Korean dramas are often very predictable with a happy ending almost always guaranteed for everyone. Yet somehow we’re expected to feel for these characters even though we all know what will happen in the end. Protect the Boss works that way. You know who will end up with who and what will happen at the end. Still, it manages to surprise audiences with the amount of comedy gold, heart, and unexpected joys that it manages to pack in every episode. It’s a rare treat to get such a cast of incredibly funny actors doing great work and the series writers’ give them plenty of good material to chew on too.
No Eun Sol (Choi Kang Hee), a hard-knock girl, gets a job as a secretary for Cha Ji Heon (Ji Sung), who suffers from agoraphobia. She helps him through his struggles while dealing with his gangster dad (Park Young Kyu), his handsome cousin (Jaejoong) and the various characters revolving Ji Heon.
The story is so simple and you won’t be lost in it but the writers do their best to infuse some reality into the admittedly absurd stories.That opening scene along had me dying from laughter. Here, we see No Eun Sol kicking people’s asses intermixed with her trying to get a job. The contrast between these two worlds she lives in makes her a unique character in K-drama land. She gives off the vibe that she’s a strong independent woman but with no real intellectual talent that the jobs she’s seeking are looking for. Even more interesting is the sense of guilt that she feels for not working hard as a student and beating up guys instead. We see this most clearly when she’s been tricked by her new shady boss. She ends up mindlessly beating him up, ashamed that she’s been reduced to a fool and annoyed that this guy seriously tried to just get with her.
The writers establish many contrasts in this drama that beautifully comes together as the series progresses. Apart from No Eun Sol’s contrasting lifestyle: she’s used to kicking ass, not doing well in school but she tries to fit in a white-collar world, the series presents contrasting relationships, worlds, and ideas all at once. For example, there is a contrast between Ji Heon and Moo Won’s personalities–Ji Heon is louder, brasher, and far more egotistical while Moo Won is far more reserved and thoughtful. There’s a contrast between Ji Heon and his father–Ji Heon is more cowardly while Chairman Cha is a “gangster chaebol”.
And of course there’s also rich vs poor, like in most dramas. The great thing about it though is that we’re never really forced to think about No Eun Sol’s poor lifestyle. The writers approach it as a matter of fact but never the theme of Eun Sol’s life. Instead, she’s more about redemption–trying to make something out of herself. We see this drive to be better while she eagerly takes instructions and learns English. In short, she wanted to get hired not because of some outstanding loan or some ridiculous vendetta, but rather for self-improvement.
Self-improvement is also another theme that plays a big role in this story. Cha Ji Heon’s attempts to heal his agoraphobia is just as big a theme as No Eun Sol’s self-improvement. However, Ji Heon is motivated by both self-improvement as well as shallower intentions, mainly to impress No Eun Sol. I understand that he loves No Eun Sol and that he wants to be a better man for her. But at the same time, it’s the shame in himself–that he can’t even speak in public nor face his opponents or even protect Eun Sol–that drive him crazy. What’s amazing is that he’s painfully aware of his limitations and his weaknesses. Most deuschy drama leads barely knows they have issues or at least tries to glorify it. Ji Heon knows his agoraphobia limits his life and he strives to live better.
No Eun Sol and Cha Ji Heon’s transformations are the fundamental building blocks of this story as each help the other become better people through direct meddling or by influence. Yet, what drives this drama’s heart and comedy are the relationships they develop. I have to applaud the writers of this drama for the lack of angst, or at least contrived angst, that plague many dramas. The angst that develop towards the end is a result of all the tensions naturally building up instead of some added plot point to make the drama more interesting. Also, I have to thank the writers for giving us rich, deeply affecting relationships.
Starting from the top, Eun Sol and Ji Heon’s relationship is so romantic and you just can’t help rooting for them. There relationship simmers for and what I love is that it grows organically. Their daily interactions and codependence helped move their love for each other along. It thrived from all the awkward moments they shared and all the time they’ve spent together. What’s more amazing is the fact that each person grows because they met each other. It’s incredibly gratifying to see Ji Heon become less paranoid and to see Eun Sol become more feminine. It’s like they’re embracing the things that are the complete opposite of them.
Eun Sol’s relationship wit Moo Won is remarkable as well for making it clear that it’s a one-sided romance. Eun Sol never develops feelings of amorous love towards Moo Won while Moo Won does. Instead, she has such deep respect for his intelligence, his kindness, and the way he’s been a good friend to him. It’s even more amazing how aware Moo Won is of the fact that she doesn’t love him the way he wants her too. It’s a fact he tries to erase by continuing to pursue her even though Ji Heon is winning.
Ji Heon’s brotherly relationship to Moo Won is so delightful to watch. I love how they’re so competitive with each other: the staring competitions, the face-to-face talks, and the physical fights that they get into. My favorite scenes were the pillow fight, the back-kicking contest, and their race to the bottom of the steps. It’s these details that the writers work into the scripts that makes this drama funny. They’re never random anymore because you’ve come to expect them to be so competitive. In addition to that, they seem to naturally care for each other even as their parents don’t get along and even as they fight for the same girl.
