The Good Detective: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Note: This is only a first week review.
The Good Detective is JTBC’s new Monday-Tuesday thriller, which finally opened this week after being caught in COVID-19 limbo. It’s Sohn Hyun-joo’s latest reunion with director Jo Nam-gook, with whom he last worked in Empire of Gold (2013) and The Chaser (2012). He’s back to detecting as violent crimes veteran KANG DO-CHANG, while Jang Seung-jo plays his partner, OH JI-HYUK, a hotshot who’s relocated to their current precinct for reasons we don’t yet know.
The show has a tonally confused opening accompanied by a visually distinct style. The aesthetic put me in mind of the recent Memorist, whose dark undertone grounded its at times disparate plotlines. It starts with the dubious arrest of LEE DAE-CHUL (special appearance by Jo Jae-yoon) for a double murder, but it seems pretty clear right from the outset that he’s not the man. As the perspective of the show pans wider, it’s obvious the stitch-up was carried out from the upper echelons. It’s not a novel plotline by any means, and I admit a little sigh escaped me as we had rich men in suits colluding over how to keep their secrets.
With Lee Dae-chul put on death row, there seems to be some political stakes in relation to the death penalty, with some key figures trying to abolish it, while others are trying to keep it. It’s not entirely clear yet which players are on which side, and I honestly didn’t try too hard because I have politician fatigue. Why expend excessive energy to work out what they’ll tell you later? In any case, there’s definitely a faction that wants to keep Lee’s case buried and expedite his execution.
It seems that Do-chang is the designated patsy for that miscarriage of justice, and at first glance, he seems like a willing one, and easily duped. He’s the person responsible for wrapping up the case and putting Lee Dae-chul inside, and for the five years since it happened, he hasn’t questioned himself about it once. But all that changes when a guy walks into the police station and confesses to murder. The victim? Lee Dae-chul’s teen daughter.
The confessor is a dude called PARK GUN-HO (Lee Hyun-wook) and his testimony—and behavior—is very weird. He’s insistent on his story, that he kidnapped and murdered the girl, but the locations he gives for her body are proven to actually be tied to the crimes Lee Dae-chul was charged with. They figure he’s playing some kind of game, and we learn that both Do-chang and Ji-hyuk were involved in the case five years ago, though Ji-hyuk’s part is not yet clear (like everything else about him).
Jang Seung-jo reminds me a lot of Kim Kang-woo in this role, right down to the crinkles around his eyes. His devil-may-care attitude lends him a kind of rough charm, and while I believe he’s a good guy, I can’t say I quite trust him…and that, I’m sure, is just how he likes it. Our introduction to his character is super cryptic: He’s at an auction for a rare, limited edition Swiss watch (of course), of which there are only two in Korea (of course), and he wins the bid for an incredibly high sum. That suggests he’s obscenely rich, so it begs the question of why he is where he is. It also explains his manner and why he seems generally unconcerned by how others see him (which provides a whole level of dry comedy by itself).
The watch is significant of course: In the very opening scene of the show, we’re shown a shady figure disposing of a body, and a watch left behind in the mud. What are the bets that that watch was number one of the two watches? Even shadier is how the chief of the other Violent Crimes team notices Ji-hyuk wearing it and comments. My guess is that that’s exactly the kind of reaction that Ji-hyuk wanted to provoke, secret dog-whistle style. The other chief is also clearly cannier than their hapless team, and seems to know much more about the truth of the Lee Dae-chul case than anyone in the police we’ve met so far, including the Commissioner.
As a cop show, this has been pretty different from the usual fare just in how all-over-the-place the cops are. Violent Crimes Team 2 is full of dissent and bland incompetence, and that’s best exemplified in our dear veteran Do-chang, who is a bit of a shouty hothead with a bizarre mistrust of logic and deduction, and a close-ish but antagonistic relationship with his new partner. He’s quite a departure from that drama ideal of the old-fashioned detective, including his own previous incarnations.
Assuming that’s intentional, it’s actually weirdly fun—he’s constantly discombobulated and at least two steps behind, and his fumbling ineptitude is aggravating rather than endearing. It’s the opposite of how I’m used to seeing the actor—as a kind of Gandalf of detectives—and on a meta-level at least, I’m firmly of the opinion that the cognitive dissonance is good for us…that’s how you remind your brain that acting is, well, acting, and they avoid being typecast.
For a show called The Good Detective, Do-chang is certainly anything but. He seems content to skate along doing what he needs to do to meet his own needs. If that means pocketing a little something here and there, he’s not above it, but he is refreshingly honest about it. Or at least not dishonest. He seems to be on the brink of an internal investigation as this case takes off, which adds some more tension and urgency to his desire for this not to blow up.
