Hospital Playlist Retrospective Season 1 Episode 1

This post and subsequent ones pertaining to Hospital Playlist contain spoilers for the episode in question and for the rest of the show. Read at your own risk. This analysis and observations were made after a rewatch.

The first episode opens with Yang Seok-hyeong and Chae Song-hwa sitting and talking in Seok-hyeong's dusty, cobwebbed living room. They talk mysteriously about an unspecified project that Seok-hyeong who has just returned from an overseas stint wants to launch with his long-time friends but no one seems interested. Song-hwa gives her reasons. Apparently no one's used the house for some time so the electricals are wonky. The technicians are called in and one of them suffers electrical shock while handling the wiring carelessly. Fortunately for him, Seok-hyeong and Song-hwa are doctors and not long afterwards the emergency vehicle transports them to the hospital.

Although it seems like the most obvious thing to say, Hospital Playlist is at its core a medical drama that has a lot to say about life, the universe and everything else in it. Like the vast majority of shows of this genre, the hospital is a fixed point of contact where all manner of interactions take place. That's always helpful to keep in mind. On top of that there are five friends who are scattered in various locations. At the start of the show, they don't all work in the same place. So the show, like a shepherd in search of lost sheep gathers them all under one roof because it seeks a common thread to tell their story... and their stories. Their friendship is a significant focal point from which other nodes of interactions take place. So how does the show bring home the wayward sheep?

It does this with the death of the chairman of a large corporation. We never see the chairman himself who is a presence rather than a character. Some basic facts about the man are offered up. A well-known Catholic philanthropist who has made his youngest son, a doctor, the successor of Yulje Medical Centre. As it is in such cases the heir is a reluctant one and he signs away his right to run the hospital on the proviso that he gets to keep the lucrative takings from the VIP wards. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ahn Jeong-won, despite not showing much interest in the family business prior, is in fact very much a chip of the old block. He has his own much smaller scale philanthropic non-profit gig on the side called Daddy-Long-Legs which he has been funding out of his own salary which explains in part why despite his family's deep pockets, he lives largely from hand to mouth dependant on his friend and colleague Kim Jun-wan. Only one out of the five knew that he was the scion of a wealthy family. So very early on we catch a glimpse of this secretive side of Jeong-won. He is man who keeps secrets from his nearest and dearest. Up to this point, he seems to be rather good at it.

The main question that is before us as this set-up unfolds is: How do you solve a problem like Ahn Jeong-won? Presumably one has to first know who Ahn Jeong-won is and what problem he poses in the overarching narrative. Of course The Sound of Music allusion is no mere exercise in being facetious but an integral element of this season's narrative. At this time no one is aware that he has kickstarted the process for becoming a priest although there are hints of him making plans to leave medicine permanently. So why leave medicine for the priesthood? What's driving this need? Is it merely a fulfilment of a lifetime aspiration? The show, it now seems to me, tells us

Medicine for Ahn Jeong-won is a double-edged sword. He is rather good at it particularly in his chosen field of pediatrics where his love of children and determination to save lives intersect in wonderful ways. But Jeong-won is a highly sensitive soul and the reality is that he can't save every single life that comes his way or console every grieving caregiver. He can barely console himself on occasion so he goes to his oldest brother who portrayed as his regular confessor. In a real enough way medicine is his way of playing God but in the end he is faced with his own frailty as a mere mortal. In the case of Min-yeong, a child that was under his care for 3 years, she eventually passes away despite all efforts. He puts on a brave face for the benefit of the mother and his subordinates but when she thanks him for all that he has done, the facade collapses. He is undone and all his pent-up anguish come to the fore. From Jeong-won's situation we are directed to see that it is entirely possible to care too much. He tends to cross those healthy boundary lines once too often and has the scars to prove it. The seeming contradictions in Jeong-won's personality leads me to conclude that at his core lurks a pubescent male with an identity crisis. A manchild.

Clearly he is a devoutly Catholic doctor who aspires to the priesthood which in reality he is clearly unsuited for. A fact that the show attempts to demonstrate all throughout the series. So this suggests that the priesthood is largely a distraction and some kind of refuge for a soul in search of a balm for his battle scars.

It seemed more apparent on viewing this retrospectively that this first episode lays the groundwork for Ahn Jeong-won's individual arc by quickly establishing his relationship with Yulje Medical Centre and himself as the conduit by which all five call Yulje a home away from home. The timing to which all this happens is key to everything. Jeong-won is preparing his departure from but an external hand at work ie. God seems determined to intervene and disrupt that trajectory.

Some, myself included, have mooted the possibility of Jeong-won playing a much more important role in the running of the hospital in the far flung future because he demonstrates the capacity for leadership as he recruits his friends specifically for Yulje's VIP programme. If what I believe is the central truth of this drama... that the star of the show is the hospital... then in all likelihood Jeong-won will play a bigger role in the running and preservation of the hospital and its ethos.

