Prison Playbook (2017-18) A Review

Those who know me well would know that I would get to this one eventually. I’m a broken record on this. It ranks highly amongst my all-time favourites… as close to a perfect drama as they come. It is an exemplar on how to get the best out of an ensemble cast. Whatever it does, either in storytelling or eliciting viewer emotions, it does superbly. It’s hard to believe now that it wasn’t something that grabbed my attention straightaway when Netflix was promoting it. To be frank, I wasn’t at all keen about watching a drama about prison life until I discovered that the wonderful Jung Kyung-ho was in it. I am forever grateful to him for bringing this gem to my attention. A gem that I have revisited several times since which is no mean feat considering each episode is 80-90 minutes each.

There is something inexplicably magical in this slice-of-life drama about the goings-on in detention centres and among their inhabitants. Perhaps it boils down to the crafting of the story. Props to PD Shin Won Ho and Writer Jung Bo-hoon for all their efforts in that regard.This prison backdrop seems to be an unlikely setting for a deeply moving and often hilarious story of male camaraderie. It isn’t all laughter and frolicking because the show doesn’t steer away from the darker side of prison life. The bleakness is undoubtedly felt but it is mitigated by a kind of gallows humour. Shin and Jung are indeed masters at playing with viewer expectations. The result being: I laughed a lot. I cried a lot. In fact I would often find myself on a rollercoaster ride of emotions from one moment to the next.

The show revolves around baseball sensation, Kim Je-hyeok, who on the eve of leaving for a career in MLB is charged with manslaughter for inadvertently killing his sister’s assailant. He is convicted and unhappily for him, lands in prison for a year. Much of the action sees Je-hyeok navigating life in two detention centres (pre and post trial) with the help of his longtime friend Jun-ho, now a prison guard. He is also aided and abetted by other fellow travellers playing the game of prison Survivor. As if things aren’t tough enough, there are villains in this. Genuinely nasty types whose mission in prison is to make life more of a nightmare for Je-hyeok than it already is. Fortunately for Je-hyeok, he gets a little help from his friends (even from unexpected quarters), making the trials and tribulations of prison life a tad more bearable.

The key to the show’s success, it seems to me, is the characters and the relationships. Long after we leave them (or when they leave us), we remember them. Their antics, highs and lows linger with us. Each story is told in flashbacks and we are privy to why those in Je-hyeok’s inner circle in particular end up in the slammer. There’s Min-chul, the cell boss who in his previous life was a gangster. During a nightclub brawl he ended up killing someone but escaped the hangman’s noose. In his early days in prison he finds God and in his spare moments, he reads his bible. Then there’s also Jean Valjean, his adopted prison “son” who stole a bread truck. Dr Ko, not an MD but a petition-writing former salaryman is a trusty colleague in the wood-working shop. Han-yang aka “Loony” is an immature but intelligent drug offender with Mummy issues that shakes the habit cold turkey in order to reconcile with his partner. Kaist the technical fix-it guy, and serial monogamist who is not exactly the nicest guy in the room has his story too. Some time later the former Captain Yoo Jung-woo, convicted of causing the death of a subordinate, joins them in that cell. Down the track, Je-hyeok is reunited with loyal fanboy Jailbird, completely living up to his nickname and the potentially dangerous Crony.

Even in a show like this there’s time to throw in a tiny bit of romance into the mix. Je-hyeok’s push-pull, on again, off again relationship with childhood friend turned girlfriend, Ji-ho which has been so much a part of his life is also given air-time in flashbacks. Love and baseball does mix. Even while she’s on the outside, she is no less important to his headspace as he bemoans the unfairness of life. It also explains why when Je-hyeok falls into a slump, it’s Ji-ho to the rescue. Nobody, not even Jun-ho knows Je-hyeok better than her.

One of the highlights of the drama is the way Je-hyeok maintains his baseball training in prison. I’m no fan of the game… a complete ignoramus in fact but I loved every single moment of those practice sessions where the men interacted and showed their growing affection for the one figure who brings them all together.

It isn’t all about the inmates. The prison guards play a prominent role in this as well. Most seem to be kindly gents who do their bit to make life less onerous for those behind bars. Officers Pang, Song, Jun-ho become pally with those in Je-hyeok’s cell. Even the chief warden has a hilariously transactional relationship with his beloved celebrity prisoner which is looked on disapprovingly by the martinet 2IC.

Considering the subject matter, I daresay this is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most heartwarming K dramas that I’ve ever seen. It may start off slow for some but it’s not a bad way to waste 1280 minutes in any given week. I highly recommend it, my other half recommends it especially if you’re looking for something that doesn’t quite adhere to the usual K drama fare.

This is a repost of a review that I wrote for JangHaven Forums.