I put off watching this excellent and addictive crime solving melodrama called Signal (2016) for a year after it ended because I had read a cursory description online that it was about tracking down a serial rapist / murderer and I thought to myself, "Eh, I don't want to watch that." However, after a year of reading only rave responses from fans about this show I decided to check it out and discovered there was much more to this drama than what I had been led to believe. There was a time travel aspect to the drama that was compelling, a cast that didn't look like glamour pusses but rather hard working, real people, and the writing was solid (I particularly thought episode eight's writing was brilliant and had to watch it twice in a row -- all kinds of cool twists and turns I hadn't expected).
There were memorable, three-dimensional characters who stood up for what they believed in morally, how refreshing that was! And the show really wasn't about a serial rapist / murderer; there were various other criminal cases that were far more interesting. Plus, compared to American television shows about cops, this one was far less gory, yet still remained realistic and believable. The main cast was pretty much new to me but I quickly warmed to them due to the earnestness of their performances. There were no distracting performances from anyone in the cast; even the minor character actors fit seamlessly into the overall suspenseful tale.
Left to Right: Lee Je Hoon, Kim Hye Soo, Cho Jin Woong
Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) is an arrogant young police profiler who moonlights as a celebrity stalker for extra cash. He had a rather testy and tragic childhood where his older brother was accused of a crime he did not commit (kidnapping and killing a young schoolgirl Hae Young had known personally) and he went to jail for it, which destroyed his mother's fragile mental state, and Hae Young's sense of security growing up. In his new job as profiler he finds himself working with pioneering female detective Cha Soo Hyeon (charismatic Kim Hye Soo) who has suffered in her life too at the hands of criminals and who has become a no nonsense, abrupt speaking police officer, someone to be reckoned with if you ever got in her way.
Middle aged detective Lee Jae Han (Cho Jin Woong) is an idealistic and irascible police officer who disappeared circa the year 2000. None of his fellow police officers seemed to know what happened to him (though why no one considered it might have been due to inside corruption at the police station I have no idea!).
Jae Han dramatically breaks into Park Hae Young and Cha Soo Hyeon’s modern 2016 world via an aging police walkie talkie that Hae Young had discovered buried in a bunch of trash. It is soon revealed that Soo Hyeon and Jae Han had worked together when she was a rookie officer in the 1990's and that she had developed a private crush on the older detective. His disappearance had hit her hard and she finds it difficult to trust anyone.
As she gets to know Hae Young more on the job they grow closer personally but there isn't much more than the tiniest tinge of attraction between them. Soo Hyeon's heart is clearly remaining with the long gone older detective. She keeps some of his old memorabilia items on her police desk and stares at them longingly from time to time. Probably my favorite scene in the drama is a memory flashback where she is riding in an ambulance with her older secret love, he is bleeding on a stretcher from a wound, and she starts blubbering, crying out that she likes him. I burst out laughing, it was just so darn unexpected and so cute! The look on his face at her confession was priceless.
Many evenings at 11:23pm the older detective's voice magically breaks through a time barrier and begins to talk to the young profiler Hae Young on his long dead walkie talkie. Through their exchanges of information Hae Young is able to better examine cold cases to try and solve them in creative ways and maybe, just maybe, turn former tragedies into victories, including the case of his own wrongly accused older brother, who supposedly had committed suicide in jail.
The supernatural premise succeeds so well simply because of its limitations. Signal isn’t science fiction or fantasy so much as magical realism. We stick close to the reality of our own world — complete with ugly rape cases, murdered children cases, mistaken arrests, and collapsing infrastructure that kills a young girl. Yet Signal’s uncanny plot device allows it to avoid the predictability and repetition that can often deaden other detective shows. Here, day-to-day police work is full of possibility. Anything can happen in this series, especially as the characters bravely work larger and larger changes into their present world. One especially dramatic moment occurs when Soo Hyeon appears to die in an explosion, but because of new information given to Hae Young by the older detective from the past, in the next episode Soo Hyeon had never died at all!
Communicating on the same walkie talkie 2 decades apart
Eventually, Hae Young and Jae Han run up against events that cannot be changed, injustices that cannot be corrected. Sometimes in dramas, as in real life, the bad guys "win". As is often the case on Korean television, the ultimate bad guy is a wealthy industrialist who operates in the shadows, beyond the law. But Signal doesn’t dwell on his devious machinations. It suggests rather than spells out the ways that many lives are damaged by one man’s greedy power grabs.
The concluding episodes are ninety minutes long, but the suspense over Lee Jae Han’s disappearance makes them go quickly. Can the younger Hae Young warn the older Jae Han and save him? Or is this one of those things that can’t be changed? Will the warnings themselves change events for the worse? What will happen to female detective Soo Hyeon when she discovers that her old love may have escaped death and that she might just be able to see him again?
The ending was a bit frustrating and sudden, and obviously they expect to do a sequel to this show at some time in the future. I will definitely watch it! My ideal would be to have all three detectives reunited in the present day and able to get the wicked industrialist behind bars; however I have a sneaking suspicion that the writer would surprise me again and not create a part two script in such a predictable way.
And if you liked Signal make sure you don't miss the masterpiece crime solving drama Missing Noir M. That one still remains my favorite show of this crime solving genre.
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