[Dramaland Catnip] The anti-hero’s journey out of the darkness
by Guest Beanie
Who doesn’t love a good anti-hero? Producers of Korean dramas apparently do; there seems to have been an uptick in recent years of dramas featuring an anti-hero as the protagonist. But it is not the mere existence of an anti-hero that draws me in—I am anticipating the emotional, sometimes psychological, struggle of this character to come.
It’s one of those will-he-or-won’t-he kind of deals. Will the anti-hero overcome that less-than-stellar quality (bad habit, criminal career, unscrupulous personality) that makes him an ill fit as the archetypal hero? Is there a redemption arc in play, or has the anti-hero simply hidden a soft, gooey center from the world? Often this is a character who started out with good intentions but at some point in his life stepped onto the wrong path and kept on going without looking back. However, we simply don’t know how far-gone the anti-hero is when the drama starts out. That mystery, combined with the thrill of the journey to proper heroism, is the true catnip for me.
What makes these dramas stand out is the degree to which our anti-hero is a bad guy versus a good guy. Fittingly, there is a drama called Bad Guys which falls right into this definition. The drama centers around a team of convicted felons (and murderers!) who are forced to work together to solve crimes that the police cannot. But there’s a catch: These bad guys are not villains—at least not in the context of the drama.
While they may lack moral compunction and rate high in apathy, they are for all intents and purposes the heroes of the story. Bad Guys is not a drama in which the anti-heroes must repent for their sins, but instead must learn to move past them. Tracking down other bad guys who have committed heinous crimes for pleasure’s sake aids in this, as it has the effect of defining that divide between what makes a criminal and what makes a killer for both the audience and the Bad Guys themselves.
In other words, Bad Guys is your classic anti-hero material at work. The characters’ shades of gray are meant to make us question what we believe to be right and wrong. To that end, each man lets go of any ambiguity concerning his true nature. He decides who he is instead—a criminal or a killer.
Not all anti-heroes have to have served time in prison to qualify as my catnip, thank goodness! Take for example the swoon-worthy Jo Gook from City Hall. This is your definition of a good politician—and by good, I mean able to sway the average voter. Jo Gook can charm and deceive, and what really makes him the anti-hero is his perfect blend of selfishness and ruthless ambition, ensuring he is a shoo-in for the world of politics. He isn’t looking to be a real-life champion to his constituents; he just wants a ticket to the Blue House as fast as humanly (that is, electorally) possible.
We watch Jo Gook play games with the fellow politicians standing between him and his ultimate goal with an almost enviable finesse. Only when Jo Gook meets a woman with a determination to do good for the city’s citizens that rivals—and often interferes with—his own determination to climb the political ladder does he find himself helping her more than hindering her. In truth, Jo Gook is not as apathetic to the plight of others as he pretends; by the end of the drama his self-interest has been set aside for the sake of love. There is something to be said when an anti-hero sacrifices his life’s dream for the person he loves.
Sacrifice goes hand in hand with the concept that anti-heroes must choose to be better. This was the central theme of a more recent drama, Chief Kim. The wacky Sung-ryong has one of the most relatable qualities of an anti-hero: Like most people, he loves money. Unlike most people, he will commit accounting fraud to obtain it. In fact, viewers are first introduced to Sung-ryong while he’s under investigation for cooking the books of a local gangster for whom he is the primary accountant. Sung-ryong is so talented at financial misstatement that even the prosecutors cannot pinpoint exactly how he does it. Sung-ryong will neither deny that his actions are unlawful or excuse them, and will even go so far as to cheat his cheating clients to squeeze out a little extra money for his own pocket.
Sung-ryong’s endgame, ironically, is to save enough money to live in Denmark, a country he considers far less corrupt than Korea. To expedite this plan, he goes to work at a corporate giant and winds up thwarting a more sinister scheme by pure coincidence. Once thrust into the unwitting position as the “hero” of the company, our Chief Kim is far out of his comfort zone. Cue the emotional struggle of the anti-hero. It’s fun to watch how shocked Sung-ryong is by his own actions. It’s also poignant to watch him reconcile what he wants to do (embezzle) and what he actually does (fight the chairman who is embezzling).
