|Producer Shin Won-ho / Courtesy of CJ E&M|
By Park Jin-hai
Star producer Shin Won-ho, who rewrote cable TV history with the "Reply" franchise, has continued his winning streak by making another hit with the downplayed prison drama "Prison Playbook."
The producer said in designing his newest drama, he didn't have commercial elements in mind. So he didn't expect similar viewer responses as he got from his previous dramas.
"The story takes place in a limited space of a prison cell and there are also concerns that viewers might turn their backs on the drama due to its bias with criminals. So I initially planned on broadcasting the drama through online or other channels than television," Shin said during a recent email interview with The Korea Times. "I personally thought it might not be so bad if its viewership reaches that of Reply 1997. But since it has surpassed it, I'm very much pleased."
The 16-part tvN drama, revealing the prison life of a former star baseball player who ended up serving a jail term for killing his sister's sexual assailant, has garnered strong responses from viewers and critics alike. The last episode, aired on Thursday, topped viewership ratings with 11.2 percent in the same timeslot with other dramas.
Based on Shin's one-year-long study of prison inmates, the cold lockup crowded with violent criminals turned into a detail-rich and realistic place. Zooming in on various interesting inmate characters, the cell in the drama was said to represent a microcosm of Korean society.
Shin said his biggest concern in directing the drama was on not glamorizing crime, so its warm tone might mislead people. "Instead of crimes themselves, I focused on all people around the penitentiary _ inmates and their families, and prison guards _ and their life stories. I told the story not from the perspective that all inmates have inevitable causes that influence them to fall into crime, but in the perspective they experience ups and downs in life just like other people but in more extreme ways. I intended to show various life stories of people," he said.
Along with great acting performances from a band of actors who have built long careers in the local theatrical world, the drama's twists and turns in each episode were also mentioned as big contributors to its unexpected success. "Our production crew likes twists and turns. In drama presentations, we often tell ‘the fact is' or ‘it turns out.' We love the catharsis that twists and turns give to the show," he said.
It was no exception in casting either. Actor Jung Woong-in, known for many villainous characters in his previous work, was tapped for the role of a prison guard, Mr. Paeng. Contrary to his looks and many viewers' predictions, Paeng turned out to be a warmhearted person. Actor Sung Dong-il, who had played a warm father character in Shin's previous "Reply" series, surprised viewers by playing a villain with a deceptive smile.
Asked about the homosexual characters Shin repeatedly portrays in his dramas, he says it is part of his efforts as a storyteller to portray stories that are not conventional. "In Reply 1994, homosexuality was used to portray the character's coming-of-age pains, while in Reply 1997 it was one form of many love relations. My latest work also includes homosexual character Yoo Han-yang. I think viewers now have become less uncomfortable seeing such characters in dramas," he said.