Penthouse: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Poised to be a big, juicy hit for SBS, their new thriller melo Penthouse banged down the door with its premiere week ratings (up to almost 12% by Episode 2), and a story that promises to be every bit as overly dramatic as we might expect.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
Penthouse seems like the kind of drama that is perfectly summed up with its first three minutes, which is actually a rather impressive feat. Setting, scope, and above all — tone — are made abundantly clear.
That introduction starts with sweeping aerial views of Seoul at night. A sumptuous fireworks display goes off, all visible from the palace-like tower we’re focusing on. The music is dramatic and tense, and the scenery is even more so as we peek into the building and witness the sheer pomp of the Rococo-esque ball taking place. Meaningful looks are shot across the ballroom as the music soars. A woman on a different floor dresses as if she’s an untouchable goddess. Someone falls from the top of the tower to their death. This is gonna be a crazy drama.
I came to Penthouse out of curiosity, but I think I underestimated how over-the-top this drama was going to be. Coming from the writer of An Empress’s Dignity I had some idea, but at the same time my brain wasn’t ready for the amount of screaming, fighting, screeching, abuse, affairs, and birth secrets we were about to encounter in our drama’s premiere week. To be fair, each episode runs up to 90 minutes, so there’s plenty of screen time to make all of this happen— and with fifteen characters to keep track of (I do not exaggerate here!), Penthouse needs all the time it can get.
Penthouse is essentially an ensemble production, with four important sets of players introduced right away, Their setting is the luxury apartment building, Hera Palace, and it’s every bit a social microcosm, with its power struggles, food chain, and the downtrodden outsiders.
From the get-go, the stories and conflicts are pretty well laid out, as are the strings that connect them. We meet CHEON SEO-JIN (an excellently evil Kim So-yeon), who was a top soprano and is now vocal teacher to the uber-wealthy (which she is too, living at Hera).
Her husband is surgeon HA YOON-CHEOL (Yoon Jong-hoon, a slightly odd choice for this role), and the two clash on an hourly basis. At first, he seems real and relatable, calling out his wife’s money-grubbing phoniness, but really, he’s just as bad himself, with money being his endgame as well. Finally, their daughter is also a player here, and she’s getting pressured beyond reason to follow in her mother’s soprano star footsteps.
Next there is the family that resides in the penthouse among penthouses — JOO DAN-TAE (Eom Ki-joon), his wife SHIM SOO-RYUN (Lee Jia), and their twin teens. I’ve never seen Eom Ki-joon play a nice guy, but he really does seedy and evil so well that I can’t complain, and quite like him in this role. Even though I hate him.
He’s a complete snob and hypocrite, fawning over his wife in public, but then easily falling into an affair with Cheon Seo-jin the second she makes a very strong (and kinda uncomfortable) pass at him. He acts kind and loving, but really he is manipulating his wife and her secret comatose child, using the men at Hera with his money-making schemes, bribing the prestigious high school administration so his children are at the top of the list — oh, and he also emotionally and physically abuses said children.
These twin teenagers are JOO SEOK-HOON and JOO SEOK-KYUNG (played by Kim Young-dae back to his delicious type-cast self, and newbie Han Ji-hyun). One second you hate them for being vindictive brats, and the next you want to rescue them when you see how desperately they try to protect each other from their father. It’s all verrrrry dramatic.
The wife and mother of this terrible family is the closest thing we get to a heroine… I think? She has no idea what lurks under the surface of her “perfect” life, is clueless to her husband’s evil ways as much as she is that he is abusing their kids — but she’s also one of the kindest and most “normal” characters we meet thus far. So that’s something.
There are even more families tightly knit into the story too, though. There’s KANG MA-RI (Shin Eun-kyung) and her weasel-like daughter (like mother like daughter?), who are constantly trying to scratch their way to the top of the food chain, whether that’s at Hera Palace or in school rankings.
Then there’s another family of attorney LEE KYU-JIN (Bong Tae-kyu), his ambitious wife GO SANG-AH (Yoon Joo-hee) and their son. Like many of the Hera Palace families, they’re in a tangle with their chaebol families, or families-in-law, and it’s all very cut-throat.
