Ah, Spotlight (2008), how you confound me! I do not know whether to like or dislike you, to continue watching you or to toss you out like curdled milk.
Just look at your pedigree. By the same writer of 2007’s masterpiece, White Tower. Helmed by multiple-award winner Son Ye-jin, a charismatic Ji Jin-hee, and a rock-solid veteran cast.
I was thrilled to see your cast. I thought surely you would sizzle, both in the writing and the acting. What I didn’t bargain for was your weak execution, your gimmicky embellishments, your cartoonish characters, your histrionics over the most petty issues.
Is it because the script attempts too much, trying to portray in minutiae the adrenaline-pumping atmosphere of TV news reporting so that we will not, even for a moment, think it’s a stroll in the park? Got to show the stress, the rush, the sacrifices! Is it because this drama is directed by a rookie director and his inexperience shows?
Let me attempt a coherent explanation for why I found Spotlight frustrating.
Son Ye-jin is Seo Woo-jin, a junior reporter with the TV station GBS.
When we first see her, she is about to make her debut live appearance. She’s nervous, rehearsing her lines repeatedly like a kid practising phonetics, the ends of her mouth stretching like a chimpanzee’s smile. Then the camera starts rolling and hey presto! she doesn’t trip over her words, she doesn’t forget her lines, she even improvises when the anchorwoman back at the station has a sudden meltdown that exposes the cheapo non-waterproof mascara she’s using.
Said weepy anchorwoman, a veteran newscaster, is feeling so wretched over her husband’s philandering she can’t control her private pain, she must make it public. The result is a recording studio in an uproar. You see, they’re on air, live! So Woo-jin has to step in, to prolong her on-site coverage of a serial killing so that viewers are spared the sight of their favorite anchorwoman looking like an apparition.
Given this is Woo-jin’s first live appearance and she’s thrown into the deep end without any warning, I thought she did admirably. So why is her senior, captain of the current news division, chewing her up afterwards? Why does another senior, who looks like she’s still in high school but acts like she’s a discipline master, take her aside and give her a tongue-lashing? Why is everyone so worked up?
This is Oh Tae-suk (Ji Jin-hee), also a GBS reporter. Three years ago he was punished for assaulting his chief (blows fly freely in this drama) and banished to an out-in-the-boondocks branch of GBS. Now he’s being recalled to headquarters, as replacement for the current news division captain. Why? Because current captain assaulted the police chief.
No one taught reporters that thuggish behavior is a huge no-no? No one taught them that self-control is a virtue? Apparently not.
The metaphor that we get hit repeatedly on the head with is that the newsroom is a jungle and only the fittest survive. Different divisions jostle for spots on primetime news, reporters guard their scoops like animals protecting their spoils, everyone watches out for their own hide. Even blood ties don’t matter, it’s self-preservation that rules!
So the police can play dirty and alter incriminating evidence against… themselves. Woo-jin possesses a tape that will expose their ineptitude? Easy-peasy, let’s remove the audio from the tape. That leaves GBS flapping when they try to play the tape just seconds before a live segment. It boggles the mind, seriously, because how can you call yourself a credible TV station with that kind of sloppy preparation?
And it’s not just the police watching out for their own behinds. GBS and a newspaper firm are engaged in a protracted and most ridiculous rivalry where no one is a winner. How can you win when you resort to desperate measures to make the other look incompetent, dishonest and even corrupt?
What about Woo-jin and her brother, conveniently working for said broadcast and print rivals respectively? He sells her out to score a scoop (at GBS’s expense) and she suffers as a result, fingered for betrayal. She retaliates later. It’s all really sad and depressing, this jungle-like preying.
Woo-jin herself is an enigma and I don’t mean this positively.
