Happiness, the 12-episode, underrated suspense drama heralding the return of Han Hyo-Joo (W, The Beauty Inside, Always) and Park Hyung-Sik (Hwarang, Strong Girl Bong-Soon, Suits), is NOT your typical zombie virus series set in a post-COVID world. It is also not your vanilla friends-to-lovers tropey drama. What it is, is an excellently-written show set in an almost post-COVID world, where people are transitioning from masking to unmasking, in that haze where one wakes up from a nightmare but is still shaken and scarred by it.
It is a commentary on Korea’s class systems, symbolized here by real estate issues, and the utilitarian dilemmas faced by national disaster response teams. It tackles themes that may seem too realistically dark, until it punches a hole and lets rays of goodness and hope shine through. On the side, it depicts an atypical, slow-burn transformation of love in the direst of circumstances.
What makes this show a truly compelling and binge-worthy watch are its screenplay and its execution.
The writing is like a Michelin chef’s jazzed-up version of your typical Saturday dinner, customized to your palate’s liking
The writing is like a Michelin chef’s jazzed-up version of your typical Saturday dinner, customized to your palate’s liking. Korean trope-y storylines are elevated and tweaked in ways that are simultaneously unexpected, sensical, and utterly clever. A curveball is thrown here and there to further up the suspense ante, and surprising character developments remind us that there is always more than meets the eye with certain people.
But for me, it is never over-the-top. Not only does the story make sense in both infuriating and heartwarming ways, but it also hits way too close to home with its direct COVID references—the lockdowns, the ensuing panic and chaos, the isolation and despair, and all the little details that will surely remind us of what our world has become.
More than being about a new pandemic, at the heart of the story are the different characters—the residents of the fictional apartment complex—whose (best and worst) personalities and responses to the crisis are clearly identifiable and relatable. It seems each character represents a certain demographic—the compliant and oft paranoid ones who mask and keep distance; the daily wage workers who brave danger to earn a living; the pandemic deniers /anti-maskers /anti-vaxxers; the opportunists who always manage to thrive on people’s misery; the ones fixated on power and control amid the chaos; the lonely who are unraveling from anxiety and despair; the heroes who put others above self. At times I felt that some plot lines became over the top—how could these characters be this selfish? How could there be dregs who capitalize on the misery of their neighbors? But then we have Pharmally, and I thought, oh, this drama’s depiction of the bottomless depth of (in)human depravity isn’t exaggerated, after all.
The 12-episode format perfectly paces the story. Each edge-of-your-seat episode moves the plot forward and is packed with nail-biting developments. There aren’t any superfluous or gratuitous scenes, not even for fan service. In fact, some may argue that adding an episode or two might help tie up all the loose ends, and perhaps cater more to the OTP (one true pairing) shippers. But the show is very tightly written and does not spoon-feed. It wraps up what needs to be wrapped up onscreen, and the leaves the rest for the viewer to deduce.
The acting in this series is phenomenal. Park Hyung-Sik and Han Hyo Joo, both coming back from military duties and a hiatus, respectively, are phenomenal. Their acting may seem understated (not makjang at all), but they are consistent in their characters throughout the show, and effectively convey the needed emotions in just the right way. They live and breathe and have imbued life into their characters. It’s all very natural; they are a chill couple until they hit you straight in the heart. Their very relaxed but sizzling chemistry puts them at the top of my all-time favorite OTP list.
Jo Woo-Jin (as Lt. Col Tae-sok), a veteran character actor, along with most of the supporting cast, is likewise outstanding. Truly, this acting ensemble has hit it way out of the ballpark (the pun here is much intended, as you will figure out once you watch the show).
Park Hyung-Sik, barely recognizable with his post-military, gloriously buff physique, delights and surprises
A word about Park Hyung-Sik: I stan him with all my being. Barely recognizable with his post-military, gloriously buff physique, the captivating PHS delights and surprises with his mature brand of nuanced acting, his deftness at action scenes, and just that indescribable glow, warmth, and charm that emanate from him. I love this all-grown-up version of him. He is so good in this series, and this action-drama genre perfectly showcases his versatility as a highly-evolved and solid actor. He has truly come a long way from his idol and romcom days. I love love love him.
In a nutshell, though Happiness may not exactly be appropriate for this festive season, it truly is a cleverly written, exquisitely executed, and excellently acted series. A MUST-WATCH.