‘Queendom Puzzle’ Episode 1: Queendom’s side quest has already found its heroes and villains

Queendom Puzzle is here, and I’ve returned to hopefully make amends for my (lack of) Boys Planet coverage (season review: zzzzz) and also maybe watch something somewhat interesting. Mnet‘s spin-off of its popular K-pop reality competition finds the series edging somewhere between Queendom and … uhhh, The Unit, maybe without the sense of absolute despair and dread the latter featured.

The gist of it is members of idol groups both new and old put their skills to the test to prove themselves and buck narratives. The Top 7 will form a new project group, while everyone will (ostensibly) benefit from the exposure. The cast has a solid selection of rising stars, fresh faces, newly solo veterans, and clever curveballs, though I can’t help but wonder why Lee Chae Yeon keeps doing this to her self-esteem. Even Taeyeon returns to host.


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As the first episode begins, we find the Queendom set has been shuffled a bit, with tiered couches and a crooked staircase that lights up dynamically as each contestant enters. Phrases blink on a display emphasizing key points of each contestant’s career as they find their seats. Veteran acts like Lee Chae Yeon or WJSN‘s Yeoreum sit towards the top, while rookies and foreign faces like NMB48/Produce 48‘s Shiroma Miru or Riina & Hwiseo from H1-KEY sit down below. The cast wonders aloud what the criteria for the seating could be, though it’s fairly obvious from the start.

After all the contestants have entered, Taeyeon explains that the seating is based on achievement in Korea’s music market. So while Miru and Thai artist Fyeqoodgurl (just gonna say Fye from now on, thank you) might have solid achievement statistics in their native markets, they’re newbies by Mnet’s standards. This, of course, starts the woe-is-me ball rolling with some of the cast, especially Cherry Bullet, whose members Jiwon and Bora are no strangers to reality show disappointment.

Taeyeon then offers the contestants a way to change their ranking, via the Up-Down Battle. Each participant will present a short performance, which will be voted on by the rest of the participants. If they think the performance merits a promotion, they hit ‘up’, otherwise they hit ‘down’. Obviously, Mnet knows exactly what they’re doing with this setup, as conflict is their lifeblood.


First up is AOA‘s Dohwa AKA Chanmi, who does an updated medley of her former group’s hits “ELVIS” and “Bingle Bangle“, plus “Come See Me“. A listless stage demeanor, punctuated by a costume malfunction, opens the floodgates for a rush of downvotes. She ends up with a score of 11-16, and recognizes that the performance was bad in a post-performance interview.

Next to present is Weeekly‘s maknae Zoa, whose team sits on the second rank due to their buzz as rookies and the success of some of their members in commercial and hosting duties. The group has never won a music show, and recently has had a spot of trouble getting a comeback through the door, losing a member last year. Even to me, second tier seems a bit high for this group. After teasing with her signature longboard ride from “After School“, she launches into a capable* if not exceptional cover of f(x)‘s “Rum Pum Pum Pum“. 16-11 is her final score.

*We’re not really even trying to pretend this is live singing anymore.

tripleS‘s Jiwoo is next up, a classmate of Zoa’s and equally tall. I’ll save my tripleS spiel for the end of the article, but I’ll just say, if you like overly complex systems in your K-pop then you’ll love tripleS. Jiwoo’s also probably recognizable to my fellow Korean TV degenerates as a higher profile contestant on My Teenage Girl. Sporting a Michael Jackson throwback pantsuit, she runs through a bit of “Rising” and goofs her way through some faces before receiving her 7-20 score.

Jiwon from Cherry Bullet exudes class president energy, but never seems to dig in for the charisma required to really break through to the next level of success. Of course her performance is great, totally deserving of her near perfect 24-3 result. Jiwon’s skills or dedication to performance has never been the issue, but I think “Gotta Go” is an intriguing choice for her performance, in that it shows the gap between Jiwon and a star like Chungha. Despite all the skill, the aura and magnetism aren’t there.

