With the first round of eliminations over and with votes re-set, Episode 6 began on a hopeful note, with the trainees ready to take on the next challenge: the Position Evaluation. In keeping with the familiar format, Episodes 6 and 7 focused on song selection and subsequent performances.

The Position Evaluation gives trainees a chance to showcase some of their “backstage” skills, such as arranging songs, creating choreography, and writing lyrics. Position Evaluation performances, therefore, invariably tend to be more interesting than Group X Battle performances. These recent performances are not just covers, but have been (in part) designed by the trainees themselves. An example would be Hwasa‘s “Twit” that was rearranged into a fun, catchy pop-rock version, allowing the team members to showcase some unexpected vocal skills.

Moreover, if Episode 5 dragged a little towards the 16th and final performance (13th for the Episode), Episode 7 was a much easier watch. The 11 performances were split comfortably into five performances aired in Episode 6, and six in Episode 7. With fewer performances per episode, there was time to flesh out proper backstories to the teams, and trainees’ personalities started to emerge.

This is particularly noteworthy as screen time and story lines have two different effects. Screen time lets viewers (“national producers”) know that a particular trainee is in the competition and gives the trainee a chance to gain votes. A story line brings the personality of the trainee to the forefront, allowing viewers to connect with him, a connection that will be crucial to the business of K-pop.

For instance, Kim Min-gyu (Jellyfish), one of the few trainees introduced with a story line in the early episodes, ranked at #2 in Episode 5 despite being graded into Class X in Episode 1. While Min-gyu gained early attention for his visuals, viewers were also shown that Min-gyu is sincere and works hard to improve his skills. Further in Episode 7, it was shown that Min-gyu felt burdened by the attention he had received and was unsure whether he deserved the hype given his poor performance in the Group X Battle. The show builds an arc about the development of his skills, while maintaining the image of a humble and diligent trainee. It is this arc that will surely help Min-gyu appeal to viewers unconvinced by his visuals alone.

With each team’s backstory, the latest episodes introduced a wide range of personalities. We saw what the trainees love (Nam Dong-hyun (The South) and his guitar), what they struggle with (Cha Jun-ho‘s (Woolim Entertainment) struggle to express emotion), what they excel at (Kim Si-hoon (Brand New Music) at choreography and leadership), who is popular amongst them (Han Seung-woo (Plan A Entertainment)), and how they are coping with the competition (Won Hyuk‘s (E Entertainment) determination).

To the collective despair of the trainees, the “X” factor was called into play in the Position Evaluation as well, with the introduction of a new category. Category X trainees would have to showcase songs from two of three positions: Vocal and Dance, or Rap and Dance. Befittingly, they would also receive twice the benefits as trainees from other Categories. A high risk-high return option.

With the new category, trainees came to be distributed unevenly — 8 in Rap, 13 in X, 19 in Dance, and 20 in Vocal. As trainees were competing for benefits only within their chosen category, those in teams with fewer members and/or categories with fewer songs had the obvious advantage. Thus, while it is understandable why low-ranked trainees might have chosen Category X, two of the higher ranked trainees also took the risk: Lee Jin-hyuk (Top Media) and Gu Jung-mo (Starship Entertainment).

This uneven distribution led to some interesting results in the on-site voting, most notably in the Rap category, where the overall winner for the category came from Team “Barcode.” Arguably, the team had put up the poorest performance of the Position Evaluations. Although team members often do not get along, this is rarely reflected in the final performance. For instance, Team “Finesse” from the Dance category sorted out their differences just fine. However, this was not the case with Team “Barcode.”

As the team argued over who should be made center, tensions grew and the team fell apart. In the end, three of four members forgot the lyrics at some point during the performance. As a result, Won Hyuk, the fourth and final member, won the performance by a large margin, with 514 votes. Baek Jin (Vine) was second with 410 votes. In contrast, the winner of the better team, Nam Do-hyun (MBK Entertainment) garnered 499 votes.

This was unexpected because Do-hyun stood at #6 in Episode 5, and Won Hyuk trailed far behind at #57. Not only was Won Hyuk’s performance flawless, his skill was highlighted even further by the mistakes of his team members which contrasted against his composure even as they grew increasingly flustered onstage. With only four trainees in the other team to compete against, Won Hyuk won against all odds. His ranking can only be boosted further by the sympathetic story line given to him in the team’s backstory, though perhaps there was insufficient time till the close of voting to make a difference.

