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[TV Review] Prison reality show crosses line

Actor Park Hae-soo plays a former star baseball player who ended up serving a jail term for killing someone in self-defense in the ongoing tvN's Monday-Tuesday drama "Prison Playbook." By depicting prison as a small-scale version of Korean society with various interesting characters, the dark comedy is drawing positive reviews from fans. /Courtesy of CJ E&M

By Park Jin-hai

Two ongoing dramas "Prison Playbook" and "Oh, the Mysterious" invite viewers to the lesser-known world of prison and have been receiving positive responses from viewers.

tvN's Monday-Tuesday drama "Prison Playbook," billed as a "dark comedy" about prison life, created by the famous "Reply" franchise producer, has risen to the top of the Content Power Index rankings, while the SBS drama set in a prison "Oh, the Mysterious" has been topping the ratings in its timeslot.

Deviating from the typical tone of a prison drama, in "Prison Playbook" the cell is not just a cold lockup crowded with violent criminals, but a small-scale version of Korean society with various interesting inmate characters. SBS' new Monday-Tuesday drama "Oh, the Mysterious" tells the story of a framed escapee who turns into a fake police detective, taking down criminals and discovering his true identity.

Following these, a "prison reality show" filmed in a real prison and court is looking for air time. The show "Let's Live a Good Life" (working title) has emerged as a hot potato. Unlike for the prison dramas, many viewers and experts alike are expressing their concerns.

"The prison cell is the most inappropriate place to shoot a reality show," said one commentator, while another said, "If it is shown as a livable place it's a problem, while vice versa it is also a problem as well. Don't even try to make a fake show for the sake of the country and society."

The YG Entertainment-created show, directed by famous variety show "Real Men" producer Kim Jong-min and backed by producer Jae Young-jae from "Infinite Challenge," will be Korea's first "criminal-based reality show."

Viewers with children may have stronger reactions to the upcoming show. "It will be uncomfortable to watch for adult viewers, but it could be potentially dangerous for children. Children could have the wrong impression that life in the penitentiary might be fun," a mother of two said.

The cast members, including entertainer Kim Jong-min, K-pop boy band WINNER members and composer Don Spike, will not only experience prison life, but also go through the whole process of detention, a mock trial and imprisonment, according to YG.

Show telling not to commit crime?

As for the concerns the production staff says the show will tell people not to commit crimes and make viewers appreciate the hard work of correctional facility staff. "We are being careful not to glamorize crime. Instead of treating it like a prison experience show, we are trying our best to give a realistic portrayal of the criminal justice system and deliver a meaningful message."

Experts say prison being the subject of a fictional drama is not a problem, but showing it in a reality show is.

"Prisons used to be connected to sensational topics of physical confinement and violence. What makes Prison Playbook different is that the drama focuses on the people in it and makes viewers feel like it is another version of the world we live in," culture critic Jung Duk-hyun said.

Kim Heon-sik, another critic, says "Prison Playbook" wins viewers' hearts by telling a story about a normal person who ended up serving a jail term for self-defense. He cautions its warm tone might mislead people. "By telling witty stories about inmates, rather than reflecting the murky side of prison life, the drama could distort what is happening in real life," he said.

Both of them say the idea of a prison reality show crosses the line.

Unlike dramas which viewers watch in full recognition that what is happening on the small screen is fictional, most local reality shows adopt a "real variety show" format that is largely unscripted and follow a similar format of challenge-based variety television programs such as "Infinite Challenge."

Viewers tend to take what they see on screen as it is, thus the repercussions of a prison reality show on viewers, especially underage viewers, can be huge. Unlike the show's purpose, it could send a wrong message to young viewers that the place they should never go in their life is a livable place, lowering their guard against crime and punishment.

"If the reality show is aired, I question how far viewers can deal with it. It faces a dilemma, where too much reality could make way to too much sensationalism, while if it goes like a character-driven reality show, veracity might be lost," Jung said.

"YG's upcoming show is said to have adopted an escape mission in the limited space of a real prison. It will surely give tensions and make viewers anxious to see how it plays out. But I think they should have given more thought on choosing a penitentiary as a set for a reality show. It is a place to punish bad guys and not a place for laughs," Kim said.

"The prison authorities might have permitted shooting there to show the cells are not as horrible a place as viewers might think. But still, if the show serves as it says the public interest, it will not be a reality show anymore."

Yoon Suk-jin, a contemporary literature professor at Chungnam National University, points to a slew of other concerns following the new reality show. "Unlike dramas, its viewers might watch it uncritically. Prison is not a place for a reality show. If it focuses on reformation under correction, rather than fun, it will be educational and will face the accusation that it sees viewers as potential criminals who need to be educated. If it sells the emotional stories of inmates, it will also not be free from the criticism the inmates will become like animals in a zoo for everybody to gawk at."

Park Jin-hai

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