The perfect one word description for the first episode of the highly anticipated new SBS Wed-Thurs drama Pinocchio is relief. It’s a relief this drama’s first episode is already better than whatever nuggets of quality was in its predecessor My Lovely Girl. It’s an even greater relief that this story starts off hitting all the right notes in constructing a narratively substantive and interesting world of characters and situations. And the biggest relief of all is finding that all the hype didn’t lead to disappointment with yet another overly processed lightweight fluff.
Pinocchio is named after the can’t tell a lie syndrome that leading lady In Ha suffers from, but the heart of the story is all about whip smart and seeking a family Dal Po. The narrative doesn’t overly fixate on any one element, whether it’s how news reporting sensationalizes tragedy or how people who can’t tell a lie end up turning a mistake into the truth. Episode 1 deftly constructs the backstory so that the journey can be firmly rooted in the present to deal with the aftermath of so many wrong things happening to one very innocent family. I’m hooked good and proper right off the bat.
Episode 1 recap:
The year is 2005 and the setting is a particular small town high school where the principal is announcing over the loudspeaker that the quiz show is about to start live-airing on TV. The principal is excited that a student from his high school is currently the show champion and wants all the students in class to watch and cheer him on for the next challenger.
The teacher in Choi In Ha’s class quickly makes a cursory attendance glance and hears from In Ha that the only student missing today is Choi Dal Po, in addition to Ahn Chan Soo who is participating in the quiz show as he’s the reigning champion. Teacher grumbles about how Dal Po is always skipping his class while turning on the quiz show.
The quiz show host introduces last season’s champion Ahn Chan Soo to the applause of the audience. He’s asked what he hopes the next challenger will be like and answers that he wants someone very smart and gives him a real showdown.
Host introduces the challenger via the recorded introduction where we see country bumpkin Choi Dal Po hamming it on for the cameras. The introduction explains that Dal Po goes to the same school at champion Chan Soo, except Chan Soo is first place and Dal Po is 34th place. Everyone in Dal Po’s class stares with their mouths wide open shocked that missing class Dal Po is on the quiz show. In Ha just sneers at how dorky Dal Po looks on TV with the way he’s making all these ridiculous poses.
Host starts off by chatting with Dal Po and is immediately floored to hear that Dal Po isn’t just 34th place in school, he’s actually last place since his entire school only has 34 students. Ahahahaha, that’s awesome. Dal Po admits he also has the nickname as All Zero since he’s gotten all zeros on every test once.
In the control room, the PD is glaring at the casting director who tries to cover her own hide by explaining that she thought the school had hundreds of students and arguing that this will make it more interesting to watch to have the first place battle the last place.
Host starts the show by explaining that Dal Po needs to answer 5 questions in order to even battle champion Chan Soo. The first question asks what the name of the condition where someone sneezes when he or she tells a lie. Dal Po immediately asks to use his one ask-a-friend chance and the friend he asks is Chan Soo sitting in the champion’s chair.
The countdown starts for Chan Soo to answer the question when Dal Po suddenly interjects and makes a side bet with Chan Soo. If Dal Po beats him today then he can slap Chan Soo ten times, and the same goes if Chan Soo wins today. Everyone sitting in class is shocked into silence as a picture dramatically falls on the ground.
Chan Soo agrees to the bet fully believing he’ll win. Dal Po then turns to the camera and addresses In Ha. He says “Choi In Ha, I will win today and when I do….” He’s cut off by the host as the timer runs out and he’s now lost his ask-a-friend chance. Dal Po doesn’t care since he knew the answer anyway. It’s called the Pinocchio syndrome. Dal Po’s answer is correct and he turns to Chan Soo and beckons him closer with a smirk.
Host asks if Dal Po knows anyone with the Pinocchio syndrome? He does but the person is different in that she says whatever she wants and doesn’t even bother with white lie niceties. In Ha and all their classmates know that Dal Po is talking about In Ha and tease her for being unable to tell a lie. When she insists Dal Po isn’t talking about her, she hiccups which further confirms that she can’t tell a lie. In Ha seethes that Dal Po is totally messing with her.
The second question is about this year (2005) and what year would that be in the traditional Korean calendar system. That triggers a flashback as Dal Po remembers back to the year 2000 when he was packing up books with his dad who is quizzing the super smart Dal Po (real name Ki Ha Myung but I’ll keep referring to him as Dal Po in the recap) on the traditional Korean calendar system and marveling at how smart he is when he answers quickly and correctly each time.
