Loosely based on the webtoon Holy Idol, the premise of new K-drama The Heavenly Idol reads like something pieced together by an AI story plot generator. The new fantasy series features Business Proposal scene-stealer Kim Min-kyu in two roles: Pontifex Rembrary, a high priest from another realm, and Woo Yeon-woo, the visual center of failed K-pop boyband Wild Animal. Following a fierce fight with the Evil One (Lee Jang-woo), the antagonist of Rembrary’s home dimension, the high priest is cast into the body of Yeon-woo and forced to live the life of a K-pop idol while he attempts to find his way home.
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Swept out of his regal robes and into crop tops, chains and smoky-eyed makeup, Rembrary’s arrival in modern-day Seoul couldn’t have come at a worse time. Wild Animal have failed to take off in the first three years of their career and the CEO of their agency, LLL Entertainment’s Im Sun-ja (Ye Ji-won), has to plead her way into a performance slot at one of South Korea’s weekly music shows to promote Wild Animal’s new album.
Unfortunately, the inter-dimensional body swap occurs just minutes before Wild Animal are due to take the stage. What Sun-ja hopes will be the band’s big break ends up with Rembrary (in the body of Yeon-woo) declaring on live national television that he does not know how to dance, enraging his bandmates – half of whom are convinced, in a particularly meta moment, that Yeon-woo is doing a bit in hopes of landing himself a role in a fantasy drama – and pushing their overworked manager to quit. As the agency scrambles to save Wild Animal from the fallout, Yeon-woo is taken to a hospital, where doctors fail to find out what’s wrong with him.
The Heavenly Idol takes a number of liberties with its source material, one of which is the inclusion of leading lady Kim Dal (Go Bo-gyeol), a former manager at leading agency MK Entertainment who has been unemployed since nearly losing a member of one of her acts to suicide. She’s also a passionate fan of Wild Animal and Yeon-woo in particular, who we later learn had dissuaded her from taking her own life out of guilt two years ago. Concerned for her idol’s mental health, Dal monitors the plight of Wild Animal on online communities and carries out her own investigation into Yeon-woo’s sudden personality change.
The greatest asset of the series, without question, is Kim Min-kyu, whose performance as the fish-out-of-water Rembrary effortlessly cuts through the tension of the heavier subject matter without trivialising any of it. With his impeccable comedic timing and scandalised reactions to the normalised mistreatment of Wild Animal, one can’t help but root for the confused priest-turned-idol as he navigates the life of a failed K-pop star. The real Yeon-woo also makes brief appearances, which make clear how just two years in the harsh industry have disillusioned the optimistic young man – to the point he refuses to return to his old life when Rembrary finally manages to contact him.
Two episodes in, Dal hasn’t had nearly as much screen time as Rembrary, but Go’s articulation of her character’s painful past and her resulting traumas is solid and sympathetic. Dal will certainly be one to watch as she decides to step back out into the world as Wild Animal’s new manager, determined to help Yeon-woo through what she believes to be a psychological break while saving the group’s image.
Despite its undeniably wacky premise and overall goofy tone, The Heavenly Idol is a surprising new gem that mines drama from circumstances well-known to observers of our own K-pop world: think shady dealings between broadcast stations and entertainment agencies and the brutality of online mud-slinging. Rembrary, who hails from an entirely different world, serves as a relatable voice of reason amid the idiosyncrasies and cruelties of the industry.
It is not the first K-drama series to shed light on the plight of unsuccessful idol groups (JTBC’s Idol: The Coup and a Hello, My Twenties! subplot come to mind) and certainly won’t be the last. But just two episodes in, The Heavenly Idol shows tremendous potential both in its entertainment value and in the stories it tells of underdogs in the idol world.
The Heavenly Idol airs every Wednesday and Thursday on tvN (and 24 hours later on tvN Asia). It is also streaming on Viki and Viu in selected regions.