tvN’s The Devil Judge (악마판사) is a character-driven dystopian thriller that feels terrifyingly close to reality, especially in today’s world. That “hits close to home” feeling lingers throughout the 16-episode series and makes what’s being depicted on screen that much more visceral and affecting. Powered by an excellent cast that brings multi-layered characters to vivid life, The Devil Judge is an exciting and thought-provoking experience.
The Devil Judge is set in a dystopian Korea that has been ravaged by an unnamed pandemic. Chaos reigns amidst the uncertainty as those in power take this moment as an opportunity for maximizing personal gain while the masses are used as mere pawns in that effort. An effort to try and regain the trust (and compliance) of the people is hatched by way of a televised court show that has the viewing public ultimately serving as juror by voting through a mobile app.
The face and chief judge of the program is Kang Yo Han (Ji Sung). The handsome and charismatic jurist gains even more popularity with his reputation for punishing the corrupt. And that earns him the trust of the millions of Korean people who tune in to the court cases on television and on their mobile devices.
Alongside him on the show are associate judges Kim Ga On (Park Jin Young) and Oh Jin Joo (Kim Jae Kyung). Though Judge Oh is a huge fan of Kang Yo Han and is excited for opportunity to sit next to him on the bench, Judge Kim is much more suspicious of the charismatic judge’s true motives. Initially reluctant to join the program, Ga On makes it his mission to uncover any truth about Kang Yo Han that may be hidden all in the name of what he believes is true justice.
Meanwhile, Kang Yo Han’s fierce rival Jung Sun Ah (Kim Min Jung) is the de facto head of the Social Responsibility Foundation, an organization tasked with fostering trust in the government among the masses. But in reality, works side by side with the upper reaches of the government and the mainstream media to squeeze the country and its people dry for their own personal profit.
The intricate web of past history and present ambition collide as scars of the past serve as the fuel for fiery confrontations in the present. And this is all while revealing shocking truths about those painful tragedies and each character’s own inner demons.
Taking familiar themes and folding them into refreshingly new concepts and ideas is often a recipe for narrative success. And The Devil Judge is able to accomplish that. Especially as the events of the series come strikingly close to mirroring our current world.
The nameless pandemic hovers over the proceedings, but is mostly just the launching pad for the collapse of society. As we jump into the series, the effects of that pandemic, the government response and the public’s response to that effort are already sort of established. South Korea has descended into a world where the gap between rich and poor, the powerful and not, has grown considerably. Opposition is silenced, compliance is understood. As the powerful gain even more power, the everyday people get the losing end of the stick.
Gaslighted and manipulated, the masses almost willingly succumb to the draconian treatment they are being put through by the combined power of the government, media and wealthy organizations. The court show-turned-reality show is just one facet of how those in power use the media to manipulate the masses into compliance and turn against those who don’t toe the line.
This type of control and manipulation can already be seen in many aspects of today’s real world. Especially as COVID-19 continues to rage across Earth.
Though it is somewhat of a challenge to truly visualize the dystopian Korea the series is set in at first without them having to tells us so, the characters’ actions and motivations more than carry the slack.
There is almost a high stakes game of chess being played, especially between Kang Yo Han and Jung Sun Ah. Kim Ga On gets caught in the crossfire as the game involves death and destruction as the consequences. In a society that is on the brink of collapse, that gives every move and decision a greater weight.
The Devil Judge is at its best when it is a character study that mixes familiar concepts such as revenge and fighting for justice, but examines the possible extremes that any noble maneuver can devolve into. Especially in a society that has become easily manipulated and beaten down. The battle between ideals is as much a battle between good and evil and everything in between. Not to mention the David vs. Goliath battle between the haves and have nots.
You’ll be hard pressed to place any character in one corner or another. Owing itself to the provocative title, the series touches upon the very demons and monsters that may be living inside everyone and are either awakened or naturally manifest themselves when the situation calls for it.
The gothic elements used with the series’ visual style accentuate the characters living in this dark, gray area. And the journey each character goes through as they navigate this chaotic world that has been established is the narrative highlight of the series.
Perhaps the main highlight is the powerful performances by the excellent cast. Ji Sung is no stranger to charismatic leading roles. And he is absolutely magnetic here as Kang Yo Han. He will keep you guessing up until the very last minute of the series with a performance that requires great and careful nuance. Nuance that Ji Sung effortlessly delivers.
Kim Min Jung is also a force to be reckoned with as Jung Sun Ah. It is a performance that is at times frightening and other times emotionally affecting. And that is an accomplishment as Sun Ah is perhaps the most complicated character.
Though not his first lead role, Kim Ga On may be Park Jin Young’s most challenging role yet. And he also delivers. Sometimes serving as our own eyes into this chaotic dystopian Korea, Park Jin Young is able to guide us through everything while also effectively solidifying Kim Ga On as a distinct, fully-developed and dynamic character on his own.
Park Gyu Young as Ga On’s childhood friend and upstanding detective and Kim Jae Kyung as Judge Oh Jin Joo help to ground the proceedings in familiar and traditional areas that in turn helps keep the series all too relatable and grounded.
Overall, The Devil Judge is a thought-provoking thriller. With excellent performances from a strong cast, the series takes familiar themes and blends them with fresh scenarios. But it is its terrifyingly realistic depiction of a much too possible present and future that makes this one of the year’s most captivating viewing experiences.