“If I cheat, I die,” signs Han Woo-sung (Go Joon), the husband of the show’s protagonist, Kang Yeo-joo (Jo Yeo-jung), on a notarized declaration waiving his physical rights. Many marriages are solemnized on the basis of love and trust. Not so with Woo-sung and Yeo-joo — in fact, nothing is as it seems with this couple.
Woo-sung blithely cheats with multiple women, and is meticulously careful to keep his wife in the dark. It’s no easy task, for Yeo-joo is extraordinarily sharp, a veritable Sherlock. As a best selling crime fiction writer, she’s also well-versed in the art of the perfect murder. For all his careful planning, even Woo-sung can’t stop events from spiraling out of control when one of his lovers, Baek Soo-jung (Hong Soo-hyun) is killed, and Yeo-joo steps in to investigate.
Does Yeo-joo know about her husband’s affairs? Will Yeo-joo kill Woo-sung because he was cheating? Was it Yeo-joo who killed Soo-jung? Why is the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s chief intelligence agency, watching Yeo-joo? Cheat On Me, If You Can teases the audience with these questions throughout its run. Hints at a possible, deadly marital strife are seen as early as Ep. 1.
Cheat On Me, If You Can is a murder mystery, and rather theatrical in its exaggerated comedy and set-up. The writing is hilariously funny, but the story seems a little directionless. What keeps viewers’ attentions is skilled and excellent acting. Jo Yeo-jung is the heart and soul of the show — her eccentric, reserved and cold character could have been very unlikable in hands of a lesser actress. Together with Jo in the lead, the cast carries the show with a great sense of comedic timing, and with dignity and grace, turning the slapstick and downright silly into something of quality that is worth your time.
This review contains spoilers.
You may want to suspend disbelief as you watch Cheat On Me, If You Can: as though you were watching a play where the characters are flying on a plane. It’s clear that the plane is not flying and this is a set, but you believe what you’re told. Similarly, you need to accept the show’s central conceit: That a person as sharp and observant as Yeo-joo fails to notice — over and over again, even when it is pointed out to her by others — that her husband is cheating on her.
Thankfully, the show makes it a little easier to palate this by addressing the issue head-on. In a mid-series, introspective scene, Yeo-joo wonders when she came to love her husband so much that she is no longer able to read him. Through flashbacks, we see how little she cared for him when they married. In contrast, the present shows us how much more she cares for him now. Indeed, this is a technique the show uses to layer its characters. We don’t see character growth during the course of the show; instead, Cheat On Me, If You Can shows what characters were like in the past. The audience is left free to reflect on how the same characters are now different.
For instance, we learn that Woo-sung really loved Yeo-joo in the past (though he may have been cheating even back then), but that now, he couldn’t care less. Go Joon makes Woo-sung a (superficially) likable guy, and as you watch, it slowly becomes clear that Woo-sung may not be entirely at fault. It’s obvious that he isn’t getting much affection at home. While Yeo-joo does seem to appreciate everything he does for her, she doesn’t necessarily show it. However, Yeo-joo isn’t at fault either. Their personalities are fundamentally incompatible: one needs lots of loud displays of love, attention and affection, the other isn’t capable of giving it.
Don’t get me wrong: Woo-sung is a lying and cheating scumbag. He thrives on attention and would likely have been cheating no matter what the personality of the woman he was married to. The above example is used simply to demonstrate the unusual manner in which the show layers its characters. In showing their pasts, Cheat On Me, If You Can builds nuances to each character, and this narrative device forms a part of the quirky appeal of the show.
However, while the show does a great job showing us the back stories of most characters, even of the intimidating NIS Director, Ma Dong-kyun (Oh Min-suk), it does fail to tell us more about NIS agent Cha Soo-ho (Kim Young-dae). A shame, because Soo-ho is not only one of the four leads, but he also plays an important role. Although Soo-ho himself is rather unbelievable, like a character from a manhwa, Soo-ho’s bewilderment and confusion makes him a proxy for the audience, and helps sell the show’s outrageous characters and set-up.
This lack of set-up for Cha Soo-ho is doubly noticeable because Kim Young-dae plays him with striking charisma. This writer certainly swooned over his chemistry with Jo Yeo-jung. Their scenes together are arguably the best, and almost certainly the funniest, of all in the show. Because the audience knows Yeo-joo’s husband is cheating, it’s hard not to want her to leave his lying ass in a ditch and ride off into the sunset with a dashing, mysterious, younger man.
And make no mistake: Cha Soo-ho is interested. Somewhere in between Yeo-joo’s silly costumes, sharp intellect and crumbling marriage, lies a woman that seems to genuinely appeal to the NIS agent. The show doesn’t exactly shy away from this, and/or insist on Yeo-joo’s ‘purity’. Instead, he walks in on her “half naked” early on in the series, and expressly hits on her near its very end.
Nonetheless, the show doesn’t exactly explore this territory either. Although very likely a moralistic choice, it also makes narrative sense to stay away from a romance between the two. The audience knows Woo-sung is scum, Soo-ho knows Woo-sung is scum, but Yeo-joo doesn’t, and she loves him (in her own way). She has no reason to look at another man — even one as attractive as Cha Soo-ho/Kim Young-dae.
In fact, just as it layers the scummy Woo-sung with some sympathy, the show gives its women freedom to be less than ‘pure’. To be fair, many shows with an older cast don’t require their female leads to be candies with pure intentions. Some of the most successful shows in recent times, such as The World Of The Married and The Penthouse, have been about cheating and failed marriages among the wealthy.
Be that as it may, it was unusual to see the young and seemingly innocent Go Mi-rae determinedly chase a married man. Only in later episodes are we introduced to her abusive husband — instead, the first half lets us question if she’s a rich, spoiled girl pretending to be meek and innocent.
The late reveal of Mi-rae’s husband also points to another characteristic of Cheat On Me, If You Can. This time, something the show could have done better: information is doled out in crumbs too little, too late. Sadly for the show’s viewership, leaving the audience asking the same question for approximately ten episodes can make for a frustrating watch and declining views.
The reason for this information gap becomes clear once the mystery is resolved. The show never was about Baek Soo-jung’s death, it was always about Woo-sung’s affairs. The central question was not why Baek Soo-jung was killed and by whom, it was whether Yeo-joo has figured out he is cheating. The show’s aim is merely to put its characters in comedic set-ups for our entertainment. The murder was nothing but a red herring — a misdirection on part of the writers and the director. However, since the resolution of the main mystery has little to do with the majority of the plot, there was no information to give. The story thus seems aimless and the ending is ultimately disappointing.
In conclusion, it is the cast that truly makes this show worth your time. Jo Yeo-jung, Go Joon, Kim Young-dae, Yeonwoo and the supporting cast all pull their weight in gold, convincingly selling outrageous scenarios and making the characters charming and believable.
While it thus excels at the funny, Cheat On Me, If You Can fails at plot coherency, consistency and pacing. Tighter editing (12 episodes instead of 16) and a more consistent plot could have pushed this show to a 5/5. As it currently stands, however, Cheat On Me, If You Can gets a 3/5. A good way to pass the time on a rainy day at home, but not necessarily a standout, memorable watch.
(YouTube; Images via KBS2)