Then comes, Na Yoon (Wang Ji Hye), Ji Heon’s ex-girlfriend, who had fallen in love with both men before. At first, I thought she’d be the bitch of the drama, having to shoulder all of the audience’s hate as she tries to get with either Ji Heon or Moo Won. Instead, to my surprise, she’s makes her desperation funny, her theatrical-sized reactions necessary to her character, and she never comes off as evil. She just comes off as unlucky in love. As the series progresses, she too, had a wonderful self-discovery. She turned from a spoiled brat to someone who’s comfortable with living in poverty. She’s become more independent of her mother and a dependable friend to Eun Sol, Moo Won, and even Ji Heon.
The parents of this drama are even compelling. Ji Heon’s father, Chairman Cha (Park Young Kyu), is one hilarious character who’s off-beat relationship with his son is contrasted against the loving but similarly off-beat relationship with his mother. His outbursts and loud voice are so endearing and I love the shame, the pride, and the sorrow he feels towards himself and his son. Moo Won’s mom is delightfully catty. She is so similar to Chairman Cha even if she doesn’t think so. I love her banter with Chairman Cha–the way they talk down to each other and the fake faces they put on with each other are naturally hilarious. Na Yoon’s mom similarly meddles into her daughter’s life and if anything, I think she’s the only real annoying character in this drama. There’s really no point to her being here outside of being the person to gossip with Sook Hee and scold her daughter.
This drama works well because of how the relationships and contrasts they developed at the beginning come head to head towards the end. Who expected No Eun Sol and Na Yoon to be really close friends? How about No Eun Sol’s relationship with Chairman Cha? What’s great about that relationship is how the Chairman depends on Eun Sol to improve Ji Heon and even cares for her because they share the same kind of hooligan spirit. It’s wonderfully refreshing to find a chaebol parent who is not terribly opposed to the heroine. I love how every character developed bonds and ties that I never expected at the beginning.
But honestly, this drama isn’t really a drama. It’s a comedy with dramatic beats. It’s comedy is so hilarious–the mix of hilarious music, smart editing, and physical comedy makes this drama so endearing. The elevator scenes are goldmines of comedy. They make an everyday accessory seem far less mundane. All the awkward moment becomes even funnier once they’re all in the elevator. In addition, the lighter moments never stray away from the drama, making the whole thing much lighter and easier to swallow. And of course the actors elevate the comedy.
The MVP of the drama for me is Ji Sung, delivering such a terrific nuanced performance as Ji Heon. His Ji Heon is very twitchy, sensitive, and egotistical. But all of these are aspects of a much deeper personality trait. Because of his agoraphobia, he can’t live his life normally and I love that Ji Heon is well aware of that. Ji Sung is very good at showing tiny bits of shame and sensitivity. His dramatic moments are so subtle and nuanced that it’s so natural. He doesn’t mug for the camera like most actors and he keeps everything bottled in. He’s a very physical actor too and he uses that to great effect. The lighter moments of this drama usually comes from the hurt pride, the shock, and the silly personal quirks that he has. Best of all, he’s so charming in this role that it’s hard not to like him.
Choi Kang Hee is a solid actress. She knows No Eun Sol’s naivety and how simple-minded she is but never stupid. She’s amusingly befuddled by the attention she’s getting from Ji Heon and Moo Won. I love how weary she is of her life, especially as it becomes more complicated. I love her motherly affection towards Ji Heon at the beginning and the sudden surge of romantic feeling she gains for him. At the start, she was the indestructible girl but as the series progressed, the strain has taken a toll on her. That’s why the scenes where she cries at the penguin falling is so moving–she’s lost Ji Heon and it hurts.
Jaejoong is effectively charming as Moo Won. He’s very charismatic and I’m convinced that he can warm everyone in the meeting room’s heart with his charms. But he doesn’t rests on his pretty looks alone. I love how he discovers fun with No Eun Sol and it’s very natural. He’s also funny too, able to work with the most mundane lines and find comedy in them.
Wang Ji Hye was awful in Personal Taste but here, she works wonders out of Na Yoon’s desperation. She’s very funny and pretty much exaggerates every hurt and crying. Yet somehow this campiness works for her character. Na Yoon has a theatrical personality and Ji Hye works every bit of it for comedy.
Park Young Kyu is the best K-drama Dad I’ve seen because of how well he lays out the pride thickly as a way of hiding the shame, and the fears he has for Ji Heon. It’s a touching relationship and his breakdowns are moving, especially because we’re so used to seeing the Proud Papa most of the time. Kim Young Ok plays a wise grandmother whose relationship with Chairman Cha is a highlight of the drama. She’s so snappy with her comments and the disappointment she shows towards her son is mixed with genuine concern and love.
Cha Hwa Yun’s Sook Hee is good at being catty especially because she’s so funny. But what drives her is pride as well, as she knows Moo Won is the best and he deserves the best. Admittedly, my favorite scenes of hers all involve her interaction with Na Yoon’s mom (Kim Chung). They’re both so full of themselves and aristocratic that their hurt prides often makes good jokes.
Elsewhere, Ha Jae Sook is a great comedic actress, who’s sadly underutilized her. She plays Myung Ran, Eun Sol and Na Yoon’s friend who’s not afraid of saying what she thinks. She’s so good at projecting a caring, loving friend. Kim Ha Kyoon as Chairman Cha’s secretary is so funny. He’s so twitchy and nervous, and that translates into comedy.
Overall, Protect the Boss works within the limits of chaebol dramas but is better than most of them because it has characters who aren’t one-dimensional. Great performances with great humor mixed with a great romance made this drama so worthwhile to watch.