Their family is clearly very happy as Dal Po has a mom, dad, and high school aged older brother. They deliver food to the neighbor who has a son suffering from Pinocchio syndrome and can’t tell a lie.
Later that night the boys are in bed and get a call from Dad who is at work in the fire station. Dad quizzes them on the years as he puts his phone on speaker and both answer correctly so Dad promises to take them on a trip as a prize. Dad is so proud in front of his firefighter colleagues showing off his two smarty pants sons.
The bell rings indicating a fire and the entire squad suits up and rushes towards a factory that is on fire. The firefighters arrive just as a blast blows out a window as they move towards the building. They encounter a fleeing man who tells the firefighters that two more people are still inside on the second floor.
The squad plans their approach to go inside and save the two people on the second floor and decide to split up. Dal Po’s dad leads a few men upstairs and he takes over trying to kick in a locked door while telling the other guys to search elsewhere.
The man who told the firefighters that two men are still inside suddenly are approached by the two men who isn’t inside at all. They were elsewhere and they were the reason the fire started in the first place. The first man realizes that he sent firefighters inside to save two people who aren’t in there.
The fire burns closer to flammable items inside the factory as the firefighters continue to search for the nonexistent people trapped inside. Suddenly the entire building explodes in flames and all the firefighters inside are engulfed by the blast.
The fire has been contained by morning time but a crowd of firefighter families are gathered outside the family crying for their loved ones. The news reporters have converged to report that nine firefighters have died and a few firefighters are missing.
The first fleeing man is being interviewed by the police and lies that he told the firefighters not to go inside but the chief firefighter insisted on taking his men inside.
Reporter Song Cha Ok finishes taping her segment outside the burned factory asking who will be responsible for this fire and all these firefighter deaths. She gets a call from her husband that he left divorce papers on her table and is leaving her. Cha Ok doesn’t react to the call and gets on the van to head to the morgue with the rest of her team.
The three men from the factory gather outside the police station and coordinate their stories. The team leader didn’t tell the police that the other two started the fire accidentally or that the firefighters went in because he told them there were two guys still inside. With the chief firefighter (Dal Po’s dad) missing and all the rest dead, there is no one to dispute his statement. The other two men worry about the missing firefighters coming back but team leader isn’t worried since the missing men are clearly all dead and burned up in the fire.
Dal Po’s neighbor’s son suffering from Pinocchio syndrome hears about the fire tragedy and worries that Dal Po’s dad died in the fire. He’s on a bus and looks out the window and through the heavy rain he thinks he sees Dal Po’s dad walking away very fast.
He doesn’t realize that he’s mistaken as the man just looks a lot like Dal Po’s dad from behind plus the rain makes it hard to see clearly.
The families of the dead firefighters are wailing at the morgue while Dal Po is with his mom and brother there. The other families ask Dal Po’s mom why her husband the chief firefighter would order his squad to go into the fire? The cops suddenly get a call that a person suffering from Pinocchio syndrome spotted Dal Po’s dad alive and it must be the truth because the person can’t tell a lie.
All the grieving families collectively turn their furious grief on Dal Po’s mom screaming about how her husband could have led his colleagues to their death while he survived. Dal Po’s mom keeps apologizing to everyone with her head down.
Days later and the news reporters remain camped outside Ki family house and confront the two kids as they head out to school. The reporters demand to know where their dad is hiding but they know nothing. Cha Ok asks Dal Po’s brother if they are happy that at least their dad is alive?
Dal Po suddenly starts reciting life facts about all the members of the fire squad and tearfully explains that his dad wrote down personal information about all the people he worked with because he cared so much about them. Dal Po screams that his dad would never hurt anyone and run away! Cha Ok presses forward and asks why their dad doesn’t show his face if he has an explanation for what happened? The boys have no answer for that. Someone throws an egg on Dal Po while his brother asks everyone gathered there what their family has done to deserve this? Dal Po glares at Cha Ok who doesn’t look chastened by her line of questioning.
The news report goes back to the network and there is a debate over whether to air the footage of Dal Po and his brother since they are just minors. Cha Ok wants to air it since nine firefighters are dead! Her colleague wonders why Dal Po’s dad was spotted just once and never seen again? Cha Ok insists that has to be true since the spotter can’t tell a lie.
