VIP: Episodes 1-2 (Series Review)
SBS’s mystery melo VIP premiered this week with a sparse but carefully crafted story. The opening week episodes introduce us to our cast of characters, and the drama is intentional about what they show us and when, and just how much we’ll be told about our characters. It’s enough to get invested in the story and set up a bit of a whodunnit, but not enough to give us any kind of solid ground. And that’s exactly how VIP wants it. The only problem with this well-crafted opening? It’s not a very nice story that’s set to unfold.
The drama opens on a sweet note: Princess Ari (Oh Ah-rin) from An Empress’s Dignity makes a cute cameo appearance — but don’t be tricked. This is pretty much where the cuteness begins and ends. VIP is a rather dark story, and while the drama is not exactly eerie, there’s something innately unsettling about it. The drama even manages to pull the rug out from a fairly typical office worker lunch scene at Subway. And if you can make that kind of PPL-driven scene work for your story, well, color me impressed.
The drama is told from the perspective of our heroine, NA JUNG-SUN (Jang Nara). She’s a Deputy Director at Sung Un Department Store, and part of a VIP Management team that caters to the every whim of the disgustingly wealthy. And they take their job verrrry seriously.
Her husband, PARK SUNG-JOON (Lee Sang-yoon), is the director of the team, but you’d never be able to tell they’re a married couple with the office distance and formality between them. Their marriage is not as rosy as the original plot summary led me to believe — sure, they’re dedicated as heck to their jobs, competent, and successful, but to me, they don’t look particularly happy. Neither do they seem to spend much time together outside of work hours. One particular night, Jung-sun buys lingerie, cooks a fancy candle-lit meal, and waits for her husband — but he turns up hours later, long after she’s changed clothes and cleaned up the kitchen. This scene says everything we need to know.
The rest of the team (and cast) is strongly female, and after Jang Nara in the lead, there are three other women set to play a prominent role. There’s LEE HYUN-AH (a fantastic Lee Chung-ah), who’s a bit caustic and controversial, and known for her wild ways and sordid past. She’s quick-witted and posh, but clearly hiding some secrets.
Next up there’s SONG MI-NA (Kwak Sun-young), married to a goofy stay at home dad who’s caring for their two crazy little boys while she works. But Mi-na’s got secrets, too, and from the glimpses we get, it looks like she’s having an affair.
The women are quite likable, from their familiarity with each other to their teamwork — but it’s also clear that each has a little wrinkle in her polished and collected exterior. And that’s what makes them all so interesting.
By the end of Episode 1, we learn there’s a whole lot more at stake for Jung-sun and her colleagues than securing limited edition stilettos and making sure their exclusive VIP perks (like personal drivers and yachts) are used appropriately.
One night, when her husband is already sound asleep, Jung-sun gets a text message from a random number that says: “Your husband is having an affair with someone in the office.” It’s not much, but it’s enough to plant a horrible seed of doubt in her, and the speed with which it takes root proves that perhaps she’s not as happy as she claims to be.
That’s the basic premise that leads the drama, and Episode 2 evolves into a bit of a whodunnit. What makes the drama, for me, is that the execution is really great here. For instance, when Jung-sun gets the text message about her husband, we see Hyun-ah sitting at a bar with her phone, we see Mi-na pausing on a walk with her phone, and we see the newest addition to the office OHN YU-RI (Pyo Ye-jin) also cradling her phone. Which woman sent the message? And who’s the guilty one?
The drama does this a lot, showing us snippets of where our other characters are at the same moment, and using it to build a nice noir-like suspense. By the time we’re through Episode 2, we learn enough about each woman in the office to have reasonable doubt; each has a set of circumstances that makes it possible for her to be the one who’s having the affair with Sung-joon. It’s pretty tricky how the drama works — we, as the audience, go through the same suspicions as our heroine does. And overall, the drama makes an interesting statement around the idea that if you’re looking for a reason to doubt or be suspicious of someone, whether it’s fabricated, assumed, or real — you’ll probably find it.
And so we start a rather unpleasant journey with Jung-sun, who can’t sit still for a second after the information she’s been given. She confronts Sung-joon pretty quickly, and is rather direct about it in a way I quite admire — and it just makes his lies (which are becoming obvious) even more disturbing.
Jang Nara is great here, borrowing all the spunk and fight that she had in An Empress’s Dignity, but taking that into a completely different kind of story, with a thick and almost suffocating emotional climate. That’s not to say this drama feels like This Week, My Wife Will Have an Affair, though, since it’s a bit more dense, noir, and also less emotional. Still, it builds a similar mystery around the doings of the straying spouse — and here’s where I get to talk about Lee Sang-yoon.
Lee Sang-yoon’s character is notably absent from a lot of the drama (which I feel is quite intentional), and when he is on screen with his wife, he’s emotionally absent to the extent that it bothers me, and I’m willing to believe anything bad they want me to about this character.
Lee Sang-yoon can play the warmest and most lovely of characters, like his leading role in On the Way to the Airport, which handled marital affairs in a completely different way than VIP is. I guess it’s a bit of good acting that Lee Sang-yoon can make Sung-joon cold and unlikeable without much effort — but that’s the problem: I don’t like him a whit, and I kind of wanted to. In fact, the drama doesn’t even try to make us like him, except maybe in the marriage proposal scene flashback (but that was a waste — I already dislike him enough to not care if he was squishy and loving in the past).
The drama’s opening week ends with Jung-sun catching her husband in quite an obvious lie, after she follows him to a fancy hotel when he claims to be elsewhere. It was a nice touch that even the cab driver who’s tailing her husband for her tells Jung-sun “sometimes it’s better not to know.” (Is this a theme we’ll revisit? Because I’m interested!).
But Jung-sun is already too deep for that, and the confrontation scene (though it ends with a cliffhanger before we learn much), is actually quite awful. Nothing happens except the look between then, but the betrayal is palpable — and it doesn’t make for pleasant watching.
It’s occurred to me that perhaps VIP will be about what happens when we become suspicious of the people around us, and how we can see what we want to see, and find what we expect to find. Or in other words, the dangerous power of that tiny seed of doubt. I’ve kept clear of early summaries and spoilers, so I’m free to wonder here: will this drama truly be a whodunnit? Or even more interesting, will it ask if something was even done in the first place?
I love a good melo, and a mystery melo feels made to order right now — but I’m honestly not sure how I feel about a whodunnit that’s about catching adulterers. Digging into these interesting and complex characters and all their messy secrets is one thing, but watching marriages get torn up is another. That being said, so far the drama is really well-crafted and interesting, and I have high hopes that it will dig into some deep questions and riddles about the human condition.