Mental Coach Jegal: Episode 1 (First Impressions)
Oh, it’s good! I wasn’t sure if tvN’s new healing sports drama would have enough heart to pull me along for the ride, but boy does it ever. From the framing to the setup to the characters — I enjoyed it all.
Editor’s note: Continued drama coverage is pending based on Beanie feedback.
EPISODE 1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
They had me at the opening scene — seriously. A kickass hero-esque song plays in the background, and we see our hero JEGAL GIL (Jung Woo) slowly making his way down a corridor, bruised and limping. This short scene is basically the drama in a nutshell: the funny juxtapositions make you laugh, but it’s also poignant and touching so that you feel it right in your heart. The highs are high and the lows are low.
Gil’s story starts in the past — first with tales of his gambling-happy father who taught him that life is 70% luck and only 30% skill and to rely on his later cards. Gil grew up feeling the opposite way, though, and as a young taekwondo athlete competing for the national team, he swears, “This is my life and I’ll save it from the sewer with my skill.”
Sadly, Gil’s story is one where he learns the truth about life: skill isn’t always enough for success. And it’s not because he’s not talented or determined or hardworking — he’s all of those things. No, it’s because skill is often overshadowed by corruption, especially in the world of professional sports.
In Gil’s backstory, we see how he and his teammate and chingu CHA MOO-TAE (Kim Do-yoon) are bullied and beaten (quite literally, and with a metal bat) by other sunbae athletes, and the wounds they sustain from one interlude in particular make their qualifying match virtually impossible.
We still see the match, though. Gil’s knee is hanging together by a proverbial thread, but he won’t shrink down from the round with his opponent — the snide, violent, and horrible human known as GU TAE-MAN (Kwon Yul). Gil puts up a glorious fight in this David versus Goliath encounter, but when Tae-man fights dirty — and the corrupt “judges” takes his side — Gil is left with a shattered knee and a shattered dream.
Thirteen years later, though, we meet him again — all smiles and sweetness. He’s become a famous counselor for athletes and has a schedule stacked with book signings and speaking engagements. His logline is basically: stop trying so hard to achieve things in life and making yourself miserable. Instead, be yourself and be at peace with it.
Gil seems to believe every word he says, and so do his scores of fans and the athletes that are down and out and come to him for help. We see him take on a new client in particular — a young girl who’s just lost her dream of professional basketball. He talks to her so kindly, encourages her, and empathizes so much, we can see why he’s a successful mental coach. (Dangit, Jung Woo, why are you always able to pack so much heart into those looks?!)
But the question, really, is if Gil is truly happy with the path he’s taken in life. When his old friend Moo-tae — who also retired as an athlete due to injuries during their past fights — seeks him out, though, things start to change.
Over dinner, Moo-tae asks Gil to help his little sister — he’s seen how successful Gil is in helping other athletes overcome their slumps, yips, and more. His dongsaeng is CHA GA-EUL (Lee Yumi), and it’s actually a hilarious scene because he first shows Gil the photo and says he wants him to meet her… but it totally sounds like he’s trying to set up a blind date instead. Gil protests that he’s too old lol but then learns the real reason.
Ga-eul is a gold medal athlete and speed skater who, after winning gold, hasn’t even been able to qualify for the national team. Because Gil has an absolute tofu heart, and he owes his friend such a debt of gratitude, he agrees to meet her.
At first glance Ga-eul is prickly and terrible, but when we see inside her, we see not only the immense pressure she puts on herself to succeed, but later, how much is stacked against her. Her coach is basically a good-for-nothing, and the show makes it clear he’s as corrupt as they come — parents bribe him, he manipulates the other athletes into placing and performing how he wants them to strategically, etc. It’s abhorrent, and so is he. With all that working against her, it’s no wonder Ga-eul can’t seem to perform.
After spending some time with Ga-eul and her brother, Gil soon sees himself — and his own struggle against the corrupt machine — in her. Her drive to win despite all the odds stacked against her is much like his own drive, so many years ago.
Ga-eul wants nothing to do with Gil, naturally, and sees him as a sellout — she mocks his book and mocks his business. She even mocks his injury (he uses a cane to get around because of his shot knee), claiming he gave up on rehabbing it and then used it as a business model to make money.
Of course, there is some truth in her harshness, and after Gil reflects on her words — and comes face-to-face with his past again — everything is set to change. As the first episode ends, we see his leg give way, and in the agony of resurfacing traumas, his old self emerges. Gil has not only been confronted with his nemesis again, and called out by a young skater, but he sees his life’s message lead to the suicide of one of his mentees. These three things culminate, and it’s clear that things are about to change for our hero.
I will give most of the credit to Jung Woo’s acting, but I love the character of Gil so much already — and no, it’s not just the “safety pin” cane and hard-fought self-restraint — but I appreciate how honest the story is about the war going on inside him. How, when Tae-man shows up in his face again, Gil can fantasize about punching him in the face, but in reality tells himself, “I’m almost 40, I’m an adult,” and holds himself back.
Gil embodies so thoroughly this guru-type who’s willingly tapped out of the endless battle of winning and losing — but also, in moments, we see hints of the fire that’s still in him, and we know that Ga-eul’s story is going to bring it out in him again. The past might be in the past, but it’s definitely not over for our hero — especially with a slimeball like Tae-man infecting the Olympic committee (and a big fat pfffttt that this man handles Human Affairs).
For all that Tae-man was a villain with a capital V, though, the drama gives me hope that there will be more than what we get on the surface, or in the first hour of the show. In particular, the lovely narrated moments where the drama did freeze-frames over the characters and their inner struggles was quite poignant; I’m hoping they will tease this out more. God knows Kwon Yul could play a beautifully complex character, so I hope there’s more to it than him just instigating and getting fantasy-punched (not that I’m against it!).
The emotions ride high in the drama, but they’re balanced with humor — most of it thanks to Jung Woo’s great performance so far — where he can curse someone out for Ga-eul’s benefit and then exclaim smiling, “Ah, that was refreshing!” or just be silly scribbling case notes about Ga-eul’s temperament. Another favorite scene was when he was introducing himself to her for the first time. He says, “I’m not an ajusshi, I’m your oppa–” She cuts him off horrified, but he later continues: “I’m your oppa’s friend” lol. (Given the two jokes about their age difference so far, I’m feeling free and clear of any romantic plot lines, phewf).
So far, this drama feels like catnip for any underdog story lover (*ahem*), and does such a nice job of positioning our characters and their struggles that even someone like me — with zero interest in sports — can watch a speed skating qualifying round with bated breath, and feel the agony of our heroes’ defeats.
However, what makes the story so good is that it’s about more than just qualifying rounds, satisfying kicks, and bad sportsmanship — it’s about how to face the challenges of life, how they shape you, and how to live a life that you’re proud of. I’ll have more of that, please!