The PD and the department chief continue discussing this case, how the police have a warrant out for Dal Po’s dad’s arrest but the odds of him surviving the fire to escape are less than 1% to begin with. The department chief clings on to the 1% chance and orders the PD not to editorialize and just report the news. Cha Ok insists that someone needs to take the blame for the deaths and it will be Dal Po’s dad.
The police search the Ki house from top to bottom while Mom keeps insisting to the police that their family doesn’t know where he is.
Dal Po watches the news reports on the investigation where at least the boys’ faces are obscured by mosaics. Older brother Jae Myung assures Dal Po that things will pass even though they are being ostracized so much right now that their mom can’t even buy groceries in the neighborhood as no one will sell to her. Dal Po asks what will happen if their dad really is as bad as the public currently believes?
Jae Myung assures Dal Po that even news reports make mistakes and everyone will be cleared up when their dad comes home. Then they can go watch the fireworks together. Jae Myung makes a promise to Dal Po the same way their dad used to do with them. Dal Po asks if Jae Myung is not lying to him and Jae Myung promises that he’s not lying.
Dal Po asks his mom why his dad hasn’t come back after so long? Mom knows he has a reason and may be staying with a friend during this time. Dal Po can’t wait for his dad to come back and make all the mean people pay for all the lies they are saying about him. Mom wipes away her tears and asks if Dal Po wants to go watch fireworks with her tonight?
Jae Myung is standing outside MSC network asking to see reporter Song Cha Ok but the guard won’t let him him. He’s holding his dad’s commendation for Best Firefighter and wants to show her. He waits until nighttime when Cha Ok comes out and she asks why he wants to see her? Jae Myung is here because he wants to do an exclusive interview with her.
Dal Po and his mom go to watch the fireworks over the water and the beauty elicits a smile from Dal Po. Mom suddenly asks her son if he wants to go with her to see his dad? The camera pulls back and a pair of shoes and a suicide note is left on the rocks.
The police have cordoned off the cliff where Dal Po and his mom are believed to have jumped off to their deaths. Older brother Jae Myung arrives and reads the suicide note through tears before turning to all the reporters gathered there to report on the suicide. Jae Myung rushes towards the reporters and throws all their video cameras off the cliff. Cha Ok is cold as can be as she orders her cameraman to zoom in on the shoes left on the rocks. Jae Myung lunges towards her with a scream.
Time jump and it’s five months later and the year is 2001. Choi In Ha and her father Choi Dal Pyung are taking a ship back to the island. In Ha is upset and dad offers to hear what’s bothering her. In Ha can’t tell a lie and wishes that she stayed with her mom after the divorce so she doesn’t have to go live on the island now with her dad. That upsets her dad who storms off to go sit elsewhere from her.
In Ha watches as the island port comes closer into view and she tries to psych herself up that everything will be fine. She needn’t act like a country bumpkin or speak saturi, she can just be herself and can survive living in the boondocks.
In Ha and her dad walk into the Choi family compound and In Ha looks around in disdain at the farm like living. They sit down to greet In Ha’s grandfather and notice that he has a lot of school books in his room. Grandpa explains that he needs to study to keep his mind sharp. Grandpa notices the time and runs outside because school is out and “he” is almost home.
In Ha and her dad follow Grandpa and wonder who he is waiting for? Grandpa asks his youngest son why he doesn’t remember that he has a brother? In Ha’s dad says “Dal Po hyung?” in confusion which is when Dal Po rides his bicycle cart up driveway and happily comes home to his “Dad.”
Grandpa introduces to Dal Po that this is his younger brother Dal Pyung and his niece In Ha. Dal Po greets them with polite language but Grandpa says that is not necessary since he’s their elder. Dal Po slaps In Ha’s dad on the arm casually while patting In Ha on the head like he really is their elder.
Grandpa explains that five months ago he went out to sea and found a boy in distance and discovered that is was his eldest son Dal Po. In Ha’s dad keeps insisting to Grandpa that Dal Po hyung died thirty years ago! Grandpa knows that which is why he couldn’t believe that Dal Po is back now! He’s back like the sea gods resurrected him.
