The Great Show: Episodes 1-2 (Series review)
Song Seung-heon is back in tvN’s latest offering, and you know, I’ve got to say it: So far The Great Show is a great show. With the Monday-Tuesday evening drama slot disappearing on broadcast channels, this show is just what you need to start the week. It provides a slanting, sideways look at the showmanship of politics, with all its requisite dry humor. Despite its lighthearted front, it’s actually a surprisingly poignant show with a lot to tug at the heartstrings.
We’re introduced to WIE DAE-HAN (Song Seung-heon) on the campaign trail, as he canvasses for votes ahead of a general election. He’s the youngest serving assemblyman ever, and during his term he’s won a load of accolades and awards, including Assemblyman of the Year.
His biggest rival in the election is crafty older politician, KANG KYUNG-HOON (Sohn Byung-ho), and only a few percentage points separate them. Dae-han uses his youth and charm to try to gain the edge, but it’s all undone when his long-estranged father dies in poverty. With just days to go, it becomes the scandal of the election, and he’s stuck with the label of “Unfilial Son.”
To counter the bad press, he goes on an exhausting yet hilariously ostentatious mourning march, which takes DAYS because he goes into a full-on, full-body bow with every three steps (but he’s got secret knee pads he has to keep hidden HA!) until he finally collapses before his father’s ashes. But it’s all futile in the end—Kang beats him using his “unfiliality” as a sneaky smear campaign, and it’s the death knell for Dae-han’s political career.
In a wry voiceover, Dae-han tells us about his dad walking out on the family when he was a kid. The real story is bleak, but the way he tells it is so funny, and it’s a truth Dae-han never reveals. It’s difficult to say how the public would react. Maybe he’d be judged harshly either way, but the story casts Dae-han in a more sympathetic light. So too does his backstory with his rival. We learn that Assemblyman Kang was responsible for destroying his mother’s livelihood, pretty much out of spite (because Dae-han outdid his son at school). He essentially told young Dae-han to know his place, which, wow, there should really be a special circle in hell just for that.
It seems like Dae-han mixed his anger and idealism to become a genuinely effective official, and all of those bills he proposed might look like political spin, but I don’t believe it. In the eye of his self-made PR storm is a man who has beliefs about what power should do, and even if he makes a big ol’ show of it, he actually tries to earn his keep.
There’s a strong My Fellow Citizens-vibe in the opening episodes, and Dae-han plays the opportunistic politician to the hilt. I know poor “hand towel” Song Seung-heon has never been a popular actor in this neck of the woods, but I’ve really liked him in his last few shows (in my defense, I never watched Dr. Jin). He has a gift for comedy–the blacker, the better. His last drama, Player, saw him as a similarly suave, devil-may-care kind of character, but there’s also a gravity to him here that comes out in quieter moments.
Three years later, Dae-han barely makes ends meet working as a designated driver, and it’s as embarrassing as it is funny to see him constantly trying to stay relevant. On one of his neighborhood sweeps, he runs into JUNG SOO-HYUN (Lee Sun-bin), his old college hoobae-turned-neighbor. Just as they’re getting reacquainted, a girl pops out of nowhere and begs him to find her lost little brother. This is HAN DA-JUNG (Noh Jung-eui) and ohhh, I like her. She runs him ragged looking for her brother, and he likewise seizes the opportunity for some ostentatious heroism.
Da-jung tells Dae-han that she’s come looking for her birth father, who, by the way, has no idea he has a kid. We learn that she’s been left fending for herself and her siblings since her mother was recently killed in a hit-and-run, and her stepfather abandoned them because of debt.
Dae-han encourages her, but he has nooo idea that karma is coming for him when he laughs about it later with his friend. “I’d love to see the look on her birth dad’s face,” indeed! He gets his wish alright, when Da-jung turns up on his doorstop (with her brood of siblings in tow) going all, “Hi, Dad!”
Well, Dad sure is dismayed, especially when the circus of kids make themselves entiiiiirely at home. Da-jung reminds him of a youthful one-night stand which he can’t remember…until he does. Haha. He demands a paternity test, but even before the results come, he tells Da-jung that he can’t take her in regardless. His reasons are sound, but the rejections stuns her.
