Happiness Season 1 Review – A brilliantly written hidden gem from Korea

 

Season 1

Episode Guide

Episode 1 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 2 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 3 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 4 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 5 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 6 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 7 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 8 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 9 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 10 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 11 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 12 – | Review Score – 4/5

 

Since the pandemic has hit, we’ve seen a number of different broadcasters clamber over themselves to try and shove COVID into their storylines. From Grey’s Anatomy to This Is Us, the west has been particularly virulent (no pun intended) with depicting this. Inconsistent mask wearing, on-the-nose dialogue and patronizing characterization that’s only worked to show who the real talented scriptwriters are. With that in mind, Han Sang-Woon is a name you should probably remember going forward.

With a relatively small filmography, Happiness is a simple but highly effective project. It’s a horror/drama hybrid, but most importantly a cleverly written assessment of the human condition during a pandemic. It perfectly exemplifies our heightened paranoia, distrust and fear of others in the wake of a disaster. You guys should absolutely not sleep on this one.

Our story takes place post-COVID. Korea and the rest of the world are just starting to get back on their feet, but there’s undeniably still an air of uneasiness. When experimental vaccine pills called Next drip-feed onto the market, it’s soon revealed that these pills are the catalyst for another outbreak – one far deadlier than Corona.

With an unquenchable thirst for water and a madness that descends over the infected, the virus spreads courtesy of bites and scratches – as well as taking the pills. It’s quite straight forward in truth, although Happiness does take a while to explain how all of this works. To its credit, this actually makes Happiness that much more unpredictable.

There are echoes of Netflix’s Sweet Home here too, as the viral outbreak occurs right as Sae-Bom and Yi-Hyun move in together. Their complex, Seyang Forest Le Ciel, is inhabited by a whole bunch of other characters whom we learn more about as the season progresses.

What’s particularly interesting here is the development for all the supporting players. While Sae-Bom and Yi-Hyun have their own angle, intent on finding a vaccine with the help off government official Tae-Seok, the real meat of the story lies in the reaction from the different owners and renters inhabiting this block.

Across the 12 episodes, the thin fa├žade of fake smiles and empty promises dissolves to show the true face of everyone. Selfish characters are everywhere; opportunistic renters determined to take riches for themselves. There are also loners who want to ride it out alone, only to find themselves at the mercy of jealous and greedy neighbours at their door. There’s certainly no place to hide here!

There are also some beautifully poetic juxtapositions here too. One story involves a particularly sleazy doctor called Joo-Hyeong. He’s been sleeping with a mistress (Sang-Hee) behind his wife Min-Ji’s back. She’s hidden under the bed when the announcement comes in for a lockdown. What begins as a simple set-up soon shows shades of grey.

The “pretty” mistress winds up becoming the ugliest character of the trio while Joo-Hyeong becomes ever-more pathetic as the season progresses – a far cry from the confident and opportunistic crook he begins as.

The example above is just one set of residents, and stories like this occur for almost every character. The Building Rep, Yeon-Ok, and her religious husband Woo-Chang have their own story to tell, while little Seo-Yoon and her infected mother Eun-Ji have a more sentimental edge. I won’t go into specifics but part of the joy here is seeing how all these residents interact and deal with the outbreak together – or against one another.

If there’s one gripe though is comes from the ending. Given the show is only 12 episodes long, the final chapter does feel somewhat rushed. The whole story is wrapped up with a neat bow, rounding out all the big storylines, characters and drama, but also done at the expense of a more streamlined and better paced conclusion.

That’s a minor point though in what’s otherwise one of 2021’s brightest K-dramas. This show seems to have come out of nowhere, and this hidden gem is easily one of the best examples of the human condition and how one deals with a high-pressure situation like an outbreak. For that alone, Happiness is well worth checking out.


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  • Verdict - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
8.5/10

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