We are now in the thick of the competition. With the second eliminations in Episode 8, 31 trainees remain out of the original 101. Trainees with prior debut experience shone in Episodes 8-10, perhaps because they were best able to handle the intense pressure. What’s even more surprising is that Mnet let them shine. Is the editing possibly…trying to be a little fair? It would certainly be a first if that were the case.

Including Lee Han-gyul (MBK Entertainment) from The Unit, eight already-debuted trainees remain, as In2it‘s Kim Sung-hyun (Stone Music Entertainment) made sure to point out on his elimination in Episode 8. Sung-hyun’s elimination was inevitable at that point, as Mnet had kept him firmly out of the spotlight. However, even as Sung-hyun was eliminated, Up10tion‘s Kim Woo-seok and Lee Jin-hyuk (TOP Media) battled for the top spot. Jin-hyuk may have won the Position Evaluation, but Woo-seok (or “Woo-satan” for his savage personality, which even the camera could not hide) came first with a substantial lead.

Pursuant to eliminations, the X-factor was called into play yet again, with a surprise twist: One of the eliminated trainees would be brought back. The winning trainee was revealed to be Woolim Entertainment‘s Kim Dong-yun via a weird and shaky set-up involving Lee Dong-wook on four cell phones at the same time. One wonders why Mnet did not just put them all on one giant screen connected to the phone by a simple cable, as most modern phones would conveniently allow them to.

Teams were given the option to invite Dong-yun to join them. If none did, he would have to pick a team at random. The show spent considerable time on the teams’ deliberations. Team “U Got It” was especially torn on the issue, with fellow Woolim trainees Cha Jun-ho and Hwang Yun-seong swayed towards inviting him. Here too, leader Woo-seok, perhaps with his greater experience in the industry, ably guided his team into considering the pros and many cons of inviting a new team member at that late stage. Ultimately, it was Team “Monday to Sunday” that needed help with the choreography, that welcomed him.

Interestingly, the X-revival meant voting time for the third round reduced to just one week. What’s more, unlike earlier rounds where “national producers” voted for 11 trainees each day, the third round allowed voting for 2 trainees a day only. This means that fans had to focus on their very favorites, and drop the rest. Between these two changes to the voting system, the ranking announcement in the upcoming episode promises to be a little less predictable, and therefore more thrilling, than it has been so far.

Not that we did not see a surprise upset in Episode 8. Kim Min-gyu (Jellyfish Entertainment) fell from Rank #2 in Episode 5 to Rank #10 in Episode 8. Even the other trainees could not bring themselves to cheer when his name was called. This volatility seems to have drawn more viewers as ratings for the show, which had been dropping since Episode 2, were the highest for the season at 2.508% nationwide, in the very next episode.

The show then moved onto its third round: the Position Evaluation. The third round is often the best round as trainees now record and perform original songs. The star producer this year was undoubtedly Zico, who gifted the show with a hard-hitting pop song, “Move”.

I want to take a moment here to appreciate the make-up and styling of this team [and separately, make a quick note of the amazing visuals of Victon‘s Choi Byung-chan (Plan A Entertainment)]. The police harness-type accessories, jackets and black hair suited the idea of a modern-day, well-groomed, idol warrior out to change your mind with his dance. He is laying down the law. “Move!”

Throw your passive attitude away,
when you go onstage.
There’s not even small obstacles that exist,
between the stage and the crowd.

For all their originality however, the Position Evaluation songs, much like “X1-MA” are necessarily generic. The producer/composer does not know who will be singing the song, and thus needs to tailor it to meet the skills of “the average” vocalist and rapper so that anyone can pick it up. This was reinforced when the songs were recorded. Without exception, producers asked the trainees to sing for them so the producers may familiarize themselves with their voices.

However, the trainees made up for the generic nature of the songs with their performances. The winning team was Team “U Got It” (another team dressed entirely in black) followed closely by Team “Move”. The trainee with the most individual votes was UNIQ‘s Jo Seung-yeon (Yuehua Entertainment) from “Move”, who has been steadily rising in the rankings from a lowly #67 in Episode 1. While these teams most likely won because they had the largest number of popular trainees, it may also be argued that these teams had the most catchy songs, as well as the best performances.

