That Psychometric Guy: Series review
With the conclusion of tvN’s Monday-Tuesday supernatural mystery drama, That Psychometric Guy last week, I figured it was worth taking a moment to look back on the show, and whether it lived up to my initial excitement. I know I’m not the only who sat up when I heard the premise—a kid who can read memories by touch? You mean like I Hear Your Voice, but tactile? Yes, please!
Our first introduction to LEE AN (Got7’s Park Jinyoung) certainly lives up to everything I wanted and more. An has the most adorkable, beta-hero charm: an overgrown lovable puppy of a boy, with an utter lack of ego and an endearing dimness that I honestly think is my new favorite kind of hero. Although he has a bright, affectionate personality, there’s also a side of him that’s so wounded, hungry and love-starved that it hurts my heart, and I’m so impressed with Jinyoung’s rendition of An’s emotions at all these different junctures.
The show begins with his appropriately tragic origin story and a haunting opening sequence: An unseen perp murders multiple women in an oddly ritual way, and then sets fire to the apartment complex which ends up killing many more. I admit that the show nearly lost me there, with its disturbing echoes of recent real-life events.
An loses his parents to the fire, but his fate becomes entwined with KANG SUNG-MO (later played by Kim Kwon), who becomes hyung and hero after saving his life by jumping from the burning building with him. His psychometric ability, which allows him to “read” memories from people or objects upon direct skin-contact, develops after that, and it builds the central conceit of the show.
But it turns out to be more curse than gift for young An. With no ability to control it or switch his ability off, the perpetual onslaught of unwanted information—secrets and trivialities alike—leaves him shying away from every form of physical contact, however slight. As adorable as the sight of him is, enshrouded in scarves and hoodies with his hands bunched inside his sleeves, it’s also a constant reminder that his ability is a vulnerability, and that’s the only way he can protect himself from the world.
It makes him an ideal foil to Sung-mo: Where An is an open book, Sung-mo is tightly-sealed and impenetrable, the one person An can’t read at all. We eventually learn (via that psychometric guy) that he has a condition called alexithymia, which broadly describes a lack of ability to identify and recognize feelings. I’m not sure how true-to-life this representation is, but we’re told in-show that in brain terms, it’s the chemical opposite of sociopathy (overactive amygdala versus underactive), which basically tells us that he’s not a sociopath.
But it’s An and his partner-in-crime(-solving), heroine YOON JAE-IN (rookie Shin Ye-eun), who really form the heart of the show. Jae-in is fiercely smart, works hard, and ultimately, is a survivor.
They first meet in high school for a short time—a meeting engineered by Sung-mo (whose agenda remains as opaque to us as his mind does to An), and An quickly learns that she has a secret. She confides to him that her father’s in jail, but as staunch as she is about his innocence, she also admits to doubts. When she learns his secret, he promises to help clear her father’s name, but before they can do anything, she’s driven into hiding when her classmates find out about her dad.
We skip forward a few years to a future where Jae-in’s worked hard to become a police officer. Stationed in a sleepy, provincial sub-branch where nothing happens, she dreams of joining the violent crimes division. She’s as sharp and resourceful as ever, and the intervening years have given her a centeredness and maturity she didn’t have before. Her violent panic attacks have subsided, and she’s made peace with her life and her feelings about her father.
An, on the other hand, is basically still a lovable dimwit, except he now has wheels (not his own, of course, but his long-suffering friend’s, haha!). Sung-mo is a slick prosecutor, and rounding out the quartet is Detective EUN JI-SOO (Sistar’s Dasom), who is also the boys’ childhood friend.
All our main characters are connected by the Yeongseong Apartment fire, one way or another, and it’s the mystery that takes the longest to unravel: An lost his parents to it, Jae-in’s father was jailed for committing it, Ji-soo’s father is the one who covered it up, and Sung-mo…well, we learn later how he’s connected.
