Sleeper hit web-series, The Death Notice: The Darker 暗黑者, adds refreshing humor to a traditionally somber genre, and instead of restricting itself to the usual themes of revolutionary spies, drug wars, and efforts against localized corruption, the show actually challenges a number of social norms and stigmas, something new for c-dramas.
The Death Notice is best described as a crime thriller comedy. Season 1 based off the first book in Zhou Haohui’s Death Notice trilogy, which follows the main character, Luo Fei 罗飞 (played by the brilliant Guo Jingfei 郭京飞 of “Longmen Express 龙门镖局”), an idiosyncratic police academy professor with a hidden past, as he joins a team of misfits to discover and capture the mysterious killer, Darker, a vigilante who targets criminals that have otherwise escaped legal punishment.
The show begins with a string of mysterious deaths where the only clue is a note announcing the victim’s death sentence by the executioner, Darker.
The notices are never wrong.
The series of deaths forces the police to form a special task force, resulting in a team of unique personalities, including the humorless team captain, the gothic coroner, the imposing psychologist, the carefree IT genius, the nerdy police academy failure, the tough SWAT fighter with a giant soft spot for dogs, and of course, our main character, Luo Fei.
An unconventional hero, Luo Fei perpetually sports a pair of old-fashioned linen flats, dark red sweatpants, and a tattered black robe. He loves to drink yogurt because it is “good for his skin”, has a plastic bag for a wallet, and talks to his fashionista alter ego, but he also happens to be a genius detective who may be the key to unlocking Darker’s identity, unveiling secrets that had lain dormant for 13 years.
This type of quirky humor reminiscent of Guo’s previous work, Longmen Express, continues for the majority of the show and brings refreshing lightness to an otherwise weighty story.
The show also features great side characters, including the clueless captain of the competing team, Luo Fei’s incisive investment banker friend, the meddling journalist who ends up questioning the morality of her professional endeavors, and of course, our mysterious anti-hero, Darker.
What makes the show special though is its fearless attitude in addressing a number of social issues, such as homosexuality, corruption, child and elder abuse, journalistic integrity, and mental illness. Due to its format as a web-series, the show was able to explore different perspectives on taboo subjects in Chinese society. Though the show is far from tearing through social boundaries and revolutionizing Chinese entertainment, it provides an encouraging start. I’m reminded of an older drama, the Snail Home 蜗居, that approached previously sanitized topics of infidelity, corruption, and the crippling housing market with remarkable honesty and insight.
The show also challenges the viewer on the enduring question of law vs. morality in our anti-hero, Darker.
Here is a fan-made trailer with English subtitles.
In addition to the always great Guo Jingfei, the ensemble cast brings back many familiar faces from Longmen Express, including Gan Lu and Li Qian in main roles, and Qian Fang and Yang Haoyu in cameos. On an interesting note, the series is directed by Zhou Linhao 周琳皓, who also happens to be Qian Fang’s husband.
The drama slows down and departs almost entirely from the book during the middle segment, so if you are interested in only the main narrative and the identity of Darker, then I would watch from episode 1 to 14, then skip to episode 37 onwards. The show is modeled after the format of American shows, where each individual case spans two episodes, and yet, the larger narrative of Darker’s identity is stringed together throughout, with some minor love lines thrown in.