The first episode is dominated by Park Gun-ho’s strange confession. He’s revealed to be a former prison guard turned missionary who’s had contact with Lee Dae-chul. What they don’t know is that Park seems to have had episodes of terrible violence against Lee in prison. It’s information that is hard to square with the long game he’s playing right now.
Each one of his interrogations are a puzzle both to the detectives and to us as viewers. On the one hand, his confession is very clear. On the other, it doesn’t add up. On yet the other, he certainly acts completely unhinged in a way that doesn’t seem feigned. While in custody, he also suffers a seizure…why? And to top it all off, he has an unholy zeal for reciting scripture in justification for criminality. And can I add at this point how very tired I am of this? It seems like every next drama has a murderous priest or Bible-quoting villain, and apart from being offended by the ubiquitous nature of it, I’m also bored. I don’t know if this is a comment on domestic zealotry, or if it’s just a soft target. Can anyone else shed light on this?
His unsubtle behavior seems designed to convince them that he is a murderer, and they suspect his plan is to then reveal an alibi that would make laughing stocks of them. I’m pretty sure his point is that he can walk in and make a false confession and be charged and convicted with minimal evidence…thus “proving” how easy it is to get a false conviction.
However, the two detectives are pretty certain that the murder victim, Lee Dae-chul’s daughter Lee Eun-hye, is not dead at all. In fact, she and Park seem somehow in league. Ji-hyuk follows the clues and they track down Eun-hye, very much alive.
But the cogs of power are turning above, and the case is snatched away by the prosecution. I don’t think any of them anticipate how the case snowballs, and I find it a really interesting comment on the justice system, which perhaps is not exactly what the show set out to say, but is fascinating nevertheless: that at some point, a case takes on a life of its own, regardless of evidence or common sense, simply because of the system. The system is designed to let the pinball fall, chute to chute, in a kind of irrevocable downwards flow, until it lands at the very bottom. And its fate ultimately doesn’t rely on evidence or the enactment of justice, but is simply the result of momentum—unstoppable and unchecked.
Except perhaps for one spanner in the works: the media. Lee Elijah plays the role of reporter JIN SEO-KYUNG, and like the detectives, she’s close to the bottom of the foodchain—in her case, because she’s controversial and hardheaded, refusing to toe the line of her superiors. She’s picked to cover Lee Dae-chul’s execution news, but then the former Prosecutor General who is currently in prison (thanks to her) gives her a tip: Lee is innocent. It changes the way she approaches the story, but her field is as implacable a machine as the law. Though she tries to be conscientious, her work ends up being turned against her intentions, and there’s very little she can do about it. It’s at this point she and Ji-hyuk cross paths, and it’s a pretty interesting dynamic I’m keen to see develop.
As we reach the climax of the second episode, all our main characters converge to the scene of Park Gun-ho being taken away by the prosecution, in the middle of a media circus. He seizes the opportunity to make what I guess has been his play all along: one, to prove his wrongful arrest when Eun-hye turns up alive, and two, to use that moment to announce that her father Lee Dae-chul was wrongly accused.
The way he entreats Eun-hye seems to indicate that he cares about her (in a pastoral sense, not romantic) and wants to help her, though it’s not certain she feels the same, and has a breakdown in front of the reporters. She’s pretty messed up, unsurprisingly, with a tough but brittle exterior. Ji-hyuk ends up quietly staking her out that night, so he’s there when she has an epileptic seizure, just like Park Gun-ho’s.
Meanwhile, Do-chang gets an anonymous email with video evidence which, if genuine, definitively proves Lee Dae-chul’s innocence.
There’s definitely a lot we still don’t know, and it might take another week to slot all those pieces into place, like what exactly happened with Park Gun-ho and Lee Dae-chul, and how Park went from being convinced of his guilt to being convinced of his innocence. I like the idea of Seo-kyung being the variable, the moving piece that pings all over the board, between all the different axes. I still have a bit of a hangover from her terrible pop-up character in An Empress’s Dignity, so I’m liking her straightforward, unsmirky character here (I cannot abide smirking!).
I have to make a confession, though. After watching episode 1, I had a good feeling about the show and was fully prepared to enjoy it. Then I went off to refresh my memory of the details of the show and realized this is from the same screenwriter as Masked Prosecutor and I HATED HATED HATED that show SO MUCH (they forced Kim Sun-ah to be filial daughter to her mother’s rapist without ever pointing out how freaking effed up that was *ragestroke*). So that somewhat affected how I felt about this show as I went into episode 2.
I’m on the fence about whether to keep on watching now, because I’m afraid I’m mistaking convolution for complexity, and bad writing for intriguing plot. But I’m drawn by Jang Seung-jo’s character, so I might just stick with it for one more week and then decide whether it’s a bin, a win, or a speed-watch.