In Ha barks at Dal Po that this is not true while In Ha’s dad wants Dal Po not to go along with Grandpa’s senile fantasies. He harshly tells Grandpa that Dal Po hyung died thirty years ago when he insisted on going out to sea alone. Grandpa snaps out of his fantasy and mutters to himself that the real Dal Po is dead and then collapses. The family puts a pillow under Grandpa and covers him with a blanket while Dal Po massages his body and explains what happened. Grandpa isn’t senile but is operating under the delusion that his dead son Dal Po is back. The doctor explained that if that delusion is shattered then Grandpa will collapse.
In Ha’s dad asks if Dal Po wants to go along with this farce? Dal Po plans to be Grandpa’s son for real and even the village chief knows and is going along with it. In Ha’s dad thinks this is absurd and asks Dal Po where his real family is? Dal Po claims he has no family or relatives and doesn’t see anything wrong with this – Grandpa needs a son and he needs a dad. In Ha’s dad still finds this whole thing ridiculous but Dal Po argues why it is bad? So it’s a lie but it’s good for both sides, who can’t this lie be allowed to continue? Who is it hurting? Dal Po pleads with In Ha’s dad to let him be the son until Grandpa is healed from his delusions.
Grandpa has woken up and is happily hanging out with Dal Po before dinner and getting a back scratch. In Ha’s dad wonders if they can go along with it, In Ha calls him uncle while he has to call him hyung. In Ha tried earlier but found herself hiccuping when she calls Dal Po uncle. In Ha’s dad is resigned to doing it for now until his dad gets better. He notices In Ha staring at the TV and orders her to not think about ever seeing her mom again as the TV here has no signal. In Ha reluctantly promises she won’t try to look for her before storming into her room.
Dal Po is roasting sweet potatoes in the kitchen fire pit and remembers the night that his mom tried to commit suicide with him. Mom insists she knows where to find Dal Po’s dad and she’ll take him there. Dal Po asks if she’s lying and Mom tearfully hugs him while insisting she’s not lying. Dal Po cries now and says it’s a lie, she lied back then like he’s lying now.
In Ha walks up with her stomach growling and announces that she’ll call Dal Po uncle in front of Grandpa but in private she’ll call him hey you. She insults Dal Po as being so dorky but her attitude is cut down by her ever grumbling stomach. Dal Po knows she’s hungry, even as she hiccups while insisting she’s not hungry, and leaves the kitchen so In Ha can sneak inside to scarf down sweet potatoes with her pride intact.
Dal Po sneaks back inside while smiling at In Ha trying to peel a scalding hot sweet potato. He wraps it in a holder for her to eat. In Ha admits that she suffers from Pinocchio syndrome and hiccups when she tells a lie. Dal Po stares at her eating the sweet potato and she demands to know if he’s staring because she’s pretty?
Dal Po admits she’s pretty and In Ha claims she got it from her very pretty mom and everyone thinks they are very pretty. Dal Po wants to see a picture as proof but In Ha doesn’t have one since her dad tore up all the pictures of her mom. But her mom is a reporter on TV so In Ha can show Dal Po on TV, except the TV here has no signal. Dal Po knows that In Ha misses her mom very much.
Dal Po uses a wire hanger to rig a homemade antenna on the roof to get a signal for In Ha to watch TV and see her mom. In Ha texts her mom after swiping her dad’s cell phone. She explains that she’s moved to the island with her dad since Grandpa is sick. She also has an uncle now who was really annoying but now she finds him okay.
Dal Po rides up to tell In Ha that the TV has reception now and offers to let her sit in the cart as he bicycles her home. He tries hard but can’t push the pedals so they both get off and walk the cart back home.
On the walk home, In Ha asks who Dal Po resembles and hears that Dal Po resembles his dad. Dal Po asks what In Ha thinks Dal Po’s dad is like? In Ha thinks Dal Po’s dad must be very kind and likes helping people. Dal Po notices that In Ha isn’t hiccupping when she says that. In Ha actually wants to see what Dal Po’s dad is like.
Dal Po leans in to give In Ha a cheek kiss and explains that he’s been living a life filled with lies for the last six months to give himself and others comfort. But right now he feels like the truth from In Ha is the best comfort he’s received. In Ha smiles when she hears that.
In Ha and Dal Po sit down in front of the TV to watch the news program where In Ha’s reporter mom is doing a segment. In Ha smiles in happiness to watch her mom broadcasting the news while Dal Po’s eyes open wide to recognize In Ha’s mom as the reporter Song Cha Ok whose accusatory questions led the media charge against his family over the fire tragedy.
