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K-drama Review: Celebrity

English Title: Celebrity

Korean Title: 셀러브리티

Director(s): Kim Chul-gyu

Screenwriter(s): Kim Yi-young

Studio: Studio Dragon Released: 2023

Runtime: 12 episodes, min. 37m – max. 53m

Starring: Park Gyu-young, Kang Min-hyuk, Lee Chung-ah, Lee Dong-gun, Jeon Hyo-sung, Han Jae-in, Park Seon-im, Jung Yoo-min, Nam Ki-ae, Park Ye-ni


My Verdict: Over-simplistic characters and plot can be more refined, but a decent drama about obnoxious influencers and social media.


Celebrity

The narrative starts with e-celeb/influencer Seo A-ri (Park Gyu-young) live-streaming. This attracts attention because she supposedly died recently. The series is in effect her telling the story of her rise to fame, particularly the injustices she has suffered and exposing certain individuals. The narrative occasionally shifts to the “present” live stream that frames her story.


A-ri was a cosmetics salesperson, struggling to pay her bills. She lived with her mother (Nam Ki-ae). Years ago, they were wealthy until their father failed in his business and died. A-ri had no interest in social media, let alone e-celebs and influencers. But through chance and initially being spurred on by her best friend Yoon Jeong-sun (Park Ye-ni), she built up her name…


The series is partly a mystery-thriller in that it gradually reveals what happened to A-ri and the circumstances around her death. Thematically, it is obviously about the façade these influencers maintain, the lengths they go to for fame and money, and the impact they have on others, individually and collectively as a society.


There is also the obsession, individually and collectively, of those who follow the scene and the impact of their comments, both positive and negative. As is common in K-drama, there is also commentary on the bad attitudes of (some of) the rich and the gap between the rich and the norm or the poor.


Seo A-ri (Park Gyu-young)
Seo A-ri (Park Gyu-young)

One of the difficulties for any series that is meant to be realistic about a contemporary issue is what degree of simplicity or complexity to aim for. Unlike a film, there is more screen time to have more complexity, and it needs it to keep it interesting. Too simple and it is unrealistic and probably boring. But too complicated can come across as forced.


Whilst Celebrity mostly avoids trying too hard, it is instead too simple in some respects. At 12 episodes, the pacing is mostly managed well and each episode is not too short or long. It is never boring. It is a little rushed in the final episodes but that doesn’t ruin the show. The fundamental problem is that the plot and characterizations in themselves are too simple and can be more refined.


In whatever context, no one makes it to a high position without connections and so-called luck. This is admittedly difficult because “chance” events in a drama can come across as convenient. And yet, if A-ri already has connections, then that can come across as convenient too. So, A-ri bumping into influencer Oh Min-hye (Jeon Hyo-sung) who used to be a friend during high school and then A-ri getting invited to a function and then getting noticed at said function is handled well enough.


Oh Min-hye (Jeon Hyo-sung)
Oh Min-hye (Jeon Hyo-sung)

Accepting the way A-ri begins her journey, she essentially deals with three parties: the Gabin Society, a group of influencers led by Min-hye hostile to A-ri as she gains popularity; Han Joon-kyung (Kang Min-hyuk), CEO of a cosmetics conglomerate who has a personal interest in A-ri; and Yoon Shi-hyun (Lee Chung-ah), a decent woman of wealth and power who sympathizes with A-ri.


Han Joon-kyung (Kang Min-hyuk)
Han Joon-kyung (Kang Min-hyuk)

This setup (premise) is fine but the plot and characters themselves are too simple. A-ri is not naïve or stupid. Previously rich or not, she should know better the tactics of Min-hye’s clique as she gains popularity and becomes a target. And yet, she sometimes fails to anticipate Min-hye’s moves.


We do see the likes of Min-hye being all fake and posting photos that are embellished in some way. We also see the agency that manages e-celebs inflating the follower-count and adding comments. Unfortunately, the latter is barely touched on. Although A-ri is in effect the viewpoint character since she is the narrator, like many works, the narrative doesn’t strictly adhere to that, often adopting an omniscient narration. So, without turning it into an episode of Black Mirror, the series could delve into these manipulations.


As a sidebar, although it treats the subject differently, Black Mirror “Nosedive” (season 3, episode 1) is recommended. Black Mirror can be hit and miss—and I am one of those who think there are way more misses than hits—but the episode is well-written and executed.


A-ri does not become the monster she hates so that cliché is thankfully avoided. She is kindhearted and only gets nasty in retaliation. If anything, she could push the boundaries more.


However, her enemies like Min-hye are over-simplistic. Obviously, the point is to show how obnoxious some of these people are. But Min-hye, Jin Chae-hee (Han Jae-in), Angela (Han Eu-ddeum) and Ji-na (Park Seon-im) are just total bitches. Han Yoo-rang (Jung Yoo-min), Min-hye’s lackey friend and fifth wheel of the group, is the only one who is seemingly normal. Although a minor character, it’s a shame she is not better utilized since she is so different from the other four.


Similarly, Jeong-sun is initially the annoying best friend who is crazy about influencers even though A-ri is mostly indifferent. Later, the writers try to make her more layered but she is not used enough. A-ri’s mother is also the annoyingly materialistic woman who cares way too much about money and social standing.


The actresses who play these characters all do well, but they are written one-dimensionally. Angela’s and Ji-na’s parts are relatively minor whereas Chae-hee is more prominent because she throws tantrums as if she is stuck in seventh grade. Han Jae-in does well enough with the yelling even if that’s about all she does.


Park Gyu-young is good but the best performance is by Jeon Hyo-sung as Min-hye. At least her character is written as a little two-faced and she does well putting on a sweet smile one moment and being a stuckup cow the next. She’s still too simplistically written and one could argue Jeon Hyo-sung overdoes it a bit but she has to (because that’s all she’s given) and she does it convincingly. She is amusing and disturbing at the same time.


As for the so-called romance between Joon-kyung and A-ri, that is thankfully not overdone as that would clash with the tone of a mystery-thriller. In fact, it is almost not done at all. Joon-kyung is necessary as A-ri needs a powerful ally, there is just too much against her at times. But he is almost a token romantic interest—he is interested and she resists, but then she sorta doesn’t but it doesn’t really go anywhere and… and… That arc is too neglected and Kang Min-hyuk is just there to look cool in a wooden sort of way.


Yoon Shi-hyun is also a necessary ally of A-ri’s but all Lee Chung-ah gets to do is look pensive. That is her character but such an actress can be given more to work with.


Yoon Shi-hyun (Lee Chung-ah)
Yoon Shi-hyun (Lee Chung-ah)

There is more but the last over-simplification I would mention is public opinion. A-ri is the viewpoint character so a generalized view of the comments on social media is all we can reasonably see. Nonetheless, people seemingly swayed by the smallest thing is just too cliched even if it is true. And this is one of the reasons why it would benefit the narrative if it delved more into agencies “managing” content and comments. In addition, although trends are discussed, there is no mention of “the algorithm”.


As already mentioned, the pacing is managed well and it is never boring even though the resolution is a little rushed and is too neat. Setting plotting and character issues aside, it is a good production. It is nicely lit and shot with good use of colors in the sets and wardrobe. Given that fashion is involved, it is too easy to overdo it but it avoids being too stylized which is more apt to a supernatural-fantasy K-drama.


Overall, it is enjoyable viewing that is mostly satisfying not just as entertainment but also for pointing out what many think: social media is full of the obnoxiously self-obsessed and facilitates toxicity.

 

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