TYPE OF REVIEW : GOOD OL’ REVIEW
Minor spoilers for season 1. For the non-spoilery Season 2 Check-in Review, click here.
I decided to hop on the bandwagon and watch one of 2020’s most buzzed about dramas. I sort of knew what to expect going into it. I had a general idea of how things may go. But little did I know, I needed to drop all expectations and just hop along for the wild ride.
SBS’ Penthouse (펜트하우스) is guilty pleasure at its soapy finest. Outrageous, over-the-top moments are paired with clever twists and turns. Its cast revels in the campy stories while delivering emotional performances when the craziness subsides for fleeting moments. It’s not hard to see why the series became one of the year’s most watched and most talked about dramas. And considering it has only just started its second of three seasons, the roller coaster is still careening forward towards who knows where.
The titular penthouse sits atop the extravagant 100-floor luxury Hera Palace. Its inhabitants are real estate mogul Joo Dan Tae (Um Ki Joon) and wife Shim Su Ryeon (Lee Ji Ah), along with their twin children (Kim Young Dae, Han Ji Hyun). Opera singer, now educator Cheon Seo Jin (Kim So Yeon) and husband Dr. Ha Yoon Cheol live with their daughter Eun Byeol (Choi Ye Bin) a couple of floors below them.
Together with newly wealthy Kang Ma Ri (Shin Eun Kyung) & daughter Jenny (Jin Ji Hee) and attorney Lee Kyu Jin (Bong Tae Kyu), wife Go Sang Ah (Yoon Joo Hee) and son Min Hyuk (Lee Tae Vin), they form the elite Hera Club. Their friend group lords over the rest of the skyscraper’s inhabitants as they enjoy their cushy lives at the top of the social hierarchy.
Meanwhile, Oh Yoon Hee (Eugene) and daughter Bae Ro Na (Kim Hyun Soo) live a very humble life and try to get by day-to-day. Ro Na is a talented soprano and aspiring singer who hopes to get accepted to the elite Cheong-Ah Arts High School. That dream sets the mother and daughter on a collision course with the elites of Hera Palace.
But everything absolutely explodes after the shocking death of Min Seol Ah (Jo Soo Min) at Hera Palace. The lives of the aforementioned cast of characters not only intertwine, but weave in and out and swerve and spin in the most unexpected and outrageous ways.
Penthouse begins in a frantic and frenzied way. Quite early on, the series makes no qualms about embracing its campy, over-the-top nature. It almost comes across as a self-aware and even self-deprecating satire. It doesn’t take itself seriously, yet at the same time it does. If that even makes sense.
And most of the time, Penthouse doesn’t make sense. If you’re looking for depth and profound stories? You’ve come to the wrong place. Multi-layered characters? Not so much.
“It’s not that deep,” say the kids these days. No need to get all worked up. And indeed, there’s a level of letting go of all sense and reason when coming into Penthouse. Yes, you will get frustrated. Yes, you will be angry. But if you’re willing to invest the time and hop along for the ride, it’s a ride that ends up being unexpectedly fun.
At its core, Penthouse is a typical revenge drama. People are wronged, they get revenge. And as a prerequisite for anyone that dares to hop along for the ride of a revenge drama, you’ve got to make the commitment to suffer right alongside the protagonists in order to make the eventual revenge all the sweeter. (And justified!)
And there’s definitely plenty of suffering. Murder, adultery, corruption. Mental health issues and suicide. School violence and bullying. Classism and discrimination. Most of the characters you will meet along the way will be guilty of perpetrating or provoking one or all of these means of suffering upon others.
And it’s all part of turning up the heat until that anger and frustration boils over for both you the viewer and the show’s underdogs and protagonists. (Though who actually the protagonists are is definitely a question mark throughout.)
Yet while all this sounds heavy and dramatic, Penthouse has an almost unnerving way of keeping the proceedings light and actually even hilariously so.
Again, Penthouse embraces its over-the-top and outrageous campiness. The incessant screaming. The signature soap opera glares. Bulging eyes of anger. And in doing so, it lowers the temperature to a manageable level and allows you to somehow actually enjoy or at least be engaged by the series’ certified insanity.
But Penthouse also manages to sneak in some moments of calm clarity. And it is in those moments that the characters and the story are able to connect in a way that makes you forget about the silliness and instead focus on actual emotional and affecting drama.
Make no mistake, Penthouse can be hilariously crazy. But the way they can somehow balance that with sincere dramatic story may be its biggest accomplishment. There are legitimate mysteries. And the secrets and twists that pop up at every corner raises the level of fun.
Though they’re not going to be doing a deep dive on all-too-familiar issues in Korean society, they touch upon them enough that you do care about what happens with these characters. And honestly, for most characters, you just wish they drop dead. But that’s also a testament to the great cast. Whether it’s the experienced vets or the talented young newcomers, they all act the hell out of the outrageous material.
There will be times when there are small victories. There will be times when karma delivers spectacularly. But in watching season 1, keep in mind, there’s still 24 more episodes after this. So it’s important to also temper your expectations of comeuppance and justice.
But in all of that lies the ultimate fun and enjoyment of watching Penthouse. You can certainly try to extrapolate some deep meaning from the series. (Good luck!) But essentially, Penthouse is confident in what it is.
And that is a campy, over-the-top and outrageous television series. At times comical, at times dramatic. Sometimes emotional, sometimes enraging. It’s all part of the (not-so?) guilty pleasure fun that Penthouse proudly presents to the audience. Sometimes you just have to let go and embrace the crazy. And Penthouse definitely delivers that fancy escape.