I’m a little bit behind, but I’m so excited for the new season of Produce 101. I got super into it last year. Season 2 has been surrounded by a lot of negative press already, with reports of unfair treatment, the sordid pasts of various contestants coming to light, and MNET subsequently trying to hush them up about it. Despite all of this, my enthusiasm for the show remains unwavering. (I’m an avid Real Housewives watcher, so I guess I low-key live for hot messes) I’ve avoided spoilers and teasers as much as I could, so I’m trying to be as fresh and unbiased as possible in my recaps.
*Warning! Spoilers ahead!*
Produce 101 had a notoriously hard time getting agencies to send in trainees for this new season. All of the Big 3 agencies declined to participate. I don’t know what’s up with JYP, but I wasn’t surprised with SM because all their male trainees are either part of NCT or will be soon enough. And YG has plans for a new boy group, although I’ll believe that when I see it. But after several long months, the producers finally managed to gather 101 trainees from 52 different companies.
Just like last year, the show starts by sending the trainees out onto the main stage. There’s a pyramid of seats labeled #1 to #101, with the quality of the seats varying according to the number. Of course, the giant throne for #1 sits all the way at the top. Trainees choose which seat to sit in, and most of the
drama fun comes from seeing if they’re brave enough to pick the top seat (semi-spoiler alert: most of them aren’t). Of course it doesn’t actually matter whether they do, but it definitely ups the tension amongst the trainees. To make things more delightfully awkward, the producers chose to display each trainee’s self-ranking (in other words, how far he thinks he’ll make it) for everyone to see. Unsurprisingly, most ranked themselves rather highly and were quite embarrassed about it.
I’m not going to spend much time recapping how the trainees reacted to each other, but I did note a few entrances. Trainees from well-known agencies like Cube and Jellyfish got a lot of attention. The appearance of NU’EST from Pledis was particularly intense, as they pretty much stared everyone else down. The boys from YGK+ also caused some whispers, since that company is known for models and everyone was expecting visuals. Sure enough, they were gorgeous and their average height was 188 centimeters. Definitely intimidating.
The #1 throne remained empty for a very long time. Although the seats right below it filled up quickly, many seemed too hesitant to claim the spot. Once the “normal” seats were running low, Hong Eunki of Gon Entertainment decided to claim it. But there’s a new rule this season: someone can challenge for the #1 seat. The two decide a game, and if the challenger wins they can kick the occupant out. Eunki held the seat for all of two minutes before Yoo Hoseung of FNC decided to approach him, and he yielded quickly without a fight.
Hoseung kept his spot for a while, even beating a challenger in an arm-wrestling match (I didn’t write down who it was, but I think it was an individual trainee). But the last trainee to appear was perhaps the most anticipated one: Jang Moonbok of ONO. He appeared on Superstar K seven years ago, and became known for his fast-spitting high-pitched rap. I was not into K-pop seven years ago, so I recognized him more for his luxurious long hair (one trainee noted that it was like a CF).
Moonbok seems pretty friendly and laidback, but that doesn’t stop him from eyeing the seat. He asks good-naturedly where the best spot to be seen is, and of course everyone replies #1. He suggests to Hooseung that they play the “Tang Soo Yeok” game, which is a concentration game where they take turns saying “tang,” “soo,” and “yeok” in quick succession (the first one to mess up loses). Eventually Hooseung slips up, and concedes the #1 spot to Moonbok.
Once all of the trainees have arrived, renowned singer and emcee Boa appears (to everyone’s delight). She quickly explains the format of the show. There will be five rounds to determine the eleven members of the new boy group, selected entirely by the viewers. Whoever wins #1 will become the center like Somi did. Boa also brings in the group of trainers that will help evaluate and coach the contestants: Lee Seok Hoon of SG Wannabe and vocal trainer Shin Yu Mi for vocal, Kwon Jae Seung and former After School member Kahi for dance, and Cheetah and Don Mills for rap.
We then move on to first evaluations. After the trainees from each agency perform a song, the trainers rank them from A to F. An A means that the trainee in question is basically ready to debut tomorrow, and needs little additional coaching. F means that there is a severe need to revisit the basics. To make things more dramatic, Boa announces the rankings in order. So she’ll say something like “Rank A…there are none. Rank B…Trainee #1. Rank C…trainees #2 and 3.”
