When The King: Eternal Monarch was announced as the newest project of star writer Kim Eun-sook, drama fans were looking forward to another blockbuster hit. Kim probably has the longest-running streak of hit shows among Korean screenwriters. She has dominated three successive decades with award-winning and commercially successful shows, from her Lovers’ trilogy in the early 2000s, to Secret Garden and The Heirs in the 2010s, and finally, Descendants of the Sun, Goblin, and Mr. Sunshine in the 2020s. It seems that with The King: Eternal Monarch, Kim wanted to ring in the new decade with yet another hit but ended up not quite hitting the mark.
The show premiered to much hype by virtue of being Lee Min-ho’s comeback drama and a decent 11% nationwide rating. Towards the second half, however, the show failed to move past the 6–8% bracket, ending its run with a measly 8% ratings. This was surprising, especially for a Kim Eun-sook drama, as her dramas are known for breaking ratings records. Many are wondering why, despite having so many factors to its advantage—a stellar lead pairing in Lee Min-ho and Kim Go-eun, interesting supporting cast featuring Woo Do-hwan, Lee Jung-jin, Jung Eun-chae, and Kim Kyung-nam, enormous budget, an exciting sci-fi premise, intense promotions by Netflix—did the show fail to make the splash we were all hoping for? Let’s look at some possible reasons.
An Under-Utilized Villain
The main villain of the show, Lee Rim, portrayed by the mysterious and dangerous-looking Lee Jung-jin, was probably one of the biggest let-downs in the plot. He is introduced to us as the evil uncle who leads a coup against Lee Gon’s father, steals the magical flute manpasikjeok, and tries to kill Lee Gon in the very first episode. Following this, he travels to a parallel world using the flute, finds his counterpart in that world, and kills him. Pretty scandalous, right? The show sets Lee Rim up to be a formidable villain, but the characterization all but falls apart in the later episodes.
For the entire run of the show, viewers are not given a backstory for Lee Rim’s character. We know that he is evil but get no insight into either his motivations or what he’s actually scheming for. Is it political power? Does he want to rule both parallel worlds? Does he want to kill his nephew and take back the other half of the magical flute? We never find out. He stays a mystery throughout, and while that’s usually a desirable trait in a villain— this time, it fell woefully short of expectations. Lee Rim never feels dangerous or creepy enough for viewers to be invested in his eventual downfall, which, frankly, was just as disappointing as the character himself.
Poor Choice of Leads
One of the criticisms often leveled against Lee Min-ho is that he plays the same character in all his dramas. Here, too, he plays a role very similar to his previous dramas—the rich, bratty guy, except this time he’s an Emperor from a different world instead of a wealthy heir. The cocky rich guy is a concept even I, a non-fan of romance, tend to enjoy occasionally. But after Boys Over Flowers, The Heirs, City Hunter, Legend of the Blue Sea, and now The King: Eternal Monarch, it is getting boring and repetitive. Granted, no one does justice to this trope like Lee Min-ho does, but some range and depth in acting would be nice. That’s why I think King Lee Gon failed to charm viewers as easily as Lee Min-ho’s previous characters have.
As for Kim Go-eun, having watched her films and her eventual transition to dramas, I personally think that she performs better in more serious, nuanced roles like the films Coin Locker Girl and Tune In For Love. She wasn’t bad in her debut drama Cheese in the Trap either, which was a slice-of-life show that didn’t require her to be in hyper-realistic settings. In Kim Eun-sook’s fantasy dramas, however, Kim is prone to overacting—be it as Goblin‘s (Guardian: The Great and Lonely God) Ji Eun-tak or The King: Eternal Monarch’s Jung Tae-eul. Even within the show, she performed much better as the street smart Luna than the emotional Tae-eul. Minimalistic and nuanced acting seems to be much more within the actress’s range and depth.
Lack of World Building
A science-fiction romance fantasy involving time travel, multiple timelines, two parallel Koreas—one a monarchy and the other a democracy—the original concept of the show sounded too good to be true. And then it aired, and we realized that it really was too good to be true. Initial episodes set the stage for several mysteries—the power of the magic flute, the mechanics of traveling between two parallel worlds, everyone from one world having a doppelganger in the parallel world, Lee Rim’s schemes, and so on. But the developments of these arcs left a lot of be desired.
