The first Korean-language drama to debut on Apple TV+, Dr. Brain is an intriguing blend of imaginative science fiction and mystery. The show’s strongest facet is its protagonist, Dr. Sewon Koh (played by Parasite’s Lee Sun-kyun, who is quickly established as a former child prodigy with a traumatic past. He has an eidetic memory and strong math skills, but is unable to express any feelings. Lee, the series lead, must carry scenes without emoting heavily, yet the actor’s talent and charisma still shine through. His evocative work sets up the wild ride Sewon takes in season one.
A prominent brain scientist, Sewon is reeling from the disappearance of his gifted young son, Doyoon (Jeong Si-on). His wife Jaeyi (Lee You-young) is in a coma. He then becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Junki Lim (Kim Ju-hun), Jaeyi’s apparent lover. (All in all, not a great month for Sewon.) Determined to figure out the cause behind all these events, Sewon tests a machine he developed that can conduct “brain syncs”—essentially transferring memories and traits from a dead person’s mind into his own.
Based on a popular webtoon of the same name (by Hong Jac-ga), Dr. Brain plays with the fascinating ways in which the mind manipulates perception, identity, and reality. Who wouldn’t want to access their loved ones’ thoughts, or even those of strangers they’ve crossed paths with, to learn what impression they’re really making? And at what cost? These are moral and ethical dilemmas of epic proportions, but neither Sewon nor the gripping show have time to question them in depth—this is a swiftly moving thriller, after all.
The memories and attributes Sewon is now able to access become a kind of superpower that’s both a blessing and curse. Though he’s quickly able to solve a complex case, Sewon starts to lose his grip on reality. The first five (out of six) Dr. Brain episodes are tightly paced: The action, multiple twists, and futuristic technology infuse the story with adrenaline. The ending of episode two, “Mind Games,” cements Dr. Brain’s commitment to its mind-tricking themes, and emphasizes the dangerous potential of the brain syncing invention.
Sewon gets help in his mission from various sources, including: sarcastic private investigator Kangmu Lee (Park Hee-soon); Lieutenant Choi (Seo Ji-hye), the police detective hunting for Junki Lim’s killer; and Namil Hong (Lee Jae-won), a fellow brain researcher who works at his lab. But all three have their own agendas, as well. Sewon is also being chased by goons as he races to save his family, unknowingly stumbling into a massive, nefarious scheme.
A sweeping mystery and sci-fi hybrid like this one can get bogged down if the unique ideas aren’t fully developed or are used simply as convenient plot devices. It can often seem like Dr. Brain is juggling too many brain syncs and crimes—murders, kidnapping, arson, corruption, fatal accidents. But the writing seamlessly weaves the threads and characters together. Dr. Brain is so compelling, it doesn’t necessarily matter that the final answers to all the twists aren’t very surprising or complicated.
Series creator and director Kim Jee-woon immerses viewers in Sewon’s world, both real and cerebral, with the help of stunning cinematography. Every frame is utilized to bring the show to life, from ethereal slow-motion shots to Sewon briefly imagining a monster; from bright city lights to the changing color palettes that establish the character perspective Sewon is exploring in any given moment.
As a result of the many memories soon living inside him, Sewon undergoes personality shifts and starts to open up. This advancement allows Lee to eventually display his character’s vulnerabilities, especially in the last couple of episodes. The show’s pace considerably slows down for the 70-minute finale, almost jarringly so. Most of the action and twists come to a halt once the cards are on the table.
That last outing, “A Certain Smell,” gives Lee and the other actors space to revel in emotions they hadn’t been able to explore previously. It’s interesting to witness, but Dr. Brain draws out its inevitable conclusion much longer than needed, thereby squandering some of the goodwill the season garners. Still, the source material transforms into a reliable first original for Apple TV+ as it launches in South Korea. With the success of K-dramas—as well as Netflix’s Squid Game still topping viewing charts—there’s no better time for Dr. Brain to leave its mark.