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Uhm Ki-joon plays the villain in The Penthouse season three. The K-drama is becoming a victim of its own success.

K-drama midseason recap: The Penthouse season three – high society drama goes back to the well once too often

  • Coming hard on the heels of series two, The Penthouse’s third series has a tired feel to it, as if all involved are bored of its storylines and characters
  • The momentum that carried it through from the first season to the second has waned, and it now seems repetitive and bereft of fresh ideas

This article contains spoilers.

It’s a hard thing to keep a popular show going. On one hand, viewers want more of what they’ve already seen; on the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt. Therefore new seasons of hit series become a delicate balancing act.

The Penthouse followed up an outrageous and phenomenally successful first season with a supersized follow-up, which followed a similar template but turned everything up a notch. This summer’s season three had a tricky pinnacle to surpass and, two-thirds of the way through what is looking increasingly likely to be the final season of the show – if the drop in ratings are anything to go by – it has been unable to recreate the same spark.

For most series a new season arrives following a decent interval, usually a couple of calendar seasons, so show runners have some leeway with repetition, since absence makes the heart grow fonder.

But in the case of The Penthouse, SBS, one of the three main Korean broadcasters that have increasingly struggled to find an answer to the avalanche of high-quality hits coming from rival cable and streaming services, opted to strike while the iron was still hot.

The momentum carried the show through the second season, even though it launched only a month after the first finale, but going right back to the well for season three has resulted in a show that feels tired and bored of its own shenanigans. It’s not just the audience that needed a break, the writers also needed a hiatus, to be able to come back to the table with fresh ideas.

The Penthouse season 3: high society K-drama spins its wheels

That’s not to say that we haven’t seen new things happen on The Penthouse this season. Most the adult cast kicked off the season in jail, which was a novelty and provided a nice change of environment. But then there was Logan’s twin Alex, a walking mess of African-American cultural stereotypes and the kind of garish and ill-thought-out idea that people come up when they’ve run out of good ones.

The cast pulled strings and each found their way out of Sing Sing in record time, and after a mountain of criticism from international fans, Alex appears to have been written out of the show. Since his appearance in episode two, he has only been seen in one brief flashback, edited in such a way that we can’t see his face.

That leaves us with most of the characters back at Hera Palace and doing what they do best – stabbing each other in the back. The cautious alliances that have been cultivated throughout the show, particularly Cheon Seo-jin (Kim So-yeon) finding herself in league with Shim Su-ryeon (Lee Ji-ah) and Oh Yoon-hee (Eugene), were dashed when Seo-jin pushed Yoon-hee off a cliff, where Yoon-hee had just risked her life to save Seo-jin’s daughter Ha Eun-byeol (Choi Ye-bin).

Lee Ji-ah in a still from The Penthouse season three.

While the betrayal was hardly unexpected, it diluted our main focus of antipathy, which is of course the show’s villain Joo Dan-tae (Uhm Ki-joon). There’s also Eun-byeol’s possessive guardian Jin Boon-hong (Ahn Yeon-hong), one of the most poorly drawn characters throughout the run of the show, whose motives boil down to googly-eyed insanity.

Dan-tae was the one who left Yoon-hee to her demise and has been behind essentially every act of malfeasance that the show has thrown at us. This season we do finally get a bit of background information on him with the appearance of Baek Joon-ki (On Joo-wan).

A poor young Dan-tae was fostered by Joon-ki’s family in Japan but he killed his foster parents and stole their money, while Joon-ki was able to escape. Dan-tae’s real name is Baek Joon-ki, having stolen his current name from his foster family.

Eugene in a scene from The Penthouse season three.

Joon-ki appears in Dan-tae’s life, befriending his friends, ingratiating himself with his wife Seo-jin and even blackmailing him into letting him stay in his apartment. Aside from his unwelcome houseguest, Dan-tae is still scheming to score a massive redevelopment contract. Part of his plan involves burying artefacts at night in a rival site to halt construction.

Five episodes remain, and while Dan-tae is being squeezed on every side, that’s more than enough time for one more big rebound before what we must assume will be his eventual downfall in the finale.

Su-ryeon is the one placing the most pressure on him, but given the surprise reveal that Logan Lee (Park Eun-seok) didn’t perish in an explosion, he may figure in the plot to take him down before long.

Kim So-yeon (left) and Uhm Ki-joon in a still from The Penthouse season three.

That leaves us with Yoon-hee, whose corpse, appearing very much dead, was rolled out in front of her daughter. But the dead have a pesky habit of coming back to life in The Penthouse and it’s hard to image the show sacrificed one of its leads permanently halfway through the season.

The Penthouse season three is streaming on Viu.