“Each pair of handcuffs comes with 2.5 liters of tears.”
Have you ever felt it?
The time you watch a bad drama and don’t feel like wasting any more time writing about it?
The time you watch an okay drama and don’t have much to say about it?
Or the time you watch a really good drama yet are lost for words at the end?
That’s the situation i had with Signal — the third one.(My thoughts would probably have been more coherent had i written a mid-series review and then a final review, but i decided to wait till the end before weighing in, so hopefully this post will have a nice flow and not too jumbled up.) I’ve watched a fair share of dramas that started with a bang and ended with a fizzle to not let myself get over-enthusiastic about Signal despite being hooked since the first episode. Experience tells me a drama’s best part is its first six episodes, so if it’s still good after passing the halfway point, i can get my hopes a little higher, though not by too much because it can still tank in the last episode. Fortunately, Signal not only doesn’t let up but also doesn’t let me down.
I mentioned the difficulty finding a show i love from beginning to end, then i came across Signal which i loved a lot more at the end than i did at the outset. I mentioned the difficulty finding a show with satisfying denouement, then i watched Signal‘s which ended on a high note. I mentioned growing tired of cop dramas and disliking procedural ones yet still checked Signal out, which turned out to be downright procedural and didn’t mind that at all. Well, it’s the genre i’m drawn to most easily i guess. But if after sitting through meh and mediocre shows i’d discover a gem like Signal, that makes the pain worth it.
This fantasy crime series follows Profiler Park Hae-young (Lee Je-hoon) who joins forces with Detective Lee Jae-han (Jo Jin-woong) to solve cases through a walkie-talkie. That’s the crime part. The walkie-talkie makes up the fantasy part as it connects two people from two different time: present and past. In addition, time paradox is also thrown into the mix, since the first transmission Hae-young receives is the penultimate Jae-han sends, and Jae-han’s first is Hae-young’s third. Since we are seeing the story through Hae-young’s perspective, Jae-han seems to be on a time loop; in this respect, the transmissions exchanged between them are do-overs on Jae-han’s part — if that makes sense. So, there are two parallel timelines here although the past timeline runs faster. Jae-han moves from 1989 to 2000 while Hae-young stays in 2015.
All of these fantastical themes and concepts make Signal a show that’s much more compelling and fathomable watched than explained/read. It may be confusing at first but once you get a grasp of what’s going on, it’s actually pretty straightforward. The same goes for the case solving, which aforementioned is procedural but thankfully not that tedious. Naturally, the side cases aren’t equally interesting — the ones striking a chord with the main characters are obviously a lot more riveting — but they are all based on real-life crimes/events* that effectively add a sense of realism to the story (and ultimately hope for its audience) and keep us engaged as we’re always racing against time throughout the drama, absorbing every bit of our attention and getting the adrenaline pumping. And once it gets you, it doesn’t let go.
(*Gabby compiled, compared, and outlined them nicely here.)
Like in any other cop dramas, there’s one main case/central mystery underlying the individuals’ actions, moves, and decisions. Here, it’s the disappearance of Lee Jae-han in 2000. However, unlike in other dramas, it isn’t back-burnered or dragged on till the end (albeit resolved only in the final episode) since the past clock is rewound to 1989 from which the story progresses. This spares us the agony of waiting for the show to give us the backstory or drop the big reveal since we’re following the characters closely enough to see where the enmity begins, when the bad blood festers, and how each friction snowballs into the malevolent plan to silence Jae-han. By the time that fateful year draws near, the mission isn’t to solve it but to prevent it from happening the second time.
By living in the present, Hae-young has the upper hand over the cases’ details which then relayed to Jae-han as pointers on where to look or what to anticipate. Transmitting future info to the past, however, opens the possibility of altering the course of history and thus comes with a set of consequences if the past is ended tampered. Sometimes, the repercussions are so mind-boggling they seem to outweigh the positives. This was one of the times when i wished the rules had been clearer: besides the time the two-way radio would make static noise (on Hae-young’s end, because it will vary on Jae-han’s) and the sign the past was about to change (again, seen only on Hae-young’s present), it’s never clear as to how long each transmission would last, what information couldn’t or shouldn’t be communicated to the past, and the law of causality for altering past events.
