Early on in episode 2, Sewon, the lead character in Dr. Brain, sees a dead cat and, without a hint of humour or a wink, turns to another character and says, po-faced, “I’m going to brain sync with her”. It’s a moment in the new show from Apple TV+ that will decide whether you are onboard. It’s an utterly ridiculous concept - made even more so by the after-effects of acquiring the memories of said cat - yet it works entirely within the show’s universe. Dr. Brain is a show that asks you to check your disbelief at the door then takes you on a wild ride that is thrilling, preposterous and yet remarkably sure of itself.
The story follows Sewon (Lee Sun-kyun, most recognisable from the movie Parasite), a brain scientist (you weren’t expecting detailed profiles of their jobs, were you?) who’s experimenting in the field of ‘brain syncing’. The practice involves connecting two brains and ‘syncing them’, allowing one brain to gain the memories of the other. The exact science is barely explained before we’ve progressed past lab rats to Sewon trying out the technique ON HIMSELF. You see, Sewon has a reason to do this, other than a fast-moving plot. As well as an accident befalling his mother at an early age, he has also lost his son and wife to tragic incidents. He hopes to use these techniques to uncover what happened to them. He is aided by his Incredible Brain™ which the show seems to imply is directly as a result of being on the Autism spectrum. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t delve any deeper, mainly using the Autism as a plot device.
That sets us off on a non-stop rollercoaster of murders, kip-napping, car chases, gun fits, martial arts, double-crosses, people appearing alive after being thought dead and vice versa. Phew, it’s enough to make your head spin like Sewon.
Thankfully, it’s all expertly balanced by director and co-writer Kim Jee-woon (I Saw The Devil), who keeps the many plates spinning throughout its 6 episode run to its showdown - and maybe a little too tidy - finale. That’s the real success with this show; it has an almost endless occurrence of twists and action scenes, but they all work and are enjoyable as hell. A good comparison would be with an airport novel, one you buy to burn through on a beach holiday. Its twists are outlandish and often come out of nowhere. The plot is sometimes ridiculous. But the characters sell it, and you can’t help but want to find out what is on the next page.
Another strong sell is Sun-kyun, who starts out emotionally disconnected with everyone (which makes you wonder how he wooed his wife in the first place - remember that disbelief you should have checked at the door?) but gradually starts to open up as he continues acquiring more memories of people.
One huge negative of the show is unfortunately not the fault of the makers: subtitles. As has been recently documented with Korean smash ‘Squid Game’, English subtitles of Korean language shows are not great. Too often, the subtitles are either way too functional or just terrible dialogue. It’s a hard job due to the very different construction of language compared to English or other western tongues, but it would be good for Apple to do a better job of this and lead by example. Just because it’s from a different culture doesn’t mean the show should suffer from a poor translation.
On the visual side, the early episodes have a wonderful neon glow to them, with colours lighting up the background as well as the complexions of our characters. Along with mysterious shadows in doorways and bizarre amorphous blobs Sewon sees as the memories of the dead bleed into his consciousness, there is a strong Lynchian vibe and some classic horror tropes. One disappointment is that the horror side and a lot of the bold visual styling give way after the first two or three episodes, taken over by the constant forward momentum of the plot. That’s great, too, but I did come to miss the scares of the early scenes, which were incredibly effective.
But credit where credit is due; the show knows where it’s going, even if it frequently feels like it doesn’t. Plot strands that seem to come out of nowhere do eventually tie back up, even if we have to go through a bad guy, evil plan monologue to get there. There’s also a good deal of duex ex machina, especially when it comes to the science of ‘syncing’.
That’s the key here; no matter what is going on and what crazy twist has just happened, you always feel the creators have their hands firmly on the tiller, guiding the show firmly to its destination. By way of some cat super-powers, of course.