TV: Sweet Home (Season 1)

October 17, 2021

I don’t know much about South Korea, but if what I’ve seen of its media is any indication — Parasite and Squid Game leap to mind — it must be an incredibly stressful place to live. The apocalyptic horror scenario of Sweet Home, a live-action adaptation of a web comic, only reinforces that impression. It’s a bloody, dark, brutal show that doesn’t exactly reach Squid Game’s zeitgeisty heights, but scratches a similar itch.

The tenement apartment complex at the center of Sweet Home is like the world in microcosm: large, chaotic, run-down, full of various people who are quick to be at odds with one another. Into this edifice comes Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang), a depressed young man still reeling from extended personal traumas as he takes up residence in a grim little fourteenth-floor apartment. Indeed, Hyun-soo is on the verge of suicide when a bizarre plague strikes the city, one that randomly turns its citizens into monsters. As the crisis mounts, the apartment’s survivors gradually band together to turn the building into a fortress, contentiously collaborating to fend off the monsters. Hyun-soo, who suspects he too may have been infected with the plague, worries that he may turn into a monster at any moment…but the imminent end of the world instills in him an unexpected will to live, and he soon becomes an important, controversial new ally to his desperate neighbors as they fight for survival.

Sweet Home is a big, messy, lavish affair, with an enormous cast of characters, a rich backdrop, and scads of creepy, colorful CGI visual effects. While these effects aren’t always all that convincing, they are effectively stylized and integrate nicely into an increasingly chaotic, collapsing setting. (Indeed, the raw irreality of the effects makes the show’s gruesome violence and oceans of gore that much easier to handle.) As for the story, well, there isn’t much to it structurally; it’s basically a series of hair-raising, life-and-death crises that have the feel of an extended disaster film. But disaster films live or die on the success of their ensembles, and Sweet Home has a great one, a rich roster of characters who become increasingly more memorable and winning as conditions degrade and relationships are stressed. While Hyun-soo is the key figure, he’s only one of many protagonists. Also of note are Seo Yi-kyung (Lee Si-young), a former firefighter and woman-of-action whose fiancee may have been involved in the “monsterization” study; Pyeon Sang-wook (Lee Jin-wook), a suspected criminal with a mysterious past; Lee Eun-hyuk (Lee Do-hyun), a pragmatic, stoic former medical student who becomes the collective’s de facto leader; Lee Eun-yoo (Go Min-si), Eun-hyuk’s little sister, an aspiring ballerina whose career prospects were derailed by a ruined ankle; and quirky supporting characters too numerous to count. Sweet Home juggles them all adroitly, throwing them together in action-packed combinations that result in heroism, camaraderie, and of course tragic casualties. Ultimately it’s a simple survival story, then, reminiscent perhaps of what I’ve seen of The Walking Dead, but with less predictable genre world-building to its apocalyptic plague. That plague, while it isn’t all that consistently or coherently realized, adds intriguing thematic elements and welcome unpredictability. I’d be hard pressed to give Sweet Home a blanket recommendation: it’s incredibly violent and bloody, occasionally silly, and the narrative — particularly in the finale– is all over the map. But it’s a surprisingly absorbing contraption, and I have a feeling fans of disaster stories will really dig it.