There’s something curiously exhilarating about watching a great premise and an equally great script unfold before your very eyes. Partly because it’s rare, partly because one is caught up in the rarefied atmosphere of being witness to something that’s extraordinary. In a year when K dramas have been very hit and miss for me, Shadow Detective happens to be one of those unique television experiences where the story is gripping from start to finish. It’s a timely and wonderful reminder of what can be achieved when writers respect the intelligence of their audiences and do the laborious work of plotting an intricate story that revolves around highly flawed but sympathetic characters. More than just another garden variety police procedural, the drama is a heartrending cautionary tale that deals with agency, guilt and consequences. Crime shows should be the perfect platform for these kinds of explorations but it isn’t always the case. This show is a triumph in that regard because it puts all of its focus on fundamentals such as character development and good storytelling.
The truly wonderful Lee Sung-min is Kim Taek-rok, an ageing cop doing things the hard way in his native Geumo, a bustling port city with serious crime issues. Fortunately for him, retirement is apparently round the corner. Taek-rok is a highly regarded veteran of 3 decades but is still a lowly lieutenant when younger and far less talented men have climbed through the ranks. This is because he doesn’t play the political game and is mainly concerned about doing the grunt work of catching criminals. His work ethic sees him demoted twice and passed over for promotion as he’s known to be something of a maverick within the organization. One night after a bit of pestering he finally meets with a younger colleague, Woo Hyunseok (Kim Tae-hoon) for drinks. They reminisce a little about the old days and Taek-rok presses him to reveal the whereabouts of a crime boss that he’s been “handling” for years under the tacit approval of Geumo’s chief of police Seo Gwang-su. Woo Hyunseok eventually promises to tell all and the two men part ways for the evening in varying states of intoxication. Around the same time, Taek-rok’s been pranked by an anonymous caller who eventually introduces himself as “Friend”. Things turn sinister with “Friend” when he takes responsibility for the untimely death of Woo Hyunseok. To add insult to injury, Taek-rok becomes chief suspect for the homicide and the entire station is on his tail. From that moment, the show’s central cat and mouse game begins.
Johnny-come-lately Kook Jin-han (Jin Goo), is a transplant from Seoul. As he’s about to slip into the role of chief investigation officer, he is greeted with a certain amount of fanfare on his arrival and it doesn’t take long for the cocky newcomer, who also positions himself the “outsider”, to butt heads with Taek-rok. Here the outsider trope is deployed to great effect as it is deftly woven into the trajectories of the non-conformists swimming against the tide of moral decay. Will they make it out alive or drown in the process for all their troubles? A little more wet behind the years is Kyung-chan, who has also recently made his way to Geumo from Seoul because of his admiration of Taek-rok during the latter's brief relocation to Seoul earlier. He is set up to be the overenthusiastic youngster and is positioned at the start as the stereotypical rookie.
The show very quickly establishes the characters and the world that they inhabit. Geumo City follows the template laid down by Batman’s Gotham. Drugs are a widespread problem. Corruption is rife. Over the decades the city has become the playground for a very select group of locals who have their grubby hands on the key levers of power. On the surface it seems little different to hundreds of other K dramas of its kind. But what separates this (and elevates it) from other corruption stories are the depth of the characters here compared to most. No one is truly righteous here and the result is that they all feel like living breathing human beings desperately trying not to sink into the mire of power’s corrupting influence that has them over a barrel. While the cat and mouse device might be the mechanism by which secrets are revealed, its deeper purpose is to showcase competing agendas internal and external to Geumo.
While there are intriguing puzzles that need solving, it is Taek-rok’s relationship with his team mates and fellow cops that makes this compelling viewing. While he himself has obstinately tried to live by his principles (such as they are), he has often turned a blind eye to the corruption that’s around him because longtime friendships are involved. Does that make him culpable for the sin of omission? Well, that’s a question worth hundreds and millions of won. As long as the spotlight is on Taek-rok, the show paints a raw and oftentimes comical portrait of a man possibly at the end of his career. More than once, Taek-rok is told that he is in the wrong profession. That he is too sensitive to be a cop. Indeed the man carries around a large burden of guilt and regrets on those tired shoulders especially where family is concerned.
Needless to say Lee Sung-min is just fantastic as Kim Taek-rok. Last seen in Juvenile Justice as a judge, he completely transforms himself for this role. He has this perpetual world-weary hunched appearance while the heavy limp-like gait completes the portrait. It’s safe to conclude that all the characters are works of art in this — the show’s secret sauce. Taek-rok’s relationship with Jin-han especially is worth highlighting here because it runs the entire gamut from doubt and uneasy camaraderie to grudging respect. In so many ways despite the age difference these two intelligent but sensitive men are cut from the same cloth.
While the show ends on what could be considered a cliffhanger, this first season does stand on its own, completing an important arc and answering the most pressing questions. It’s a class act all the way in terms of cinematography, editing, storytelling and performances. This is easily, without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
Thanks so much for this recco and your excellent review.!! This show is simply fantastic, restored my faith in K drama. I'm totally hooked. Deep respect for all involved in it's making, it's such a synergistic effort to create a show like this, everything has to be top notch. I'm enjoying every minute.