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Prison Playbook (2017) - Ep. 1 - Does it hold up?

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MLB is locked out, so let’s dive into a Korean Drama about a pro baseball player!

Park Hae-soo as Kim Je-hyuk

I’ve been informed that Squid Game is a very popular Korean Drama on Netflix right now, but did you know that Netflix has a lot of Korean Dramas? And they don’t even come close to having them all. As you may have guessed, with baseball being very popular in South Korea, several Korean Dramas deal with baseball.

Prison Playbook is not one of those.

However, what Prison Playbook IS is a show about a pro baseball player. Kim Je-hyuk (played by Park Hae-soo of Squid Game fame) is an ultra-talented closer for the Nexen Heroes and is on the verge of signing a Major League contract with the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, everything is put on hold when, at his mother’s request, he visits his sister to make sure she’s doing alright, alone in Seoul. He interrupts a sexual assault in progress, which would have been very heroic, but he chased the assailant out of the apartment building, got into a fistfight, and brained the guy with a random trophy off of the ground. Before he can continue his life, he must defend himself in court against charges of excessive violence.

In the United States, this would almost certainly be an open and shut case of self-defense. Maybe he’d get a slap on the wrist for continuing to chase the guy instead of calling the police, but even that seems unlikely. In the show, Kim’s lawyer repeatedly assures him that they will let him off on self-defense. Unfortunately, the judge presiding over the case takes it into his head that an example needs to be made against this kind of excessive defense and sentences Je-hyuk to one year in prison. Kim is forced to miss his flight to the US as he is immediately boarded onto a bus following sentencing and sent to Seobu Detention Center until his appeal can be heard.

I expect most of you are primarily fans of US television; that would probably be enough action to sustain an entire episode here. But Prison Playbook has 90-minute episodes and is known as a Slice-of-Life drama. These genres are known for just following the events of characters’ lives without necessarily having a dramatic throughline in all of them. Prison Playbook is also unique in how it tells the story, even among K-Dramas. Scenes often end abruptly and vaguely so they can be revisited later to pass along more complete information. If you’ve spent your whole life watching standard western television shows, these differences may be jarring. Still, if you give it a chance, you can find a lot of fascinating stories and characters in the slice-of-life genre in general and in Prison Playbook in particular.

I plan to write about individual episodes for the next few months (the series has one season with sixteen episodes), and I hope you’ll join me in the journey. For now, I will just talk about some of the stuff that stood out from the first episode.

Kim Je-Hyuk’s intro song is about as far from Hells Bells or Wild Thing as you can get

Here, give it a listen:

The title is impressive, but it’s such a slow, graceful song that it does not exactly conjure images of a hard-throwing lefty with nasty breaking stuff. Still, the song serves important thematic purposes throughout the episode. This episode is a lot of saying goodbye for Je-hyuk: first, as he thinks he will be saying goodbye to South Korea and then later as he gradually has to say goodbye to his life as he has known it, including over the detention center radio at the end of the episode which coincides with the end of his first day in confinement. This is much to the annoyance of poor Kim, who is feeling his world shatter beneath him as people keep playing his ridiculous intro song. I get a strong feeling that once he leaves prison, he’ll be picking some new intro music.

Korean prison cells are very different from US cells

Kim is placed in a prison cell with five other inmates. It has a wood floor, a semi-private restroom, a cabinet, a set of shelves with individual cubbies for each inmate, and even a TV on the wall. One thing you’ll note that I didn’t list is even a single bed. In Korean prisons, they keep sleeping mats stacked up in a corner and place them on the floor, all in a row, to sleep at night. This isn’t as inhumane as it might seem, as many in Asian countries choose to sleep on mats on the floor rather than on beds even outside of prison. I really don’t think I could get used to sleeping with someone immediately on either side of me, though. I toss and turn a lot.

Some things are all too much the same

As Kim is going through the intake process, he learns that while they no longer do invasive cavity searches, they do require inmates to remove their pants and squat over a camera in a curtained alcove. This allegedly provides a bit more privacy. Unfortunately for Kim Je-Hyeok, he’s a celebrity. That means that all of the correctional officers make a bunch of excuses to be in the room when the procedure is performed and see his anus for themselves. One of their superiors comes in to chase them out but is far too late; Kim’s put-upon expressions are highly entertaining for the audience, however.

Kim is a great pitcher, but he’s pretty awful at everything else

This episode serves as an orgy of evidence that Kim is both a bit clumsy and an odd-ball who just isn’t really with it. He is regularly very slow to respond, even to direct questions. He tries to show off at a batting cage for some fans but forgets to put coins into the machine and then realizes he doesn’t even have the necessary coins. He has an extended argument with his lawyer about the wisdom of eating a popsicle in cold weather. When his lawyer visits him at the detention center and asks if there’s anything he needs, Kim is preoccupied with a package he forgot to pick up at the front desk of his building the night before and ensuring that his lawyer’s kid gets the gloves that Kim promised them. These choices help the audience understand his depth and personality as the series gets started.

The prison hijinks can be good-natured

Kim’s cellmates:

  • Jailbird - An inmate who has been in and out of prison for his entire life. He befriends Kim on the bus into the detention center and tries to help him adjust. In prison for taking out a bank loan he couldn’t pay off.
  • Professor Myung - An older, bespectacled gentleman who mostly tries to stay out of trouble. In prison for running a con job, he convinced people he could make legal currency out of plain white paper.
  • Old man - An older man bullied by Seagull into doing chores around the cell because he has no money.
  • Seagull - a lowlife gangster and
  • Henchman - Seagull’s henchman

Once introductions are made and things settle down, the prisoners realize they must initiate Je-hyuk into the prison culture. The five prisoners hold him down and place some plastic under his left arm, and someone grabs out a toothbrush with a sharpened end. They decide to change positions so that the tarp will be under his right arm since Kim is a left-handed pitcher, and Myung warns that if he begins to feel cold, Kim should raise his right foot in the air to prevent himself from dying from blood loss. Kim struggles but can’t get free, he begins to feel cold and raises his leg, but then he opens his eyes and realizes that all they did was pour some cold, red soup over his arm.

Later that night, Seagull orders Kim to turn off the lights so they can sleep, and he spends a couple of minutes searching for the switch before a passing guard asks him what he’s doing and then reminds him that prison cells don’t have light switches.

The best example of the short scene/flashback technique

Kim quickly grows tired of Seagull bullying the old man in their cell and decides to deal with it himself, not understanding the hierarchy or why the old man puts up with it. He cold-clocks Seagull in the face and is removed from the cell allegedly to go to solitary confinement. However, Chief Joe takes Kim on a detour and offers a deal: if Kim will use Joe’s phone to call out and have his lawyer transfer 30 million won (About $25,000) to Joe to look the other way. Kim’s old high school friend, now a corrections officer, enters and tells Chief Joe about something that needs his attention. After Kim and Lee Joon-ho reacquaint themselves, Kim asks to use the phone, and the scene ends. You’re left with the impression that perhaps Kim has given into the demands.

Later in the episode, Chief Joe checks his account and discovers no money in it. He places Kim in solitary confinement after all, and we are treated to a flashback to the end of that earlier scene. However, this time, it continues, and we discover that Kim took the opportunity to pay for Jailbird’s mom’s life-saving surgery instead of paying off Chief Joe. Many opportunities for scenes like these occur throughout the series and leave the audience unsure of what happened with a - usually pleasing and/or funny - denouement later.

The show is very charming and quite funny, and this episode is probably the weakest I’ve watched so far as it has to spend so much time establishing who everyone is. I hope you’ll watch this and the second episode so we can discuss it next week!