Rocket Punch‘s inability to make the final turn towards success is more of a company/timing/concept problem than a member problem. Suyun is still ever the consummate performer she was back in the PD48 days, but those high notes are pretty shrill. Also, you’ll see this first round is very Taemin heavy, and it maybe doesn’t help her to have so many other direct comparisons. She’s met with a “oh huh” from her peers for “Advice“, and gets a score of 12-15.

Taemin #2 is woo!ah!‘s Nana, the group’s ace. woo!ah! have been grinding it out on the charts (and on TikTok) for years now, and seem on the precipice of mainstream success. Nana herself has excelled as a presenter, recently becoming the co-host of Show Champion earlier this year. She is also very very nice to look at. Her choice of Taemin’s “Move” is a smart one, as she can hide her weak vocals behind her hypnotic belly waves. 19-8 is her score, accepted with a smile and a disappointed sigh.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum is Lee Chae Yeon, who has gone full Joker-mode, only smiling as she throws downvotes at everyone else’s performances. “If I didn’t think I would make Top 7 I wouldn’t be on this show,” she says, which is a bit funnier in light of recent news. Her choice of Hyori‘s “Toc Toc Toc” affirms her take-no-prisoner’s attitude towards this competition. She ends up scoring 20-7, but seethes backstage, frustrated by the quality of her own stage.

In Thailand, Fye is active in all mediums, but in Korea she’s primarily known as a TikTok wonder, singing the version of NewJeansHype Boy” generally preferred by the top meme-makers on the platform. To that end, she starts her stage off with her golden ticket, but changes it up midway with her own single “Gone Gurl“, sung in both English and Thai. A respectable score of 16-11 for the newcomer.

H1-KEY’s Riina gets her chance before her costume completely falls apart. Her group’s song “Rose Blossom” has done some numbers on the domestic charts, hitting #1 after getting recommended by some key figures in entertainment. Riina is also Lee Chae Yeon’s former label mate, appearing on PD48 as a trainee of WM Entertainment, but was eliminated in the first cut. She’s grown in confidence and, uh, fitness since then, perfect for the athletic-dol concepted H1-KEY.

She brings this confidence to the pre-show meetings and the stage. Her performance starts with the aforementioned “Rose Blossom”, but then takes a hard left into cute and bubbly with Nayeon‘s “POP!“. I don’t think it’s a bad choice at all; her energy and expression fits the song really well. An egregious voice crack dooms her upvotes to single digits, scoring a 8-19, which shakes her previously unflappable demeanor.

This is only compounded by Weeekly’s ace Jihan choosing the same song, so of course Mnet has her go right after Riina. It’s not hard to see that she’s a much more natural fit for the concept. But that’s kind of Jihan’s thing, in general she seems to be a natural fit for most idol concepts. Does that make her Top 7 material? We’ll see. 17-10.

Wooyeon of woo!ah! was an SM Entertainment trainee, so it’s no surprise she’s a huge fan of Taeyeon. But performing her song in front of her adds a lot of perhaps unnecessary pressure. It’s a solid if not exceptional attempt at “INVU“, but she doesn’t attempt the key high notes in the bridge, which dooms her to the lowest score yet, 4-23.

WJSN’s Yeoreum already has a title under her belt from Queendom 2, but I guess that’s not enough! Also maybe Starship Entertainment is trying to figure out how little money they need to divert from the IVE ATM to keep funding the recently re-signed group. Either way, Yeoreum has time. After an “As You Wish” teaser she goes into Kai‘s “Mmmh“, which is functionally like yet another Taemin song. She showcases her skills well and earns her 24-3 score.

Cherry Bullet’s Bora gets her revenge on Girls Planet and gets to sing IU‘s “My Sea” while rubbing it in right in front of Mnet’s production crew. I had to laugh multiple times because of how overwrought and bombastic this stage was. The lift. The ballet. The props. The hot mic at the end. I’m just like, yeah sure, give her all the points, just make it stop. 25-2, highest score so far.

Finally, we get a little hint of Lovelyz Kei‘s performance before the episode ends.

But not before a weeeee bit of bonus footage!

After the evaluations, the contestants are given the option of looking to see who on the cast votes for them, positive or negative. Dohwa and Bora decline, Lee Chae Yeon takes it home with her to make a kill list, and Wooyeon gets to find out that her own groupmate Nana downvoted her. Drama?!?! (Probably not.)


