Despite time-travel dramas not finding much success with both audience and critics, K-drama writers seem enamored with the concept. In most cases, a shoddily researched plot only has the bare minimum of time travel mechanics attached to it, without any explanations, while the focus is on developing romance and unrealistic villains. The initial hype for Sisyphus: The Myth and its promising cast led me to believe that this show might be different, but all my expectations were dashed by the poor writing and performances.
In my opinion, there are two things that can make a time travel drama work. First, if the time travel elements are used simply as a plot device without investing too much into the mechanics of it, the way Signal (2016) did it. The second way it can be done right is by really committing to exploring the time travel mechanics, creating lore, investing in world-building, and sticking to the rules of the fantasy world. Sisyphus begins by trying to do the former, but by the time we reach the end of the story, the rules have been rewritten, bent, and twisted to arrive at an unsatisfying resolution.
Sisyphus: The Myth is narrated in two timelines—the future that has been ravaged by war and does not have resources, and the present timeline that Kang Seo-hae (Park Shin-hye) has traveled to, in order to stop Han Tae-sul (Cho Seung-woo) from creating a time machine. The future timeline depicts the aftermath of nuclear war and features some really cool set pieces that draw the viewer in, within the first few episodes, at least. This is in contrast to the present timeline where all is well and destruction has not yet taken root. These timelines also have a cause-effect relationship that is explored throughout the series.
After sticking to these two timelines for the majority of the show, a multiple timelines theory is suddenly thrown at the viewers in the finale episodes, which was neither interesting nor satisfying to watch. A sudden plot twist solving all the problems of our leads, killing an intriguing and formidable villain easily, felt more like a cop-out than a well thought-out or well-written aspect of the story. The mysterious deformed creatures that came from the future and formed Sigma’s army did not even receive a mention and were reduced to show pieces. Even in the final moments, the story constantly changed and shifted its own rules multiple frustrating times.
Another thing that initially drew me to this show was that the female lead (Park Shin-hye) was the protector while the male lead (Cho Seung-woo) was the brains who needed protection. However, that equation barely lasted before the writers turned it into a cliched romance arc that we could totally have done without. To make matters worse, Cho and Park had about as much chemistry as a fork and a knife. They kiss maybe twice in the show and even that failed to draw in any reaction from viewers. Personally, the scenes of them working together on their missions were infinitely more fun than the romantic arc.
Despite my low expectation while starting the show, I had expected that the cast would not disappoint me. However, even an actor of Cho Seung-woo’s caliber was a major disappointment. He constantly seemed out of his depth—overacting in some scenes while underacting in others. I’m never impressed with Park Shin-hye in the acting department, regardless of genre, but one thing I liked a lot was that she did justice to all her action scenes. They did not look unrealistic or feeble and had her exerting just the right amount of energy. However, when it came to romantic or emotional scenes, Park floundered.
Chae Jong-hyup’s Sun had the potential to become a very interesting character, had he been written to be anything more than a puppy trailing behind Park Shin-hye. The young rookie actor was great in his scenes but had basically nothing to do in the show but pine after a frankly inexplicable crush. Tae In-ho’s Eddy Kim, who I initially believed would play a bigger role in the show as a morally grey character, was criminally under-utilized. Sung Dong-il was at his sarcastic best, but even he didn’t act like he was fully convinced by the story he was in.
Acting-wise, the only saving grace of the show was Kim Byung-chul as Sigma. His role was touted as a special appearance, but he pretty much stole the entire show from Episode 8 onwards, lending an unsettling and unpredictable vibe that the show was missing. Despite Kim’s fantastic showing as the unhinged mastermind, his backstory did away with the mystery that made him a formidable villain. Sometimes, it felt that the writers overcompensated and overexplained his story, which took away the mystery factor and rendered him feeble. I also enjoyed Jung Hye-in’s mysterious turn as Seo-jin, Kim Jong-tae as Kang Dong-ki and Seo-hae’s father, and finally, a riveting Go Yoon as Jung Hyun-gi.
The sci-fi aspect of the show could have made for an interesting story even despite the scientific loopholes in the story but suffered from the same drawbacks most dramas of this genre do. The tone of the show changed too dramatically from mystery to real danger to romantic to funny. It broke whatever tension the previous episodes had built up and made the dangers and the villains feel way less threatening than they could have been. The story loses focus on the thrill factor in favor of inserting an unnecessary romance arc, complete with scenes of Park Shin-hye and Cho Seung-woo having amusement park dates that felt like massive wastes of screen time.
After all our main characters have gone through, the finale episode just seems lazy. Despite Tae-sul spending a major part of the show obsessing about his older brother, he seems to have forgotten about that by the end. The few forgotten side characters are brought in as a last resort for unnecessary last-minute tension. Finally, the happy-ending coda we get with Tae-sul and Seo-hae in the same plane we met Tae-sul in for the first time came across as uninspired. I would still have been content to write it off as a classic cliched ending had the show not thrown in another last-minute surprise about the villain, which just made the story confusing again.
All in all, Sisyphus: The Myth started out with an interesting plot that had the potential to subvert and change the time travel K-drama landscape. However, it fell into the exact same pitfalls—overexplaining and then underexplaining the time travel mechanics, excessive focus on the romance arc, lack of genuine backstory and chemistry between the leads, and a thoroughly ridiculous and rushed ending that explained nothing. If nothing else, this show made my disdain of time travel dramas stronger, and for that, I’ll give it one star.