Approaching this review has been difficult. I absolutely loved this show. It is one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen. Instead of just gushing or simply layering effusive adjectives one on top of the other, I wanted to have something of substance to actually say. So that’s why this is late, had to wait a few days for the awesomeness of the show to lessen a bit for me.
Thankfully, The Devil Judge isn’t about the actual devil, but it is certainly about how human beings don’t act much better, especially those who have power over others. Set in a dystopian alternate reality, this show is unique among Korean TV shows, and did a good job, especially by set design, in creating a fake Korea just close enough to the real one (or the dramaland one, anyway) to be unsettling.
This show has everything: Top notch set design, phenomenal costume design, a near perfect soundtrack, great acting, fantastic directing, and truly stellar writing. See, already I’m piling on the adjectives. Although there are a few stupidities to the writing and characters as there always are, it was really some of the best writing I’ve seen for a show. At times I felt I was watching a Greek tragedy, not a modern television show. Many of the characters were fleshed out archetypes, and it absolutely worked for the show’s and plot’s purposes.
Starring Ji Sung (Dr. John) as Kang Yo Han, and Jin Young (Yumi’s Cells 2) as Kim Ga On, the story revolves around reality TV. In this world the elite have lost the trust of the masses due to their corruption. Much like in too many countries today. As a consequence, law and order is falling apart and the elites need at least a skeleton of law and order to say in power. They need at least some trust of the populace to continue their plans. They decide to make justice into a reality television show. A star judge and two co-judges will hear cases live as will anyone who watches along, and before the judge makes his final decision, he will get the votes of the regular people first. American Idol justice. Sounds awful and is awful, except the star judge in question wants to bring actual justice about. The first case he picks is one in which one of the elites is a defendant. This displeases his bosses.
The first half of the show is just building the situation of Judge Yo Han wreaking havoc on those around him, whether it’s the evil, self-righteous elites or the perhaps the even more insufferably self-righteous Ga On, who believes in human good and law and order almost to a fault. The second half is largely about Ga On fully realizing just how corrupt his society is, and with that realizing that Yo Han may not be the bad guy at all. This is essentially the story of a man becoming a monster to defeat the monsters and also training an apprentice to do the same. Yo Han is happy to play the monster to some degree because he’s always been misunderstood by those around him. He is bringing some form of justice to society and a change of power, but his true aim is revenge. It just so happens that both of these things coincide. Ga On is the everyman, he is us. He is also stupid and infuriating, but, hey, ain’t that the Average Joe? He is also easily manipulated, something that grates on us as we watch, thinking, no way would I be so easily used. But by the end of the show, I think we realize differently: We wouldn’t have fared and don’t currently fare much better. Ga On is humbled by the end and it is unclear if he will take up the vigilante mantel that Yo Han hands to him.
This is the first show I’ve seen Ji Sung in, and he was outstanding. I have no doubt this was one of the best performances of his career and of course I plan to watch his other performances as I have the chance. His character is a fun one to play, someone that walks the tightrope between good and bad. Yo Han’s methods to bring justice are what ultimately gets him labeled a “devil,” and at times one wonders exactly what world he may be ushering in. As corrupt as the society is, he may be bringing something worse into play. This is essentially what Ga On fears, that Yo Han is nothing more than a Joker character, wanting to watch the world burn. The judge definitely believes in keeping one’s enemies close, too close for comfort at times. Ji Sung is wonderful as Ga On, so wonderful, that after a certain number of episodes we really start to grate against him for thwarting Yo Han’s plans. Good writing, good acting. Ji Sung really knows how to cry on camera, and, oh, does he bring the feels. Like his character, we too are shocked, shocked at the corruption, and shocked also by Yo Han, who is clearly manipulating his coworker.
