It’s hilarious first of all that this set-up is almost identical to that of Doom At Your Service. It does beg the question: Was there some kind of script competition held at TVN HQ based on this theme and the joint winners happen to be these two? The comparisons are irresistible to say the least. Once again (not the second time nor the last) what’s on offer is a dynamic between a powerful unworldly being and an ordinary female lead navigating an unlikely romance in the 21st century subverting whatever perceived taboos come their way.
Of course this isn’t the kind of drama that I reach for as a matter of habit. I have never bothered with Goblin though again I’m not averse to fantasy dramas on principle. But it’s been getting positive buzz all over the place and well, I figured it can’t hurt just to take a peek. Surprise, surprise… I find myself enjoying it. So far. Even the little bit of manhwa style slapstick lands quite well. And I will go so far as to be blunt enough to say that the writing is better than the other one. It certainly has a lot going for it and it’s making me wonder if this might not be this year’s Mystic Pop-up Bar for me especially because we are privy to Woo-yeon’s (Jang Ki-yong) life in Joseon via flashbacks. The flashbacks are well placed, not over done but just enough to whet the appetite.
Woo-yeon who is the nine-tailed fox here makes a delightful remark when he accompanies Lee Dam (Hye-ri) for a night out at a karaoke bar to vent her frustrations. “I didn’t get here on a time machine. I lived through many generations and I kept up with the culture to adapt to a changing world.” It’s a timely reminder that the gumiho isn’t just some good-looking guy who is good company. Shin Woo-yeon has lived among humans through the ages and has assimilated as far as his temperament has allowed him. Chronologically he might be as old as the trees, but it doesn’t mean he’s a piece of wood. He’s a lifelong learner who is still learning. Jang Ki-yong does really well juggling all aspects of the character — even the seeming contradictory impulses. Against his own inclinations, he finds himself chuckling or smiling at her antics. I’m not at all put off by the fact that he’s older than her grandfather or that he has grandpa tastes… especially if he’s a throwback to a stereotype of a noble gentleman of the past who had impeccable manners. The price we pay for the freeing up of gender relations is the dysfunctional side of the dating culture in the 21st century that’s being gently mocked here.
Jang Ki-yong for some reason reminds me of Christopher Reeve especially when he breaks cover and explodes into these 10 000 megawatt smiles that come from nowhere. Apart from having an impressive build, he carries himself with a quiet elegance and is convincing as a very old soul who is intrigued by the history major who has gradually become a fixture in his private world. The more time he spends in her world, the more the world around him becomes his experience. Books are well and good but life is to be lived with its highs and lows, in its sorrows and joys. Try as he might he can’t be a dispassionate observer if he’s to become one of us.
Lee Dam is an immensely likeable creature and Hye-ri is well-suited to the role. Her head is screwed on right and stands up for herself when called for. Better still, she’s thoughtful in all the right ways and can see things from another point of view. Yet she has real struggles at university dealing not only with the academic challenges but also the social scene in that context. It isn’t a bed of roses being the brunt of campus gossip.
Because of the hijinks in the early part of the show I laboured under the mistaken impression that it was some kind of lightweight breezy rom com that would be a relaxing change from all the heavier material that I’ve been indulging in lately. However it’s becoming evident that I jumped the gun and there’s a lot more going on that meets the eye. The selling point of the show is not there’s a great deal of originality on display. On the surface it seems to have looted unabashedly from the rom com treasure chest of tropes and yet there’s depth to the leads in how they respectfully communicate. Their growing attachment even over this short time rings true because they are their true selves to each other. There’s authenticity governing their simple dynamic that’s very pleasing to watch. The show doesn’t wax philosophical for its own sake but through the enchanting storytelling, the concepts and the themes emerge after the fact. There’s a hint of a conversation with the audience about what it means to be in love but the show doesn’t bludgeon home the point. Instead we are meant to bask in the glow and the sweetness of watching two people fall in love without the overdone mind games we’ve come to expect from the genre.
There’s a deeply satisfying moment at the end of Episode 4 when Lee Dam questions Woo-yeon’s conclusion that campus bad boy Gye Sun-woo has fallen for her. It is a credit to her modesty but it’s not surprising also from my perspective that the two men would be moved by her despite their own misgivings. The quote from Love in the Time of Cholera was right on the money. Perhaps no one else can see why Lee Dam would be attractive to an old soul like Woo-yeon or a habitual playboy like Sun-woo but as long as they like her … warts and all… it matters little. Whatever it is the men like about her, it has the potential to be transformative for both.
If there’s only one criticism I have of this is that there’s not enough Kang Ha-na who is a really fine actress but always end up playing second fiddle or almost cameo type roles. She’s quite funny in this but I have a bit of a hard time buying the fact that she’s an airhead here particularly when she throws out the occasional and surprising pearl of wisdom.