If you haven’t watched Signal, then you haven’t watched the best Korean drama of this year. Here is a show that relies not on clichés like wrist-grabs, evil mother-in-laws or any of a dozen other worn out tropes, but instead uses an excellent cast of actors, first rate direction, and an ever-twisting plot to create a story that is full of both suspense and heart.

The show takes place in 2000 and 2015, and begins with the first of many flashbacks, to the year 2000. A boy witnesses the abduction of a young girl, a classmate who had always been kind to him. But because of his age, nobody will believe his description of the abductor, and the girl is later found brutally murdered. The case has gone cold, and the poor girl’s mother spends every day for the next twenty years outside the police station, begging any passerby for information as to why somebody would kill her daughter. It’s a heart-breaking scene, but just one of many in Signal. Flash forward to the present, and the young man who initially reported the crime is now criminal profiler Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon), still in search of the killer that got away.

Two other players round out the main cast, Detective Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo), who leads the cold case unit in the present (2015), and the uncompromising Detective Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong), a detective from the past (circa 2000) who is investigating the abduction. However, a connection is made between Detective Jae Han and profiler Park Hae Young when they both discover that they can communicate with each other through a mysterious radio, even though they are separated not by the distance of miles, but by the distance of time.

The paradox of time travel is familiar — if you can change the past then you can change the present. With that power, there’s always the temptation to do good, to not settle with the way things have turned out. It’s a basic human desire to want to fix the blemishes of our past. But what if by fixing our history, we create unforeseen consequences where one small change might result in a catastrophe in the present timeline? Worse, what if nobody has any memories that the present timeline is not the way things are meant to be, that these catastrophes could have been avoided and loved ones could still be alive?

Each episode of Signal is its own self-contained story, and yet each episode contributes a different viewpoint into the greater themes of our ability to change versus our fate. Like watching a movie, one can just watch the first episode of Signal and walk away with a cohesive and satisfying story. But why would you? The timelines of later episodes are affected by the actions of the characters in earlier episodes, and it’s absolutely delicious to watch storylines play out with deftness and an intelligence that can be lacking in other shows.

Speaking of deftness, while all the players are fantastic, the performance by Jo Jin Woong is absolutely first rate and needs to be lauded. His Detective Jae Han is a hero who starts out with hope, but has long been ground down by bureaucracy. He has loved and lost but continues to persevere in the way an over-classed boxer might, going down swinging even if he knows he has no shot of winning. We learn early on that his character might not make it to the end of the show, but it is because of the knowledge of his impending demise that we’re able to develop a real pathos for the character. There’s not a single moment when Jo Jin Woong is onscreen in which we aren’t simultaneously rooting for him or being absolutely moved by him. Here is a veteran actor, with all the acting experience to show it, getting the opportunity to play a character with the depth of a real human. It’s an absolute delight, as is the entire show.


Additional Comments:

At DramaFever, we get a lot of inquiries of “what can I watch with my husband/boyfriend.” We know that a lot of our dramas are geared for women. But ladies, if you want to introduce your man to drama he’s actually going to love (not just pretending to “love” while checks Facebook on his phone), start with Signal.

Also, Signal has just finished airing it’s last episode, and it's already one of the best-reviewed dramas of all time on DramaFever. As part of DramaFever’s Staff Selection for the week, for the next 2 days, we’re taking off all commercials on the first episode. Happy marathoning!