Over the last few years, the trope of time travel has reigned supreme in thriller K-dramas. It began with Signal (2016) and continued with shows like Tunnel (2017), Alice (2020), The King: Eternal Monarch (2020), Kairos (2020), and Train (2020), to name a few. Despite the popularity of the trope, however, time travel dramas have generally failed to fare well on counts of intelligent writing and realistic plots. My expectations of them are honestly not that high.
However, I could not resist tuning into Sisyphus: The Myth, with veterans Cho Seung-woo and Park Shin-hye starring together for the first time. Aside from being the usual time travel sci-fi thriller, this one uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus to showcase a dystopian future. To top it off, PD Jin Hyuk of City Hunter (2011) and The Master’s Sun (2013) fame is at the helm, along with powerhouses like Sung Dong-il and Tae In-ho in the main cast. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
The show’s premiere managed to live up to its hype, averaging 5.6 percent in TV viewership ratings nationwide. The first episode was thrilling and set the tone for the mysteries that are about to unfold. Although time travel is a tried-and-tested concept within K-dramaland, no series has managed to get it 100% right. From loophole-riddled plots to unrealistic storylines, we have seen it all. But when actors of Cho and Park’s caliber say yes to a drama, you pay attention. And that is what we are doing—hoping something will be different about this one.
The first episode foregrounds the central mystery quite well, interweaving the two protagonists’ backstories with the dangers that lurk around them. It also features a thrilling plane crash that never happens, managing to raise the stakes and letting us glimpse the humorous side of “serious actor” Cho Seung-woo. This role marks quite a departure from Hwang Shi-mok of Stranger 2, which only ended a few months ago to lukewarm response, and I’m excited to see Cho’s transformation. If nothing else, he always packs a punch with his performance.
This time, Cho’s character Han Tae-sul is arrogant, hilarious, and a rule-breaker on the outside. He is the genius engineer and CEO of Quantum and Time with a crushing backstory involving a dead brother who often shows up in his hallucinations. The Sisyphean motif becomes evident in Tae-sul’s story immediately, as he recalls his regretful last meeting with his brother and wishes to go back to that day. While his past is undoubtedly interesting, Cho’s transformation as the flippant CEO in the present formed the most delightful parts of this episode. However, it also reminded me of the story of Sisyphus, who was damned eternally for his arrogance.
Park Shin-hye’s comeback to the small screen has been long-awaited, her last appearance being the 2018–2019 drama Memories of the Alhambra. Since then, the actress has appeared in two acclaimed Netflix films—#Alive and Call. As the mysterious Kang Seo-hae, she already has a pretty solid backstory as someone who has arrived from a dystopian future. She is distrustful, which makes sense because she is chased by people in gas masks as soon as she arrives in the present. Although only briefly, we managed to get a sneak peek into her fighting skills in this episode. I’m excited that we have the female lead doing stunts and playing the male lead’s protector. Quite a subverting of expectations, this!
The first episode, even while laying the foundation of the story, managed to surprise me on two occasions. First, when Seo-hae, despite being told by her father to stay away from Han Tae-sul, tries desperately to get in touch with him. She warns him against mysterious beings looking for him, just as his brother had warned him before dying. Second, the object that hit the plane Tae-sul was on turning out to be a suitcase and a man. While intriguing, this twist is also hilarious for how ridiculous it is—a man resembling the lead’s dead brother flying about in the stratosphere—but I’ll wait for more episodes before I lower my expectations.
As for the mystery, this episode left quite a few questions for the viewers. Who are the mysterious beings Tae-sul is being warned against, and why are they chasing him? Did his brother know a secret that led to his death? Did he die at all? There was a bit where Seo-hae glitches like she is a simulation and then passes out, nose bleeding. What does that mean? And, the most pressing question, which I’m guessing will be answered in the next episode—how will Seo-hae and Tae-sul meet? The recurring motifs in the show so far are the people in gas masks and the suitcase.
Although Sung Dong-il did not make an appearance in this episode, Tae In-ho‘s Eddie Kim, Tae-sul’s friend and co-CEO, gave me an interesting secondary character to focus on. As always, Tae In-ho has managed to pick another grey character, although it’s quite early to say where Eddie Kim’s arc will go. I also found the equation between Tae-sul and his bodyguard Beong-son (played by Tae Won-seok) quite charming. Seo-hae and the restaurant temp worker she meets (Chae Jong-hyeop) also show potential for turning into great friends with a promising dynamic, and I’m intrigued to see how the show balances relationships with the plot.
All in all, Sisyphus: The Myth had a solid opening and has made me decide to keep watching despite my reservations about time travel K-dramas. Here’s to hoping it manages to avoid the Sisyphean fate of other dramas in the category and keep things interesting!