The 2016 tvN drama Signal (시그널) is a breathtaking experience. The multi-awarded, highly rated and critically acclaimed series is an emotionally affecting and effectively thrilling character-driven ride. With its stellar cast, strong characters and engaging story, it’s not hard to see why it has enthralled audiences the world over.
Signal follows criminal profiler Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) who discovers he can communicate with detective Lee Jae Han (Cho Jin Woong) in the past using an old walkie talkie. Though they’ve never met in person and have only come to know each other through their infrequent communication via walkie, their connection ends up helping them solve cases both in the past and present as well as unravel mysteries surrounding their own lives as well.
Hae Young begins working with detective Cha Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo), who also happens to have been Jae Han’s former partner before he mysteriously disappeared in the year 2000. Together, the three’s past, present and even future intersect in shocking and unexpected ways. And all while they try to fight corruption and fight for justice.
Signal‘s mix of crime procedural, mystery and supernatural is deftly handled. And that is a major accomplishment considering the intricate story. Though not quite a traditional time travel plot, the series nonetheless plays around with the butterfly effect in a refreshing, but still engaging way. Hae Young isn’t traveling to the past to change history, but the 11:23pm communications (albeit only a minute or two and on an irregular basis) allow him to give Jae Han just enough information or food for thought for things to change in the past resulting in a changed present.
Another way of looking at it is the idea of divergent timelines or parallel worlds. At the start of the series, the events from 1989 when Jae Han and Soo Hyun first meet as partners to the present where Hae Young finds the walkie talkie have already happened. Hae Young is living in the present and has memories of those 25+ years as they happened. But his communications with Jae Han begin resulting in new outcomes, different from the original memories Hae Young has and the realities that had been set before he ever found the walkie talkie.
Signal does an excellent job laying all that out on the table. The noble effort of wanting to save people in the past countered by the threatening possibility that it will result in different and perhaps more dangerous outcomes in the present. The series tackles that dilemma and does it well. And in using our main characters as the catalyst, we can understand that real emotional struggle in the midst of such a fantastical and mysterious situation.
Part of that is the great balance of both character and plot development. Signal has such a strong cast of characters, especially our main trio. And being such fully-fleshed out characters who also have charm and charisma, that helps to keep the overarching plot as well as the cases of the week grounded and accessible. Neither characters nor the plot are sacrificed for the other. And when that is accomplished, it’s a recipe for a great series.
Signal deals with some heinous cases and infuriating corruption. Certainly not new themes in the crime genre. But in being character-focused, the series offers that accessible entry point and an emotional, invested connection as a viewer.
The series also uses a fair bit of well-placed nostalgia throughout that adds even more to the engaging story.
The stellar cast is led by powerhouse performances from our three leads. Lee Je Hoon, Kim Hye Soo and Cho Jin Woong deliver in every way possible. Charm in the lighter moments, strong kick-ass charisma in the action scenes and that emotional connection in the heavier moments (of which there are plenty). It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in any of the three roles. From the first minute to the last, it is the way these three actors bring the characters to life that grabs you and never lets go. And in doing so, allows Signal to be that resonant long after the final scene.
The success and the accolades that Signal has received are well-deserved. A breathtaking and emotionally resonant series that takes plenty of familiar themes and presents them in a refreshing and engaging way that sets it apart from the rest. The brisk pace of the story ensures there’s never a dull moment at any point in the series. There’s a twist and turn at every corner, secrets and mysteries to unravel with every episode. And at the heart, our three main characters that guide us through the emotional and exciting journey. Signal is undoubtedly an unforgettable television experience.