Look at how she’s alternately nerves and poise in her first live appearance on TV. When she’s being berated by her seniors, she hangs her head and can’t muster even a squeak. Yet she can be so gung ho and boldly (recklessly, actually) enter the lion’s den without fearing she’ll have her head bitten off. The police are staking out a serial rapist and murderer? The situation is dangerous, to say the least? Have no fear, Woo-jin! She’s going to score an exclusive interview with said criminal before his capture!
Only problem is… that sorry specimen of a human being gets away, even though he is heavily outnumbered. Criminal 1: Police 0. Secondary problem? Woo-jin thinks she’s gotten her interview, but the police outsmart her by tampering with her tape. Woo-jin 0: Police 1.
I suppose the writer wants to paint the drama’s heroine as someone who’s very human, who has to grapple with a whole range of emotions because of the demands of her job. But Woo-jin doesn’t feel realistic to me. She’s too much of everything. One moment she behaves like she’s a cub reporter on her first day at work. Next moment she’s climbing hills and cutting fences, a super sleuth!
By the way, that multiple-frame effect (above image) was special at first… until the director decided to give it to us in spades. Thus:
It’s that kind of overkill that betrays the inexperienced directing and editing. Take another example, this one near the end of the second episode.
As if to prove he does have a softer side, our “Cap” (I cringe every time someone in his team calls Ji Jin-hee that) decides to lend Woo-jin an unfair helping hand. Without her knowledge, he mails her information that suggests the head of GBS’s great rival, that newspaper firm, is guilty of illegal land use. It is corruption on a grand scale. Hence Woo-jin scoots off on her derring-do adventure, spying on the enemy and putting trained detectives to shame.
As soon as she has all the evidence she needs, Woo-jin and Cap (with the blessings of their boss) take off on a chopper to gather even more evidence, this time to get an aerial view of the illegal estate.
So Episode 3 begins with the helicopter in the sky as a pulsating song plays in the background. And for the next few minutes that’s what we see: chopper flying… and flying. I thought the scene would never end.
What else irks me? Oh yes, the double standards.
Considering how Woo-jin is constantly taken to task by her superiors (that image of Ji Jin-hee shouting earlier is just him yelling his head off at Woo-jin, never mind that the tape fiasco wasn’t her fault), you would think she would be more compassionate towards the cub reporter assigned to her.
Not a chance. The best way to show a rookie the ropes is to pull his ears, I guess. Got to show who’s in charge, right?
The rookie reporter, Lee Soon-chul (Jin Goo), is one of the reasons I was bored to tears by Episode 3.
In scene after scene we are shown Soon-chul skiving off, Soon-chul being an idiot, Soon-chul this and Soon-chul that. It’s characterization with broad strokes that drives me crazy. Okay, you’ve made your point: Soon-chul is lazy and annoying. Enough?
The (literal) toilet humor is something else, too. I don’t need the sound of someone defecating, thank you very much. I definitely don’t need the sound twice!
(Seriously, guys, do you carry on a conversation across toilet cubicles while doing your business? It’s gross!)
So there you have it, all the reasons why I’m almost certain I’m not continuing with Spotlight.
I actually rather liked the first episode, even though I thought the whole drama with the crying anchorwoman silly (whatever happened to her afterwards?) and even though our dashing male lead is nowhere to be seen. (Sure, disappoint all the Ji Jin-hee fans eagerly watching this for him. Withhold the main course and let the hunger pangs multiply, eh?) I also was thrilled to see my favorite villain from Shin Don, Lee Dae-yeon, even if he plays a bumbling policeman.
Episode 2 started off swimmingly as well, with Ji Jin-hee finally making a splash (he did wade into the sea, so that’s a splash more or less). Would you stop watching a drama that gives you this?
But I’m made of deeper stuff (ya right!) and a cute male lead is not going to sway me. No way, Jose. Not when there’s more histrionics than handsome in the drama.
Still, I can be persuaded.
If you’ve finished Spotlight and think your sixteen hours well-spent, share the reasons with me, will ya? I won’t toss out my DVD until I hear from you. 🙂