2020 has, so far, been a great year for Korean TV dramas with some very successful productions, including JTBC’s “Itaewon Class” and “The world of the Married.”
However, in the midst of these drama highs, things have, somehow, gone horribly wrong for one of the most anticipated productions of the year.
Screenwriter, Kim Eun-sook’s new effort, The King: The Eternal Monarch (“The King”), was announced earlier this year with all the pomp and splendor of a royal coronation.
It was intended to be yet another jewel in Kim Eun-sook’s crown following successively lauded shows like 2016’s “Goblin” featuring Gong Yoo, and 2018’s “Mr. Sunshine” starring Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun.
To replicate her past successes, Kim Eun-sook relied on her tried and tested formula. A handsome male lead in Lee Min-ho, who I might add, waited three years to join the production, a market-tested female lead in Kim Go-eun, a huge budget and production team and all the bombastic fantasy elements that Kim Eun-sook TV shows have become known for.
However, somewhere along the line, things have gone askew.
The King debuted to high ratings on premiere day, recording 10.1 and 11.4 percent ratings across Korea and setting an SBS ratings record.
Since then, however, the TV show has struggled to retain its viewership.
In its fifth and latest episode, The King saw a fall in viewership and recorded 8.6 percent and 7.6 percent in ratings nationwide.
For a public TV program and a Kim Eun-sook drama of this caliber, broadcasting during prime time, to be showing a dip in ratings at such an early stage, is an indictment of the show and a wake up call for Kim Eun-sook, who has perhaps grown too comfortable in her writing.
Alas, the netizen forum boards have been awash with complaints over The King, with opinions split over whether the show’s many problems lie with the casting or with the writing.
As an avid viewer of the Korean drama genre, I have my own concerns with this production.
I have come across several Lee Min-ho dramas: Boys over Flowers, The Heirs, City Hunter, Faith, Legend of the Blue Sea to name a few, and I can safely say that I have watched them all.
I can also safely say that, while I have enjoyed some of these productions, I have never truly been emotionally moved, in any degree, by a Lee Min-ho performance.
Despite his long film and drama resume, Lee Min-ho has relied on familiar and formulaic characters, a choice, which has perhaps stunted his range as an actor.
Gifted with height and great visuals, he’s often the male lead in a romance drama, often rich, often sought after by the female lead and often the cold and indifferent character.
Here too, in The King he plays Emperor Lee Gon, a character with similar traits.
These roles, while enjoyable for viewers, are perhaps not challenging enough and in my view, Lee Min Ho’s acting has not matured past his role as Koo Jun-pyo from the 2009 youth drama, Boys over flowers.
When paired with a dynamic female counterpart, like in Legend of the Blue Sea or a fast-moving plot like in City Hunter, Lee Min-ho’s failings are obscured. Unfortunately for Lee Min-ho, in this case, the sedate pace of the first four episodes of The King has instead pulled back the curtain on his weaknesses.
To compound this issue, Kim Eun-sook, in what may have been an attempt to replicate her 2016 success with Goblin, once again called on Goblin star, Kim Go-eun, to take up the role of detective Jung Tae Eul in The King.
This in hindsight may have been a mistake as the only thing achieved was that viewers could now make direct comparisons with Kim Go-eun’s performance in Goblin.
While Kim Go-eun has an excellent track record of films, her work on the silver screen is hit or miss.
Given the convoluted storyline of The King, a powerhouse female lead was required to create a synergy between the lead characters sufficient to hold the interest of viewers as they ruminate on the first four introductory episodes.
While Kim Go Eun successfully created this chemistry with her male counterparts in 2016’s The Cheese in Trap and Goblin, the same cannot be said for The King where she has failed, for the most part, to convince viewers in her role as a detective and Emperor Lee Gon’s love interest.
As the highlight of any TV romance drama, the scene of the first kiss, will often record high ratings and will rescue even the most floundering of story lines, yet, most tellingly, in the latest episode of The King the, much anticipated, first kiss saw meager ratings and instead received a slew of complaints from viewers.
With the failure of the leads to complement each other the problems within the plot are laid bare.
Kim Eun-sook is known for her fantastical imagination.
She often draws on elements of the supernatural which imbues her stories with life and color, yet the downside of such otherworldly underpinnings is that often the story takes on a form that is larger than life and somewhat difficult for the common person to understand.
The parallel story lines in The King, if well executed and well-acted, will create an interesting premise for any TV drama. However here, where reality is proving to be the reverse, the story line has instead become burdensome and clumsy.
Normally, as has been the case in past, to make these fantasy elements more palatable, the twists and turns of the plot are often broken up with punchy one-liners from the characters and spurts of delightful humor.
Critically, however this key element has been entirely missing in The King. The first two episodes have felt like a never-ending introduction of characters and the slow lugubrious build has borne no fruit in the third and fourth episodes
Viewers have ascribed the lack witty humor in The King to the departure of some of Kim Eun-sook’s well-known supporting scriptwriters, including Kwon Eun Sol, from the production team.
The absence, of these writers who are believed to have been responsible for most of the viral humorous dialogue from past Kim Eun-sook dramas is sorely felt and viewers have, so far, found little to cheer about despite the show’s huge production.
As a bonus in this free-for-all of issues, despite the huge budget the visual effects in The King have also been a subject of critique as has been Jang Eun Chae, a supporting actress who, shortly after the show’s premiere, was embroiled in an adulterous scandal.
Despite these issues, diehard fans of Kim Eun-sook are still maintaining their anticipation of future episodes and viewers are holding out hope that the introduction of Emperor Lee Gon’s world in subsequent episodes will breathe new life into the drama and revive flagging ratings.
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Have you watched The King: The Eternal Monarch? What are your thoughts?