Kingdom Episode 3 – Ranking for Round 1 and the Kraken in the Room

We left off last week in Episode 2, having seen performances from BtoB, iKON and The Boyz with the theme of “To the world.” Episode 3 continues with the rest of the groups, starting with Stray Kids, and what a start. 

Sadhana: Rimi, what did you think of this week’s episode? Like I told you on WhatsApp, episode 2 was when I bought into Kingdom fully, so it was a lot of fun looking forward to this one! And I learnt a 꿀팁 from you – which is that the performances are available before the subs are out, so yay! 

Rimi: I loved this week’s episodes! I love that the show spends a pretty decent amount of time on the behind the scenes prep for each performance. It’s hard to tell how much is scripted and how much is real (e.g. in Road to Kingdom, MNET gave us a very funny, obviously scripted moment with the rookie group TOO going up to the terrace rooftop at dawn and being inspired by the rising sun), but a lot felt very authentic. When combined with amazing performances and very controversial/questionable expert rankings for Round 1, the episode managed to elevate itself to a whole new level of fun. 

But before we get to the rankings, which were your favorite performances this episode?

Sadhana: Ooh, this week was a tough one! I immensely enjoyed watching all three groups perform, and to be honest, I feel torn ranking them, but I’d say I enjoyed Stray Kids’ performance the most this week, followed by ATEEZ and SF9 (both tied). There was something special (for me) about the Stray Kids performance which edged it out over the other two for this week. But I really liked the spectacle of it all throughout this episode. 

And speaking of authenticity and funny moments – nothing felt more real than when Peniel (BtoB) looks at ATEEZ performing and goes “Oh! My shoulder!” – which felt like a #mood watching all of the choreo on Kingdom so far as someone with 200 left feet. 

What about you? 

Rimi: We’re the exact opposite! This week, I loved ATEEZ’s performance so much — the Kraken was a little over the top, but everything about the performance — from the arrangement, the majestic classic piece, the back-up dancers, the stage and props, the styling of the ATEEZ members, and their vocals, served to tell a gorgeous tale of an adventure on the high seas. It reminded me of Pirates of the Carribean, which it was inspired from, and of the adventure books and comics I loved as a child (Tintin?), and I felt I’d been carried along on their adventure with them. Also, Jongho’s four-note feat was WOW, and Seonghwa and Hongjoog’s styling was incredible. 

(I did not know anyone could look so good in glasses)

I also liked SF9’s performance. I felt they had a very clear idea of the sexy, darker concept of envy that they wanted to portray. Admittedly, the performances of Stray Kids and ATEEZ were so energetic and loud that SF9’s felt more muted, but it was beautifully orchestrated. 

On the other hand, Stray Kids’ performance didn’t appeal to me as much — they may have been trying to convey a theme of madness, but it felt too scattered to me to make sense. Here, music and arrangement was sacrificed for the story and stage, in my view.

Sadhana: Mm, I can see that. The only reason Stray Kids won out for me was the transition to Gods Menu really stuck in my head so they ranked higher than the other two. But musically, this week, I really enjoyed the classical music that both ATEEZ and SF9 weaved into their songs. With SF9, the best part for me was the instrumental break towards the middle of the song — it was a little muted as I think you described it earlier but the music gave it that much more weight. 

There were so many delightful pieces from ATEEZ’s performance, starting with the styling (which I also loved) and the military march move that Seonghwa does towards the 3 minute mark. 

Rimi: Yup – I loved that move too. Also, the insertion of the Symphony was a genius move. I admire Hongjoong so much for thinking of it. This episode also gave us incredibly cute interactions between the groups — especially during SF9’s prep. I’m a huge fan of Golden Child, so it was amazing to see Bomin for a moment. Also laugh out loud funny was 2 PM’s Wooyoung asking Stray Kids how much money they got as a prize, and it turns out all they got was 1000 benefit points. 

Sadhana: Hahaha, yeah! The Stray Kids members looked so nervous and he comes in with that. I found Hongjoong’s struggle with his AI hilarious. I replayed it a couple of times. 

But you know, one thing I noticed these three episodes (you can tell me if it’s a new thing) is that while the behind the scenes serve to tell us the role of the many many people involved in bringing out a performance, there were also many subtle and not-so-subtle moments devoted to saying look this member/group *produce* their own music. 

