Race: Episodes 1-2
Wow, this drama has a really great tone going already! Only one week in, and Race has set up a strong balance of close-knit characters who I actually care about, and insights on workplace discrimination that come from all angles. But rather than be merely pedantic, the many social issues give our heroes mountains to climb and giants to slay, and build a great story.
Hooray for a K-drama with a solid foundation that both a) does all the K-drama things I require it to and b) also has fun being cheeky and unique. I came out of curiosity for the office slice-of-life genre — and the screenwriting of Kim Ru-ri of Hyena — and I was more than pleasantly surprised. It’s layered but not too slow, simple but not thin, and I laughed out loud way more than I expected to.
The direction is also a lot of fun — with the PD of Sunbae, Don’t Put on That Lipstick and 20th Century Boy and Girl at the helm. The drama had some wildly creative transitions between scenes that gave the drama an interesting edge, but I think it’s the overall fun vibe of the drama that sold me: it creates great balance for a story that deals with some heavy issues.
To get started, we first meet our heroine PARK YOON-JO (Lee Yeon-hee), who works for a tiny (and somewhat desperate) PR/Marketing firm. Yoon-jo is super passionate about what she does, and refreshingly proud of herself for being essentially self-made. She went to a technical high school, paid her way through online college courses while working, and puts her whole heart and effort into what she does. Don’t let the slightly messy opening scene of this drama dissuade you from continuing, because it’s worth sticking around.
As the foil to our heroine we have our hero RYU JAE-MIN (Hong Jong-hyun). The two have been friends since middle school along with bar-owner and confidant HEO EUN (Kim Ye-eun). While Yoon-jo is all passion and fire, Jae-min’s a SNU graduate who works for the PR team of a huge Seyong Group that’s set at the center of our tale. Hammering this in even more, Yoon-jo mourns that though the two friends work in the same industry, they never cross paths professionally because of the all-too-clear social divide between them.
Though I’m not discounting a friends-to-lovers element in the future, it’s not hinted at at all, and what we see of these two characters in our opening week is a solid friendship. You know the kind: text message of selfies with silly faces, checking in on each other, complaining about work, destressing together at the arcade, and later, dealing with some big waves.
There’s a massive amount of plot in the first two episodes, and most of it is shared between Yoon-jo and Jae-min, not only for contrast, but for the near future when their work lives will indeed converge.
We get to know Yoon-jo as she deals with the high and mighty attitude of her firm’s newbie and SNU grad, who is utterly rude and eventually walks off the job. This little arc starts one of the drama’s narrative threads around education discrimination — there are expectations of workers based on their schooling, and it goes both ways. Yoon-jo somewhat wishes she went to a big-name school to land a big job, but then we see what Jae-min’s work life is like.
When we first meet him he’s trying desperately to unplug and enjoy a weekend of solitary camping in the woods (yay, another camping hero!), but that doesn’t last long. As an assistant team leader on Seyong’s Strategy team, he gets called in to deal with the company’s latest PR fire, along with his boss TEAM LEADER SONG SUN-TAE (Jo Han-chul, who is forever great in all his supporting roles.)
Jae-min is a diligent worker, but he’s none too pleased by his weekend getting bulldozed. When Team Leader Song sends him to a factory to deal with the source of the problem, a little map pops up onscreen as we see Jae-min realizing (aghast!) that it’s almost a 4-hour drive for him. This is just one example of the drama’s humor, but there’s lots more sprinkled throughout, like when Jae-min later makes a call he’s required to, but while the phone is ringing audibly begs the person not to answer so he can just leave a voicemail and walk away.
Is Jae-min a little jaded, or a little too willing to play along with the corporate game? We see this thread pulled a bit more as we head into the next major arc for Yoon-jo. Her little firm is responding to Seyong’s bid for a marketing campaign for their cosmetics line, and Yoon-jo burns the candle at both ends preparing.
Everyone who sees the presentations knows that Yoon-jo’s firm has the best ideas and should win the bid, but what her boss learns — right before their turn to present — is that the winner has already been chosen. The whole bidding process is a show. This hits hard on so many levels, and the drama plays with it quite well. We feel the bitterness from Yoon-jo and her boss, knowing their hard work won’t be acknowledged and they just have to play along. It also drives a big wedge into the trust between Yoon-jo and Jae-min, since he knew the thing was rigged all along but didn’t say a word to her.
Rightly so, Yoon-jo seems more upset of Jae-min’s complicity (“You’re one of them,” she tells him scathingly) than the actual corruption — but the convergence of both of these things makes it hit all the harder, because it’s all so realistic. From the fixed bids and internal corruption to the workers who have to shut their mouths for a paycheck, it’s unpleasant, biased, and yet an accurate representation of the corporate beast.
While Race portrays the awfulness of discrimination and corporate corruption with an accurate lens, it also does the same with its take on corporate life, and I think I got most of my laughs from watching Jae-min and his team try to get through the day.
Our first two episodes focus mostly on our main pair and the setup around Seyong as a place of business, but there are two other characters hitting the stage as well. The first is the TED-talking, NYC-living PR genius GU YI-JUNG (Moon Sori) whom the Seyong heiress is trying to pull into the company. The second is someone who starts as foe, but might end as friend.
When Yoon-jo was heading to her big presentation at Seyong, a young dude rushing on a bicycle banged into her and her coffee wound up all over her blouse. He was very polite about it and offered to reimburse her, but because this is dramaland, meeting someone on the street via accident means you’ll be seeing them later that afternoon. Sure enough, this guy is SEO DONG-HOON (Yunho), the CEO of the agency Earth Comm who “won” the bid at Seyong. To further complicate matters, he’s quite friendly with Yoon-jo’s boss, and even joins them for bottles and bottles of soju later that night.
I think what I love most about Race so far is that the relationships feel very real. From Yoon-jo’s relationships with the two woman that make up her company, to Yoon-jo’s comfortable long-time friendship with Jae-min, there’s an authenticity to all the interactions that bring this story to life. It’s also authentic when it comes to the hardships, biases, and annoyances people have to face at work, right down to the inside turf wars between departments, and the desperate mid-meeting texts to your coworker in order to stay sane.
But above all, it’s the space the story allows for that murky and morally gray territory that makes these characters feel like real people: Team Leader Song being a total ass to Yoon-jo’s boss, Jae-min finding himself having to “play along” with games he doesn’t really like, or Yoon-jo having to sit and drink with Dong-hoon and pretend he didn’t just usurp the victory that was rightfully hers.
There’s a lot cooking here, not only with the story’s themes, but with where the plot will go. As we close out the premiere week, Yoon-jo’s hard work finally pays off: she’s simultaneously scouted by Dong-hoon to Earth Comm, and wins the blind open recruitment to work for Seyong’s PR team. Decisions lurk in the future for our heroine, and with so much ground laid, I can’t wait to tune in next week to see what she and Jae-min have to cope with next.