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TV reviews: Reality show Produce 101 an unflinching look at K-pop factory

Produce 101 and Fight For My Way are packed to the brim with eye candy

Popularity is a strange game, as the straight-A students learn in the K-pop group audition show Produce 101.

Samuel and Lee Dae Hwi, two singing, dancing whiz kids who get a grade A from the coaches, are the teachers' pets in early episodes of the South Korean reality television show and seeming front runners for a spot in a new boyband.

But they soon wake up to the reality that in the all-important online popularity ratings, they are lagging behind Park Ji Hoon, a cherubic C student who set social media aflutter with a playful wink at the camera during a performance of the theme song, Pick Me.

He becomes the favourite contestant of teenage viewers and voters, while another underrated trainee, cheery, pink-haired b-boy Kang Daniel, emerges as the favourite of a vital demographic group, women in their 20s and 30s.

Lee is a quick learner. He tones down his assertiveness when he fails to win the group battle episodes, even after forming an Avengers-style superband with the strongest and cutest performers. Samuel starts to work on his popularity too, one cheesy smile at a time.

The fun of Season 2 of Produce 101 lies in how real it is - how cruel and capricious the contest is, as 101 boys and men are whittled down to 11. As several of them have been K-pop trainees for five years or longer, and one of them is making a stab at stardom despite being a 30something dinosaur, there is a whiff of life-and-death urgency as the competition heats up.

One hundred and one boys and men are whittled down to 11 in the K-pop group audition show Produce 101.
One hundred and one boys and men are whittled down to 11 in the K-pop group audition show Produce 101. PHOTO: PRODUCE 101/ FACEBOOK

Show business, of course, is more brutal. Four members of a struggling boyband, Nu'est, strut into the contest, worrying trainees because they seem far more sophisticated, but they turn out to be walking cautionary tales.

They reduce a coach, former After School singer Kahi, to tears because she knows why they have been sent to the show: Their bosses are giving them one last chance to make or break their careers, before casting them out.

But she also makes a contestant with a severe face cry when she moves him to the back row of a line-up during a try-out of a performance, in favour of a trainee with a softer, more seductive look.

Park Seo Jun and Kim Ji Won (both above) play attractive underachievers in Fight For My Way.
Park Seo Jun and Kim Ji Won (both above) play attractive underachievers in Fight For My Way. PHOTO: VIU

As sleek and effective as a K-pop song, Produce 101 stands as a work of storytelling.

In a handful of episodes, it sketches out nearly a quarter of the trainees - the lad whose long-term aim is to be an entertainment magnate, the model who can't dance, the self-taught rapper who is living down his past as a laughing stock on another talent show - and sets the scene for a nail-biting drama.

For a show about pretty boys, it sure is full of character.

  • VIEW IT / PRODUCE 101 2

  • The finale will be repeated on tvN (StarHub TV Channel 824 or Singtel TV Channel 518) on Saturday at 4 and 11.55pm

    3.5/5 stars

    FIGHT FOR MY WAY

    KBS World (StarHub TV Channel 815 or Singtel TV Channel 523), Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8.50pm;

    Viu the website and app, Any Time On Demand

    3/5 stars

Fight For My Way is a K-drama about a pair of attractive underachievers, who are so attractive that surely they can't stay underachievers for long.

One of them (Park Seo Jun), a former taekwondo champion, is letting himself go, barely holding down a job in pest control and no longer "doing anything intensely", in his former coach's words.

The other, his childhood friend, is a department store receptionist who once dreamt of being a television announcer.

She is played by Kim Ji Won (the pretty military doctor from last year's Descendants Of The Sun) as a gung-ho country girl, a force of nature and prettiness who won't be denied what she deserves, so you know how the show should go.

The drama can be slow, as it puts the pair through their paces. But it has a warmth and a wry sense of humour worth staying for.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Beautiful winners and losers'. Print Edition | Subscribe