Nobody Knows: the best show you didn’t watch

A good watchman chases unfortunate things

Not since last year’s Children of Nobody has Korea produced a crime thriller that perfectly combines a great mystery, characters you care about deeply, and a wonderful emotional core that you can connect with every step of the way.

Nobody Knows has just finished airing and, while it rated nearly 10% at home, it got barely any buzz in the rest of the world. And yet the show was the best crime thriller to come out of Korea since the aforementioned Children of Nobody and deserves far more attention than it has been getting.

Detective Cha Young-jin and her young friend, Go Eun-ho are in framed in the doorway of a dark and secret room. Are they looking in or is the room looking out?
Direction and cinematography in Nobody Knows is perfect at drawing you in and keeping you

The Plot

Reeling from the brutal murder of her childhood friend, Cha Young-jin (Kim Seo-hyung) becomes a detective and devotes her life to tracking down the ‘Stigmata’ serial killer; a religious serial murderer who hasn’t killed since he murdered her friend 19 years previously. Now in her late 30s, she is an admired veteran police officer but also an obsessed workaholic. She lives alone but has a somewhat unconventional friendship with her neighbour’s young son, the 15-year-old Go Eun-ho (Ahn Ji-ho).

When Eun-ho has a terrible accident, Young-jin pursues answers with the same determination with which she has approached her friend’s murder. And in doing so, she begins to uncover the truth about what happened 20 years ago and why.

The Characters

Kim Seo-hyung is transcendent in this role as the tough, ass-kicking cop with a warm heart. Whip-smart but not cynical, she has the ability to see through people’s facades to the core of who they are and provide support, care, empathy and safety to those who need it. The saying “cold head, warm heart” seems made entirely for her and her intellect is matched only by her capacity to provide protection to those who need it.

It is this – her ability to protect – that makes her a classical warrior, one who fights to protect rather than to enslave or dominate. It’s through this powerful female character that the show examines what it means to be a community of adults to children who need guidance and care.

Kim Seo-hyung used her physical presence and stark angular face to break the fourth wall and become one of last year’s most powerful antagonists in the brilliant Sky Castle. Here she uses those same features  in almost the same way and yet manages instead to convey a powerful figure of morality and authority.

Kim Seo-hyung as Cha Young-jin in Nobody Knows looks straight out at us from behind the screen with a piercing gaze
Kim Seo-hyung is perfectly cast as Cha Young-jin

Young-jin may be grim and black-clad but her home is full of light and plants and is a safe haven for the neglected Eun-ho, forced too young into adulthood. Eun-ho is a ray of sunshine and Ahn Ji-ho imbues him with a perfectly-pitched pseudo-adulthood: an extremely mature child who is nonetheless still a child in need of an adult to guide him. Eun-ho shines, both for us as an audience and for Young-jin herself.

In an extremely hierarchical age-based society such as Korea, a woman of Young-jin’s age describing her relationship with a young boy as a friendship is as disconcerting a concept to the other characters as it is to us. Yet every time Young-jin calls Eun-ho ‘Chingu’ it’s beautiful: a moment where friendship transcends age and social boundaries.

Eun-ho and Young-jin on the phone to each other
Eun-ho and Young-jin share an unconventional friendship in Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows is full of abandoned, overlooked ducklings needing a mother duck to follow and its overarching question “What happens if the duck that saves them is leading them into darkness rather than the light?” is something it never loses sight of for 16 episodes.

In fact the show’s Duckling scenes – children that need to be tended and cared for to grow properly just like the plants on Young-jin’s balcony – are Nobody Knows‘ emotional core and its greatest strength. We care about these children and we want them to be saved. More importantly we care about Young-jin and the way in which the trauma and pain of her life never causes her to lose sight of the kind of person she wants to be.

Young-jin’s three most important ducklings – the beautiful ray of sunshine that is Eun-ho, the brooding Ju Dong-myung (Yoon Chan-young) and the privileged but deeply unhappy Ha Min-sung (Yoon Jae-yong) – are a joy to watch as is their homeroom teacher Lee Sun-woo (Ryu Deok-hwan) who gets drawn in trying to protect his young charges.

