Queendom 2 Episode 1: Mnet takes its sweet time to position all the pieces during season premier

Welcome the first chapter of my coverage of Queendom 2, in which I provide Asian Junkie with a grease trap for Queendom comments, stapled to a 2500-word article.

So, assuming you are done wailing and gnashing about how your faves (read: Dreamcatcher) did not make the show, let us once again sally forth into the long night that is Mnet reality programming.

Note: This was initially an Episode 0 post, but after watching a little bit of Episode 1, I realized EP0 was literally just the first half of EP1. Makes my job easier, I guess.

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If you are not familiar with the Queendom/Kingdom format, let me briefly explain. Mnet gathers six of the ‘top’ female acts in K-pop to battle it out via a series of stages, ostensibly proving who among them is the best, but more importantly, to provide incorrigible fans with yet even more useless-yet-somehow-empirical data about who is “better” at K-pop. The winners will be decided by some black box formula of view counts, live voting, and “community votes”, which basically means all these numbers are made up and tweaked to Mnet’s preference. Nothing abnormal here.

The first season was incredibly popular, providing a boost in fame to nearly every single act involved. Many of the performances went viral, due mostly to the elaborate concepts and stage productions. Groups like Lovelyz and Oh My Girl got opportunities to try different looks, reconceptualize previous hits, cover each other’s songs, and release more original music. And fans got something new and fresh to bicker about endlessly. Everyone wins!

Of course, the idea that Queendom is actually determining the best female act in K-pop is unrealistic; this is not a show for the likes of a sales juggernaut like BLACKPINK or TWICE. Often the groups/idols featured are either up-and-coming, buzzed-about rookies, cusp-of-nugudom veterans, and senior acts with a bit of tarnish. You know, the intersection where fans are the most depraved and unreasonable, forever howling online like injured, caged beasts.

This season, the grand prize is a grand online concert and showcase for their next comeback. But like many other reality shows, even just participating is a prize of its own, which is why, even with the inevitable controversy that plagues all these shows, they continue to be extremely popular with both viewers and the entertainment industry.

So who are the lucky groups looking for a quick fix to their problems? It’s highly unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t already know who the six competing units are, but since the episode kind of just goes through them one by one, I’ll choose to do so as well.

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Brave Girls, K-pop’s most recent Lazarus, were undeniably the top story of 2021, when their 2017 song “Rollin’” randomly shot back to #1 on the backs of thousands of horny soldiers. After a solid year of simply not fucking it all up, Brave Entertainment has successfully parleyed their newly-attained A-lister status (well, maybe B+ list) into a coveted appearance on Queendom 2. Considering the state of the group up until their resurgence, this is a win no matter what place the veteran group ends up.

While they merit their “senior group” designation, especially compared to some of the babies on the show, Brave Girls’ out-of-nowhere success still places them in an awkward position. While groups like GFRIEND and SISTAR were performing at huge end-of-the-year concerts, Brave Girls were grinding away at the military circuit. Even with their air of maturity, their discomfort is palpable, almost rookie-like.

There’s also a subnarrative I see emerging, of their fears that their success is more meme than dream. While “Rollin'” brought them incredible success, Brave Girls seem to wince every time another person brings it up. Their recent catalogue has been pretty solid, but every time it’s “Rollin'” this and “Rollin'” that, and their quiet but tangible anxiety (not only here, but also on other shows) indicates a desire to be acknowledged as a good group, not just a good song. Queendom 2 is an obvious opportunity for the group to cast off the golden yoke of their viral hit, should they be successful.

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WJSN has always seemed right on the edge of breaking through, like the top of the middle-tier. They have a few wins, they have some fans, they have decent songs. But they are also in their sixth year, and still remain a K-pop fan’s K-pop group, not really a hit with the masses. Like, I love WJSN CHOCOME, but parsing out a sub-unit of this concept screams “we give up” for a company like Starship Entertainment. Their most popular members haven’t been active since 2018 (Cheng Xiao isn’t coming back, folks), and with the debut of IVE, it feels like WJSN’s window of ascending to the top-tier is rapidly closing.

Queendom 2 has the power to kick their careers into high gear. AOA, due to their competent performances during the first season, had one last wellspring of momentum before imploding due to scandals. A couple good performances can set WJSN up nicely for the final year of their contracts.

However, WJSN enters even more short-handed than usual. Not only are they lacking the Chinese members, but also Dawon is on hiatus for health reasons, and for the intro episode both Eunseo and Bora had scheduling conflicts. Though preview performance preview does include Eunseo, for what its worth. Hard to say how they’ll fare during the show given the status of the members.

