K-drama midseason recap: On the Verge of Insanity – character-driven workplace story blossoms into thrilling dramajessie tan
This article contains spoilers.
Vigilantes and young lovers are the drivers behind many hit Korean shows, but while their tales of injustice and aching romance, big budgets and major stars hog the limelight, some of 2021’s best series so far have eschewed fantasy for reality, and have been all the better for it.
Much like the thoroughly satisfying Navillera earlier this year, On the Verge of Insanity , a workplace drama airing on MBC, confronts life’s hardships in a relatable way. The villains and corrupt corporations are still there, but rather than being purely evil, the character of the human and corporate actors here is shaped by circumstance and personal traits.
The chief villain is team leader Han Se-kwon (Lee Sang-yeob), a well-to-do and talented engineer whose arrogance, prejudice and endlessly self-serving ways have made him a thorn in everyone’s side. He is a slimy and manipulative character whose treacherous schemes stem from a highly competitive personality, which we discover is fuelled by a deep-seated inferiority complex.
He constantly refers to his hit, million-unit selling dishwashers and uses his education at a prestigious university to place himself above others and, more importantly, to stop great engineers upstaging him.
When his plans go south, as they generally do, he finds himself in situations that spiral out of control and his actions become even more despicable. Yet, rather than being all malice, he’s just doing what he thinks he has to do to save his own skin. This makes his awful behaviour far more effective not just because we recognise it in people around us, but perhaps because we might not be so different.
Se-kwon also refers to his loose family connection to Han Seung-ki (Jo Bok-rae), the chairman of the company, at every opportunity, but at the very moment when he is about to lose everything and tries to use that trump card, it backfires terribly and exposes a shameful secret about his family – one which goes a long way towards explaining his low self-esteem and his dangerous drive to succeed at others’ expense.
While viewers may be loath to admit they have anything in common with Se-kwon, a character many will identify with is human resources manager Dang Ja-young. Played with gumption by Moon So-ri, Ja-young is a strong and resourceful protagonist who finds herself in impossible situations that constantly challenge her ethics.
She appreciates people’s hard work and their value, and is able to sympathise with them on an individual level, even going so far as to engineer an interdepartmental transfer for Choi Ban-seok (Jung Jae-young) to avoid following a directive to fire him.
She is also a great company player, effortlessly strategising for the good of the corporation as she considers the big picture.
But Ja-young’s work as an HR manager conflicts with her loyalty to HQ. She cares about the people she’s developed a relationship with and the company she’s given her life to, but her work has a material impact on the livelihood of all the workers in the Changing Campus of Hanmyeong Electronics.
It’s to Moon’s enormous credit that her portrayal of Ja-young can elicit both sympathy and revulsion from the audience, and though she is a likeable character overall, we’re never entirely sure who she will side with – the people or the company – as she weighs up a laundry list of issues.
Jung is no less endearing as Ban-seok, the capable everyman who moves calmly around the campus in his plaid shirts solving everyone’s technical headaches. He’s so capable that it only takes him a few weeks to master the ins and outs of being an HR manager and, after learning how to program on the side for a short while, the middle-aged engineer develops software that saves the company in the nick of time.
There’s no murder in the halls of Hanmyeong, just the occasional career suicide, and fixing malfunctioning home appliances in a rural engineering office hardly sounds like the stuff of high drama, yet On the Verge of Insanity delivers breathlessly tense set pieces with nothing but a few people in suits staring down a common home appliance set on a stage.
One of the reasons it is so relatable is its uniformly strong cast; there are great supporting turns from Jo Bok-rae as the steely-eyed young company chairman, the prolific Ahn Nae-sang as a flustered team leader, and Kim Nam-hee as a brilliant engineer who hates wasting his time.
If the show has any real fault, it’s the expedient way it navigates every narrative obstacle. A department flare-up occurs, always involving Se-kwon somehow or other, threatens to involve HQ, and either Ja-young and Ban-seok comes up with a solution.
But no sooner than is one problem resolved than another rears its head, usually related to how the previous one was solved.
On the Verge of Insanity is streaming on Viu.
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