The five trainees from Yuehua Entertainment volunteer to go first. Yuehua is originally a Chinese company but has opened a Korean branch, so they have both Korean and Chinese trainees. As the show points out, they’re most well-known for discovering WJSN’s acrobatic healthy idol Cheng Xiao. Ahn Yongseob, Lee Euiwoong, Justin, Jeongjeong, and Choi Seunghyuk come in all cute and smiley, but get nervous right before going onstage. Nonetheless, they deliver a cute performance of Got7’s “Just Right” that make the judges smile.
All of the other trainees assume that these bright and bubbly cuties will get As and Bs. Everyone realizes just how high the bar is when Boa announces no one got high rankings. Three of them receive Cs and two receive Ds. Understandably, most of them are surprised and disappointed. The good news is that they’ll be re-evaluated soon, so there’s always a chance to improve.
Park Seongwoo from HIM Entertainment is up next. Cheetah blushes because he’s her type, and Boa reveals from his profile that he’s in his thirties! GASP! (As one particularly young trainee put it, “He’s lived two of my lifetimes.”) Actually, K-pop gives me a pretty substantial age complex at the tender age of twenty-six. So I really appreciate that this guy has the guts to try hard in a very youth-oriented industry. He launches into a performance of Rain’s “Love Song,” which is unfortunately one of the most painfully awkward things that I have ever seen. It gets infinitely worse (or better, depending on who you’re asking) when he replicates that famous body roll move, exposed abs and all. I actually screeched with embarrassment, but at least he had the body for it! Despite his rocking physique, he gets an F because that was all he really had.
After that, we have a string of trainees that give mediocre performances and a lot of harsh remarks from the judges (tough love is the school of thought in K-pop). Not one person ends up with an A, or even a B. It becomes very clear that Boa is taking her job as a trainer seriously. Season 1’s host Jang Keunsuk was an actor who was vulnerable to pretty faces, but Boa has infinitely more experience.
There are a couple of standouts, however. Individual trainee Kim Jaehwan impresses in a collaborative performance of EXO-CBX’s “Hey Mama” with Choi Dongha and Kim Chan, along with a rendition of Adele’s “Skyfall” (complete with guitar). Unfortunately, he gets caught off guard by a freestyle dance challenge and receives a B. Maroo Entertainment‘s trainees Kwon Hyeob, Park Jihoon, and Han Jongyeon get props for doing a nineties number from company seniors Turbo, but don’t get high scores. Soon enough, everyone is wondering who’ll be the first to get an A.
That would be Kim Samuel from Brave Entertainment, whose current claim to fame would be almost debuting with Seventeen. He previously chose seat #59 because that was the number Season 1 winner Somi had. He delivers an impressive rendition of Chris Brown’s “With You,” complete with stable vocals, snazzy dance moves, a couple of smiles and winks, and a quick abs lift for good measure. Although his performance is pretty much perfect for a trainee level, he boldly asks to do a freestyle dance because he didn’t think he was as good as he could be. The judges make a big deal of warning him that they’ll take it into account whether it’s good or bad, so he should think carefully. But predictably, he nails it and earns that heavily sought after A ranking.
We then break for a quick humorous interlude, featuring Boa as a human jukebox singing all different kinds of K-pop hits. Eventually, “Pick Me” actually starts playing and everyone starts enthusiastically singing and dancing along, because of course they have it memorized. Yuehua trainee Yangseob even jumps onstage and performs the entire dance perfectly. Props to him, because that definitely takes guts.
The next trainees are Lai Guanlin and Yoo Sunho of Cube Entertainment. Everyone’s expecting a lot from a big name agency…but these guys have actually only been training for six months. I guess Cube drained the trainee pool when they made Pentagon. They deliver a super basic dance routine to “Get it Poppin'”, which one of the NU’EST members mentions he practiced pre-debut. These two got pretty low rankings, but they’re so endearingly awkward that I bet they’ll be popular.