What about the threads that tie all these families together? It’s more than their wealth and their apartment
building palace — they all seem to have shared goals as well. For instance, the daughter of each family is an aspiring (whether she likes it or not) classical singer, so we have more than our fair share of teenage girls belting out songs in their operatic voices, and getting pushed by their parents to win top marks, get into the top school, etc.
This is where we get even more conflict than with just the players inside Hera Palace. We also have some financially-struggling “normal” folks. Well, if you can call OH YOON-HEE (Eugene) and her daughter BAE RONA (Kim Hyun-soo) normal.
Yoon-hee dropkicks one of the school leaders and knocks out his front two teeth in revolt against the school violence committee’s decision. She also blackmails a high-ranking politician for enough money to bribe her daughter’s school into keeping her on.
It’s supposed to be about a woman who’s desperate enough to do anything for her daughter, because we learn that Yoon-hee had the same dream as her daughter does: to be a top classical singer. So, Yoon-hee wants to protect that dream for her daughter (since hers got destroyed) — but her methods leave much wanting to make her a proper heroine.
Just in case it’s not obvious by now, yes — almost every woman in this drama was, or is, an amazing classical singer. You know, until their throats got slashed, or they used their wealth and influence to clear competitors out of their way. In fact, that’s exactly how Cheon Seo-jin got where she is, and we see an overload of scenes between her and Yoon-hee when they were in school together. Their fights are more than hair-pulling — they’re cruel, violent, and vindictive.
Even though we’re supposed to feel the despair of our downtrodden families, and the weight of the wealthy families that step all over them, it was a bit hard for me to root for Yoon-hee and her daughter (or any of them really), mostly because every character is so ready to scream, fight, throw things, break things, smash things, rip things, grab pointy objects, and so on. I saw more shoves and falls and threats in two episodes of this drama than I have in five other shows combined.
I said above that perhaps Soo-ryun is our calmest and most relatable character, but there’s one more to introduce, and she is MIN SEOL-AH (Jo Soo-min). First, she masquerades as a college student and tutors the teens from Hera (or tries to, since all they do is torment her). But, in a move that dramaland really likes lately, it’s soon revealed that she’s actually a high schooler herself. She is also a penniless orphan. Oh, and she also has the dream of being a classical singer, and has possibly the best voice amongst any of the other girls. At this point, I had to chuckle.
What are the chances that each and every one of these females has a glorious and operatic singing voice? I think they’re pretty slim, but whether they’re doing it out of love, out of talent, or because their parents are literally forcing them, this is one of the major conflicts of the drama.
Is it possible for there to be a drama out there that makes An Empress’s Dignity look sane? Yes, there is, and it’s called Penthouse. I started off with a no judgement approach, ready for some good crazy, but as the half hour episodes ticked by, I felt less and less interested in each of these characters.
While I give major points for the strong and well-drawn characterization, and how their stories come together in the same world of conflict, it’s just a little too much to enjoy (for me at least). The SKY Castle elements of uber-wealthy families and their cut-throat methods, I get, and they worked. But at the same time, this drama feels entirely different from, say, a recent hit like A Couple’s World. That drama was also crazy, but why did it feel so much more engrossing, and so much less… cheap?
That’s the feeling I couldn’t really shake off as I watched Penthouse — it feels a little lowbrow… but not even juicy lowbrow, which I’m definitely not above enjoying.
It’s no secret I have a pretty high tolerance for over-dramatics and melo, so what is it about Penthouse that made me want to turn it off? Is it the story’s mechanics, or it execution? Is it the actual content of the story, or just the sprawling and theatrical way it’s told? I’m still undecided.
Either way, whether you love Penthouse, or don’t love Penthouse, it seems poised to be a drama that people will be talking about, and have strong reactions to — and it’s certainly chock-full of things to talk about. And as long as those conversations don’t include chucking your enemy out a penthouse window, I think dramaland will be all the richer for it.