LOONA‘s trajectory has been all over the place as of late. After an unprecedented reveal campaign that lasted over two years, LOONA’s debut was a victim of it’s own success, falling a bit flat even for their most devoted fans. Immediately after that, LOONA was faced with large periods of inactivity, managerial changes, company rumors, etc. It wasn’t until their most recent couple singles (guided by the hand of Lee Soo Man) where LOONA finally seemed to save themselves from early disbandment. Coupled with the steady variety success of a couple members (notably Chuu), it seemed they found their way through the darkness.

But even with a couple show wins and a large international fan base, rumors of LOONA’s demise still persist. Blockberry Creative purportedly is still out of money. And just the other day, a report of Chuu wanting to suspend her exclusive contract have gotten out. The seas will stay rough for LOONA and Orbits for the foreseeable future.

LOONA’s advantages in the competition are that their cover dance skills and concept flexibility are above average. Also, they’re not missing any members, so the fans will be watching in full force.

God, yes.

VIVIZ are the fake rookies, the reconstituted form of 1/2 of GFRIEND whose members were unceremoniously booted from HYBE last year, much to Lil Uzi Vert‘s chagrin. Free from the burdens of the company’s meddling nature, SinB, Eunha, and Umji joined Soyou‘s company and rebranded as VIVIZ. Their concept for “BOP BOP” succeeds in maximizing their zoomer Instagram hot girl look, an aesthetic more exaggerated than anything they’d done during their time in GFRIEND, but the biggest credit to VIVIZ’s debut is that the members seem to be really enjoying themselves this time around.

Their goal on the show is obvious: to prove that, even whilst under the shadow of GFRIEND, VIVIZ alone can be a compelling group. On a variety front they’re already off to the races, with Eunha really playing up the shy cutie-pie aegyo thing in basically every scene, and SinB lapping the pack in the race for third generation’s title of ‘Ice Queen’. Absolutely fantastic television; I am looking forward to children being dumb online, complaining that SinB is being too mean.

No worries about VIVIZ lack of catalogue; we’ll see later that they will have GFRIEND’s entire discography at their disposal.

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Kep1er are the real rookies, fresh off their predictably-yet-modestly successful debut single “WA DA DA” (had the same number of wins as “La Vie En Rose” did back in the day, FYI). The nine-member team is the product of Girls Planet 999, the Mnet idol survival that ruined my life for a few months last year. Putting them on this show seems a bit premature since they literally only have six songs, but it’s a smart, low-cost business decision on Mnet’s behalf.

By letting the fledgling project simmer a bit on the reality show stove, Mnet saves some money, Kep1er doesn’t have to go to the basement, and everybody wins. That is, until Huening Bahiyyih gets less than 60% of camera time per episode, then everyone loses (especially us Twitter users).

And finally we have the real veteran of the show, Hyolyn. SISTAR’s main vocal, once dubbed the ‘Beyonce Of Korea’ (unpack that one, colorism denialists), has carved out a steady solo career since disbandment, exploring various hot girl concepts and thrusting her booty in every cardinal direction. I’ve personally enjoyed her hot girl acid trip aesthetic over the last couple years, it seems like she’s having a lot of fun.

Out of all the contestants, Hyolyn has the least to lose here. She’s still a confident and comfortable performer, she just hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to show it as of late. There’s no question she’s definitely a more dynamic and athletic performer than Park Bom. Only handicap is that she might be too nice for the show.

I’d put the odds of her former groupmates Bora, Soyou, and Dasom showing up this season at 40%, 75%, and 99.999% respectively.

After all of our contestants are seated become familiar with each other, this season’s hosts finally make their grand entrance: SNSD‘s Taeyeon and veteran comedian/token dude Lee Yong Jin. Taeyeon’s appearance gets everyone else nostalgic about SNSD being their biggest inspiration as young trainees. Taeyeon coolly acknowledges their praise, then proceeds to explain the rules of the competition.

It’s also revealed that just like last season, a team that places in last place twice in a row will be cut from the show. It happened to Lovelyz, it could happen to YOU! (I don’t think it will happen this season, barring COVID.)

After the rules are explained, each team is asked to pick their rival for … uh, reasons? Drama. For drama.