The Devil Judge also has superb villains. The two best are: Kim Min Jung (Man to Man) as crazy lady Jung Sun A. She is almost an evil queen out of a fairy tale and definitely Kim’s best performance to date. She uses her voice to great effect, talking in a weird sort of whisper. As President Heo, Baek Hyun Jin (Happiness) also has a wonderful, if painful to hear, use of voice, and is rather hilarious as Heo is a former actor using dictator speech tropes to keep the masses on his side. Baek is no stranger to playing the villain and also did great in Happiness as a whining, would be murderer.
Although the sets are fantastic it is the costume design that really sells the show. All of the characters look impeccable, everything about them suited to their stations and also ambitions in life. There are no weird fashions just for the sake of it, everything fits the story and the strangest yet most beautiful designs are given to the evil queen that as a watcher one loves to hate. It is a testament to the excellence of the show that at the end of the day we have a certain amount of sympathy for Jung Sun A. She has a very unhealthy relationship with judge Jo Yan, but their story is really only the true romance in the show, except for, perhaps, the friendship between Jo Yan and Ga On. Ga On gets a romance, but it’s one realized too late, and more just a piece of his character than anything else. One more step on his path to waking up. And wake up he does.
Much like The Hunger Games before it, The Devil Judge ends on a sad but poignant truth: Although it is possible to rid ourselves of corruption, it always comes back, because that’s human beings for you. We are sinners to the core. The difference with this story, however, is that the writers managed to end on a note of hope, if nothing else than the hope of true friendship and family. And really, if we have that in life, that is so, so much. As a Christian, of course I would have loved if they had employed more use of forgiveness and the gospel message, but few movies or shows, even so-called Christian ones, truly know how to do so, so I can’t really expect this one to, either. However, the Christian symbol of the cross is used to represent the justice being meeted out. It is clear, too, that Yo Han is just waiting for any of the bad people to simply show some true remorse, to repent and turn to good. He knows they won’t, but he gives them the chance, much like perhaps God gives us the chance in this life to repent and believe. One gets a glimmer, just a glimmer of how God must feel about our sinfulness in one powerful scene in which Yo Han reveals to Ga On just how corrupt their society is by using the case of his parents who were irreparably injured by a swindler. The kicker in the scene is that we still don’t know if Yo Han is good or what his goal is, but either way, it’s a powerful performance from Jin Young as Ga On experiences sorrow and almost a complete breakdown. In some ways, he has lost a true love. One of the best scenes in the show.
Almost an aside in the show, but certainly a part of it is the real life political trickery called COVID. This show came out in 2021 and I think the writers and producers of the The Devil Judge show great courage here in indicating that much of that whole thing was a lie, political theatre in the lust for power. Much of the world, too much, still believes the lies of COVID, many people, too many are dying and/or severely harmed by the vaccines the elites–the real world elites–foisted upon us. More people have awakened to the truth now, but in 2021 to have had this as a plot point, the gov’t making up a virus as an excuse to clear out a poor neighborhood and steal the land? Wow. Sadly, many watchers will probably take it as fantasy, but it seemed by the show comments that a few at least were awake to the truth.
The Devil Judge was so effective, because like Greek tragedy or like Shakespeare, it has a timeless quality. Change the technology and the wardrobe and this same story could take place in any country, any society, and in any time period. Most importantly, it showcases the reality of the real world and what we face on a continual basis. One stamps out corruption and the next tier, the next generation of elites, are hankering to go the same way, so powerful is the allure of money and power, so clear the pursuit of both into corrupting the heart and soul.
It is rare that a show without a happy ending gets such a thumbs up from me, but the writers latch onto the human element of true friendship and hope, the kind of friendship in which the parties are family to each other, if not biologically so. It also ends with a clear protection of family, even to the point of removing family to a place that has a chance of a better life. The ending message is that this dystopian Korea cannot be saved, yet Ga On is still there and we wonder, just what will his next steps be? Yo Han is clearly handing off the duty to him of striving to bring justice. An impossible task, but there it is. Much like God calls us to truly love our fellow sinners. Impossible, right? But God does the impossible every single day. It’s His stock in trade.
Last, but not least, this show would make a great book or book series.