Despite its dark beginning, the first half of the show is bright and bubbly, with the focus on An and Jae-in, and their growing relationship. Sung-mo assigns Jae-in to tutor An and help him hone his ability, whose clarity An has discovered is amplified by her nearness, but frustratingly, this isn’t delved into more. We don’t ultimately get a real explanation for why he has it, though I’m sure the head injury has something to do with it. I don’t actually think it necessitates an explanation as some degree of unknowability is just part of the supernatural package.
The problem though comes later, in the second half of the show, when his ability becomes not much more than a plot device, and a too-convenient way to provide exposition that at times felt like lazy storytelling. In the first half, An’s ability was shown to have specific difficulties and limitations, and painfully difficult to master. The things he saw would be frustratingly fragmented, irrelevant, and perhaps even misleading. Part of his character’s development was not only to come to terms with the ability, but to make sense of it. Instead of it becoming gradually more coherent, however, he somehow went from noob to pro without much in between, which required much more suspension of disbelief than normal.
For me, the show was carried on the strength of the characters, particularly An and Jae-in, who show the best kind of personal growth, both together and apart, and it makes their romantic arc all the richer, though it’s unfortunate that the show lost a degree of momentum and urgency as soon as the pair were securely united.
We as viewers knew all along who Jae-in really is: the daughter of the security guard who saved An and tried to save his parents, but was afterwards framed for starting the fire. It’s a horrible ticking time-bomb of a conflict, and An’s utter devastation when he finds out the girl he fell in love with is the daughter of the man he hates the most is the first huge character test he faces. The way he reasons out his torn feelings proves a level of emotional maturity that belies his age. That doesn’t mean it makes him less humanly flawed, but he’s acutely self-aware, not just of the pain he feels, but of the pain he inflicts, and he’s able to reflect on what is and isn’t justified. (Tell me that isn’t a rare jewel of a character!)
That Psychometric Guy employed what I thought was an interesting narrative structure by prologuing each episode with revealing scenes set around the events of the original Yeongseong Apartment fire in 2005. It built up its mystery by cutting between past and present, the hidden and the known, and brought it all to a head as we drew into the show’s final leg. The connection between past, present and future turns out to be one of the central motifs underlying each character’s trajectory, Sung-mo most of all.
There’s something inexplicably odd in the way events are timed in this show, and left me with a feeling of whiplash at critical moments. For example, just as the mystery of how a seemingly unrelated assortment of crimes is connected begins to come to light, Sung-mo goes off the grid and when he reappears, he’s gone dark (so sayeth the flat hair and guyliner), but it ended up seeming kind of random. I was also never fully convinced about the villain behind the crimes, who seemed unimaginably powerful in the shadows, but small and impotent once revealed.
The subsequent face-off between Sung-mo and villain KANG GEUN-TAEK (Lee Seung-joon), the man who turns out to be his one-time captor and torturer—who, by the way, is also his biological dad and also has alexithymia—sees their roles reverse, as Sung-mo makes some very dark choices. Kang Geun-taek gives us a glimpse into the world of his consuming obsession, but the real answers about his history with Sung-mo’s mother are doled out at the very end, and it’s every bit as horrifying as you would have come to expect.
As Sung-mo takes on the mantle of captor and torturer, they tackle the question of who the true villains really are, and more shockingly for us, who really committed which crimes. Between the two men, it opens up the perennial debate over nature versus nurture–are monsters born or are they made? It all culminates in a question of what really separates the two men. As Sung-mo admits to An in the show’s most painful scene of all, “No matter how much I wanted to deny it, I am the child of a monster.” But recounting his fear and horror, he says, “Ironic as it is, the moment I made the choice to become a monster, I learnt for the first time what fear was.”
Since we spend most of the show experiencing Sung-mo as someone who rarely reciprocates any of the affection he receives, it always seemed like everyone’s feelings for him were one-sided. When he finally resurfaces and we’re told without any apparent empirical evidence that he really cares about everyone, it’s hard to see it, especially when coupled with the fact that he’s been playing a really long game, manipulating everyone who cares about him into doing what he needed them to do to serve his own plans—to save his mother and remove her tormentor from the mortal coil.