Brave Girls picks VIVIZ as their rival, since they debuted around the same time as GFRIEND. VIVIZ picks Hyolyn, because she has the best back catalogue. Hyolyn picks Kep1er, because she wants to bathe in their blood to gain their power. Kep1er picks LOONA, because Lee Soo Man spiked Kep1er’s drinks with codeine that morning. LOONA picks WJSN, because they’re a troll group and this is a troll pick. And finally, WJSN picks … Hyolyn because of the Starship connection, but also because Brave Girls are forever alone.

None of this matters.

After this useless exercise is done, the first stage is introduced. Each team will create an elaborate stage performing songs from their own catalogue. Just like the first season, each group chose privately in what order they wanted to perform, and the results will be revealed to everyone. WJSN, LOONA, and Hyolyn all pick the final, sixth slot. After some hemming and hewing, both LOONA and Hyolyn acquiesce to WJSN’s request.

Cut to a montage of all the teams preparing for the stage. Even in quick quips, the narratives come out full force in this section. WJSN can’t get all their members schedules together. Brave Girls are predictable. Kep1er are beneficiaries of Mnet’s nepotism. I feel like this part should’ve actually been the bulk of the episode instead of them talking about how much they love Taeyeon. Mnet are supposed to supply drama, everybody already knows about Taeyeon and her status.

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Anyways, the good bits are handled in about 30 seconds and we cut straight to the day of performances. The first bit of big news is that LOONA will be unable to attend that day, due to the fact that every single member got COVID.

The voting for the first round will be done by a live audience, as well as some special guest judges: members from newer groups like DRIPPIN, PURPLE KISS, MCND, LUMINOUS, and woo!ah!.

Yeah yeah, maybe South Korea’s coronavirus numbers are 10x that of the United States, but nice to finally watch some survival shows with a live audience involved … right? Ha ha … ha.

VIVIZ is first up. As predicted, they dive into GFRIEND’s back catalogue, with the blessings of their former leader Sowon. The trio deliver a somber one-two punch of “Time For The Moon Night” and “Rough“, as the Buddies watching utter a wistful sigh. The live orchestra is a nice touch for the transition into “Rough”, channels some of those top-tier Inkigayo stages from back in the day. They did an excellent job of reconfiguring the choreography as well.

The next and final performance of this episode is Hyolyn’s. I’m actually pretty excited to watch Hyolyn go at all of this, since Hyolyn is truly in charge of everything here, as the CEO of her own company. Dare I say it, is she a DIY queen? Maybe. At least a project manager of sorts, which I can relate to.

Hyolyn chooses wisely and goes with “Touch My Body,” a universally loved single from SISTAR’s long reign as the queens of summer. After a temporary wardrobe malfunction, Hyolyn goes out with a near-perfect stage, highlighting everything she does well as a performer, and adding just enough modern touches to make it ready-for-broadcast. The dance break into the singing bridge with a high note? Just a boss move.

Kep1er is the next group, but we’ll have to wait until next episode to see it.

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So Queendom is back and more sentimental than ever. VIVIZ and Hyolyn have proven to be solid choices for contestants. Coming into the show, Hyolyn was my pick to take it all, and I haven’t seen anything to change my stance on that. Not like I should get too invested in the result anyways, Mnet will probably crown Kep1er or some horseshit for the lulz.

Episode 2 recap will be much shorter, I promise!

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Random Thoughts:

  • Is Chuu’s contract controversy already impacting the show? There are some small editing differences between EP0 and EP1, but none more stark than Mnet cutting Chuu’s speech at LOONAVERSE: FROM. The dispute might affect her screen time for the next few episodes.
  • Funny enough, Mnet also took Episode 0 down, so you’ll have to jump through some hoops to do more comparisons.
  • On SCAN VIVIZ, the variety program filmed leading up to their debut, SinB talked about being depressed and low motivation during the tail end of their time at HYBE, in particular the “MAGO” comeback. I think this a fairly honest and true statement, and is a big reason for her chewing the scenery even in Episode 1. I’m into it.
  • I enjoyed how Sowon’s only concern was about SinB’s Resting Bitch Face.
  • Seriously, I’ve seen complaints about Huening’s screentime and she literally has a line or close-up any time Kep1er is brought up during the show. Some of you HB fans need to get checked for cataracts or something.
  • Really charming how Hyolyn still just has a Gmail for business contacts. What an indie queen.
  • Feels like they might have learned a thing from GP999, because Taeyeon’s impact on the show has been absolutely minimal. The show’s editing has been mostly focused on the contestants which is a very, very good thing. However Taeyeon’s a more compelling and relevant host than Yeo Jin Goo, so I hope for just a liiiiitle more Taengoo in future episodes.

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