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Lee Ji-ah in a still from The Penthouse season three. Events so far have beggared belief to the extent that the never-ending twists have lost some of their edge.

K-drama The Penthouse season three: high society drama spins its wheels, gets into hot water over cultural appropriation

  • Events have beggared belief to the extent that the never-ending twists have lost some of their edge, with villains out of jail almost as soon as they were in
  • In a regrettable effort to make things more colourful, the writers have given us a new character – who is a smorgasbord of troubling racial stereotypes

Western soap operas typically air for years and, while writers have to find new and inventive ways to top previous highs, the tempo will vary in the interest of longevity.

However, the soap-opera-style shows on prime-time television in South Korea – known as makjang dramas – have much shorter runs and consequently more concentrated highs and a lot less downtime.

Launched last October, high society drama The Penthouse was so successful that it bucked the trend by getting an extra two seasons, the latest of which began airing this month.

Ever since it started, the show has presented some of the most outrageous characters and storylines seen on Korean television, and the writers have sought to top themselves with each new outing.

We only get 12 episodes this season, which for the moment appears to be the last, but they are each on the long side (running over 80 minutes) and they are airing once a week on Fridays as opposed to the usual twice-a-week schedule.

In the first two episodes of this season, fates have changed with dizzying speed and – while logic has never been the show’s strong suit – events so far have beggared belief to the extent that the never-ending twists have lost some of their edge. What’s more, a gigantic misstep in episode two, involving tone-deaf cultural appropriation, may prove difficult to recover from.

K-drama review: The Penthouse season two – gleeful finale keeps us wanting more

Things kick off at Hera Palace with another flash-forward season opener, as an unexplained event causes a statue to break off from the tip of the tower, smash through the skylight and destroy the fountain statue that caught Min Seol-a (Jo Soo-min) in its arms all the way back in the series opener. Meanwhile, a man’s body floats in the pool of water below.

Season two ended with most of the villains – which in The Penthouse means about two-thirds of the adult cast – in jail, but it also gave us two new faces and a cliffhanger as Logan Lee (Park Eun-seok) had apparently perished in an explosion.

Back in the present, the season begins in prison as we delight at seeing Joo Dan-tae (Uhm Ki-joon), the snarly and treacherous villain we all love to hate, getting his comeuppance in a crowded cell. Meanwhile, soprano scoundrel Cheon Seo-jin (Kim So-yeon) has bagged herself a nice room, but her privileges are soon revoked and she finds herself beat up and serenading the queen bee in a new cell.

Bong Tae-gyu (left) and Yoon Jong-hoon in a still from The Penthouse season three.

Among the other incarcerated degenerates from Hera Palace, Lee Kyu-jin (Bong Tae-gyu) is being bullied in his cell. At one point, he dumps his hands into a toilet bowl full of urine when he hallucinates about his wife – hands which he then rubs all over his face.

That unsanitary interlude aside, the former conspirators soon find themselves in the same men’s and women’s cells, with the tables turned as Dan-tae and Seo-jin are forced under the feet of new alphas.

But this doesn’t last for long, as the ever wily Dan-tae finds a way out of jail for a few hours, during which he improbably dresses up as an old man and blows up Logan. The ploy is reminiscent of the modern French classic A Prophet, which also informed the more recent Korean thriller The Prison.

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However, Dan-tae’s complicated machinations to secure those hours out of jail wind up being somewhat nugatory as he gets himself released soon after that anyway. Seo-jin also gets herself paroled when she acts crazy, and everyone else scores an early release in short order.

With everyone back in Hera Palace, the status quo is soon restored. Shim Su-ryeon (Lee Ji-ah) and Oh Yoon-hee (Eugene) are still after Dan-tae; the latter is spearheading a new real estate scheme; Seo-jin is focusing her powers on restoring the Cheong-ah Group; and all the kids are trying to get into Seoul National University, with their parents offering varying levels of support and criminal help.

Yet the same thing isn’t really cutting it this season, as the alliances are largely the same and the new characters haven’t been terribly effective for the moment. The writers have also come up with less enticing scenarios for their characters and, in an effort to make things more colourful, given us one new character that never should have made it past the brainstorm board.

Yoon Joo-hee (left) and Shin Eun-kyung in a still from The Penthouse season three.

Park Eun-seok already got to dress up in a wig and fake teeth earlier in the show, and now appears as Logan’s brother Alex, who struts into Su-ryeon’s penthouse with his black gang, dreadlocks, gold chains and a thick accent.

While there may not have been any malice to this cultural appropriation, it’s telling that the writers didn’t see a problem with Alex, who is a smorgasbord of troubling racial stereotypes.

Equally telling is that South Korean media and commentators seemingly saw no issue with the portrayal, which only became an issue after foreign viewers expressed their disapproval.

Kim So-yeon in a still from The Penthouse season three.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a character like Alex can emerge in a culture where blackface still crops up in the media but, given how global the audience for K-dramas has become, the industry needs to look beyond its own borders and cultural norms.

The Penthouse season three is streaming on Viu.