I must have been crazy for skipping this drama before.
Prison Playbook’s synopsis read as a drama that “depicts the story of prisoners and staff at a prison.” I knew what I want in a drama and I knew from that text alone that Prison Playbook wasn’t a series made for me… or so I thought. As soon as I finished the first two episodes I realized that I should have trusted Shin Won-ho PD more and watched Prison Playbook while it’s on air.
Prison Playbook’s main story revolved around baseball superstar Kim Je-hyeok (Park Hae-soo) who was sentenced to prison after he was found guilty of using excessive force while chasing a man trying to sexually assault his sister. He hit the rock-bottom quite early on; an apt character introduction that instantly made the audience root for him from the start.
Unlike Shin-PD’s other dramas, I noticed that this one has hero-type protagonist which was more “central” to the plot unlike in Reply Series which have multiple main characters (one can argue Song Deok-sun, Sung Na-jung, and Sung Shi-won are central characters but they do share the spotlight to their neighborhood/dorm squad). That alone made Prison Playbook more distinct to its supposed predecessors. I think it was subconsciously done on Shin PD’s part so that there would be a distinguishing factor between Reply series and Wise Life series (aside of course, from the lack of pop culture references and nostalgia-inducing narrative).
Je-hyeok’s character set-up also introduced us to his love interest Kim Ji-ho (Krystal Jung) as well as to his family, mother (Ye Soo-jung), and sister Kim Je-hee (Im Hwa-young). Although I have to say there was more airtime spent about his love interest compared to his family. Nonetheless, this history of Kim Je-hyeok solidified his character’s motivations and values, which then justified his future actions and stances.
This part was also when I realized how good of an actor Park Hae-soo is. I’ve seen him in a different project and he definitely didn’t have Je-hyeok’s vibe. He’s definitely the type of actor that transforms into his character; leaving behind his real-life image and past roles. Sure Je-hyeok maintained his deadpan face from the first episode to the finale but Park Hae-soo managed to depict the shift in Je-hyeok’s emotion through subtle body language and eye-acting.
Story-wise, Prison Playbook’s set-up started solid from the beginning. It wasn’t surprising that its follow-up sequences flowed naturally. Like you’d never need to question anything that’s happening in their universe and just enjoy the relationship and character progress.
One thing that surprised me though was the fact the first group of people Je-hyeok met weren’t the permanent supporting cast for the series. I was so used to meeting one solid squad that I needed time to adjust to the fact that characters in this series come and go. It was a perfect depiction of Je-hyeok’s dilemma; his life in prison was seemingly lasting forever but in fact it was just temporary.
The detention facility was just his first stop in his new world and there, he got a glimpse of what life in prison was supposed to be. Thanks to the very knowledgeable Jailbird (Kim Sung-cheol), we saw the “hierarchy” and the “improvisations” of the inmates. It was also a preview for the audience on how the system inside works.
Here we also met Je-hyeok’s best friend, Lee Joon-ho (Jung Kyung-ho). Their bond was deeper than what the prison people thought. Joon-ho feels like a godmother in prison guard’s uniform. If put in a baseball metaphor, Joon-ho is like the pitcher’s plate in Je-hyeok’s life. Joon-ho was there to support Je-hyeok all the way. There was no jealousy nor hard feelings; just pure friendship goals.
Although his character strongly anchors to Je-hyeok’s, I’m glad he also had his own storyline. He was the right person for someone as equally lovable as Kim Je-hee. His dynamic with her younger brother Lee Joon-dol (Kim Kyung-nam) was endearing to watch. Their bickering and one-sided pillow fights were certified funny scenes for me. He was a character on his own right. Jung Kyung-ho is truly the master of Tsundere characters. I just love him.
After Je-hyeok’s final verdict was handed down, the rest of the series focused on his life inside the Seobu Penetiary where he finally met a stable support group.
“It’s not because I like it here. It’s because I have to survive. I won’t be able to stand it otherwise.”
The following section of this review is an appreciation for the whole Seobu avengers and prison guards.