It is noteworthy to mention that Chief Kim goes an impressive step beyond this typical anti-hero trope by introducing an anti-villain in Sung-ryong’s foe Yul, a finance director who also joined the group for less-than-honorable reasons. Yet being a true villain requires committing acts on behalf of the corporation that Yul frequently finds too dirty even by his standards. Together Sung-ryong and Yul, anti-hero and anti-villain, create an entertaining dynamic. The former is gluttonous for money; the latter is greedy for power. Yet they keep tripping themselves up because their moral compasses aren’t so off-kilter as to allow them to disregard the underlings who are already suffering, especially once they become powerless underlings too. That means giving up their greed to serve justice to the more powerfully greedy. Up to the last episode, I would call Chief Kim a true anti-hero treat.
Police Unit 38
But are all anti-heroes created equal? Hardly. I have been enticed to watch a few anti-hero dramas, only to be left confounded after they ended. Sometimes it’s not obvious if the anti-hero has a bona fide change of heart, such as with Police Unit 38. This drama promised to host the anti-hero trope of my dreams: Talented con artists and a government tax collector join forces to trick high-dollar tax evaders into giving up their unpaid taxes. But the lead con man, Jung-do, had mysterious motives from the first episode. What made him the anti-hero? Love of money? His ability to manipulate people? His arrogance?
To this day, I still cannot pinpoint Jung-do’s fatal flaw, and so throughout the drama I could not reconcile his continued betrayals of his teammates (due to a hidden agenda) with what I vaguely expected as a character arc for him. When Jung-do sacrifices his freedom at the end, I cannot tell you if that sacrifice is the result of a change in his character for the better. Part of me believes this anti-hero will resume his old ways after prison; he is more or less the same from start to finish—that is, he remains ever the mystery. I should clarify that the drama is still an excellent watch. It certainly kept me on the edge of my seat with all its plot twists and team camaraderie. But if you are watching Police Unit 38 for the anti-hero redemption, that comes in tiny, tiny doses.
To conclude: Give me anti-heroes, or give me… well, just always give me anti-heroes. I want to agonize with the anti-hero over his struggle against the righteous path. I want to watch his fruitless attempts to avoid a vested interest in the downtrodden state of his fellow Man. For beneath each anti-hero’s off-putting persona, beyond the blustering or feigned disinterest, regardless of bad habits or poor career choices, there exists the potential for goodwill. Simply put, it is up to the anti-hero to prove that he is more heroic than he seems!
Police Unit 38
- [Dramaland Catnip] Fish out of water
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- [Dramaland Catnip] Supernatural powers and mind-reading abilities
- [Dramaland Catnip] Strong platonic friendships
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero eats his words or is forced to grovel
- [Dramaland Catnip] Stories featuring ordinary people
- [Dramaland Catnip] Friends turned enemies… turned friends again
- [Dramaland Catnip] Childhood loves and backstories
- [Dramaland Catnip] Bromances and girlfriends
- [Dramaland Catnip] Sibling love and fauxcest
- [Dramaland Catnip] Beta males and the alpha ladies who love them
- [Dramaland Catnip] The bad boys of dramaland
- [Dramaland Catnip] Prickly marshmallows and tsundere heroes
- [Dramaland Catnip] Reverse harems
- [Dramaland Catnip] Noona romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Secret identities and alter egos
- [Dramaland Catnip] Disastrous first meetings
- [Dramaland Catnip] Cohabitation shenanigans
- [Dramaland Catnip] Enemies turned lovers
- [Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
- [Dramaland Catnip] Marriage before dating
- [Dramaland Catnip] Swooning for dramatic height differences
- [Dramaland Catnip] Ragtag bands of misfits
- [Dramaland Catnip] Finding satisfaction in sad love stories
- [Dramaland Catnip] The magic of bad drama magic
- [Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
- [Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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