MBC’s newest offering is the young adult soap The Great Seducer. The show comes prepackaged as a star vehicle for three formidable young actors and a second crack at acting for Red Velvet’s Joy, who made her debut last year in tvN’s The Liar and His Lover. The drama is an adaptation of the 18th century novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. But will inspire more comparisons to the American film Cruel Intentions, which first adapted the material for younger characters in a modern setting? Has The Great Seducer struck out its own path, or is it a messy conglomeration of all its source material?
Woo Do Hwan as Kwon Shi Hyun
Moon Ga Young as Choi Soo Ji
Kim Min Jae as Lee Se Joo
Joy as Eun Tae Hee
“When my hand touches you, you become the unknown darkness.” So opens the first episode of this drama, probably an indication of the dangerous liaisons to come. But before that, three of our characters have to graduate high school. Kwon Shi Hyun (Woo Do Hwan), Choi Soo Ji (Moon Ga Young), and Lee Se Joo (Kim Min Jae) are this universe’s version of the Three Musketeers, and they encourage one another’s devious behavior.
Shi Hyun is a ladies’ man, able to charm any woman he pleases with one glance in her direction. He is ruthless, quick to use his romantic interests and break their hearts while Soo Ji cleans up his messes. Soo Ji is a cold-hearted, sharp-witted young woman. She was changed by heartbreak and is now obsessed with enacting revenge on anyone who wrongs her. Lee Se Joo is at the bottom of their class and does the bare minimum to get by. He makes it his mission to irritate any figure of authority who crosses him. Shi Hyun and Soo Ji clearly have feelings for one another, but refuse to address it, regardless of how hard Se Joo tries.
Soo Ji is committed to making her graduation a memorable one. She enacts Shi Hyun and Se Joo in her grand scheme to expose an affair between two teachers during the ceremony. What she keeps to herself is that the woman involved in the affair is engaged to an art teacher she once had a relationship with and wishes to humiliate.
However, she is unable to bask in the glory of her successes for long. She is taken out on what she presumes to be a date with Lee Ke Young (Lee Jae Kyoon), a young man of great stature. Expecting to take the next step in their relationship, she gets something decidedly different instead. He cuts her down to size and informs her that her family isn’t good enough to warrant a serious relationship with him. Spurned once again, she intends to ruin his life as well.
Eun Tae Hee (Joy) has recently returned from overseas to accept a scholarship to a Korean university, coincidentally from Soo Ji’s mother’s foundation. She is regarded as a genius and graduated with perfect scores in several subjects. She has no interest in love and regards it as a waste of time. Even so, Soo Ji sees her speaking animatedly with Ke Young at her scholarship ceremony and presumes that Eun Tae Hee was his first love.
Soo Ji’s plan to ruin Ke Young’s life is two-fold: soil his pure and presumed bride Park Hye Jung (Oh Ha Nee) by having Shi Hyun seduce her, and destroy Eun Tae Hee’s good name via the same methods. The only problem is getting Shi Hyun to agree to her plans.
And besides, they have bigger problems now. Without warning, Shi Hyun and Soo Ji’s parents have decided to announce their engagement, bringing a new dimension to the pair’s sexual tension.
Complicated, right? I couldn’t even include everything that occurred within the first two episodes in the synopsis. But anyone familiar with the source material, whether it be Les liaisons dangereuses or Cruel Intentions, could have expected that. The greatest appeal to the story is the tangled webs the characters weave in pursuit of their nefarious goals. But it’s really a shame that I couldn’t manage to fit in Shi Hyun’s seduction of his classmate’s mother (unknowingly). It was quite a messy subplot.
Anyone looking for a clean-cut and simple show will not find it here. This is a melodrama, plain and simple. The characters will make outrageous choices, we as viewers will attempt to make sense of them, and so the cycle will continue until the end of the 32 episode run. But if you’re in the market for a melodrama, this one will be absolutely perfect for you. It has all the elements that one would need: chaebols, teenagers who make poor decisions, and sexual deviancy. The last one is just presumed at this point, but still.
What I like most about this drama at the start has nothing to do with the drama itself, really, but the writer behind it. Kim Bo Yeon’s only credits are drama specials from several years back. As a result, I’m coming to this show with absolutely zero preconceived notions about what to expect. The characters will be written through an entirely fresh lens, which is sorely needed for a show like this. I don’t know how theatrical, raunchy, or perhaps even awful it will be. I’ll quickly cross a melodrama off the list if I’m not a fan of the writer behind it. This is for one reason: melodrama is always riding on a precipice — just about to go over the cliff and into “too much” territory. This time around, I have no idea how things will turn out, which is enough to keep me watching.
There is (admittedly) a lot of information doled out in these first two episodes. Still, the short runtime doesn’t feel bogged down by all the revelations. When flashbacks are necessary, they’re short and sweet. When complex history comes into the mix, a simple conversation provides the exposition rather than minutes and minutes of hammer-over-the-head explanations. While this may leave some viewers confused, I have a shorthand for these sorts of messy antics at this point and don’t need my hand to be held. And for everyone else, there’s this review!
