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Agents of Mystery review – a gameshow that is pure escapist joy
Culture TV and Radio

Agents of Mystery review – a gameshow that is pure escapist joy

Three people are about to become human sacrifices! Who can possibly save them? How about a comedian, a singer and an actor? If they can work together to crack a code and open a locked door, disaster might just be averted.

Agents of Mystery is, like last year’s Zombieverse, an immersive Korean game show with celebrity contestants where enjoyably silly dramas unspool and the famous people, who don’t know what’s coming, must improvise to keep up. This one, though, has a more obvious influence in real-life leisure trends. The six stars – comedians Lee Yong-jin and Lee Eun-ji, singers Karina and John Park, and actors Lee Hye-ri and Kim Do-hoon – enter enclosed spaces that contain a mystery or a puzzle, the solution to which allows access to another place with another enigma to crack. It’s basically a series of televised escape rooms, with famous people as participants. You’re a celebrity, get yourself out of there.

Production values are a mix of high and low. Every individual moment is pretty basic: there’s a switch hidden in a hole in the wall, or a padlock needs to be opened and there’s a big bunch of keys to work through to find the one that works. The scale of the operation is impressive: the celebs spend three 50-minute episodes on each of two adventures, so the stories they’re dropped into are complex. For the first, the producers have got hold of an abandoned warehouse or factory and decked it out as a collection of rooms encircling a grand hall, inhabited by scores of extras in white hoods and cloaks.

Having supposedly signed up to work for the X Investigation Network, the stars are tasked with infiltrating a human-sacrifice cult to rescue three women who share the same birthday. When the players get to the spooky premises, there are instruments of torture lying around and mysterious hieroglyphs written on walls in dripping blood. Religious symbols abound and creepy-crawlies are a recurring theme. Before long there’s a man on a leash pretending to be a dog who has a clue written on his face.

They’re vividly realised, but you’re not meant to take these horror motifs at all seriously. Agents of Mystery is pure, lighthearted fun. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, perhaps it’s the distance, but Korean celebrities in shows like this always seem so much more cheerful and wholesome than their British equivalents would be. The gang never seems to include an arms-folded, take-me-as-you-find-me antagonist whose plain speaking is really just rudeness, or an ageing contrarian whose most succinct and truthful bio would simply read “bigot”. There’s nothing but supportive bonhomie, good-natured ribbing and confidence-building compliments, exchanged by nice high-achievers with bright eyes and wide smiles. It’s cleansing.

They also come across as smarter than their UK counterparts. It is hard to imagine, say, Nick Knowles, Josh Widdicombe and Dani Dyer working together to deduce that the random symbols they are looking at not only form a cipher, but one that conceals words in a foreign language – but that’s the turning point of episode one of Agents of Mystery, when the assorted comedians, actors and singers correctly identify the hieroglyphs as representing English letters. This allows them to spell out a phrase, which gives them the password to a laptop, which plays them a video containing instructions on how to access a hidden room.

You must, of course, dispel the suspicion that lingers over any show like this, which is that filming is regularly stopped so that the producers can give the cast hints. These contestants are game enough to sell the fiction, and the show helps them by neatly undercutting our expectations early on. Having received their initial briefing, the six investigators are invited into the Teleport Chamber, a lift-sized room with rickety sliding doors. They and we expect a few flashing lights, another set of sliding doors and a different set on the other side, but instead the whole edifice blares and judders, to the cast’s surprise, before depositing them back through the same doors on to a set that’s magically changed. “I thought they’d just edit it and have us go, ‘Wow, teleportation!’” says John Park, reflecting on this revelatory experience. They obviously did just edit it, but it’s nice when the artifice has had a bit of extra effort put into it.

The puzzles aren’t quite pitched perfectly for maximum audience participation – you can’t see what’s going on well enough to get into the solving process yourself and start shouting advice at the screen – yet there’s not enough scene-by-scene detail in the narrative for the brainteasers to become irrelevant. Once you’ve bought into it, however, the likability of the cast means episodes of Agents of Mystery slide by very easily, like a cross between Murder in Successville and The Crystal Maze. It’s a pleasant escape.

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Source: theguardian.com