The 2017 SBS drama While You Were Sleeping (당신이 잠든 사이에) may not have gotten everything right, but its ambitious, yet accessible premise and a charming cast ultimately make it a worthwhile experience.
Lee Jong Suk and Bae Suzy play Jae Chan and Hong Joo who for some reason are able to dream about someone’s future death. Jae Chan is a rookie prosecutor who stands by his principles despite the justice system around him not upholding the same principles in the courtroom. Hong Joo, meanwhile, is a reporter who must overcome painful memories in order to return to work.
It seems fate brings them together when they become neighbors. And once they learn about sharing the same ability, they must grapple with what to do with the precious information. Especially when sometimes, their prophetic dreams involve their loved ones.
The series delves into that moral dilemma regarding what to do about possibly changing the future. There is a subtle bit of the butterfly effect as a result of their decisions. But never really a major driver of the plot.
And indeed, for the many plot-driven elements of the story (the prophetic dreams, the lead couple’s romance, the cases of the week, tragedies of their childhood), none of them ever take center stage or overwhelm the series. That, in turn, makes the series more of a character-driven affair.
The initial set-up of Jae Chan and Hong Joo coming to learn about each other’s abilities and then working together to do or not do something about those dreams opens up the door to meeting a wide array of different characters with their own stories and struggles.
While the series doesn’t necessarily do the best job balancing the court cases with the romantic fluff, for example, it does do a great job of intersecting characters and their stories in a way that never feels like they’re throwing in random people and plot points into the mix.
Through their dreams and the cases Jae Chan eventually works on, we meet Lee Yoo Beom (an excellent Lee Sang Yeob), a former prosecutor-turned-hotshot attorney who is the complete opposite of Jae Chan when it comes to morals and principles. Then there is Jung Hae In’s Han Wook Tak, a police officer whose life is saved when Jae Chan acts on one of his dreams.
The past plays an important role in a few different stories through the course of the series. And the careful unfolding of revelations is legitimately engaging even if sometimes slightly predictable.
But again, the main draw of the series are the characters and the cast that bring them to life.
Lee Sang Yeob is a definite standout. Perhaps known more for his nice guy roles, he is absolutely chilling here as Yoo Beom. It’s a truly affecting performance where Lee Sang Yeob takes Yoo Beom from an unassuming everyday lawyer to a scheming, manipulative man without conscience.
Jung Hae In is the dependable “second lead” who is able to balance the happier and more lively start to Woo Tak with the considerably more dramatic and heavier turn later on as more about him and his backstory are revealed. Anyone who may be looking for something different from his most recent roles will definitely appreciate him here.
(Also, as someone who only recently watched the KBS miniseries Page Turner, it’s a fun treat to see its stars Shin Jae Ha – as Jae Chan’s brother – reunited with guest star Kim So Hyun here.)
Lee Jong Suk and Bae Suzy, meanwhile, effortlessly take care of the fluffier romantic side of the series while delivering with the more dramatic elements of the story too.
Bae Suzy, especially, does a wonderful job having to deliver a similar performance to Jung Hae In. Hong Joo is a positive and caring person. Because of it, she always thinks of others and wants to ensure their comfort and safety. But at the same time, she has trouble expressing her own pain and insecurities. Her having to deal with that as well as her odd ability gives Suzy plenty of opportunity for a strong performance. And she does deliver.
Lee Jong Suk has also always been a dependable leading man. His effortless charm and appeal are on full display here as he balances a different set of thematic elements. He shares a great chemistry with Suzy which includes both lighthearted romantic moments as well as heavier, more emotional moments. He also has fun sibling moments with Shin Jae Ha and a playful rival in Jung Hae In. But Lee Jong Suk also carries the show’s courtroom drama as a believable and strong moral compass. Especially whenever he must go up against Lee Sang Yeob’s merciless Yoo Beom.
Overall, While You Were Sleeping is surprisingly grounded for a premise that can seem so fantastical on paper. The engaging and endearing characters are able to hold together a story that might otherwise fall apart with a lesser cast and hollow characters. But being able to connect those pieces bring together what ends up being a thoughtful story powered by its strong performances and ultimately satisfying conclusions.