Like “Move”, “U Got It” was another well-styled performance, with the set resembling a mysterious hall reminiscent of the residences of vampires in popular fiction. In short, the set was appropriately “dark”, as called for by the sexy mood and performance of the song. The singular stand out performance of the night was possibly that of Victon’s Han Seung-woo (Plan A Entertainment). You can tell a performance must have been good when Mnet chooses to emphasis it again and again in its edit for TV audiences. The only other trainee from the performance that Mnet emphasized was Kim Yo-han (Oui Entertainment), and that too only once. In contrast, Seung-woo got three reaction cuts. For good reason. If you somehow still do not know who he is, do watch the performance — you will figure it out immediately.

It seems as though the show itself is rooting for him — which is a bit strange since Seung-woo is a ’94 liner, and will likely need to enlist before the five year contract runs out.

Special mention must be made of the struggles of Team “Monday to Sunday” to adjust to new trainees, not once, but twice. In Episode 8’s eliminations, 11 out of 12 trainees assigned to the song were eliminated, leaving behind on Tony (Hongyi) to carry forward the original team’s legacy. On top of five new trainees being assigned to it, the Team also invited the X-returned trainee, Dong-yun, as they not only struggled with choreography, but also empathized with him since they too had been voted out of their original groups. Thankfully the team managed to rally together to put up a fine — but not spectacular — performance. Additionally, the turning wheels of time in the background are a nice touch by Mnet for a song titled “Monday to Sunday”.

All in all, it must be conceded that “national producers” did indeed assign the appropriate concept to each trainee. For instance, despite Kang Min-hee (Starship Entertainment) worrying that he did not fit the cute image required for “Pretty Girl”, he pulled off the role of main vocal with ease.

It is also hard to imagine the older trainees convincingly taking on the fresh, innocent vibe required for this male-idol version of bubblegum pop, and thankfully, only younger trainees that were assigned to it. The final line-up consisted of trainees born between the years 2000 and 2004 — even younger on average than recently debuted groups such as TXT! No wonder then, that the set consists of children’s toys in the background.

On the other hand, it was with Team “Super Special Girl” where Mnet’s choices fell apart. The styling of the team was exceptionally poor. Mnet chose to go with an innocent, playful style similar to that of “Pretty Girl”, but what worked with the young, cute members of that song, failed here with older trainees such as Park Sun-ho, who have a more mature charm. Team members also were placed in unmemorable white and red (mostly white) outfits, with seemingly ordinary make-up that failed to bring out their good looks.

What’s more, even as Kim Si-hoon (Brand New Music) sang, “Like the universe, galaxies”, the stage behind was decorated with large numbers of blown up fish and other assorted items needed for a day at the beach, making for a clear conceptual mismatch. The light, bright blue background of the stage blended in with the mostly white outfits of the team, and thus, overall, the performance was blinding — and not in a good way. “Pretty Girl” suffered from this too, but not to the same extent as the stage and members’ outfits had a little more color.

“Super Special Girl” may be an upbeat song, but the stage set-up did not match it, and may have cost the team a few votes for best performance. Despite the presence of early favorite Myteen‘s Song Yu-vin (Music Works), the team came in dead last.

Admittedly, Yu-vin has been falling out of favor with national producers, as his rank has been falling. Unfortunately, his group-mate, Kim Kook-heon is also in danger of being eliminated next episode. Perhaps these rankings hint at the popularity of the groups whose members were/are on the show, with In2it being the least popular and Myteen coming in third place. If so, Up10tion would be the most popular, as indicated by trainee reactions to Woo-seok and Jin-hyuk back in Episode 1.

With two more episodes to go, we are reaching the end of the fourth season of Produce. My fingers are crossed. May our favorite trainees make it through!

(AGB Neilson, YouTube, Images via Mnet, Lyrics via krystallized)