of cancer. While I’m still unsure how they’re planning on handling it, I do appreciate that the show seems willing to depart from the standard dramas clichés. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my hopes based on the fact they lamp-shaded the trope by having So-hye find out she has cancer by researching it for her own drama. (Oh, and can I just say that Kim Tae-hoon makes a mighty attractive doctor — I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of him.)
I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Mi-sun and Sul. I especially want to know how Sul started out as a spirited young woman who would defend her friends with her life, then became a meek daughter-in-law in a traditional hanbok who obeys her mother-in-law’s every command. Or maybe I just want to see her return to her old self and leave her snooty in-laws behind forever — all with the help of So-hye and the delightful Mi-sun, of course. As much as I enjoy Joo Sang-wook mugging for the camera, it’s going to be the friendship between the three women that will undoubtedly be my favorite part of the show.
All in all, a satisfying first episode, and I’m willing to go along for the ride to wherever it takes us.