The establishment of the friendship band is achieved as a result of Jeong-won's recruitment of his friends to the VIP programme. Seok-hyeong is an unwilling recruit unless his four friends are willing to be part of the band which turns out to be the mysterious subject that he discusses with Song-hwa at the start of the show. Some haggling goes on because the VIP programme can only effectively take off if they're all a part of it as representatives of different departments. In desperation Jeong-won gropes around for something to get his friends to agree. He has a bit of dirt on Jun-wan, something related to an event in Hawaii so he manages to "blackmail" the latter to join the band. The only person who signs on without much cajoling is Ik-jun although he protests in no uncertain terms when Jeong-won makes her the band's lead vocalist as a lure. The irony being that she is tone deaf and generally unmusical. What really struck me this time round is how especially concerned Ik-jun is that Song-hwa is treated with respect on this occasion even when Jeong-won the so-called goody Catholic boy reveals his latent Machiavellian tendencies.

Despite its unpromising beginnings, the band becomes a mainstay for the Five and the choice of songs each week are clues in some shape and form to the unfolding of the overall narrative.

In this episode we are also introduced to other key characters (that are not of the Five) such as Dr Bong Kwan-hyeong ER professor, as well as Jang Gyeo-ul the only general surgery resident on site. I hadn't realised in earlier viewings what a crucial role Jang Gyeo-ul would play in the overall narrative because she seemed to all intents and purposes, a secondary character. In hindsight, of course, the show problematizes that whole notion in fascinating ways. Her introduction, in particular, is tied very closely to Lee Ik-jun a general surgery specialist who is at this point an outsider, brought in as an emergency when ironically he had come into the hospital as an emergency. This also foreshadows a close supervisor-subordinate relationship.

Kim Jun-wan, the cardiothoracic surgeon among the Five was, we find out at the late chairman's funeral, a student of Yulje's current hospital director. So when asked if he knows Jeong-won, he says that "He's my closest friend" much to chagrin of the other two present presumably for this blatant attempt at brownnosing, especially when minutes earlier, Jun-wan was hurling invectives at Jeong-won for concealing his family background. In Jun-wan's defence, the comment is not completely groundless. The two men are close. They share office space as well as living arrangements. This telegraphs early on the parallel-antithetical tracks that both Jun-wan and Jeong-won are on.

The chairman's funeral contains two of my favourite scenes of the Five and showcase their friendship in clear terms. One occurs when Jeong-won's phone sounds off abruptly with a painfully loud siren ring. Everyone within earshot jumps in fright. Seok-hyeong remarks that he thought his heart almost exploded. Jun-wan complains that he thought he had lost his unborn child. Both accuse the other of trivializing those scenarios with their comments. It is doubly funny because Seok-hyeong is the obstetrician and Jun-wan is the cardiothoracic surgeon. Moreover I also believe now that Jun-wan's comment foreshadows his own desire to be married and to have a family. The second is when Songhwa who is caring for U-ju, Ik-jun's son gets up and signals to Jun-wan and Seok-hyeong to take over when she has to leave. On cue both men take off their jackets. One rolls it into a pillow, the other places it over the boy as a blanket. They do this like second-nature that it feels like they've done it many times over the past 20 years.

In this episode too we see the overturning of several common Kdrama tropes. The most significant is the lack of a power struggle for the top job. It plays with audience expectations in humorous fashion. Ju Jongsu (especially because he is played by Kim Gap-soo known for his villainous turns) seems to be on the surface your run-of-the-mill ambitious company powerbroker who turns out to be a kindly gent who is a great childhood friend of Rosa, Jeong-won's mother and a devoted husband to his sickly wife. He takes on the role of the chairman after being persuaded by Rosa and Jeong-won to do so. There's also no family takeover bid because most of the Ahn siblings are religious celibates ie. priests and nuns who are past concerning themselves with worldly matters.

Even at the start the show provides a guiding principle as to how romance in the show should be perceived. Song-hwa is dating a Professor Jang, a cardiologist from another hospital while Jun-wan is seeing someone who has a tendency to drink a little too much. Jeong-won notes that everyone is dating but him. I detect a note of regret in the way he expresses that. So the show tells us even early on that the love lines in large part will not be formed among the Five. And why should it? These are 40-something adults who have had time to get their act together. Why would they all be setting their sights on each other now? They've had 20 years. Something seismic will have to occur for that to happen.

So how does one solve a problem like Ahn Jeong-won? It is the problem of the season in search of a solution. Because the man, I anticipate and surmise represents the ethos of Yulje. He and those closest to him are its true successors. The show hints that it's an issue that has to be resolved one way or another.

Finally the show strenuously insists that this show is as much about the patients as it is about the doctors. Even if they come and go, the raison d'etre of a hospital is to provide a service to those who go through its doors. To give hope, to heal and even to help them move on.