For starters, the show doesn’t dedicate time to explaining the exact powers of the magical flute manpasikjeok, which is surprising because it is the most important piece of the puzzle in the show. The world building between the two Koreas starts off as promising but ends up getting confusing when viewers can’t tell which world the characters are supposed to be in. I wish there were color tones, or something I could have used to distinguish between the two words because I spent the first few episodes thoroughly lost. When the actual time-traveling begins, the plot is too far ahead for any tension to build up so viewers are left accepting whatever the show throws at them. Frankly, it came off as unrealistic that Lee Gon could travel back and forth in time, altering timelines, without any cosmic side-effects. Isn’t that the inherent rule and tragedy of every time-travel movie/show ever?
No Build Up to the Romance
For a romance drama by one of the greatest romance drama writers of all time, the romance in this show is shockingly lacking in depth. It begins quite abruptly with Lee Gon hugging a stunned Tae-eul at the end of the first episode itself. We only know that Lee Gon has grown up thinking Tae-eul saved his life. But what makes him fall in love with her, we never find out. Tae-eul, though initially distrustful of Gon, eventually opens up and falls for him, too, but this transition again is too jarring to tug at emotions and make the viewer invested in the relationship.
The few kiss scenes we get lack any tension or buildup, seeming almost forced. As a viewer, it never felt like we saw Lee Gon and Tae-eul genuinely connect and as a result, their impending separation and reunion wasn’t as high stakes as it should have been. I was reminded of Kim Eun-sook’s previous dramas like Goblin (Guardian: The Great and Lonely God) and Descendants of the Sun, where the main couples’ banter and chemistry became one of the reasons for the shows’ success. Here, the dialogue was clichéd, romance was full of tired tropes, and chemistry was lacking. The happy ending didn’t end up being satisfying, and it hurts me to say it, because this story had so much potential.
Excessive Product Placement (PPL)
The excessive PPL in the show has also come under scanner, though this is a complaint mostly from Korean viewers. PPL is common in every drama with a big budget as broadcasters seek to recover the money they spent on the show. The difference between good and bad PPL, however, is that the former is cleverly injected into the plot and doesn’t ruin the flow, while the latter, well, does. Korean viewers have called this show’s PPL some of the most notorious they have ever seen in a drama, and let me tell you why.
Almost every meal the characters are shown eating is the BBQ chicken they are promoting, and in one scene, Lee Min-ho’s character goes beyond eating to raving about the chicken…right in the middle of the plot! We know South Korea’s fried chicken is to die for, but come on. Several times, the show switches from a drama to an advertisement in the most jarring of transitions that break the flow of that particular scene. Yet another instance is Kim Go-eun breaking character to promote a lip balm, while she is supposed to be on duty as a detective. Most international fans don’t even blink at the PPL in K-dramas, but this time, we did.
Too Many Side Arcs
Instead of building up the parallel worlds, the villains, and the lead couple’s story, the focus of the show seems to be on the many, many side characters as well as their counterparts in the parallel world. There are so many stories going on at once that focusing on one was difficult. Still, if the side arcs are done well, they only add to the plot. But side characters in The King: Eternal Monarch that looked like they would impact the main plot turned out to be irrelevant. I quite enjoyed Jo Yeong/Jo Eun-seob and Kang Shin-jae’s arcs, but Goo Seo-ryung, Prince Buyeong, Myeong Na-ri, and Min Hwa-yeon, who got significant screen time, eventually ended up contributing nothing. All this time could have been spent on developing Lee Rim’s character or the romance between Lee Gon and Tae-eul.
All in all, The King: Eternal Monarch boasted of an amazing concept, but the execution left much to be desired. It seems that writer Kim Eun-sook tried to experiment with a new genre but got lost on the way. This is not to say that I’ve lost faith in her work—it’s simply a minor setback in a long and illustrious career. K-dramaland is bound to be just as excited for her next work as we were for this one.
Have you watched The King: Eternal Monarch? Let us know your thoughts about the show in the comments below!