KBS’ Imitation (이미테이션) is an interesting series. It knows what it wants to be, but seems to be better at what it isn’t. That is, Imitation seems to be focused mainly on being a fluffy, idol-driven romantic drama. With the ripe-for-drama world of K-pop as the backdrop, the series isn’t short on material to pull from. But while the series does offer a terrifyingly realistic portrayal of the Korean music industry, it focuses on typical romantic triangle tropes rather than other truly intriguing topics.
At the heart of the series is aspiring K-pop idol Lee Ma Ha (Jung Ji So). The long-time trainee finally gets a chance to debut in a girl group. But she and her groupmates Hyun Ji and Ri A (Lim Na Young and Minseo) get the rug pulled out from under them on the day of debut when a former member of the group is found dead from suicide.
Fast forward a few years later and the three girls get another chance thanks to Ji Hak (Danny Ahn), former manager of the #1 boy group SHAX. The group’s leader Kwon Ryeok (Lee Jun Young) is a major star on his own and a past connection with Ma Ha makes the road to stardom a rough one for her and her fellow groupmates.
Rounding out the romantic square is uber popular solo artist La Ri Ma (Park Ji Yeon) who has her eyes on Ryeok and Ma Ha’s longtime friend and overall nice guy Lee Yoo Jin (ATEEZ’s Jung Yun Ho) who has long harbored feelings for her.
Imitation focuses on these four and their romantic tension for most of the series all while gliding over more interesting stories about the oppressive, cutthroat Korean music industry.
The series is strongest when it focuses on that aspect as well as putting a human character behind the polished and highly choreographed personas of the K-pop idols that are seen performing on television every day. The brutal inner workings of the entertainment industry and the real world, relatable personal struggles of these artists behind the cameras should’ve taken center stage.
In the series’ final episodes, it does just that. But it is almost a bit of “too little, too late” at that point. And even more so, a bit disappointing considering the story that engulfs the final episodes is actually emotional and well-done on its own. It makes one wonder how much more interesting the rest of the series would’ve been if the other episodes were presented with similar material and depth.
The series is filled with a talented young cast of mostly K-pop idols-turned-actors. Jung Ji So as Ma Ha is the most experienced actor of the young cast, having been acting since she was a child. In fact when her casting and the series was first announced, I was wishing her leading man would be TRCNG’s Kim Jihun whom she shared the screen with in the KBS morning drama Samsaengi in 2013. It would’ve been a fun, cute reunion of sorts.
But that’s not to take away from leading man Lee Jun Young who has established himself as a promising young actor since debuting as the youngest member of U-KISS and branching out on his own. He and Jung Ji So have a fine chemistry that is unfortunately hindered by the sometimes shallow material.
Lee Jun Young is strongest in the series when issues of the industry and the eventual mystery surrounding the tragedy of years prior are the focus of his character.
ATEEZ’s Yun Ho does a great job as the endearing Yoo Jin. But he is similarly sidelined with shallow material and a stereotypical second lead character that all but disappears half way through the series.
The most engaging character though is definitely La Ri Ma. Park Ji Yeon does her part to bring the series’ most dynamic character to life. Ri Ma is probably the best written character as well as we see the initially cold, catty idol star get the layers peeled away to reveal a deeper, more well-rounded character. Perhaps, the most well-rounded.
Imitation boasts some great original music which helps keep it moving forward. But ultimately there’s a lot of missed opportunity here.
Imitation has all the makings of an insightful look at what has become a huge, money-printing industry that has swept the world. Being able to put faces and actual people behind the polished idols that are trotted out on stage and in countless shows would have been the most engaging direction for this series. Seeing these idols in relatable situations and facing relatable struggles including that of mental health, relationships, friendships and career, among other themes, would be something that would almost be essential viewing for K-pop fans everywhere.
In recent years, the K-pop fandom has increasingly forgotten that idols are people too. Not just products to ogle every day or things that they own. Being able to see how idols live their lives away from the spotlight and knowing what they go through would be an important wake up call. Especially after many tragic events in the industry in as many years.
Imitation may be a missed opportunity. But still, it’s not a terrible series. For what it is, it’s a fine, easy watch. It’s enjoyable as a whole with a charming cast and good music. But it’s another one of those series that make you go “What if?”