tvN’s apocalyptic thriller Happiness (해피니스) is terrifying simply because it hits so close to home in 2021. Set in the very near future where infectious diseases have become the norm, Happiness grabs hold of some familiar narrative themes and blends them together with frighteningly relatable real world situations. As much a character piece as it is a horror-tinged thriller, Happiness makes use of a strong cast, creative direction and the stoking of real world tension for what may be the last great series of the year.
Happiness opens by introducing us to high school students Yoon Sae Bom (Han Hyo Joo) and Jung Yi Hyun (Park Hyungsik). After first meeting thanks to a terrible misunderstanding involving a rooftop, the two become friends. Fast forward to a post-COVID Korea where masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer are normal parts of everyday life.
Sae Bom, now a member of the Special Operations Unit and Yi Hyun, now a detective, come face to face with people infected with the emerging “mad person disease.” Symptoms include the infected experiencing unquenchable thirst before their pupils turn white and they feel the urge to bite other people’s necks. Unlike COVID, the disease is spread through bites and scratches by the infected.
Sae Bom, having gotten scratched by an infected SOU trainee, meets lieutenant colonel Han Tae Seok (Jo Woo Jin) who leads a covert government-supported task force in the search for a vaccine and eventual cure for the disease. Since Sae Bom is not exhibiting any of the usual symptoms, Tae Seok allows her to forego the usual quarantine and commit to regular testing.
In the meantime, Sae Bom and Yi Hyun agree to a fake marriage in order to score an apartment unit in an exclusive, brand new luxury high rise complex. But that complex soon becomes one of the country’s disease epicenters. And Han Tae Seok, with the backing of the national government, institutes a mandatory hard lockdown on the condominium complex and other affected epicenters around the country.
Sae Bom, Yi Hyun and the small group of residents and visitors locked down in Building 1 of the complex now face having to be closed off from the rest of the world for at least one week. The claustrophobic quarantine rules coupled with paranoia and the threat of infection draws out the worst of humanity in many of the locked down individuals. Sae Bom and Yi Hyun scramble to bring order to the situation and slowly uncover clues and answers to the origins of the disease and the potential cure. While on the outside, Tae Seok’s desperate search for an antidote holds personal importance in the midst of government corruption and selfish behavior threatening the cure and the very way of life in Korea as they know it.
That is a detailed foundation that is set-up quickly in first few episodes. Tapping into ongoing COVID fears and tension, Happiness has no problem setting the stage for the rest of the series. And indeed, once the foundation is laid, the series takes off into what is a creative twist on familiar themes, stories and situations.
Though the infected are very much alive, the zombie-like disease is nonetheless a horrifying threat. And while Korea has shown they can successfully tell character-driven stories with a zombie-like apocalypse as backdrops, Happiness goes a step further with its deft handling of the COVID cloud that hangs over the proceedings. The idea of an infectious disease beginning to ravage the country and soon the world gives the series an extra bit of unsettling realism and timeliness.
Even more when the response to the emerging pandemic is very much a focus. Whether it’s the government response in trying to tamp down the disease or the discrimination that is thrown around towards those who might be infected, Happiness makes a point to highlight how human beings can be an even more malevolent force than any virus or pandemic. While others simply struggle to face the unknown in the midst of chaos and fear.
Happiness offers up a twist to the familiar found family theme seen in many a Korean drama by flipping it upside down. With a combination of Lord of the Flies and Upstairs, Downstairs social class drama, each character fills very specific roles in order to successfully establish the powder keg dynamic.
Though much of the characters’ decisions and movements can be seen a mile away, the series’ execution of those would-be twists are nonetheless effective, exciting and fun.
Happiness is not so much some pseudo-zombie soap opera as it is a slice of life portrait of a specific group of people who find themselves in one of these disease hotspots. It might not be a deep dive into the human psyche. But it depicts in visceral fashion the chaotic response of these locked-down people and the many different shades of humanity that can emerge. The revelation of people’s true colors, the emotional and physical toll such situations can take on people; it’s all touched upon in a way that feels warranted while at the same time sensical and fantastical.
Part of the intrigue is figuring out just what the series’ title may be referring to when the characters appear to be in such a hopeless situation. The other part is being able to touch upon present COVID-19 fears, tension and uncertainty to parallel the uncertainty in-series of what just feels like a zombie apocalypse.
Focusing on the characters’ response with the full experience all of us have had with lockdowns, quarantines and other mitigation procedures for COVID-19 gives Happiness that extra bit of uncomfortable, awkward charm. Some well-placed humor, frantic action sequences and a few surprising mysteries add to the series’ unique appeal.
Han Hyo Joo and Park Hyungsik are pitch perfect as our heroic and romantic leads. Their relationship starts off and actually proceeds in an atypical manner from the usual. While the romantic angle is not necessarily front and center, it never takes away from the rest of the series. In fact, it becomes the unexpected backbone for the series. And the two leads have no problem delivering that support.
Jo Woo Jin as the commander of the disease response is among the many talented actors of the ensemble cast that help to make this locked down world feel like a reality. Jo Woo Jin especially delivers a nuanced performance that has his character be both mysterious and accessible throughout the twists and turns of the series.
Ultimately, Happiness is a roaring good time and wild ride. Strange to say about a series centered around a “mad person disease” infecting the populace. But Happiness blends together biting social commentary, touches of horror, thrilling action and a character-driven slice of life portrait of this moment in time that feels indeed timely and uncomfortably relatable. And that’s while drawing upon our collective experience with the very real COVID-19. You never quite know what to expect or what’s ahead. And the series is by no means perfect. But in the end, your investment in the series will result in a satisfying end to what is a tense, almost adventurous journey.