I jumped into Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung blindly earlier without so much as reading the synopsis to the show. Ironically, this ended up being the best decision I could have made. Charming, witty, laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely well written, Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung is a surprising breath of fresh air in a sea of dramas. It’s not perfect, and at times the humour feels a little forced, but all in all, Rookie Historian gets off to an impressively strong start.
Beginning in the beautiful streets of 19th Century Joseon, we begin with a man and woman reading stories to an eager crowd at separate areas in the town. As with any good story, the ending can make or break your narrative. Unfortunately for Goo Hae-Ryung, her noble crowd are none too happy with the tragic ending she concocts and they kick her out without pay.
Meanwhile, fellow writer Prince Lee Rim enthusiastically finds inspiration for his writing and discusses matters with Sam Bo. As he paces back and forth in the quiet tranquility of the palace courtyard, he pieces together fragments of a story and transforms it into a poetic bit of dialogue.
We then cut back to Goo who wakes up late and heads to class, sleepy and uninterested in her lessons. After being told to sort her cocky attitude out, she heads home and wallows in self-pity, initially refusing to head outside until her brother entices her out with a drink. Under the moonlight, she expresses her angst over being alone but as they talk more, their conversation is cut short as her brother is forced into court to discuss a popular book, The Story Of Ho Dam, which the Lord demands be destroyed along with all other copies of it.
Out in the streets, Goo is pick-pocketed by a child and after chasing him down, learns he’s actually forced to steal for some crooks thanks to his estranged father who sold his son as a slave to pay off a gambling debt. Tears stinging her eyes, she watches as the child is taken away, unable to help.
Tired of everyone inside the palace giving him the same reaction to his novels, Prince Lee decides to head outside the palace walls to gauge the true reaction to his book. After being given permission by the Crowned Prince to do just that, he sets up a stand in the middle of the town square and begins giving out copies of his novel. Goo then arrives on the scene and after an altercation with Kim, is forced to read Prince Lee’s new novel.
As the Prince wanders around and checks on the various women reading his book, he comes across Goo and is immediately stopped in his tracks. A hilarious K-Pop bite of music kicks in but the mood is quickly stifled when he sees her yawn. He asks her why she doesn’t like the novel and she immediately launches into a brutal critique of the story, calling the writer delusional and announcing she cried with her heart over how bad it was. She tells him he needs to accumulate knowledge and doubts that he’s really the author.
Despite brushing aside her remarks, Lee heads back to the palace angry and harbouring a shattered ego. After a historian is turned away, the Crowned Prince confronts the minister over green-lighting the banned books idea.
After Kim promises the crooks from earlier in the episode that the new novel will make them rich, he’s forced to strike a new deal with them. A deal that’ll see Goo acting as the face of the hit book since Maehwa has never been seen in public. She refuses initially, unable to accept the scam until he promises to rip up the contract with the slave boy if she helps them. This ultimately does sway her opinion and she agrees to help.
Dressed in green robes, she reads the novel out loud before sitting behind a veil and signing books. Midway through the session, Prince Lee shows up and reveals himself as Maehwa, much to the shock of Goo. Only, its a shock to him too as he realizes who she is.
Rookie Historian’s strange blend of genres feels like the TV equivalent of ham and pineapple pizza. Conceptually, it shouldn’t work but in practice it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The humour works perfectly against the light bites of drama and romance, with the strong chemistry between Goo and Prince Lee helping to keep things moving at a steady pace.
The episode is pretty creative too, with an utterly bizarre use of sound effects, including bouncing sounds for placing novels on a counter or the slowed music segments when Goo shows up. There’s all manner of creative edits used here too, including pop-up boxes, sprinklings of CGI and a tone that almost feels parodical at times. It never quite hits that level but there’s no denying the series itself has some serious potential going forward.
I absolutely loved the first episode to Rookie Historian. Well written, perfectly paced and with a tone that effortlessly shifts between styles, this new Korean drama is another heavyweight contender to add to an already impressive line-up of dramas this country has produced this year. Quite where the show will go from here is still unknown but there’s a lot of potential here to deliver something really special.