This article contains mild spoilers.
In this era of increasingly short attention spans, amid a cornucopia of entertainment options, hooking an audience early has never been so important. This places a lot of pressure on the opening of a show to stand out, and in order to so, writers are sometimes forced to break their own rules.
Secret Royal Inspector & Joy, the charming new procedural comedy drama from tvN, set in the Joseon dynasty era in Korea and featuring Ok Taecyeon and Kim Hye-yoon, has just such an opening. The first scene is a very brief sequence of a man being killed on a boat on a rainy night, which sets up the mystery, but more important is what happens right after that.
In the show’s first full scene, we are introduced to Ra Yi-eon (Ok Taecyeon), a handsome young government officer happily washing some seaweed before his assistants rush in to the yard with his cloak and lunchbox in hand, urging him not to be late for work.
They dash down the dusty path towards the government building and he tosses the box in the air, jumps up, dresses in mid-flight, does a somersault and lands back on his feet in time to catch the box.
This superhero-level feat is a fun way to kick off the show, and gives us a clear idea of its light and energetic tone, but it’s also the only time in the first four episodes that anyone defies the laws of physics. This cheeky blurring of genre codes may seem like a cheat, but it’s also an efficient shortcut to pull the audience into the show’s world and its characters early on.
Yi-eon has a good job and a good background, but he’s content to cook and enjoy his life, bribing fellow officials with delectable home-made lunches to secure rare ingredients.
His life continues pleasantly in this fashion until he receives an unwelcome government appointment. A secret royal inspector has disappeared – the victim from the opening scene – and Yi-eon’s seniors have all feigned ailments or responsibilities, passing the buck to Yi-eon, who can’t refuse the post.
The new secret royal inspector is further distressed to learn he’s to perform his duties in faraway Chungcheong Province. Undaunted, Yi-eon turns a negative into a positive, deciding that his posting will be a food trip, as he opts to use the opportunity to visit famed eateries in the region.
Kim Hye-yoon in a still from Secret Royal Inspector & Joy.
Meanwhile, Kim Jo-yi (Kim Hye-yoon) is a young woman seeking a divorce from her layabout husband – and an escape from her overbearing mother-in-law. The court hears her but demands a witness to corroborate her claim that her husband gambles.
She finds that witness in her best friend Hwang Bo-ri (Chae Won-bin) who, she discovers, is pregnant and has secretly been seeing the magistrate presiding over her case.
Yi-eon arrives in Chungcheong, and as luck would have it, the first restaurant on his list is closed when he and his starving assistants finally arrive. Jo-yi appears there at the same time, also looking for the proprietor, Bo-ri, who didn’t turn up to take the stand at her divorce trial. Shortly after, Bo-ri’s body is found in a nearby river.
Ok Taecyeon (left) and Kim in a still from Secret Royal Inspector & Joy.
Thus Yi-eon’s secret royal inspector work begins on an empty stomach as he investigates Bo-ri’s death and its connection to the local magistrate and a missing ledger. He goes undercover, lending his robes to one of his assistants and dressing in rags.
The case is soon solved, with the help of Jo-yi, and she is granted her divorce in a cathartic sequence that calls to mind the climax of the famed Tale of Chunhyang, in which a scholar, concealing his identity in beggar’s clothes, returns to save Chunhyang, a common woman, during an official court event.
Bo-ri’s death may have been avenged, but it’s connected to a larger conspiracy – naturally involving a powerful and corrupt family – and Yi-eon and Jo-yi join forces to investigate new cases around the region, with Yi-eon steadily revealing his fighting prowess, taught to him by the late Crown Prince (Lee Joon-hyuk), and Jo-yi coming into her own as an independent woman with impressive critical faculties.
Ok in a still from Secret Royal Inspector & Joy.
Ok Taecyeon was one of the highlights in this year’s K-drama series Vincenzo as the surprise villain, and he once again shows off his effortless screen presence here. While he’s a natural fit for the role, however, Yi-eon is a pretty familiar character who offers few surprises.
Jo-yi may also be a familiar gutsy young K-drama female lead, but Kim Hye-yoon, the SKY Castle actress who is quickly establishing herself as one of the most impressive new performers on the scene, completely makes the character her own.
Secret Royal Inspector & Joy has several things going for it, chief among them Kim’s strong turn, giving us plenty to look forward to over the coming weeks.
Kim in a still from Secret Royal Inspector & Joy.
Secret Royal Inspector & Joy is streaming on Viu.Internet Explorer Channel Network