Where the camerawork is concerned, there’s a lovely balance between pristine sterility and grandiose colors, backgrounds, and textures. When Soo Ji lets down Shi Hyun’s latest project easy at the very beginning of the first episode, the shots and setting are simple, clean. By the time the second episode comes to its conclusion, the lens is overwhelmed by the wealth and showiness of it all. Nothing is particularly complicated, but the plot is complicated enough. Directors Kang In and Lee Dong Hyun know to hold back.
If we’re moving past what I like and getting to what intrigues me, it has to be the obvious changes from the previous iterations of this novel — including this show’s closest relative, Cruel Intentions. To be frank, that film was never concerned with making the two leads likeable. They were lecherous, unrepentant individuals. That was entirely fine for a film, considering we only had to endure them for an hour and a half.
Because we have to stick with these characters for 32 episodes, the script smartly makes them sympathetic from the very beginning. Shi Hyun has had a rough home life and lashes out, unable to truly love anyone. Soo Ji was manipulated into a relationship with her much older art teacher when she was just a freshman and has never been the same since. Ultimately, I care much more about Soo Ji’s pain, but others will probably better identify with Shi Hyun. That’s probably the point, given that they’re not going to end up on the same side of things when all is said and done.
Moon Ga Young steals the show here. She’s absolutely perfect for the role. Initially, I thought Joy would be playing the Merteuil/Kathryn role. But considering what she has to grapple with, there’s absolutely no way an idol would have been cast for it. Soo Ji is too rough around the edges and too complicated for what we’ve seen of Joy’s abilities thus far. If someone incapable had gotten the role, this would have been a difficult couple of episodes to slog through, as Soo Ji carries the vast majority of the emotional weight. Ga Young overshadows the other leads by a mile, but maybe the others will catch up.
To be fair, the male leads are both perfectly competent. Kim Min Jae is excellent comic relief. Woo Do Hwan even aces his first crying scene. This is a welcome change from most teen K-Dramas. Thankfully, Joy is much improved from her first role — but, honestly, half of her troubles during The Liar and His Lover had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the nonsensical, awkward script. Eun Tae Hee admittedly doesn’t require much range, which helps. Regardless, I so wish that Joy was able to move past being cast as the innocent flower archetype. It’s in direct opposition with the image she wishes to project as an idol. But the public would probably have a field day she were to play any other kind of character. The public already has a field day now.
I do worry that Joy’s presence will keep this show from going as dark as it could go. However, considering its 15 rating and the fact that it’s on a public channel, I can’t imagine she’ll be the only reason things stay lukewarm. Truth be told, I was surprised that there were so many mentions of casual sex in the first episode. Especially since high school seniors are the focus here.
None of this involved Joy, predictably, but I do imagine it will carry over into the plot involving the deflowering of the Cécile of this story, Park Hye Jung. That is by far my least favorite part of this entire convoluted story, if only because of the creepy age difference — one of the few details that is retained in every iteration of this tale. Thankfully, Oh Ha Nee is way overage, but she’s still styled like a child, and definitely looks the part. I’m especially not looking forward to this whole debacle playing out here, if only because the teacher/student relationship involving Soo Ji was already portrayed with enough ambiguity to give me pause — almost to the point where it seemed like Soo Ji was the manipulative seductress in the entire situation.
Regarding chemistry, the three leads we are first introduced to play well off of one another. As such, you are quickly convinced that they are old friends. In fact, they anchor these two episodes with ease. I found myself caring about them as an entire entity more than Shi Hyun and Soo Ji as a couple. Poor Se Joo would be left as a poor third wheel, then, and we can’t have that!
Joy has only interacted with Woo Do Hwan up until this point, and just briefly. They’ve established a decent rapport, and there’s nothing awkward about them. It’s a vast improvement over Joy’s last romantic pairing, which was all wrong in every sense of the word. But the rest is too soon to tell. While I could wait and suss it out… this first impression is long enough after two episodes, okay?
What also remains to be seen is which ending this drama will favor. The original novel ends with everyone paying the price for the scheme of two individuals, with the message that dastardly deeds only end in disaster for all involved — even the innocent. Cruel Intentions ends with a bit more poetic justice after a bit of tragedy, an easier pill to swallow for the teenage crowd. Well, this is MBC, so we could probably guess how this is going to go. But maybe the writer will surprise us. It would certainly be a more interesting ending…
There’s a lot to be skeptical and a lot to be excited about with The Great Seducer. But I must admit that the first two episodes were an extremely promising start. If the pacing remains the same, the script remains strong, and the actors remain dedicated, there’s no reason this drama should go off the rails. Still, that’s asking a lot of any drama. This one at least has strong production values and great source material on its side.
The show’s first set of ratings were a bit dismal for public broadcast network fare. Here’s hoping that things will have looked up by the time I return with my full season review. As of right now, this show deserves more eyeballs on it than it’s getting.