How glad I am that I didn’t give up on this show! Ok, let me back up a second, Doctor Prisoner, starring Namkoong Min is an excellent, over-the-top drama, but the plot quickly becomes repetitive. It is almost–almost–a fatal flaw. Thankfully the characters and incredible acting save it.
In South Korea they apparently have a law where a prisoner can get released for compassionate care. The prisoner has to have some awful disease that they are nearly dying of that the prison can’t treat, so they have to be moved to a hospital. In Doctor Prisoner this is the de facto way that rich and powerful people get out of prison. And doctor Na Yi Je (Namkoong Min) is the best at inventing diseases and helping the criminals get the compassionate release.
As I am still on a Namkoong Min binge, he is definitely why I wanted to watch this, but he is not why I stayed. Although this is a story about rooting out corruption, really it is about villains one upping each other. All of the “good” guys are villains in their own way. The few truly straight and narrow characters in the show are presented well, but blandly: This is not their show, not really. Sometimes it is just fun to watch villains be villains. We don’t have to try to understand why they are evil and give them sympathy. In fact, in this show they actually gain sympathy by their deviousness. Because they are outright evil, it is a joy to see them taken down. Not only that, but there’s an even greater joy as some are reformed.
The opening scene is hilarious as we watch Dr. Na Yi Je in action, meeting with a client in prison, and convincing her to practically kill herself to manifest evidence of an obscure, or even made up disease, to get released. Oh Jung Hee is a rich lady who has been imprisoned for hiring a contract killer on her husband’s mistress. Played by Kim Jung Nan (Tale of the Nine-Tailed), this character is the only woman on the show who’s a main player. She’s spicy, feisty, and awesome, and if one has to be an a woman of a certain age, hey, what a way to be! I absolutely love this actress and so want to be her. She also gets the best costumes here and in Tale of the Nine-Tailed–and her performance in that was great as well. A comparable American actress would probably be Meryl Streep. I can easily see Kim playing the “devil” in The Devil Wears Prada.
Oh Jung Hee also carries the romcom part of the story as she and prosecutor Jung Ui Sik fall for each other in hilarious fashion. Their story is way better than a serious romance with the lead character would have been. Jung Ui Sik is played by veteran drama actor Jang Hyun Sung (Leaves of the Red Sky), who plays a good villain.
But, back to Na Yi Je. Yes, he has a heartbreaking back story about how he turned out this way. By the end of the show, we don’t really care about that, we just want to see him take down more people and bend them to his will. In this cat and mouse game, this guy is always ten steps ahead, and boy, is it fun to watch. He enters into battle with the chief doctor of a famous prison (I can’t remember the name now), Sun Min Sik, played by Kim Byung Chul, who had a super creepy performance as the Wormtongue villain in Goblin.
Kim has so, so much fun here with this ladder climbing turd of a doctor, who wouldn’t recognize the Hippocratic Oath if it bashed him on the head. He uses “evil grin face” to full effect and is so ridiculous that after awhile one almost forgets he’s a villain. He’s an awful man who also has a great marriage: His wife is super supportive and it’s just great, great writing. Kim must have had so much fun playing this role. It’s just too bad he didn’t have a mustache to twirl.
After a few episodes with Na Yi Je and Sun Min Sik taking turns one upping each other, here’s where it gets repetitive, but if one can stick it out, it’s revealed that a different villain, an even worse one, is Na Yi Je’s real goal. It’s someone we’ve already met, the heir to a conglomerate, a chaebol character that frequently populates Kdramas: Lee Jae Joon played by Choi Won Young of Hello Monster (I Remember You) fame. Choi is awesome at playing a psycho, and although his character is necessarily scenery chomping, his physical acting is incredible to watch. An outstanding performance. By the end of the show, his character takes over almost everything. We, the viewers, are almost drawn in to his narcissism.
The best character, though, the best–and really this is a compliment to the writing–is Lee Jae Joon’s younger half-brother Lee Jae Huan, played by Park Sun Seok (Penthouse series). This is the first thing I’ve seen Park in and I hated his character. What an awful person! Jae Huan is essentially the first villain in the show, and for the first few episodes he seems like one of those characters that will get punished quickly and then the show will move on to someone else. It’s true that the show does move on, but Jae Huan stays, at first as a kind of comic relief as we get to see that prison life is hard for him. He’s so funny that we start to hate him less. Spoilers, spoilers! By the end of the show everyone is rooting for this guy! The writers do an amazing job of reforming this character and making him almost a good person. It’s awesome to watch and really makes the pay off with his brother at the end. It’s great writing because it was so unexpected.
Doctor Prisoner is Shakespearean in its scope and theatricality. The epic music almost never slows down, nor the pace. And yet fast pace continued can get dull. If you watch this and find yourself at that point, take a break and come back. The second half is worth it. Actor Namkoong Min holds the show being the solid, main character who is almost as villainous as the rest, but he’s just the ringmaster. Doctor Prisoner is a circus, a showcase of interlinked character pieces that I call: “The Best Villains!!”
A warning, if you ever want to go to the doctor again, this may not be the show for you, for the doctors in this are completely untrustworthy, especially and importantly our hero doctor Na Yi Je. They inject people with dangerous substances at an alarming rate and have an almost superhuman ability to manipulate the human body with drugs. Maybe the show is really just a commentary on our current medical industry? Literally the only tools they have are manmade drugs and surgery and in this show these things are the swords and spears of battle. It gives a patient real pause and concern.