Signal’s premise reminds me a lot of the 2000 American movie Frequency. I haven’t confirmed it yet, but I can almost guarantee that the creator of this series was inspired or influenced some way by that movie. Regardless if that hypothesis is correct or not, the striking premise was what intrigued me to watch it in the first place. And it turned out being the best K-drama series I’ve seen this year so far. It’s in a completely different level from the rest.
The series centers on two detectives, Park Hae-young (Lee Je-hoon) and Lee Jae-han (Cho Jin-woong), who communicate through time via a mysterious walkie talkie. Hae-young is a police lieutenant/criminal profiler in 2015 whose bad experiences with the police as a kid made him bitter and contemptuous with them despite becoming one himself. One night, he gets hold of a strange walkie talkie that allows him to do the impossible: communicate with a cop from the past named Lee Jae-han. Due to their first exchange, Hae-young is able to assist veteran detective Cha Soo-hyun (Kim Hye-soo) in bringing closure to a fifteen-year-old kidnap-murder case, which prompted the immediate creation of a cold cases squad with Soo-hyung as leader and Hae-young as profiler. From then on, Hae-young and Jae-han make use of the uncanny means of communication that fate has given to them to solve cold cases or stop the crimes from being committed.
Right off the bat, Signal captivated me. Its first episode immediately delivers an intense case while laying out the foundation of the show. And all through the rest of the series until its finale, the narrative sustains its riveting delivery and well-built suspense. It made me become greatly invested on it. In fact, I never had this much enjoyment and engrossment on binging on a K-drama since I Hear Your Voice.
Signal isn’t as great as IHYV (still my number one!), but it stands out from every other K-drama series I’ve watched so far. For starters, despite the fantastic nature of the walkie talkie, this is probably the most grounded K-drama series I’ve seen. It’s straightforward in delivering what’s rotten about the reality we live in. Hence, while every other K-drama series I’ve seen has light-heartedness and humor in them, this series carries itself with a serious tone. In addition to that, there is no real focus on romantic subplots.
Some of the themes it tackled are police corruption, dire crimes like rape and murder, social partiality, and compromised justice. This also makes it the darkest K-drama series I’ve seen so far. But the core message of the series is that despite all the evils and unfairness in this world, it’s important for someone to have the courage and resoluteness to pursue the truth and do what is right despite the disadvantages and trouble it might bring to oneself – in other words, being a moral badass. Hence, a powerful impression is left.
The writing is generally solid and thoughtful. The “time travel” aspects aren’t completely flawless, but they mostly hold up retrospectively. Also, though there are a few lazy and dumb details here and there to make it convenient to the plot, they are easily forgivable since they help quicken the pace, or build tension and stakes.
The three main characters are all amazing. The respective actors did a great job in conveying the appropriate emotions and projections in infusing depth and intensity to their characters’ personalities. Among them, I was most impressed by Cho Jin-woong as Lee Jae-han. Park Hae-young is probably the central character of the series, but Jae-han is arguably the hero. He’s also the best developed and most interesting character. Jin-woong was fantastic in showing the different facets of his character: from charmingly goofy to wretchedly broken-hearted to unwaveringly badass. Lee Jae-han will likely end up being my choice for Best TV Hero for the 2016 Bernels (i.e. this blog’s annual awards for film and TV).
Aside from the writing and acting, the other production aspects are quite excellent, too, in bringing a “complete package” of a show. The effective direction and editing collaborate superbly well in thoroughly executing the drama, thrills, and tension in the narrative. The soundtrack enhances the hardboiled, gritty atmosphere. And the old-school tint of the scenes happening in Jae-han’s time period gives this flow of the story an authentic 90’s feel, which I found very appealing.
The series actually ended – SPOILERS – with a cliff-hanger, which may disappoint those who prefer a definite ending. But I think the open-endedness of it was fitting to a series like Signal. Besides, there’s a rumor that a follow-up is going to be done. Now, I would love to see more of this, but even if that won’t happen, Signal has already delivered enough to make a lasting impact. The terrific characters, thought-provoking and well-layered plot, and seamless production quality all add up to a brilliant crime drama series for the small screen.
Signal has set a very high bar for future K-drama series that I will watch this year.