Starring Kim Hye Soo, Jo Jin Woong, and Lee Je Hoon, “Signal” is a crime thriller where the past and present collide through a mysterious walkie-talkie. Based on real unsolved murder mysteries, three detectives from 1989 and 2015 transcend time in their quest for truth and justice. Combining the power of foresight and hindsight, they crack one cold case after another, changing the past and the present (but not without unintended consequences).
“Signal” is one of those rare gems that aired to a relatively small audience at first. Because the storyline didn’t lend itself well for product placement, the big three broadcasters passed on the show. Only the cable network tvN was willing to take a chance. During its 16-episode run, “Signal” became one of the highest rated series in Korean cable television history.
I’d like to think of “Signal” as a show made for the most discerning Korean drama fans. Stripping away the fancy cinematography, product placements, and high fashion, “Signal” rides on something more elusive and invisible. Lifted on the waves of superb writing and emotionally deep characters, “Signal” didn’t even need “kisses or cringy lines to sweep hearts” as one fan put it, soaring to new heights on its own wing-power.
One of Korea’s best actors, Jo Jin Woong’s portrayal of the idealistic and relentless detective Lee Jae Han is profoundly moving. I didn’t know who Jo Jin Woong was before “Signal,” but now I can see why he is hailed as one of the greatest. At once brave and vulnerable, clumsy and willful, detective Lee Jae Han is far from the all-knowing, masterful Sherlock Holmes we’re used to seeing on crime television. He is merely mortal. Without a genius IQ or the support of his colleagues, he’s a lone wolf in a corrupt police force. And sometimes, despite his best efforts, he makes mistakes, resulting in devastating and often deadly consequences. Still, the purity of his intentions to find the truth and to ensure justice is served against all odds is what makes his character so touching. He cares so deeply. When he cries, I cry.
The screenplay of “Signal” is nothing short of spectacular. Penned by veteran mystery screenwriter Kim Eun Hee, the story is clever, surprising, and gripping at every turn. The creative addition of the supernatural element — the walkie-talkie — makes the story even more remarkable. However, it is also the limitations of the supernatural element — the walkie talkie lights up sporadically, but at exactly 11:23 p.m. every time, and only for a minute — that tightens the pacing. Despite the complex story design, the overlapping scenes from the past and present melded seamlessly together, resulting in a narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat, episode after episode.
In “Signal,” a lot of cases the three detectives work on are based on real crimes. The Hwaseong serial murders, where 10 women were raped and murdered between 1986 and 1991, remain unsolved to this day. The 1994 Seongsu Bridge collapse was also a real event. Solving real crimes in the fictional world is very satisfying. But even the fictional elements felt logical and authentic, which make the series even more thrilling to watch.
Soompiers, have you been watching “Signal”? What do you love about the show?
Watch episode 1 here:
michelledong is a Soompi Features Writer. When she’s not straining her neck muscles to find The Next Great Korean Drama, she’s writing her book 2 Questions Every Girl is Asking Herself & casting Kim Soo Hyun as her dream lead.