I love mystery shows, and I love improv comedy. Bringing the two together though – that’s a tricky proposition. Mysteries are generally highly scripted affairs, where you start with the end and work backwards laying clues for the viewer. Improvisational storytelling is all about starting from nothing, picking up the pieces and assembling them into a coherent whole as you go. How do you combine these two approaches? There are two shows on Netflix – one from Korea, one from Japan – that have two very different ideas about how to do just that.
“Variety shows” are a major part of Korean television. They combine elements of talk shows, celebrity game shows, and talent shows. Though the term as used also describes most Korean reality TV, the western show closest to the classic idea of a variety show is probably Taskmaster. One of the most popular and long-running variety shows is Running Man, which first aired in 2010 and is still going strong. When Netflix decided that they wanted to create a variety show with international appeal, they turned to SangSang Entertainment, the creators of Running Man. The result was a show that combined variety with drama to create something unique: Beomin-eun Baro Neo (literally meaning “The Suspect Is You”) which was released in English as Busted!.
I once described Busted! to someone as “a detective LARPing show”, and I stand by that. (LARPing is Live Action Role Playing.) Seven celebrities take on the role of “the world’s greatest detectives”. Yoo Jae-Sook, (host of Running Man) Is a “small town detective” who dresses like Sherlock Holmes, for example. Lee Kwang-Soo, another Running Man regular, is a “gumshoe” private eye who acts as comic relief most of the time alongside variety show stalwart Kim Jong-Min. K-pop star and fashion model Sehun often winds up playing straight man to their antics. Former soap opera star Ahn Jae-Wook plays a major role in the first series, but he was involved in a drink-driving accident between the filming and release of season 2 that led to him being eased out of the show. Prior to that his acting background had him carrying most of the dramatic side of the show, alongside award-winning actress Park Min-Young. The other female member of the cast is a familiar face to us – Kim Se-jeong. At the time she was best known as a singer but she’d go on to play one of the leads in The Uncanny Counter. An even more familiar face joined the cast in season 2 – Korean superstar Lee Seung-gi (lead of My Girlfriend Is A Nine-Tailed Fox and Korean Odyssey, among many others).
As I mentioned, the show combines drama and variety elements. In each episode the heroes are presented with a mystery scenario that they must solve, usually with clues given to them for solving various gameshow-like challenges. As the show goes on they do get better at incorporating these into the narrative, though at first they can be a little jarring. The celebrities are playing characters, and one of the most fun parts of the show is watching them develop these over the course of the series – just like players in a real roleplaying campaign. (In fact, the first time I watched Busted! I described it as a televised LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, session.) An interesting twist is that since this is all mostly improv, the show does have to take account of the players failing to solve challenges or even to figure out the mystery with the second season especially having the detectives fail more often than not.
The first season of Busted! is a good fun show, though a bit uneven. The writing kicks up a notch in the second season, with the heroes spending most of the season trying to track down a serial murderer called “the Flower Killer”. (The penultimate episode of the season, with the detectives infiltrating an interactive theatre performance for serial killer fans, is extremely good.) The final season meanders a little, but by leaning on its best actors for the final portions it does all come through. The third was the final season. Although this was probably due to Netflix’s penchant for ending shows after a few seasons, it was for the best as the concept was running out of steam. I’d recommend this show to any fans of Korean variety shows, as well as a way for people to get into the broader K-drama scene – guest stars are frequent, and it’s a lot of fun spotting them in other shows.
Last One Standing (2022)
Last One Standing from Japan at first glance seems similar to Busted!. It mixes dramatic storytelling with improvisation from a cast of comedians and celebrities. But there are some significant differences too. The first is that this is a much more gameshow-esque format, despite not having the physical challenges that Busted! likes to include. The cast spend each episode within a single room, with a pre-scripted drama playing out around them. (Some of them, such as the featured lead celebrity Daigo Yamimoto, have parts to play in the drama.) Then, at some point, a character makes a leading comment such as “But nobody would reveal a secret like that”, which kicks off a “survival round”. Each of the contestants has to give their own humorous response to the challenge, and there will be two or three such challenges per episode. At the end of each episode, the contestant considered to have gotten the least laughs gets written out of the show.
This artificial pacing makes Last One Standing seem more stilted than Busted!, and the competitive and structured nature means that we don’t see the friendship and camaraderie that made the Korean show such a treat. But the show isn’t without merit. The drama is genuinely intriguing, and the comedians are all quite funny. (Though the humour is pitched decidedly low-brow, with scatological and masturbation stories being frequently used to get laughs.) Another major difference in structure is the presence of a “peanut gallery”, with Nobuyuki Hayakawa (Daigo’s comedy double-act partner) and actress/model Karen Takizawa providing commentary on the proceedings. This grates a little in the first episode, but fortunately they dial it back by the second.
This show is not for everyone, and I’d recommend it with a lot more reservation than I’d recommend Busted!. On the other hand, it’s clearly for enough people that it’s got a second season lined up for later this year though. If you think you might like it then it’s worth checking out. Personally, I prefer the detective LARPing show to the more constrained elimination drama, but either way the mix of scripted story with improvisation is a lot of fun. I’d love to see more shows like these in the future, and if I do I look forward to sharing them with you.
Images via IMDB.