Rimi: Hmm..yes, that’s what I meant by you can never tell how much is scripted and how much real. Like that TOO moment I discussed above, it seemed to be showing that they’d conceptualised the performance. But honestly, I don’t think there’s as much focus on *producing* music itself in most shows, or even in Road to Kingdom – where really only Pentagon’s Hui was shown to be producing and arranging music. With ONF they showed very clearly that the group worked together with an in-house producer – they gave ideas and he brought those ideas to musical life. So…I’m inclined to believe that here, the groups themselves are indeed producing. Bangchan, we know, does write for Stray Kids, for instance.

Sadhana: Yup, I’m not saying they don’t, but I found it interesting that that was highlighted too. 

Rimi: Ah! Gotcha. MNET fighting against the stereotype that all K-pop idols have no say in music production. 

I do have to address the elephant (kraken?) in the room.

Which is the expert rankings, and the controversy about the stage budgets. If you look at expert rankings, it seems that MNET is rewarding only one type of performance — the expensive one. Lots of props, complex choreography, stunts, and grandiose storylines. I’d prefer to see more variety in musical performances, and like the diversity – rewarding things like BtoB’s emphasis on vocals would allow all the groups to show their distinct strengths (and not stifle them, as I fear we will see in future rounds – has MNET coerced all groups to conform to a singular style?) Also given that the budget constraints were communicated differently to different groups, I wonder whether MNET has some sort of agenda (again). Thoughts?

Sadhana: Yeah, I did think the “expert” evaluation would value the vocals more, which has largely been absent save for BtoB, but this miscommunication scandal has cost MNET and the latest episode got 0.3% viewership. That’s sad for the groups who are putting so much into this despite all their other schedules and comebacks so I hope this stuff is cleared up. 

I was actually wrapped up in the whole spectacle so far so I didn’t really notice that sameness that the performances seem to be veering towards until you pointed it out. But now, I think that’s something that’ll definitely be on my mind. What are these groups doing to show us they’re having fun (and singing at least a few lines!) and being themselves vs putting on the Most Extravagant Show possible?

Rimi: Agreed! Fingers crossed for later episodes! And finally, wrapping up Round 1, dare we each rank the performances in order of our favorites?

*drumroll*

Sadhana: What an interesting contrast xD

Rimi: Yes! I’m curious about our first and last choices, we differ greatly on Stray Kids’ stage, and mostly agree on The Boyz’. I thought BtoB were beyond excellent, but they were middling for you. 

Sadhana: I guess there’s also a recency effect? Because they were #1 for me too last week. But after this week, I guess I’m going for the flashy performances first 😀 

Rimi: Hahaha! So “flashy” is your criteria? You’ve got The Boyz last, so I’d dispute that claim.

Sadhana: Flashy + I need to vibe with their song choices – which I didn’t at all with The Boyz and did the most for Stray Kids, if that makes sense? . 

Okay, instead of flashy let me put it this way – escape. Which ones offered the best escape for the minutes that I was watching, because god knows the world is melting and we need all the escape we can. So Kingdom in general has been a really great 1.5 hour escape. 

Rimi: That makes sense. In a way I’m looking for escape too, but I hear the performance first, and watch it second. For me, first and foremost, the musical arrangement, vocals and the melody come first, followed by the story/concept – how well has it been planned and conveyed? BtoB’s simple but elegant stage and ATEEZ’s youthful, lively, energetic, infectious stage met both the criteria, thus they win. On the other hand, I love The Boyz’ No Air, but didn’t like the arrangement here. Most importantly, I don’t actually like God’s Menu or Side Effects — they’re bold, daring songs, but not to my liking, at all. Which is why Stray Kids are last. This is incredibly subjective, of course. 

Sadhana: Haha fair! I love the noisy-industrial soundscape in God’s Menu, so yes, very subjective, and it’ll make our rankings for the next rounds more interesting. And speaking of next rounds, I’m so so so excited for the next episode based on the short preview we saw – groups performing other groups’ songs! 

Rimi: Me too! I’m hoping BtoB stick to their strengths and deliver some fantastic vocals on a Side Effects-style song. Can’t wait for this!!

Sadhana: That would be 

Author: Sadhana C

I'm interested in technology, culture, and the business of Hallyu. I currently work full time in tech and have previously reported on start-ups. In my free time I like to read fiction and learn languages.

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