Psychological crime thrillers are plentiful on Korean television. And Memorist (메모리스트) is one of them. But this 2020 tvN series ends up being a little too ambitious for its own good. While its stellar cast is able to carry the weight, the series stumbles though its efforts to try and offer something different and more involved than other similar shows in the genre.
Memorist follows detective Dong Baek (Yoo Seung Ho) who has a supernatural ability to read a person’s memory when he touches them. He has been able to use that power to catch criminals. He soon meets the young and intelligent police superintendent Han Sun Mi (Lee Se Young). And together they are pulled into a serial murder case that leads to them uncovering a larger web of murder, lies and corruption. As well as shocking connections to their own pasts.
At the core of the story is the hunt for an apparent serial killer by way of catching another serial killer. It is an intensely intricate story that involves several trips to the past (by way of Dong Baek’s memory-reading ability) and a countless number of red herrings. There’s keeping the audience guessing and then there’s Memorist‘s attempts to offer up a seemingly endless number of possibilities as to who Dong Baek and Sun Mi are hunting for. Both of them included.
A fair warning is Memorist is not a very bingeable series. That is, your head will probably be left spinning if you attempt to watch the series even in a few sittings, let alone one. If you miss a minute, you’ll miss a lot. Watching the series requires time to marinate on what happens during each of the usually very full episodes.
You will get the gist of what’s happening and can follow along. But instead of each new revelation or lead being impactful or surprising, they are instead piled on one after the other. And a lot of the potential shock and impact is undercut by the often unnecessarily convoluted plot. That unfortunately includes the series’ final climax.
The series requires frequent exposition by Sun Mi and Dong Baek in order to settle down and gather the facts of what we all know so far and in preparation for them embarking on another quick run to the next checkpoint in the story. It’s always preferable to show and not tell. Especially in a mystery thriller like this one. You want to go “Ah ha!” at the same time our main characters find a lead. Not “Wait, what?”
The series’ genre-hopping between crime drama, psychological thriller and the supernatural also somewhat exacerbates the frantic nature of the heavily plot-driven story. Memorist is unable to effectively balance those pieces. And in turn, is unable to give its major plot points time to breathe.
Even as the series deals with familiar themes such as corruption (in this case, everywhere from politics to business to news media), abuse and mental health, each is merely used as a plot device instead of coming together into a nicely woven narrative web.
The series actually starts out very strong. Its first few episodes serve as an almost prologue to the main story that would follow. In meeting Dong Baek and Sun Mi, we get an almost typical crime procedural with a supernatural bent. And the dynamic between Dong Baek and Sun Mi is a deliciously tense relationship.
But as the series begins laying the groundwork for the main mystery and unfurls the vast swaths of corruption, violence and abuse, it builds a disgusting and almost hopeless world. Which is a good thing in terms of elevating Dong Baek and Sun Mi as our noble heroes, as well as making their relationships with their trusty sidekicks veteran detective Koo Kyung Tan (Ko Chang Seok), rookie detective Oh Se Hoon (Yun Ji On) and principled reporter Kang Ji Eun (Jun Hyo Seong) all the more important and affecting.
When the series gets too convoluted for its own good, its these characters and the actors that keep you grounded. They are likeable and charming. A few maybe surprisingly so. But it takes a while to get them any depth and we are left to merely like them and enjoy their company when everything else is all over the place.
Detectives Koo Kyung Tan and Oh Se Hoon are a hilarious duo. As Dong Baek’s senior and partner, they have fun roles on their own while providing the necessary support and friendship to Dong Baek when needed. (And it’s needed often.) They are a likeable pair that you can’t help but want the best for them. Especially in such dangerous situations they find themselves in.
Singer-actress Jun Hyo Seong is great as reporter Kang Ji Eun who doesn’t get as much screentime and prominence as she should have. As the sole principled journalist at her network, she is motivated by strong integrity and the friendship she’s developed with our detectives. And Jo Han Chul is a standout as the mysterious Jin Jae Gyu.
But Yoo Seung Ho and Lee Se Young are the stars of the series and they carry the most weight on their shoulders throughout. Especially with their strong chemistry. Though it’s not an easy task.
Again, there’s really little to say more about Yoo Seung Ho’s talent. He’s proven himself many times over. And the role of Dong Baek is right up his alley. Dong Baek is a headstrong, sometimes reckless guy. His desire to serve justice gets clouded by his hothead tendencies. But that’s what makes him and Sun Mi a perfect pair. The two characters balance each other out and make them a great team.
Lee Se Young is magnetic as Han Sun Mi, especially in the early episodes. Her confidence as a young, hotshot police superintendent brings about very favorable comparisons to Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order SVU or even Dame Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. She is a serious, no-nonsense law enforcement officer who doesn’t take crap from anyone, regardless of rank. Her strong sense of justice and glimpses of vulnerability make her perhaps the most engaging character in the series.
Memorist has grand ambitions. But unfortunately, it suffers under the weight of trying to do too much. Sometimes simple is better. Getting rid of some of the excess and tightening up the writing could’ve really gone a long way in keeping the series exciting while still executing the many twists and turns well.
By the climax, the endgame begins to surround people you only just met an episode or two ago. And that doesn’t necessarily make for the most satisfying conclusion. Which brings everything back to our main characters and the resolution of their tumultuous journey through the maze that is Memorist.
The series benefits from having a great cast and likeable, though shallow, main characters. But it misses the mark and stumbles under the weight of its lofty ambitions that it unfortunately does not fully attain.