Random Thoughts

  • I think GIRLS RE:VERSE broke Bora’s brain, she’s already absolutely unhinged. Though I’m enjoying the Bora memes of her bouncing giddily and then throwing a downvote.
  • Riina is very beautiful but she also has the perfect look to play the villain, which, as a fan of H1-KEY, I’m already enjoying thoroughly.
  • I am laughing imagining a sprawling tent city behind the filming studio constructed by hundreds of backup dancers waiting in the wings.
  • OK, I don’t know how much to actually talk about tripleS here (I recently saw @mbmelodies for the first time in four years and spent most of that coffee meeting talking about tripleS), but here are some key points:
    • They have picked up some of my favorite reality show characters, like Lee Jiwoo and Kim Yooyeon from My Teenage Girl, and Kotone from Girls Planet.
    • There is gonna be like 24 of them and they haven’t even announced them all yet. I bet they haven’t even casted them all yet.
    • They are doing a whole “vote for concepts / vote for subunits” thing via a first party app, it’s like Produce but forever.
    • Also in that app you “trade” ‘ObjektS'”‘, which are like if photocards were NFTs in like the actual technical definition of the word.
    • Any group whose fans videos require explainers like the picture below is a good thing.
    • Basically if you love stupid shit like Senbatsu elections and what not, tripleS should be right up your alley. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
  • They reveal it at the end by Lee Chae Yeon’s already off the show, which is funny after she tries to play main character for the whole first episode. “Knock” is doing very well, so maybe she just doesn’t have to do these shows anymore.
  • I really want someone to say “You don’t deserve Puzzle Rights” sometime this season.
  • It’s cool to have Fye on the show, but it feels like a completely different show when she’s on screen, like an audition show.
  • There have been more group bows and “sawadee ka” in QP in just one episode than there were in the entirety of Chuang 2020 in regards to Nene.
  • Best performances for me were Nana, Jiwon, and Yeoreum.


IATFB’s Shitters Section

Yes, I’m watching this too, and while Hojo is the primary I can’t not give my opinion if I’m watching.

Up-Down BattleMy RankShow Rank
Cherry Bullet’s Bora11
Cherry Bullet’s Jiwon22-T
WJSN’s Yeoreum32-T
woo!ah!’s Nana45
Lee Chae Yeon54
Weeekly’s Zoa67-T
Weeekly’s Jihan76
Rocket Punch’s Suyun89
H1-KEY’s Riina911
woo!ah!’s Wooyeon1113
AOA’s Dohwa1210
tripleS’s Jiwoo1312

Honestly, as contestant after contestant performed, I was left wondering who in the fuck is actually going to sing for this group. Thankfully, Bora provided that assurance at the end. Jiwon, Yeoreum, and Lee Chae Yeon gave very veteran performances that hit all the right markers and separated themselves from the pack. I think I subconsciously downgraded Lee Chae Yeon because I know she’s already off the show and it kinda doesn’t matter how she performed.

Gonna be honest, Nana was good but is higher here than maybe it would be for others because she’s amazing and I’m only human. Weeekly was overshadowed by Cherry Bullet here, but they quietly had a solid showing. I think Suyun got screwed a bit with the song choice, as “Advice” is just not a good idea even to quasi-sing live, while Riina was great until the missed note. That’s death on these shows, but unless it happens every week it’s not that big of a factor for me.

Fye has the rapper image K-pop likes, but nothing about it really impressed me. Wooyeon choose a vocal song and didn’t sing the most difficult parts, while Dohwa and Jiwoo just lacked any energy at all. It also kinda made me confront my biggest issue with tripleS up until now, which is that none of them have stood out individually despite me liking their music, and I have concerns that going toe-to-toe with others on a show like this might not end well.

Overall, I was actually surprised in how little my rankings differed from that of the contestants, as it wasn’t what I expected. To be honest, it was somewhat disappointing in a way, but I think most of them have been given a fair grade thus far.

Let the arguments begin.

About Hojo

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