Nevertheless, i appreciated that the drama team didn’t let the past change easily just because the characters know what and when something’s gonna happen. Because some things are meant to happen no matter what. This is why despite being fully aware that suspension of disbelief is required in any fantasy genre, i found the idea of them reversing death too far-fetched. Maybe i’m just used to the theme of time travel as a way to complete history, the notion that life and death are fated, and the idea of changing the present for a better future as the more viable scenario than changing the past for a better present. Maybe situations like having the person you just met die in the past and meeting the person who never existed until a few moments ago are just too bizarre for me to grasp. Oh well, there are things i couldn’t fully comprehend or make sense of in fantasy/sci-fi/supernatural shows anyway.
The tricky part about parallel timelines is the duo seems to coexist when they in fact aren’t. Hae-young may try to discover the buried truth and eventually solve what have long become cold cases whereas Jae-han simply is doing his best to catch the real criminal so the case won’t turn cold. To that end, Jae-han ends up bearing the brunt of the transmissions every time he fails to intercept an incident and kicking himself when the prescient knowledge leads to catastrophic happenings. His crying scenes were all so heartbreaking to watch! Like he said, all Hae-young sees are pictures and investigation data, but Jae-han sees and knows the victims personally; therefore, i like it when the fiery profiler is in the thick of re-investigation which gives him his own share of frustrations over encountering a dead-end and anguish of losing a dear one, even though everything could go to waste if the stalwart detective manages to close the case in his time.
Obviously, these two aren’t they only key characters. There’s Detective Cha Soo-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), the only female cop in the force in two timelines. Badass and no-nonsense aren’t new traits of a female character let alone cop, but she remains capable and shrewd (in the present) — albeit prone to be frustratingly dim and irrational when it comes to her crush — though i wish she played a bigger role in bridging the two or supporting her admired sunbae in the past. While romance isn’t one of this drama’s genres, it doesn’t mean the male leads have no love interests. Jae-han’s love line with Won-kyung-ssi ended so tragically i didn’t expect him to move on that easily (those profound theater scene and “I don’t watch movies” moment!) but the years spent working with Soo-hyun ought to give him enough time to warm up to her. Who knew their exchanges would be the show’s comic relief? Who knew being brusque is Jae-han’s endearing charm?
A cop drama isn’t complete without corrupt officers. Here, the roles are helmed by hunting dog Kim Bum-joo (Jang Hyun-sung) and his enigmatic underling Ahn Chi-soo (Jung Hae-kyun). Didn’t hate the latter, had no sympathy for the former. A good delegator he may yet a lousy executor he is — got himself cut, wiped the blood with incriminating evidence, and didn’t even dispose the smoking gun properly. I love that the good guys trio are all consistently smart and sharp-witted, and the reason the bad guys stay untouched for so long is because Kim Bum-joo finds a backing powerful enough to fix a case as well as a couple of henchmen depraved/desperate enough to do anything for money. He isn’t the best villain yet i hated him so very much for messing with our heroes and for framing Park Sun-woo (Hae-young’s hyung, Kang Chan-hee) twice.
[Ending discussion ahead] Despite my reservations about death reversal, of course i wished the good guys would be alive, well, and happy at the end, particularly and especially Jae-han who’s been through a lot. Even so, i had long figured it would be impossible to revive, err, save everyone. Or rather, both Jae-han and Sun-woo. Each plays a part in shaping adult Hae-young: if Sun-woo were alive, he might not become a police officer; if Jae-han were alive, the transmissions wouldn’t happen (the walkie-talkie he uses is Jae-han’s). That said, Hae-young might still find the battery-less radio even if he weren’t a profiler, so technically Jae-han’s dying is more pivotal to the entire premise. Alas, i sensed it’s Sun-woo who’s destined to die. That doesn’t mean i wasn’t clutching my hands together so tight hoping Jae-han could make it to the scene early enough to save him, then crushed when he couldn’t.
