I’m hesitant to like The Strongest K-Pop Survival because there are so many things that aren’t going right with this drama, but it’s got a guilty-pleasure appeal. I don’t want to admit to watching every episode in case the story amounts to meaningless fluff, but at the same time, I can’t seem to give it up. So it’s up to my trusty pros and cons list to decide the drama’s fate in my roster. (Disclaimer: Mind you, I’ve only watched through episode five.)
Ji Seung-yeon (Go Eun-ah), more pretty boy than feminine girl, ditches her uppity music school in England and returns to Korea in the midst of popular idol group M2’s roster change. In order to prove to her family that her taste in pop music can amount to a career, she enters the M2 auditions as a cross dressing girl. Meanwhile, resident diva and M2 vocalist Kang Woo-hyun (Park Yoo-hwan) is dead set upon keeping the group together the way it is – meaning no room for new additions like Seung-yeon. The two clash in the process and the ambiguously gay romance begins.
Props to Park Yoo-hwan on the acting front. He’s waving the banner of douchey male leads with pride while totally rocking the idol diva persona, which makes me giggle. He does vulnerable well, and I feel that he’s going to hold up his end of the stick (snerk) when it comes to the gay-not-gay requisite angst. He’s got the range (ie. crying, weeping, throwing things believably) to pull off some really genuine dramatics though the tropes and premise aren’t exactly the most organic storytelling tools in a writer’s arsenal.
While I can’t give the plot points for originality, I do love the set-up. It’s like You’re Beautiful: the Predictable Version – if Tae-kyung hadn’t discovered that Mi-nyeo was a girl in episode two – and I’ve been itching to see the entire cross dressing package (forbidden attraction and conflicted emotions) since the let down that was Sungkyunkwan Scandal. The trope hasn’t been around the block enough to officially call cliche, but the plot point is getting a bit worn down, and I want to see it done right. But I don’t have confidence that the drama is going to deliver.
Other miscellaneous positives would include CEO Jang Hyun-suk (he’s got an adorable man-child charm), the almost realism of scary idol fandom, and the pretty, pretty boys. They’re nice to look at, if I turn the sound off. But watching a show on mute is a pretty big caveat that I can’t exactly ignore. And it goes downhill from here.
Seung-yoon reminds me of Boys Over Flowers’ Geum Jan Di in all the wrong ways: her exaggerated expressions, her tendency to shriek, her hemming and hawing though she lays down like a doormat anyway. Ick. Go Eun-ah’s acting feels insincere even when she’s playing a scene quietly (every once in a blue moon.) Also, Seung-yoon is completely unbelievable as a boy. I’ve had that complaint with most of the cross dressing dramas I’ve watched, but it especially irks me here. I understand that there are some ridiculously pretty boys in K-pop, but all her aeygo and high pitched screaming makes her girlishness blatantly obvious.
I’ve also got a beef with the characterizations of the army of idols that parade around the drama. So there’s about five already-idols and seven other wannabe-idols rounding out the extended cast, but they’re only wandering around the set to be a sea of pretty faces. There’s absolutely no backstory, personality quirks, or cute (believable) bromance to endear each individual character to me. They’re basically cardboard cutouts – filler stock characters that mark off a checkbox on the requisite idol personality list, and then they’re not taken any further. I can’t even enjoy the fun group bonding scenes because I don’t know (and don’t care to know) half of their names.
My biggest problem with the drama is that I have no faith that the production team can pull off this premise. I want to enjoy the angsty fall out of discovering Seung-yeon’s multiple betrayals (the boss is her uncle and he is actually a she), but the light, screwball tone doesn’t exactly accommodate serious dramatics. The angst and bouts of crying I want just don’t seem to be up this drama’s alley, which is prematurely disappointing, because although the gay-not-gay setup is completely manufactured, the resulting emotions can feel really organic to both the characters and the plot if it’s done right (ie. Coffee Prince.) So I can hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
I’m in for a few more episodes to see how things begin to shake out. The victories are cliche, and the Very Important Musician Life Lessons are a bit too precious, but I love a good underdog story, and the show is charming enough that I’m willing to overlook the cons – for a while at least. Though the drama’s portrayal of the K-pop world is a bit trivialized, it’s not completely off base. But I’m out at the first sign of disappointing fall outs to come.