tv review

Dr. Brain Gets Trapped in Its Head

Photo: Courtesy of Apple

Dr. Brain, a new six-episode drama from writer-director Kim Jee-woon, is Apple TV+’s first South Korean series, and it’s a curious combination of glorious, terrifying genre storytelling with the plodding dramatic rhythms familiar from many other Apple TV+ hour-long series. The titular Dr. Brain is Sewon, a neuroscientist with autism who struggles to cope with the tragic loss of his young son. Sewon, played by Parasite’s Lee Sun-kyun, launches himself into a half-noir, half-horror story when he invents a machine that syncs brain waves, enabling a recipient to absorb the memories of a deceased donor. Unsurprisingly, Sewon elects to use the machine on himself, giving him clues to solve the mystery of what happened to his son.

The premise is absolutely absurd — like a Frankenstein where the doctor uses himself to make the monster, and also a bit like a hyperserious iteration of the American CW series iZombie — and the best moments of Dr. Brain are when it registers that intense weirdness. It is a dark, heavy series, and with a scant few exceptions, its inclination is never to lean into the goofiness of Sewon’s electric-sparking light-up brain-wave machine. Instead, Dr. Brain is strongest when Sewon’s experience of someone else’s brain twists into nightmarish horror spectacles. The anticipation as he puts the brain-wave cap on for the first time is excellent and the look of muted terror on Sewon’s face as he realizes what he’s done: This is when Dr. Brain churns along at full power.

What’s frustrating, though, is that too often Dr. Brain dodges the dark freakiness of its central idea and instead lingers on rote, slow-moving mystery plotting. Sewon’s journey through the surprising twists of his family’s past could be great — the pieces are all there! Several of the reveals are legitimately surprising, and with each one, there’s a surge of energy that makes you hopeful the series will start operating at a slightly faster pace. But few of the supporting characters have as much energy or detail behind them as Sewon. It’d be especially helpful, for instance, if Jiun (Seo Ji-hye), the police lieutenant investigating the case, were more of an interesting foil for Sewon. Sewon’s co-worker Namil (Lee Jae-won) could also be a more effective check on Sewon’s clearly dubious decision-making. It’s not that the arc of Sewon’s descent into madness needs to change; it’s that Dr. Brain would feel more assured if its supporting characters helped articulate and reflect the horror of that descent.

The supporting characters seem weirdly unimpressed by Sewon’s slow transformation into a brain-hacked patchwork of a person. It’s a bit jarring that the series spends as much time as it does on Sewon’s investigation into his son’s death, when at the same time, Sewon brain-syncs with a cat and acquires magical cat powers that allow him to leap into high trees and see in the dark. Dr. Brain is trying to walk a fine line here — Sewon’s brain-transferred abilities are a means to an end, a way to plumb his psychological trauma rather than an end goal for the series. If the abilities are goofy, okay, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that his sadness is important, and unraveling the mystery is important. Nevertheless, he is a very sad dad who can occasionally turn on cat eyesight so he can see in the dark. Dr. Brain would love for viewers to focus on the sadness, but given only six hours of this series, it’s hard not to feel like the “man acquires superhuman cat powers” element gets short shrift.

Still, in the scenes where Dr. Brain fully owns its nightmares, it is undeniably impressive. After a slow, meandering first episode that’s overburdened with exposition, Sewon performs his first brain sync. On the way home, he’s gripped by nausea and ends up doubled over in an alley, retching and reeling in pain. He straightens up, and for a short instant it seems as though he might be in control of himself again. Then, in the distance, his newly hacked brain conjures a nightmare: A pile of trash becomes a monster and wakes up, towering higher and higher, an unending sluice of trashy runoff and unspeakable slime. This kind of scene is what Dr. Brain does best, and it’s worth checking out for that alone. Nevertheless, the power of a moment like that makes it all the more clear when Dr. Brain fails to live up to its own potential.

Dr. Brain Gets Trapped in Its Head