Da-jung really squeezes my heart. She’s so…she’s devious and cheerful, but like Dae-han, she’s solemn beneath that front, and really genuinely sweet, especially to her little twin half-siblings. Her story is tragic all around, but she asks for no pity. I love her sense of pride, which isn’t diminished even though she’s in abject circumstances and asking a stranger for help. Through it all she remains motherly, mannered, and diligent. It’s telling that Dae-han finds himself secretly moved by her efforts and sense of responsibility, but the idea of taking in these kids who make a mess of his life and home… It’s a step he’s just not prepared to take.
But Da-jung also seems unaware of the direness of his circumstances. He might have a nice house left over from his assemblyman days, but the dude is definitely house poor, and his job is pretty lousy for income. Nor do any of his efforts to stay in the political game end well, and he’s finally told by a sunbae that he should forget trying to make a comeback. Dae-han remains remarkably thick-skinned, which I guess you have to be in his line of work, and bears with it all.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Kang’s popularity flourishes thanks to his family act with son, lawyer KANG JOON-HO (Im Joo-hwan), Dae-han’s old classmate and rival. And that, Dae-han’s told, is the key to political success: to be a family man and show off strong family values.
Dae-han has a bad encounter when Joon-ho turns out to be his client for the night, and EVEN WORSE is when his ex shows up as Joon-ho’s plus one. Awwwkwarrrrd! But are these men frenemies, or straight up rivals?
Joon-ho’s a bit of a question mark to me, because he actually seems like a genuinely good guy (who does not agree with his father’s politics). At the same time, it depends on how you look at him. Either he’s sincere and a bit square, or he’s a devious evil genius who has everyone right where he wants them…or maybe a little of both. Either way, their encounter ends with Joon-ho getting riled and making up his mind to run for election, if only to show Dae-han.
When Dae-han returns to his too-quiet, too-empty house after all the family talk, you can see the idea take hold…the tiniest what-if. But the shocker is that the DNA test comes back negative! That’s not what I expected at all! I think even Dae-han expected it to be positive. Well!
Meanwhile, the kids are set upon by loan sharks, and Dae-han and Soo-hyun run to the rescue. His sincerity is no lie, even if he’s about to pull off the greatest show of his life when he announces, “I’m these kids’ father now.”
It’s actually a super heartwarming moment, and we know that there’s some emotional truth in his grand declaration. Yes, he has ulterior motives, and yes, he fully intends to use these kids, but it’s also true that he feels something towards Da-jung, even though he now knows she’s not his kid. But I’m pretty sure the kids will actually be okay with that: It’s a mutually beneficial exchange. They get protection, a home and security, and he gets to win back public approval, and maybe an election. Win-win.
I find the title of the show hilariously apt, both in translation as “The Great Show” (widaehan meaning “great”) and as literally “The Wie Dae-han Show.” Dae-han is a consummate showman, and I find it so interesting that his choices are dictated by what makes him look best pretty much 100% of the time.
But the most interesting thing of all is that in the absence of prying eyes, he’s an instantly much better person. Like how after his election defeat, he realizes his girlfriend wants to break up, but rather than letting her be the bad guy, he says it first. It’s not about saving face for himself or one-upmanship, it’s deliberately sparing her by shouldering the burden of being the bad guy himself.
It’s the same trait he shows when he doesn’t expose his father even when it might have saved him. I like this guy. It’s not often you can say about a politician (in dramaland or elsewhere), that their inside is better than their outside. His outside is definitely all pomp and vainglory, but inside, there’s a person with firm values and a real desire to make things better for the have-nots.
I’m enjoying the dynamic Soo-hyun brings to the relationship between Dae-han and the kids. Her genuine concern for them incites their trust in her, but she has no skin in the game. I think she will put her money where her mouth is, but I’m hoping she’ll just slide into their daily life, and become attached before she knows it. And oh, did we mention that Dae-han is her first love?
The forced family setup has been done aplenty before, even with politicians, but with so much potential for sweetness, hilarity, and youthful evil, I don’t think anything about it will feel tired or trite. I’m also super-curious about how the question of Da-jung’s parentage will come back around; I’m not ready to rule out the old, “whoops, sorry, we made a mistake, you really are the dad,” but that would be trite, and I’m hoping for better. I’ve got a provisional theory that it could be Joon-ho, even though he doesn’t look like he even knows the meaning of “youthful indiscretion.” But we’re here for drama, we’re here for a showman’s show, so bring on the preposterous!