What’s The Show? Dr Brain
What’s It All About, JG? Lee Sun-kyun stars as Dr Koh Se-won, the titular brain doctor, a brilliant scientist who had discovered a way to “brain synch” his mind with the recently deceased. This allows him to explore their memories for clues to what happened to them when they died. His family are killed in a mysterious accident, so it’s down to the good Doctor to figure out what’s going on, and also to try and keep his grip on reality as it becomes increasingly difficult for him to distinguish reality from the experiences he’s had in other people’s minds. In the end it turns out his son has been abducted by his terminally ill and wheelchair-bound father, who believe he can transfer his brain into the young boy and thus become, essentially, immortal. Like you do. Can Se-won stop his deranged father and rescue his son?
Why Did You Give It A Go? A couple of reasons, really. It’s an Apple TV show and while Apple TV shows aren’t necessarily always to my taste, I do admire the fact that they’re sometimes prepared to really swing for the fences – I wish I liked For All Mankind rather than find it plodding and dull, but I admire the fact they kept going with it and it’s clearly found an audience, even if I am not among their number. So Apple TV’s first Korean-language show seemed like it at least had the potential to be interesting. Plus, there’s a glut of Korean talent involved here, from Kim Jee-woon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) in the directors chair, to Lee Sun-kyun of Parasite fame. Plenty of reasons, in other words!
Is It Any Good? It really is! Flawless isn’t an adjective that’s going to get bandied about here, but for a six-episode series with a lot of ground to cover this is basically a pretty great show. There’s a lot of genre collisions going on here – sci-fi with the brain synch concept, police and detectives shows with the ongoing investigations into Se-won’s family, medical drama of course, there’s some buddy-cop stuff going on, a whole host of hallucinatory imagery and, in the last episode, what amounts to a James Bond riff as the Big Secret Lair is discovered and there’s a rush to save Se-won’s son. The script flips its way through all these different genres with aplomb, drawing on whichever one is going to help propel the plot forwards as and when it’s needed.
There’s not a lot of attention paid to the mechanics of the brain synchs and transfers – the right choice – but its key role in the story is established early on, and even used for some excellent comedy, as Se-won synchs up with a recently deceased cat (!) to try and get clues to a crime, complete with roving carpet-level cat-cam. It’s very funny, it’s serious and also oddly poignant, which is quite the mix. As the story progresses other aspects come into play, and a winning performance from Lee Jae-won as sidekick and colleague Dr Hong Nam-il helps keep things grounded – it’s a stand-out performance among a terrific cast which also includes Tunnel‘s Lee Yoo-young as Se-won’s wife in what is a rather under-written part but one in which she is characteristically fantastic. In all of this, the through-line of grief, loss and how to cope with them is never lost, but rarely becomes so ponderous as to drown out the other elements of the show. And if that balancing act isn’t always perfect, it’s done right way more times than it’s done wrong and doesn’t do any meaningful damage.
How Many Of These Did You Watch? All six episodes, which as you may have gathered by now are available on Apple TV, and this show’s release co-incided with the service being launched in Korea.
Would You Recommend It? Very much so. Six episodes isn’t exactly a burdensome undertaking, and there’s just so much to enjoy here. This is also a show that gradually gets better and better as it goes along, so while the early episodes are never bad – indeed they are solidly entertaining – by the time we get to the last two things have really ramped up. In particular, the final episode is an absolutely brilliant conclusion to the series, including the inter-generational fight within the mind of Se-won’s father as one battles to save his son, the other to take over his grandson. It’s a heady mix, yet the show pulls it off admirably, and even leaves us with a final-moment shock which works remarkably well.
And while you would be hard-pressed to call this a meaningful interrogation of anything specific, there are so many themes – ethics, neurodiverstiy, loss, grief, redemption, technology, fear – that it’s also a series that’s easy to read in a number of different ways and the multiplicity of thematic strands lends weight to it and makes it more than another piece of sci-fi fluff. If one were to criticise, the female characters tend to get pretty short shrift here, though another shout-out to Lee Yoo-young’s excellent turn – she’s able to do a lot with a little, and her eventual death manages to be genuinely moving in large part down to the strength of her performance. Saying that, though, there’s not a bad performance on display here and the show carries itself off with a remarkable amount of swagger and confidence. Having Kim Jee-woon behind the camera – as well as in the writer’s chair – helps to explain that of course, but as Apple TV’s first Korean-language production this is a bold and sure start (compare and contrast with Netflix’s first attempt, the rather unremarkable Love Alarm – Apple are certainly off to a better start than that). If the standard of Dr Brain – goofy title and all – can be maintained then there’s lots of potential for really great Korean drama to come, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
Oh and one other point, minor though it is – most Korean shows feature an abundance of product-placement when it come to electronic goods. This is almost always from Samsung, which makes sense. Being an Apple TV show, the sheer preponderance of Apple placed devices is both distracting and, eventually, really rather funny and stands out like a sore thumb. Doesn’t affect anything in particular, but it’s still worth noting in passing.
Scores On The Doors? 8/10