 Teacher Lee Sun-woo sits talking to trouble student, Ha Min-sung
In contrast to Young-jin, Lee Sun-woo is timid, uncertain, and often second guesses himself

Lee Sun-woo is loathe to get involved with his students due to a nasty bullying incident in which he suspects he backed the wrong child. Determined not to make the same mistake again, he becomes embroiled almost against his will. Ryu Deok-hwan is a small man, delightfully beta and his Sun-woo is frequently damselled, much to this viewer’s delight.

And while a lot of viewers were shipping him and Young-jin quite badly by the end of the drama, I’m afraid I have bad news – there is no romance in Nobody Knows.

Balancing our Young-jin and her own little cadre of ducklings is Baek Sang-ho, played with a kind of delicious if somewhat overdone evil by an often campy Park Hoon. Korean dramas do tend to like their villains to moustache twirl and Park Hoon complies with possibly too much relish.

Still, as a counterpoint to Young-jin his character works extremely well. Which brings us to the greatest strength of Nobody Knows as a drama – possibly even more than its ability to make us care about these characters and what happens to them – its thematic underpinnings and commitment to its own story.

Park Hoon stars at us maniacally in a dim lit room
Park Hoon’s moustache twirling ramps up over the series until it becomes slightly overdone

Show’s themes and its perfect ending

It’s unfortunately rare for even the most well-conceived dramas to carry their themes to the end. In Korea, the live shoot schedule often means the back half is written in a desperate flurry with audience feedback, sponsorship, and network opinions coming strongly into play and often derailing the show. To get to the end of a drama and be able to say that it knew the story it wanted to tell and actually told it is a rare thing.

Nobody Knows is that rare beast.

From its very first scene with the teenage Young-jin and the Ghost Plant that shares her friend’s name, Nobody Knows has an underlying theme about children, parenting, society and plants. Commensalism, amensalism, symbiosis, survival of the fittest.

Are people parasites or symbiotes? Do they prey on each other or build each other up?

What kind of adult do you want to be? is a question asked not just of Sun-woo and Young-jin but of every other adult on the show and of the audience itself.

With the show underpinned by a friendship between a woman on the cusp of middle age and a highschool boy, it examines the power of found family and the people we look to when those we are related to let us down. Do they nurture and protect or use and abuse? Adults can ruin or save a life and how we rear children as a community matters.

Good adults make good children

Cha-young and a young boy sit on the stairs of an apartment building. She is looking at him with affection

Not to say that the show is perfect. It isn’t. Stretching it to 16 episodes clearly took effort. The show relies too much on a MacGuffin and the back half gets mired in flashbacks and treasure hunts, and even gets a bit heavy-handed.

But the ending is perfect. And the show retains its raw emotions from beginning to end; being uplifting and powerful in a way that satiates the viewer. You leave the drama heart full and there are few crime thrillers that can claim that.

From a technical perspective, the show is also moody, atmospheric and sometimes even unexpectedly beautiful. Its quality direction, cinematography and subtle use of music pulls you in and keeps you tethered.

Nobody Knows is definitely a drama that’s worth watching. It never forgot what it was about and that’s a quality reserved for only the very best of Korean television – or television from anywhere.

Young-jin and Eun-ho are on a rooftop. Eun-ho's head is bandaged and he seems injured. Young-jin is holding back tears of relief that he is unarmed. The sun is setting behind them and the rooftop is bathed in soft light.
Nobody Knows never lets its plot overwhelm its emotional core


4 thoughts on “Nobody Knows: the best show you didn’t watch

    1. 🤣🤣🤣

      But also *sigh*

      Why are all the best shows so overlooked? A Piece Of Your Mind is even more unloved and it’s such a beautiful examination of grief.

      At least Nobody Knows rated okay in Korea, which just goes to show that even in the Year of the Creep people still want great female characters and well-written shows that make you think and feel.

  1. Okay, so this makes us 3 people out of 5 who watched this. Thank you for sharing this piece LT. It remains one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever watched. KSH’s Young-jin and the ducklings have a forever place in my heart.

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