It’s that Machiavellian maneuvering that ultimately kills Ji-soo, his most loyal friend, and her fate becomes even more tragic when you realize that her dying wish doesn’t ultimately change his path, despite the fact that we can see that her death hurts him. The only person who had any power to change him in the end was his mother, and that makes it feel like everyone else was, in some way, irrelevant.
The distance at which Sung-mo’s character held himself prevents us from being able to truly know, understand, or sympathize with him. I can appreciate to some degree that that it’s the nature of his character—the alexithymia that cuts him off from his feelings also cuts us off, but it seems to me that his distance comes at the cost of his dimension, and he remains aloof and unreadable for far too long. My sneaking suspicion is that Kim Kwon was not the right actor for such a complex role. Thus, despite having all the right ingredients to be heartrending, it makes Sung-mo’s final arc feel a little emotionally flat to me.
The implication that An can’t read him because his emotions aren’t “available” puts an interesting spin on the challenge Sung-mo sets him at the start: to be able to read him. It leaves you with a strong impression that rather than a test for An, it was really a deadline for himself, because once An is able to read his memories, his past, and his feelings, it changes everything irrevocably and forever.
An’s crisis with Jae-in ends up laying the ground for the biggest challenge he faces, which is confronting Sung-mo’s past and who he really is. It’s a challenge he’s forced to take to heart when Sung-mo disappears, and he makes incremental breakthroughs reading Sung-mo indirectly through objects he’s touched. That’s how we learn about his alexithymia, as well as his childhood of growing up underground, chained and caged, which is one of the most wretched backstories I’ve ever seen. But it’s a process that begins to feel contrived as An follows a trail of too-conveniently-placed metaphysical breadcrumbs, as left by Sung-mo.
In this way, An witnesses his secrets one by one, until he comes to the deepest secret of all, which forms the climax of their arc (I won’t spoil it, just in case!). But with present Sung-mo absent for so many of those moments, it leads to feeling even more disconnected from him, and it makes that wrenching past feel more abstract than real.
Therefore, when An is finally able to read Sung-mo himself, it comes as something of an anti-climax. It’s really only in the final episode that he cracks open and shows An (and consequently, us) everything. It’s a little bit ironic, though, that it’s not the power of psychometry, but his simple, long-awaited confession of the truth that is so moving, and that is what at last closes the distance between him and us.
Now that the show’s over, the feeling of muted dissatisfaction that’s been brewing as I watched the second half has solidified into a lingering conviction that this could have been a much better show. A great first half was pulled down by a confusing third quarter that had too many running threads, and the last-minute corporate corruption storyline (with the introduction of a totally new Big Bad) in the finale seemed a bit abrupt, despite otherwise wrapping up well. The plot, the backstories and the relationships all had tons of substance and promise, but they came hand-in-hand with convoluted storytelling and poor timing that leached the tension from game-changing twists or reveals. All the elements to make a memorable, nail-biting drama were there, but it fell just a little short in its overall execution, like a soup that needs just a bit more salt.
Despite its technical faults, I really loved the characters and the sense of family that permeated the show throughout. Though all our main characters were shown to be outsiders, they weren’t lonely or unloved, and always had each other to fall back on, and a whole host of secondary characters who made the world of That Psychometric Guy a warm and inviting one, whether that was Jae-in’s aunt who really loved her, her oddball, nose-picking boss (the always-entertaining Park Chul-min) who turned out to be a solid ally when push came to shove, An’s rich and hapless best friend Dae-bong, or Ji-soo’s best friend, medical examiner Dr. Hong, whose grief over losing her provides some of the best emotion of the show. It’s in those small moments you feel the closest to these characters. I feel like it’s perfectly set-up for a second season and could really suit a procedural format—I’d certainly watch the heck out of it! Psst, tvN!
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