Dal Po storms outside and runs into In Ha’s dad asking where In Ha is right now? Dal Po outs In Ha as having stolen his cell phone to text her mom. In Ha’s dad storms inside and smashes the TV when he catches In Ha watching her mom on the news. In Ha runs outside to ask her uncle to stop her dad from breaking the TV but Dal Po stares coldly at her before shaking her hand off and asking “why should I?”
Back in the present, Dal Po is still on the quiz show and the host discusses how everyone is connected via six degrees of separation. Which American actor is this phenomenon named after? If he answers this final question correctly then he gets to face the champion. The time nearly winds down to zero before Dal Po calmly and correctly answers “Kevin Bacon.”
The classmates back in school can’t believe how smart Dal Po really is but a few don’t want him to beat the champion and think that Dal Po is just lucky. In Ha’s seat mate is cheering on Dal Po and In Ha teases that she must like him. The classmate teases back and asks if In Ha sees her “uncle” Dal Po as a guy herself since they are not blood related? In Ha says no, she doesn’t see him as a man and her answer doesn’t make her hiccup so it must be true.
The second round begins as Dal Po gets to face the champion. Dal Po’s older brother Jae Myung walks through an electronics store and sees Dal Po on one of the screens and pauses to stare just as another screen flashes a news segment reported by Cha Ok. In Ha confidently tells the class that Dal Po will win.
Thoughts of Mine:
The thoughts section of the first episode is usually devoted more towards a discussion of acting and directing and first impressions. Most dramas don’t deliver enough in the first episode to dive into meaty plot discussion analysis but Pinocchio actually does all that. It doesn’t coast on pretty visuals alone but has the self-assurance to hit some big balls out of the park right away. My heart is totally with Dal Po (Ha Myung) already and that’s two-for-two now with a Lee Jong Seok male lead. Whether it’s his combination of boyish swagger and just below the surface pain, he has a way of sucking me in right away into the character so that I’m immediately rooting for him. Pinocchio doesn’t present itself as a story with one big overarching issue to tackle, like a revenge plot inching towards revenge or a conspiracy plot all about revealing the truth. Pinocchio is the story of life’s terrible circumstances colluding to destroy a family, killing a dad twice in life and reputation while leaving his family to suffer even more by association. There is nothing that can “fix” what happened to the Ki family, but this drama posits the snowballing tragedy as there so that the characters can overcome this very specific set of obstacles.
I’m loving the backstory, not because there is any reason to cheer on a tragedy that tears a young boy from his family, but what works is how it led Dal Po to In Ha’s own ramshackle family of divorced dad and mentally unstable grandpa. It’s like seeing an immediate silver lining in a quick descent into abject sadness, a way of writing both the hurt and the happy in successive moments much like real life. This story doesn’t wallow in pain and isn’t intended to knock the leads down over and over again while the “baddies” win. In essence there aren’t real villains, just self-serving lies mixed with the public penchant for blame casting. The truth might not even set anyone free, but the lessons for Dal Po to learn are many and I can’t wait to see how he grows up even further beyond being a precocious high school student hiding his smarts behind purposely tanked test scores. In Ha isn’t nearly as fleshed out other than she’s got quite a strong personality and talks a lot despite being unable to lie without hiccupping. What’s nice is the drama not shoving fated romance down our throats and lets Dal Po and In Ha connect as kids who grow to care about each other.
I find Lee Jong Seok and Park Shin Hye serviceable so far, he’s much more charismatic in episode 1 mostly because his character had more exciting things to do such as upending expectations on the quiz show which she just reacts sitting in the classroom. What’s more interesting to me is seeing how growing up together on that little island while pretending to be uncle-niece develops their relationship with each other. It’s a relief the story doesn’t get bogged down in Grandpa insisting Dal Po is his eldest son, letting that fantasy stand makes sense in this situation and helps two broken people in need while hurting no one else. It’s understandable why Dal Po doesn’t go back to find his hyung Jae Myung since that’s returning to the world of the world hating his association with his firefighter dad, not to mention if his mom tried to commit suicide with him then he’s clearly going to be messed up. The world on the island seems so idyllic and slow-paced without the unending streams of truths and falsehoods constantly broadcast to the public. It’ll be fascinating to see how Dal Po and In Ha approach the outside world once they are grown up and are required to live in it.
Click here to watch Pinocchio.