If there’s a material that I would recommend to a non-KDRAMA fan, it would be Park Hae-soo’s Prison Playbook. I regret not hyping this up when it’s freshly released as Netflix Originals in 2017. It didn’t get enough social fire that it deserved, so here I am doing my part.
The conflict itself is sticky: how can a baseball superstar navigate a new life in prison? At face value, that’s just it. But you know how Korean writers do their magic. Prison Playbook breathes hope and comfort. It’s a heart-warming experience watching how the familial camaraderie developed and how the positive brotherhood formed inside the cell transformed each other’s lives. I can compare my after-feels to that of Reply 1988 while watching my favorite on-screen inmates. (Note: I just learned that they have the same director so…)
The character design of lead star Kim Je-hyeok (Park Hae-soo) isn’t the type of personality that we usually see on TV, especially for an athlete protagonist. He’s like your underrated spirit animal. The writer makes us root for a reserved (somehow timid and sometimes gullible) athlete like him. I thought Prison Playbook is just what the title implies: An outright ABC on how to survive life in prison. Like how a superstar bounced back from three major hard jabs. A tale of second chances, justice, and injustice. But it’s more than that.
The writer makes the protagonist purposeful with multiple selfless acts that make us cheer for him. How one simple move awakens one’s sleeping humanity. How you use your influence wisely and positively to empower the weak, the needy, and the deprived. Why we should radiate the right energy to revive a lost soul. Why we should always choose to be a bigger person. Kim Je-hyeok maybe the nation’s hero inside the mound. But he has also become a hero inside the prison cell. A surprising turn of events and key character developments inside the prison happened because of Je-hyeok.
It’s eventful for me watching their prison life episode after episode. With its dark premise, you’ll expect the journey to be grim and vengeful. Sure there’s that component. But it was a surprise that I found myself having a tired jaw after an hour of laughing. It’s a laugh-fest, really. One minute they’ll console each other. Then the next thing you know, they’re on each other’s throat, exchanging kicks and banter. Their different personalities and background provided satisfying dynamics enough to infuse a perfect blend of genres in a series — mostly dark comedy. I can liken the comic relief of PP’s prison squad to the 5 soldiers of CLOY.
The writer is generous to give us the most memorable acting ensemble in a TV series. It’s also worth noting how the writer weaves through the story. The love story was even narrated backward since Episode 1 already implied the breakup of Je-hyeok and Ji-hoo (Krystal Jung). I see a lot of gray transitions: flashback catering to the backstories of the characters and short or immediate playbacks of current situations. It’s just satisfying how they swing us from one scene to another.
Let’s go back to the romance subplot. Ji-hyeok and Ji-hoo’s relationship is my favorite love story to date. It wasn’t dramatic. Theirs is the best breakup scene I’ve watched so far. It’s quiet yet so painful. The emotional restraint makes it more heartbreaking to watch. Usually, breakup scenes have lengthy dialogues and a lot of screams. But for Ji-hyeok and Ji-hoo, it only took one line to make the breakup so depressing: “You know…my birthday was yesterday.”
While I’m hopeful to see new beginnings and redemptions for the prison squad, the writer takes a different route by giving us a taste of reality. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Not everyone can standby their choices. One is still human. But one needs a strong support system to win that fight. It wasn’t a storybook finale where we see a reunion. Foreshadowing exits are not even popular here. But though it wasn’t the finale that we imagine, it’s realistic and consistent to its core.
It’s gonna take a while for me to withdraw from this KDRAMA. So pardon me if I flood you with a lot of Prison Playbook content on my IG stories. Hope my social kalat is more than enough to convince you to watch this epic series. Nonetheless, Prison Playbook has all the reasons why KDRAMA is a hit.
P.S. They have the best OST too!