Starting off with “lifer” Kim Min-chul (Choi Moo-sung), whose older brother approach to the whole cell was a delight to watch. He was also the father figure for Lee Joo-hyung (Kang Seung-yoon). Their episode showed Min-chul’s unwavering loyalty and love for his comrades and of course, he really treats Joo-hyung as his son. His ending was also one of my favorites because this big bear ahjussi deserves it.
There was never a dull moment when KAIST or Kang Chul-doo (Park Ho-san) is involved. Even his story about his lover and his pen pal was riotous. The only time I took him seriously was when his background was finally revealed. I couldn’t really blame his son for not forgiving him fully but I think that was a life-changing moment for the laidback KAIST. It was just disappointing that we didn’t see him back on the cell after that scene. But I think it’s how things work in prison right? Changes are abrupt and happens without warning.
Anyway, the story of the ever uptight Go Park-sa or Doctor Go (Jung Min-sung) was one of the well-written character development in this series. He grew from a pushover employee to someone who would not be used for rich men’s selfish reasons anymore. Just like how he stood up for his inmates’ rights inside the prison, his ending showed he could stood up for himself as well.
Well speaking of character development Yoo Han-yang’s (Lee Kyu-hyung) ending was an injustice for those who root for his rehabilitation. But it was just Prison Playbook sticking to reality as much as possible. There was a scene where other inmates talked about how hard it was to totally withdraw from drugs. It was an obvious premonition to Looney’s relapse. Even so, I’ll remember him as the funniest Seobu inmate. His no-holds-barred comments and slapstick sequences with his inmates elicited loud laughter from me. His bickering with Yoo Jeong-woo (Jung Hae-in) could rival the bromance of Je-hyeok and Joon-ho.
Let’s talk about Captain Yoo, my automatic bias in this series. Jung Hae-in’s brooding glares never threatened Je-hyeok and the rest of his Seobu cellmates. They made this cold newcomer’s heart melt with their sincerity. He slowly opened up with them until he finally built a strong bond with this group. His friendship with prison guard Song Gi-dong (Kang Ki-doong) was also fun to watch. Every time I watched Guard Song be soft with him, I feel like I wanted to throw finger hearts to Captain Yoo as well.
The prison guards-inmates dynamic was also one of Prison Playbook’s strong points. Assistant Chief Paeng will forever change how I viewed Jung Woong-in, who always play villainous characters. Seobu Officials warden Kim Yong-chul (Ahn Sang-woo) and by-the-book Captain Na Hyung-soo (Park Hyoung-soo) were also characters I’ll remember for a long time. Then again, most Prison Playbook characters were memorable.
“You did your very best, but you weren’t given any opportunity. So just blame the world instead. The world should’ve tried harder. The problem was that the world never gave you an opportunity. It should do its best. Curse and cry all you want. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Prison Playbook was a great series as far as dark comedies are concerned. It managed to successfully be humorous in a setting that was normally considered as serious and, as the genre implied, “dark.” The series was funny without being mean. It didn’t make light of the issues of each of its characters. Yes, these characters were hilarious but the series also delved into their crimes/sins and the question on whether or not such evilness is innate in us. The setting has also blurred the lines between who’s good and who’s not.
Aside from subtly imposing such questions to its audience, Prison Playbook’s biggest strength would be its engaging narrative; a perfect fusion of comical banters and warmhearted stories.
– I just have to let out my one and only frustration for Prison Playbook – the attempted sexual assault of Kim Je-hyeok’s sister. It was really an unnecessary plot device. It was put on the backburner once the storyline was in full progress already. There were reminders here and there but it was definitely replaceable. They could have easily chosen another crime but once again this real-life plight of women was used as a cut-rate plot tool whose sole purpose is to make another male character’s arc more dramatic. I’m not saying we should never use this in any narrative. What I’m trying to raise here is to avoid using such matters if it wouldn’t contribute to the betterment of societal views on such issues. We had enough of this kind of media depiction already. Anyway, this is another issue that should be dealt with at another time.
-This has been on repeat recently
-Would like to see Jung Hae-in in an intense angsty character tbh
-I’m not sure if this is something I should be proud of but I saw him first on Persona
-Shin Won-ho really looks like Suho
-So this is where this pairing started