Created by Lee Woo Jung, Prison Playbook is a black comedy available on Netflix that saw fantastic ratings in South Korea, especially for a series aired on cable television (TvN). In fact, its final episode was also the highest rated ever in the series’ entire two-month run. Naturally, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Perhaps, some of the reasons for its success are the reputation and trustworthiness behind two figures from the famous Reply franchise, director Shin Wonho, and writer Jung Bohoon. But is Prison Playbook more than pure name value carried over from another series? Does it really live up to its hype?
Korean Name: 슬기로운 감빵생활
Genre: Black comedy / Crime
Number of Episodes: 16 episodes
Episode Length: 90 minutes
Recommended For: Viewers who enjoy dark comedy with emotional sucker punches; fans of Krystal from f(x) and Seunghoon from Winner.
NOT Recommended For: Those who prefer more light-hearted entertainment.
Park Hae Soo as Kim Jehyuk
Jung Kyung Ho as Lee Joonho
Krystal Jung as Kim Jiho
Lim Hwa-young as Kim Jehee
Professional baseball player Kim Jehyuk (Park Hae Soo) is charged with beating a potential rapist to a pulp after the latter had attempted to sexually assault the former’s younger sister, Kim Jehee (Lim Hwayoung). Any hope that the judge would clear his name slowly begins to crumble as he finds himself in prison. There, he is forced to adapt to life surrounded by hardened criminals. With his biggest allies Lee Joon-ho’s (Jung Kyung Ho) and Kim Yeong-Cheol’s (Kim Sung Cheol) help, Jehyuk has to learn to abide by unwritten prison rules in order to survive.
Prison Playbook has been largely lauded both by critics and audiences alike upon its release. The combination of the drama’s premise, as well as its overwhelmingly positive critical response, was intriguing, as someone who is able to count the number of times I’ve finished a Korean drama on one hand. In spite of that, it wasn’t completely untainted by criticism. There were a few key knots in the drama that did not quite sit well with its viewers — in particular, Krystal’s performance as Kim Jiho.
Prison Playbook‘s plot is primarily driven by its characters, focusing on their internal strifes to propel the drama forward. These serve as intriguingly damning social commentary on two overarching themes: a flawed justice system that unjustifiably ends up punishing the innocent and political corruption. Many other K-dramas that aim to uncover these just end up getting bogged down by convoluted side-plots, but Prison Playbook suffers from none of that. Most of the various major storyline threads flow organically into each other, interspersed with side-splitting dark comedy and remarkably engaging tension.
A less than ideal part of Prison Playbook‘s plot that most would probably agree with is its romance. The relationship between Jehyuk and Jiho is just a little bit creepy, man. On some level, the age difference wouldn’t have mattered as much if not for the fact that Jehyuk has known Ji-ho since she was a child. The fact that he has apparently loved her before she returned his feelings does not improve matters either. Granted, it is not known exactly when he had fallen in love with her but I would rather not find out.
The drama’s representation of LGBT romance is a bit of a mixed bag, too. Prison Playbook admirably steered away from abusing homosexuality as a punchline but I can’t help but notice the glaring difference in treatment between its one sole gay romance compared to its other heterosexual romances. While the majority of the drama’s heterosexual representations of romance flourished, homosexuality was never allowed to be happy for long. In my view, representations such as this only contribute to the damaging notion that being queer means never being able to find happiness. On the flip side, at least the writers of Prison Playbook made Han-yang one of the most complex and endearing characters in the series. This, once again, brings us back to the main reason for Prison Playbook‘s success — its characters.
The drama’s greatest strength lies in its intriguing portrayal of its primary characters within the walls of Seobu Penitentiary. Never have I ever loved so many (fictional) male criminals in my entire life. Its standout, however, was Han-yang, also known as Looney, also known as the best ever and deserved better. As the show’s only gay primary character, Han-yang is treated no differently from the others. His character development is one of the most engaging on the show, particularly the way Han-yang ultimately gained respect and affection from the other inmates for his intellect and empathy towards others. A refreshing take on Prison Playbook is the way the other primary characters reacted to Han-yang’s sexuality. Although the revelation shocked the inmates, most ultimately accepted him for who he was. This stands in stark contrast to far too many other K-dramas that tend to use homosexuality as a long-running punchline. I do, however, think that the ending does undo a little bit of all that narrative progress, but damn it, I still love Han-yang so much.