In hindsight, this 16-episode crime series is fairly predictable, low on action scenes, hardly peppered with twists and red herring that the truth behind Sun-woo’d passing came as the biggest surprise. It wasn’t unthinkable, but all series long i was more on the side of him as the pure soul pushed over the edge by injustice. It’s tragic either way, but the revelation did paint him in a much better light — he wasn’t someone who took the easy way out.
Neither is Jae-han, who fears death less than the possibility of leaving a case at hand to go cold. His ultimate fate was answered in the first 30 minutes of the finale, after which we were rewarded with 55 minutes* worth of epilogue mixed with new missing case. As expected, there isn’t enough time to resolve the case as the denouement is split between Hae-young’s orienting himself to his new present in 2016 and Jae-han’s disappearance. As expected, the series closes with an open ending, which i was fine with. I’m really okay with it though it would be darn satisfying to see the three of them in one frame…^
(*each episode’s duration is more than an hour; the finale is nearly one-half hours long
^no, the top right picture below doesn’t count!)
Even before the credits roll, talks/discussions about a possible sequel were already brought up. Now, i hardly fancy the idea of sequels (or prequels) regardless of the ending, because i’m a firm believer that any writer should’ve had enough time to tell their story completely and wrap it up conclusively within the given length. While i don’t think Signal needs a second season, the ending does leave enough mystery and loose ends for a Season 2. I admitted to having many questions largely because everything Cold Case Team has been working on and achieved in the entire run was sent to oblivion. More than learning that the team never existed, i was sadder that neither Detective Kim Gye-chul (Kim Won-hae) nor Forensic Scientist Jung Hun-ki (Lee Yoo-joon) recognizes Hae-young.
With Jae-han surviving the attack, he’s able to close the 1999’s kidnapping case and restore Sun-woo’s good name. Although he manages to solve most of the crimes in the past, some are done in the present such as the 1989’s serial killing and Han Se-kyu’s homicide. Does this mean the murderers in both cases are still at large? What is the status of statute of limitations on murder, which got removed following the resolution to the abduction case in 2015, now? What is Jae-han doing during the 15 years of his laying low? Does he indeed start a new connection with someone in the future? are some of the questions i hope to be answered should they proceed with creating another installment.
We are free to hope, since “There is hope as long as you don’t give up” is the main message and takeaway of this drama anyway. Who knows, if we don’t give up, we may finally see them drink soju together. Should the magic walkie-talkie ever flicker to life again, i hope the same cast and crew are behind it.
Verdict: Signal is everything i wanted from a crime show: thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing, briskly paced, tightly plotted with maddening cliffhangers and most importantly… heart. Not to mention stellar performances across the board, from the main cast to extended cast to guest stars to child actors. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then you definitely gotta check Signal out. It’s possibly the best cop drama, whereas Jae-han the awesomest detective, i’ve seen. (Japanese dorama Maou has been my all-time favorite cop drama for nearly a decade now, it’s a pleasure to place Signal alongside it.)
Until the next transmission?
Director: Kim Won-suk
Production: tvN, 2016
Cast: Jo Jin-woong, Lee Je-hoon, Kim Hye-soo, Jang Hyun-sung, Jung Hae-kyun, Kim Won-hae, Lee Yoo-joon, Kang Chan-hee, Kim Hyun-bin
Genre: Crime, Suspense, Fantasy, K-drama (16 Episodes)
Don’t you think Hae-young has better memory than hyperthymesia Jin-woo? He isn’t purported to be a memory genius, but his superior ability to recall specific details is worked into the plot more smoothly and consistently than Jin-woo’s condition in Remember.
I seriously need to watch Jo Jin-woong’s other works. Any recommendation?