Led by Chae Soo-bin (Sweet & Sour) and Kang Daniel in his first acting role, Disney Plus has wrapped up its first original K-drama about students at the Korea National Police University (KNPU), Rookie Cops. Just like its first half, the show remains an enjoyable watch to the end. This makes the somewhat rushed ending a little disappointing, as many viewers would have been happy to live in this particular KNPU dorm just a little bit longer.
The following contains spoilers for all episodes of Rookie Cops.
The second half of the show continues mixing youth drama with crime procedural for interesting results as our plucky KNPU octet live, love and laugh their way through the rest of their first year. Episodes 8 to 10 are devoted to an iceberg plot that starts with tech whiz Joo-young (Min Do-hee, Reply 1994) getting scammed over an online purchase and ends with plucky Eun-kang (Chae) busting a fraud racket.
Though the arc’s endgame became clear as soon as Eun-kang was assigned to the same small town as the scammers’ base for her field training, we get a chance to see Eun-kang put her police skills through their paces in preparation for later episodes. Having show villain Jo Han-sol (Kim Kwon, He is Psychometric) be one of the victims of Eun-kang’s high-speed car chase neatly brings him into direct contact with the students, including Seung-hyun (Kang).
From here, the show sets up more coincidences that not only get Seung-hyun and Eun-kang involved in a murder, but paired with their police skills help them swiftly discover that the culprit is Han-sol himself. The couple undoes all their good work, however, by placing their trust in the wrong person: Seung-hyun’s father Wi Gi-yong (Son Chang-min, Record of Youth), who is under Han-sol’s thumb. To add insult to injury, Han-sol organises for Seung-hyun to witness his father’s betrayal.
He then tells Kim Tak (Lee Shin-young, Crash Landing on You) the truth about his brother’s murder and Wi Gi-yong’s involvement in covering it up. This emotional double whammy gives Kang Daniel a lot of material to work with, and though his expressions could do with a bit more work, he acquits himself through dialogue, be it warning Han-sol, testing Gi-yong or apologising to Tak. Kang’s best work throughout the series happens when he can play off his scene partner, which bodes well for his acting future.
The revelation of harsh truths dims the glow of a memorable summer filled with friendship and young love, and our octet start to drift away and isolate themselves. The only exception is jokester Yoo Dae-il (Park Sung-joon, Run On) doing his damndest to get closer to hard-done-by Gi Han-na (Park Yoo-na, SKY Castle). Rookie Cops attempts to deny the abruptness of Dae-il’s crush with a flashback; but in a show that has already shown more careful plotting elsewhere, it feels like a misstep.
While this loveline does allow the show to logically place Dae-il on the path to his own death at the end of episode 14 – he would not have witnessed a crime were he not trying to raise money for Han-na – emotionally, it added little. As a viewer, I felt sadder about the students losing their friend than I did about Han-na never getting the chance to accept Dae-il’s feelings, simply because the friendship had been given more time to develop. Also, Han-na is dealing with enough already – she doesn’t need this heartbreak, too. Again, while it is emotionally unnecessary, the plotline does progress the narrative, with Han-na discovering Dae-il’s secret recording of KNPU alumni from the shady Shinya Club harming sex workers.
With renewed purpose and reunited at KNPU once more, our octet tries its best to lawfully avenge Dae-il only to be stymied by their inexperience. While they initially ask for help, they learn the wrong lesson from Wi Gi-yong’s betrayal and try to act on their own, but are quickly smothered by the weight of the Shinya Club’s wide-reaching influence.
Finally, it is Eunkang who comes through with her boldest plan yet. Until now, our heroine had taken a back seat as the other characters played larger roles in the show’s second half. It is a testament to how well-plotted the previous episodes of Rookie Cops are that we can pick up right where we left off with Eunkang as she schemes her way into Han-sol’s (rather basic) villain lair and tricks him into confessing his crimes on tape. Han-na also gets her moment as the operation’s secret weapon.
Rookie Cops provides a happy ending, but cuts it very close. Compared to the more measured pace of the episodes prior, the final act feels rushed and as such, the ending is a touch short of satisfying. While wrapping up a show in 16 episodes is generally preferable to spinning wheels with a four-episode extension, some parts of the show could have been expunged in favour of expanding on others.
For example, the mini-arc of stealing the janitor’s noodles could have been truncated in order to show us those moments of Dae-il noticing Han-na. And as good as Kim Tak and Shin Ah-ri (Cheon Young-min, The Devil Judge) looked together, I would have liked some hints that Wi Gi-yong had the list of names that Tak’s brother died for all along, or at least a bit more exploration of Gi-yong’s own inner conflict.
The only other point of dissatisfaction is, perhaps, the handling of the themes around corruption and elitism. The mass retirement of officers (under threat of revealing their own corruption) was exciting to watch, and matched the hopeful tone one would expect from a youth drama. However, the structural issues the drama raised about KNPU’s very existence are ignored in favour of presenting its students as the solution to police corruption. The structural issues that lead to such corruption in the first place are not acknowledged, instead placing a heavy burden on the next generation of police officers to be individually responsible for working around such a system.
Filming at the KNPU campus itself, though, Rookie Cops was never really going to go hard against the institution or go out of its way to suggest structural changes outside of the ones already implemented (like changing the Freshman Orientation program). Ultimately, we need to look at Rookie Cops as not a drama on social issues, but as a romantic youth drama with a dedicated lead couple and a generous side of crime drama intrigue. In this regard, Rookie Cops provides a sweet and entertaining viewing experience, even with a rushed finale.
(Images via Disney Plus.)