Race ambled across the finish line last week after a twelve episode run on Disney+. The drama is set in the public relations department at Seyong, a pharmaceutical company. Despite the fickle nature of the PR industry and the drama’s title, Race is neither intense nor fast-paced. Instead, Race highlights the dilemmas that workers face in modern corporate workplaces and the compromises and sacrifices required of them.
Conglomerates are nothing new in Korean dramas, but Race focuses specifically on the PR department within Seyong, featuring characters at several different levels within it. Park Yoon-jo (Lee Yeon-hee), the main protagonist, is one of the newest additions to the department through a blind recruitment process. Her best friend since childhood, Ryu Jae-min (Hong Jong-hyun), already works in the same department and is the one who pitched the idea of a blind recruitment campaign. Another newcomer to Seyong is the Chief Communications Officer, Goo Yi-jung (Moon So-ri), who oversees the PR department. Rounding out the central cast is Seo Dong-hoon (U-know Yunho), the co-CEO of Earth Comm, a PR agency that Seyong frequently works with.
This review contains spoilers.
Race excels at depicting the various power dynamics that exist within Seyong. In particular, the drama demonstrates how power is not necessarily fixed and based on hierarchy but how it can shift between people and positions. Yoon-jo confronts Song Sun-tae (Jo Han-chul), a team leader in the PR department, when the circumstances surrounding her hiring causes a scandal both within and outside of Seyong. She towers over him as he cowers at his desk, switching the dynamic expected between the two, since Sun-tae is her senior in both age and rank at Seyong. In another scene, Sun-tae is chastised this time by Ji Eun-jeong (Kim Jung), Yoon-jo’s direct supervisor, for trying to pile on extra work on Yoon-jo. As Eun-jeong makes her argument the camera pans up to her; through the scene it is obvious that Eun-jeong is no longer willing to put up with Sun-tae’s antics, and the cinematography also hints that this instance will be the last time that Eun-jeong allows Sun-tae to mess with her team.
Outside of individual interactions, there are other ways that the drama codes for power and the lack of it. The physical office space of the PR department is largely blue and gray, along with the clothes that many of them wear. On the other hand, Lim Ji-hyeon (Kim Hye-hwa), the chief strategy officer who created the position of CCO for Yi-jung, has an office flooded with natural light and colourful furniture. Her outfits are also much more extravagant and vibrant. As one of the most powerful executives as Seyong and the daughter of the late founder of the company, Ji-hyeon can afford to reject going against the grain of Seyong and standing out.
Indeed, one of the most prominent themes in Race is the struggle between following established traditions and instigating change. At an individual level, both Yoon-jo and Jae-min, face the repercussions of refusing to blindly follow orders. Yoon-jo is angrily told off multiple managers in departments at Seyong for suggesting a change in branding identity, and Jae-min is temporarily allocated to a different PR team because he refused to listen to Sun-tae’s orders. At a higher level which would affect how Seyong operates, Yi-jung also faces opposition. She faces constant resistance from her colleagues who protest changes by arguing that Seyong’s methods of doing things are tried and true, even if they are not.
Within a culture based in hierarchy and blindly following traditions, however, nobody wins. Those who try to resist like Yoon-jo, Jae-min, and Yi-jung can be shunned and disciplined. On the other hand, those who do keep their head down, do exactly what is asked and expected of them, and do not make waves, like Sun-tae, also lead unhappy lives in which their morals are compromised. There is no such thing as winning at the game; instead, Yi-jung forms a team with Yoon-jo, Jae-min, and some of their colleagues that seeks to overhaul the company culture at Seyong.
As individuals and as a team, the PR department at Seyong faces a variety of trials and tribulations, ranging from bad press about the company to the potential dissolution of their department. Yoon-jo often serves as a catalyst for shaking things up at Seyong. Yoon-jo, Jae-min, and Yi-jung are easy characters to like and root for. They are united in their passion to do the right thing, and it doesn’t hurt that they are also very competent at their respective jobs. Since things almost always end up working out for them, it is nice to see good things happen to likable characters. As a result, the drama does lack suspense. The PR industry, according to Race, can be cut throat and subject to a variety of crises. The tone of the drama, though, is gentle as the audience is always assured that each character will be perfectly okay.
The drama also hints at a variety of social issues without ever fleshing them out. Its attempts at addressing discrimination married women and mothers face at workplaces or queer relationships feels tokenizing. Throughout its run, Race slowly but surely feeds the audience information about its characters, through flashbacks as the characters themselves tell a story about their past or as they gossip about others. It is unfortunate that the same amount of detail did not extend to the discussion of, for example, misogyny in the workplace. Instead, the way the drama touches on subjects like maternity discrimination comes across as a half-hearted attempt to signal awareness of issues women face at work.
Race neither reinvents the wheel in terms of its storytelling or concept nor stuffs itself to the brim with clichés. It is a heartwarming drama that spotlights the various challenges corporate workers face at their workplace, and the ways that they adapt, overcome, and eventually emerge victorious together.
(YouTube, images via Disney+)