It’s a dystopian South Korea. Homeless and poor abound. The public has little faith in the justice system and with good reason, it is corrupt and slanted toward the rich and powerful.
One man, Judge Kang Yo Han (Ji Sung), fronts a new reality TV show that has a live court with the general public able to vote guilty/not guilty via an app on their phones. Judge Kang is rich and has powerful frenemies. His assistant judges are Judge Kim Ga On (Jin Young) and Judge Oh Jin Joo. The three of them enter the TV show’s circular courtroom with massive monitors behind them.
Forces of greed and power include the Social Responsibility Foundation headed by Chairman Seo and able executive director Jung Sun A (Kim Min Jung). Ostensibly the Foundation’s mission is to lift up the poor and homeless. Next is the Ministry of Justice Chief Cha who wants Judge Kang to take direction from her. Her husband is in the inner circle of power. Her son Lee Young Min is a jerk who enjoys his temper and beating those that he imagines slights him. President Heo is a former actor with a love for the theatrics and never feels he is a genuine power. He’s right.
Judge Kim Ga On’s best friend is Detective Yoon Soo Hyun (Park Gyu Young) who professes her love regularly. He doesn’t openly reciprocate, not wanting to destroy their friendship with romance. You can tell he cares deeply for her. Judge Kim’s mentor is Supreme Court Justice Min who believes Judge Kang is more than meets the eye. Judge Kim agrees to investigate his boss and share his findings.
The first court case is an executive of a company whose chemical waste releases near a small town have resulted in death and sickness in the close-knit community. The executive is assured even if he’s found guilty a 5-year sentence is the maximum sentence with parole likely in 1 year. The trial seems to the executive’s way, the expert witness claims the chemical waste is safe enough to drink. Judge Kang has the expert witness’s water bottle switched then tells the smug man that is the “safe” chemical waste. Horrified the expert witness spits out the water. Still the executive appears to be headed for a nominal 5-year sentence. Then Judge Kang reveals that the executive can be sentenced for each victim of his corporate reliance. The monitors fill with those dead or dying from the chemical waste releases. The executive’s sentence is over 200 years!
Judge Kim has bugged Judge Kang’s office and realizes several events that happened in the court room were planned. But justice was served, even if it was helped along by Judge Kang’s less the legal maneuvering. When Judge Kim confronts Judge Kang, he is unconcerned. He points out the courtroom’s victor is the one that persuades the judge and jury, not necessarily the one that is right. “A trial is a game. If you can’t prove it, you lose”.
The live TV show is a rating hit much to the glee of the TV station executives who can command high advertising fees.
Judge Kim returns to Judge Kang’s office to remove the bug, but Judge Kang is there with the listening device in his hand. Both men realize there is a ticking time bomb in the wall.
Judge Kim shields Judge Kang and is knocked unconscious. Judge Kang takes Judge Kim to his home to recuperate. The household includes the wheelchair bound Kang Elijah and housekeeper Ji who isn’t a fan of Judge Kan. Judge Kim begins to investigate the house whose rooms are oft shrouded in clothes and unoccupied. He finds Judge Kang’s old bedroom in the basement. We learn some of his backstory from housekeeper Ji. Judge Kang is the illegitimate son of Chairman Kang. He was literally left on the doorstep as a baby. Chairman Kang wanted to literally shut Yo Han away but Isaac refused to let his father abandon the baby. Growing up Yo Han was relegated to the basement and often whipped by Chairman Kang. Isaac often intervened but couldn’t be there every time. The quiet Yo Han was considered strange in school and everyone mocked him. Yo Han turned the tables on his classmates by making them suspect each other of stealing. The once close knit classroom dissolves into chaos. Yo Han smiles as he is no longer the target. Housekeeper Ji tells Judge Kim that Yo Han is a devil. He’s responsible for a maid committing suicide and Issacs’s death. Judge Kim is stunned to see a picture of Isaac whom he bears an uncanny resemblance.
Detective Yoon uncovers in Yo Han’s past there was a fire in a church. The priest tells her that Yo Han is a devil and not to be trusted.
Yo Han gets physical with Lee Young Min’s car during one of his road rage moments.
The second court case is an assault case against Lee Young Min for his mistreatment of three workers in an eatery. Ministry of Justice Chief Cha is horrified Judge Kang is putting her son on trial. She gets the prosecutor on her side. She pays off the three workers. During the live court, the prosecutor declares the defendant has reached settlement with all three workers and cannot be prosecuted. Recovering from his wounds, Judge Kim watches knowing the volcano tempered Lee Young Min may walk away. But Jung Kang turns the tables and asks the public if anyone has had physical encounters with Lee Young Min. The video testimony streams in as one person then another then another reports on Lee Young Min’s cruelty. Jung Kang declares to the prosecution that Lee Young Min is a repeat offender and must be prosecuted as such. The public loves it. The powerful hate it.
We see Yo Han pursue a down on his luck former firefighter that knows about Yo Han’s involvement in the church fire. The firefighter ends falling to his death from a rooftop. Yo Han calmly takes the man’s watch as he bleeds out. The charismatic judge has a dark side.
Great start to the series. Writer Moon Yoo Seok’s vision of a dystopian South Korea has even bigger gaps between the haves and have nots. Money and power ensure the rich are above the law with the tit for tat exchanges that occur across the justice, political and corporate spectrums. Director Choi Jung Kyu stages the dystopian South Korea in muted colors with despair oozing from the poor rundown neighborhoods. The production of the live court reality show is superb. Both cases built suspense to riveting conclusions. I hope the quality of the court cases continues. This show hit the ground running. There is depth, complexity, and nuanced characters. Can justice be served by corrupt individuals?
Judge Kang Yo Han (Ji Sung) is the lynchpin of the series. Ji Sung’s chiseled face is like a model. The TV cameras caress his face and the public loves him. Judge Kang has a flair for the dramatic. The court is theatrical and riveting. But Judge Kang has a dark side. His past and his ruthless actions temper admiration for this bold and brazen man. Ji Sung is perfect in this role.
Judge Kim Ga On (Jin Young) is the judge with a conscious. He’s secretly investigating Judge Kang and struck gold with Yo Han’s backstory from the housekeeper. Ga On’s eerie resemblance to the first-born Isaac is great. I like that Ga On doesn’t worship Yo Han, but recognizes his behind the scenes tactics can whisk defeat away in the eleventh hour. Ga On’s own backstory has been hinted at but we don’t know how to connect the dots to this series characters.
Detective Yoon Soo Hyun (Park Gyu Young) loves Ga On. She would do anything for him yet she has her own career path and doesn’t sit around mooning over Ga On.
Executive Director Jung Sun A (Kim Min Jung) is like a cobra. She’s watching, waiting, and will strike.
The first song of the OST is the slick “Tempest” by HuckleBerryfin.
I rank episodes 1-3 as very good, an 8 on a 10-point scale.