As outstanding as its characters may be, Prison Playbook is unlikely to satisfy viewers who prefer dramas that are female-centric. This is something that seems almost inevitable, given the fact that the series is set in a male penitentiary. Male characters vastly outnumber the ladies as a consequence, dominating screentime. As much as it pains me to say this, if that isn’t what you’re looking for, you should probably give this one a pass. Prison Playbook isn’t going to pass the Bechdel test anytime soon, but I loved every single major female character from the drama just as much as the guys. It is also worth noting that the ladies of Prison Playbook are the ones with freedom, in every sense of the word, and are thus arguably the ones with the most agency. This is especially the case with Krystal’s character, Kim Jiho. Seobu Penitentiary is not the only prison that Je-hyuk is trapped inside — our leading man is being held captive in multiple prisons, including metaphorically. And Krystal held the key to one of them since she had all the power to decide if she wanted him back. Moreover, while they were still together, Jiho was always the one taking leaps of faith in their relationship, a role that is typically taken by the male lead in romances.
Any story would suffer from a poor lead but Prison Playbook had no such issues — Park Hae-soo was perfect for the role. Kim Jehyuk was his first role as a lead actor but he was able to pull off a suitably nuanced performance as the wide-eyed fallen hero. This was a role that needed someone who was not only likable but could also believably handle the ever-shifting power dynamics in prison. Park Hae-soo easily ticked off those checkboxes. Furthermore, he was able to establish an incredible onscreen rapport with every character with whom his character formed an alliance. The result is a drama that made me emotionally invested in everyone who was on his side, even the ones who had once committed terrible, hard-to-forgive crimes.
Park Hae-soo wasn’t the only one who delivered a stellar performance. As a whole, Prison Playbook‘s supporting cast is just as impressive. One of the drama’s biggest scene-stealers was Lee Kyu-hyung, who played drug addict Yoo Han-yang, otherwise known as Looney. His character initially appeared to exist purely for comic relief, but gradually, Lee Kyu-hyung masterfully unveiled previously hidden aspects of his character. Widely respected among Korean theatre enthusiasts, he delivered a performance that made contrasting traits of Looney’s character one of the most compelling aspects of Prison Playbook.
Krystal was perhaps one of the weakest in terms of consistency. Although not nearly as incompetent as some asserted her to be, there were indeed a couple of moments where her emotional delivery wasn’t completely convincing. Nevertheless, minor blips in her performance were not enough to deter me from enjoying the drama. In fact, there were even moments when her acting managed to eke a tear out of me. It’s not easy getting past the elephant in the room that was the age difference between Jiho and Jehyuk, but she is part of the reason why I still enjoyed their scenes as adults. Of course, a lot of that boiled down to her beauty.
The music that accompanied Prison Playbook isn’t likely to be the sort that sticks with you but neither is it all that distracting. Instead, it’s sort of a happy in-between. Suitably tense instrumental music helped enhance the drama’s narrative progression but none of it truly stood out. Its OST album featured major figures such as Heize, Zion.T, Eric Nam, as well as Winner’s Mino but they were mostly just there.
One would expect a drama about prison life to be underlined by completely muted colour palettes but Prison Playbook seemed quite determined to challenge every expectation. Although the prison walls themselves were as dreary as it gets, Prison Playbook‘s cinematography was subtly underlined by crisp pops of colour that were made possible by props within each mise-en-scène. Consider the scenes shot within Jehyuk’s shared prison cell after he was transferred. The inmates have been there for so long that they’ve practically made some semblance of home for themselves by adding brightly coloured storage spaces, books, and other knick-knacks. This stands parallel to the almost overwhelmingly bright colour palettes outside prison walls as if these items were needed to keep the inmates hold onto any shred of hope or signs of humanity. It’s details like this that make this such an outstanding drama.
Prison Playbook is by no means a completely flawless drama, but it is an outstanding one nonetheless. With a winning combination of highly engaging tension and humour, Prison Playbook joins my shortlist of K-dramas that have held my interest long enough for me to see them to the very end. Even if you, like me, aren't particularly a fan of most K-dramas, you might like to give this one a chance.