Special mention must also be made of the sufferings of the Category X trainees, many of whom were in the lower ranks and had no choice but to take the difficult option as other slots were full. Leader of Team “Attention,” Kim Sung-hyun (Stone Music Entertainment) and Team “Turtle Ship” center Lee Jin-hyuk had a particularly difficult time arranging songs/writing lyrics and creating choreography within such a limited time. However, while Sung-hyun’s team struggled as a whole, Jin-hyuk’s team relied entirely upon him to guide them.

With a team of vocalists on a rap song, as well as complete novice Lee Eugene (independent trainee), it fell to Jin-hyuk to train them for the performance. He rose to the challenge magnificently. It is worth noting that even during their final appeal after the performance, the team members thanked him profusely. Ultimately, Jin-hyuk’s risk in opting for Category X paid off. He won not only Category X, but also obtained the highest number of votes, without benefits. Of only 5 trainees with over 600 votes to their name, Jin-hyuk had a whopping 680, whereas the next trainee Kang Hyun-su (AAP.Y) had 616.

On the other hand, with many more trainees to compete against, even high ranking trainees were not safe in the Vocal and Dance categories. Kim Yo-han (OUI Entertainment), rank #1 in Episode 5, was 5th and last on his team in the on-site voting, with 363 votes. Trainees in the Vocal and Dance categories adopted various strategies to try and stand out, some seemingly the polar opposite of one another. While 04′ liner Lee Jin-woo (Maroo Entertainment) chose “To My Youth” as it suited his young age, 02′ liner Song Dong-pyo (DSP Media) chose “Believer” in order to show a more manly and mature side. Team “Believer” was thus forced to come up with an innovative concept that included him, and chose to go with “werewolf,” which frankly sounds weird, but worked out quite well.

Another aspect that deserves attention is how the Position Evaluation too had a focus on vocals and dance, just as “X1-MA” focused on vocals and dance. Only 3 out of 11 songs focused on rap, but 5 out of 11 focused on vocal and dance each (including X category songs). I wonder whether this indicates something about the type of group Mnet hopes to create, and what we can expect, musically, from the final group.

For all the hype surrounding the Big 3, the YG Entertainment trainees are ranked surprisingly low. In addition to their ranks in the #50s in Episode 5, Wang Jyunhao and Hidaka Mahiro ranked last in their respective Team performances. This is a sadly disappointing outcome despite their appearance on YG Treasure Box at the end of last year, as well as Mahiro’s position as center for Team “Attention”. Mnet has not been giving them any screen time either. Their ranks and screen time have most likely been affected by the present controversies surrounding YG. Similarly, Nam Dong-hyun may also have been affected by his brother’s scandal, albeit to a lesser extent.

On a separate note, it was shown in these episodes that some of the trainees had not been sleeping in the Produce dorms, well known for their cramped bunk beds. It has been rumored that this is because sasaengs broke into the dorms. There has been no word from Mnet on whether this is true, which is likely the best response for the company. If it is false, then there is nothing for them to comment on. But if it is true, it shows a serious lapse in security on their part.

Contrary to what the presence of the sasaengs may suggest however, the present season is pulling the lowest ratings in the history of the Produce series. The ratings peaked in Episode 2 at 2.309% nationwide, but have since dropped to 2.019% in Episode 7. In comparison, Season 2, the only other season with male trainees, saw the ratings rise with each episode, from 1.638% in Episode 1 to 3.096% in Episode 7, and further to 5.197% by the finale.

Perhaps familiarity with the format has bred indifference, or perhaps the unchanging line-up has taken away the fun. The top 11 barely changed from Episode 5 to Episode 6. The only surprise lay in Kim Yo-han falling from Rank #1 to Rank #5. Within the debut line-up, only one trainee, Song Dong-pyo, moved out and Lee Jin-woo moved in.

The show has tried to make things interesting and dramatic. In addition to conflicts within teams, lower ranking trainees referred to the Position Evaluation as their last chance, and Kang Hyun-su spoke of what might happen if he does not make the debut group — he will have to give up singing and enter the army. The latest episodes even featured the brief appearance (by phone call) of Kim Jae-hwan. However, it hardly seems enough to pull in Season 2’s numbers.

Hopefully, the increased screen time and introduction of wider story lines to a larger number of trainees will help. If the debut line-up is volatile, it makes for more interesting viewing. As we approach the second elimination, all fingers are crossed. I see no hope for one of my early favorites, In2it‘s Kim Sung-hyun, but Myteen‘s Kim Kook-heon (The Music Works) and Kim Si-hoon should survive. Or so I hope. May our favorite trainees make it through!

(AGB Nielson, Twitter, YouTube. Images via Mnet)