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Veteran actor Jung Jae-young stars in K-drama On the Verge of Insanity, which focuses on South Korea’s tough work culture.

ReviewK-drama review: On the Verge of Insanity – compelling office drama ditches realism for happy ending

  • For the legions of salaried workers, On the Verge of Insanity has offered a relatable view of South Korea’s often suffocating and stressful office culture
  • After several satisfying mini-climaxes in its midseason run the series embarks on a glum trajectory, then pivots to an unlikely fairy-tale ending

This article contains spoilers.

3.5/5 stars

Not every TV series is designed with a broad audience in mind, and although lower ratings may seem a less appealing prospect for broadcasters, programmes with a narrow focus can often communicate their message more effectively to viewers.

Modern K-dramas are often overstuffed as their creators try to seduce a diffuse and increasingly global audience. While it’s true that the more you throw at a wall the more likely it is that something will stick, the resultant mix of incongruous elements can sometimes be off-putting. Not everything has the messy charm of Vincenzo.

On the Verge of Insanity is one of these smaller shows. The series is led by Jung Jae-young and Moon So-ri, veteran stars better known for their acclaimed film roles than TV dramas, and the setting is the Changin research and development campus of fictional household appliance maker Hanmyeong. The drama within the story is almost exclusively derived from office politics; family drama, though present, is kept to a minimum, and there’s barely a hint of romance.

South Korea’s tough work culture is notorious, and few things are as prized in the country as job offers from the country’s all-powerful family-run “chaebol” corporations, which include Samsung and LG, known for their household appliance divisions. Within the vaunted sanctums of these companies, unwavering loyalty is expected from employees – loyalty that isn’t always returned.

On the Verge of Insanity midseason recap: thrilling K-drama

Human resources manager Dang Ja-young (Moon) is exceptionally devoted to her work. She places the company’s needs over any personal concerns and frequently runs afoul of workers who view her as a company stooge. Ja-young is single, lives with her friend Shin Jung-a (Cha Chung-hwa), another admin manager on the Changin campus, and essentially has no personal life, save for occasional incidents concerning her ailing father.

Engineer Choi Ban-seok (Jung) doesn’t share Ja-young’s slavish devotion to Hanmyeong, but he’s equally driven in his work, and will go to the ends of the earth to perfect the products he’s working on.

Then there is Han Se-kwon (Lee Sang-yeob), the perpetual thorn in everyone’s side. Se-kwon is rich and has family connections, including his distant cousin Han Seung-ki (Jo Bok-rae), the CEO of Hanmyeong Electronics. Se-kwon is also completely absorbed in his work, but his singular focus is neither a by-product of his loyalty or any pride in his work.

Painfully aware of his own shortcomings, he’s vindictive, tramples over people to get ahead and only cares about chasing promotions.

Jung (left) and Moon So-ri in a scene from On the Verge of Insanity.

For the legions of salaried workers in the country, On the Verge of Insanity offers a relatable view of Korea’s oftentimes suffocating office culture. Ultimately everyone is trying to survive, including the company itself, but no matter how loyal any individual worker is, they are only ever one gaffe away from dismissal.

This ever-present tension allows for characters to rise and fall in quick succession, and the show builds to several satisfying mini-climaxes throughout its midseason run. However, what goes up must come down, and the series ploughs through a pretty glum narrative in its final stretch of episodes.

After orchestrating a painful round of voluntary resignations at the start of the series, Ja-young is once again forced to put employees on the chopping block, including Ban-seok, in episode 11. Ban-seok doesn’t take his forced dismissal lightly and fights back, which puts a temporary halt to the layoffs but also causes a superior to demand Ja-young’s resignation.

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She also finds a way to survive, but there are no victories here. Ban-seok and Ja-young both wind up reassigned to embarrassing positions and the pall of death hangs over the whole campus, as we’ve known from the start that Hanmyeong Electronics is planning to sell it off and dissolve the unit.

Having set up this grim scenario, On the Verge of Insanity suddenly has Ban-seok quitting the firm and striking out on his own.

He manages to convince Ja-young and a few other key members of the campus to leave their posts and join his penniless start-up as well, and within the course of the final episode they go from rags to riches, scoring a gigantic order from their former CEO with the help of none other than Se-kwon, who becomes the angel investor that saves them in the nick of time.

Lee Sang-yeob in a still from On the Verge of Insanity.

Given how consistently awful Se-kwon has been throughout the series, this feels like a betrayal of his character, not to mention a slap in the face of the protagonists who have suffered at his hands.

Of course, life seldom offers pat conclusions, and we sometimes have to deal with the devil to survive, but in the show’s final moments, Se-kwon somehow sheds his mantle as antagonist and CEO Han Seung-ki becomes the chief villain, and is promptly served his just desserts.

As a family heir turned corporate CEO, Seung-ki is an easy target, but he’s no worse than Se-kwon, just a little richer.

On the Verge of Insanity targeted an older audience, but that also meant that it was occasionally a bit old-fashioned. Se-kwon’s bad behaviour is too easily excused because of daddy issues, and Ja-young, the show’s best character – which draws its best performance from Moon – is helped or saved once too often by Ban-seok.

Moon in a still from On the Verge of Insanity.

On the Verge of Insanity is streaming on Viu.