(I’m just going to put the video here because it’s priceless and the guys are adorable)
In the most heartbreaking moment of the night, the four members of NU’EST took the stage. Kahi, a former Pledis senior, teared up on seeing them. Baekho explained that they were there because they saw it as their last chance before disbandment. I started getting misty eyed when he said they wanted to be like their more successful company juniors, like Seventeen and Nayoung and Kyulkyung (formerly of I.O.I., now of Pristin). To make it even more heart-wrenching, their performance was mediocre at best and Baekho flubbed a high note. Minhyun got a C, but the three other members got Ds.
I’ve had mixed feelings about having members from an established group competing, because it probably does give them some kind of advantage. But at the same time, all of those groups are struggling. These are not freshly debuted rookies, but people who debuted at a time where the previous generation was peaking only to be overshadowed by the next generation of super rookies. I do see the potential unfairness, because I already feel the pull to give them pity votes. But this isn’t just a grab for attention or media play. These singers feel there’s nowhere else to turn, and you can tell how hard it is for them to be there. Personally, I will resist my urge to vote for them out of pity. But I hope that they do well in this competition, and that NU’EST (and other groups like Topp Dogg and Hotshot) will receive some love even if the members don’t make it to the end.
Up next: Ong Seongwoofrom Fantagio, home to Astro and I.O.I. members Doyeon and Yoojung. This guy already has a lot going for him. First of all, he’s handsome. All of the female judges noticed it, I noticed it, and even my mom noticed it. Second, he’s confident. He sat in the #2 seat, and raised his hand when Boa asked who thought they would get an A ranking. Plus he’s somehow simultaneously humble. He explained that he raised his hand because he wanted to actually work at being confident. (You can choose to believe if that’s true or not) His rendition of Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like” had some weak spots, but the judges quickly spotted that he was a dancer. He delivered a fierce freestyle, and walked away with an A.
Finally we come to Moonbok, a.k.a. the “hip hop president.” He seems so friendly and cheerful at first, but gets emotional when asked what happened after Superstar K. It turns out that he had some difficulties emotionally because was criticized a lot . And his mom was told a lot of these criticisms, which made him feel even worse. But after all this time, he’s finally ready to come back. He launches into BTS’s “Boy in Luv,” but we have to wait to Episode 2 to find out what it was really like.
We then end the episode with the whole group’s first performance of the boy version of “Pick Me.” It’s sort of spoiler-y because it reveals the center, but it’s also not spoiler-y because the performance already aired on M! Countdown and people have been talking about it. I tried to tune out as much as I could so the next episode would be a surprise, but I have to say I’m not really into the song. I wasn’t wild about “Pick Me” either, but it was so darn catchy. I don’t even really remember what this one sounds like once it’s over. Hopefully it has some repeat value and I’ll grow to like it – and remember it.
The top 11 from the first round of voting were as follows:
1. Park Jihoon (Maroo Entertainment), who’s apparently really popular for winking cutely in a one-shot during the performance.
2. Jang Moonbok (ONO)
3. Lee Daehwi (Brand New Music), the new “miracle trainee” who clinched the center spot in the performance.
4. Joo Haknyeon (Cre.ker Entertainment)
5. Bae Jinyoung (C9 Entertainment)
6. Samuel Kim (Brave Entertainment)
7. Ahn Yeongseob (Yuehua Entertainment), a.k.a. the enthusiastic “Pick Me” dancer
8. Ong Seongwoo (Fantagio Entertainment), whose freestyle dance made me think he’ll be this seasons Chungha. But we’ll see.
9. Lee Eui Woong (Yuehua Entertainment)
10. Lai Guan Lin (Cube Entertainment), a.k.a. the no-nonsense Taiwanese trainee.
11. Minhyun (Pledis Entertainment).
So the top trainees are basically (and understandably) mostly ones we saw this episode. I’m going to wait a few more to fully pass judgment, but I think Season 2 is turning out all right so far. It feels a little less dramatic and tense than Season 1, but still exciting! I have to wait for subs so I’ll probably be forever behind, but as soon as I find a subbed episode 2 I’ll get to work ASAP.
Sources: Produce 101 S2E1 (MNET), Youtube, Wikipedia, Soompi, Omona They Didn’t (Livejournal)
(All screenshots/GIFs are taken from Youtube clips posted on MNET‘s official channel)