Part One: Vote! Vote! Vote!
We open with a summary of the countries who’ve cast the most votes so far. Currently, Indonesia is in the lead. I find it interesting that this is almost framed as a competition between the countries themselves. Does the network profit from the voting in a monetary way? I doubt it, but paid voting used to be the norm in many shows like this.
Part Two: More Behind-the-Scenes than you could ever ask for
We’re treated to a lengthy montage of all the groups selecting their parts, struggling to decide who’s going to play what role, spying on each other’s practice, and general behind the scenes shenanigans. You all know how I feel about these segments. They’re basically assembly lines of survival series cliché, and usually have me impatiently waiting for the actual performance. Yet, I understand the need to have footage that helps the viewer invest in individual trainees.
At this point, my mind flashes back to the very first episode of I-LAND, and I wish that the show had somehow evolved into something beyond the traditional K-pop survival series. That’s a pretty big ask, and not really what the series was intended to be. But, beyond I-LAND’s cool set and visual gimmickry, this is basically just Produce 101 with less trainees and more focus on Big Hit. I think the reason I’m having a hard time getting super invested is that I’ve seen this exact format so many times that it holds no real element of surprise.
Either way, this behind the scenes footage gave us a few notable moments. The most dramatic of which was K and Niki‘s confrontation about Niki wanting to change up his choreography a bit to stand out from the group. This felt particularly interesting to me given that both of these trainees hail from Japan. I won’t stereotype it as a uniquely-Japanese idol approach, but that industry does put a lot more emphasis on individual appeal and energy, whereas K-pop idol groups are much more concerned with perfectly in-sync teamwork. In fact, idols in Japan’s popular Johnny’s Entertainment agency are often encouraged to interpret the choreography their own way. Part of me wonders if Niki’s instinct to do this comes from the pop culture he grew up with.
Part Three: The Midpoint Review
Next, the guys head into that most classic of survival series set ups: the midpoint review by the trainers/judges. They’re almost always evaluated harshly, here. Of course, this builds tension for the actual performance, where the viewer is set-up to expect disaster, only to be more impressed by how good they are in the end. It’s a pretty transparent bit of editing, but I’ve come to expect it in these kinds of shows. I guess I’m a little cynical, huh? Either way, we got to see a lot of deep sighs from the trainers in this segment.
I also feel like setting up Taki as a leader was a little cruel. He’s clearly not comfortable with that position, and would be unlikely to take it if he were to debut in the final group. I guess it’s a good learning opportunity, but it puts unnecessary pressure on him, especially when the trainers blatantly tell him that he did the worst in the midpoint evaluation. On the plus side, he got a lot of good camera time this episode. It was hard not to feel sympathetic for him. And teammate Heeseung also came across really well, showing a more empathic side that we haven’t seen nearly enough of within the confines of the series.
Part Four: The BTS Mission
This episode now moves into the first competition of I-LAND’s second part. Here, the judges are in charge of scoring the guys, and the lowest scored will be eliminated. I’m surprised that such a big decision is being made solely based on the judges’ votes, without the voting from the public being taken into account. But, the voting procedures have been so confusing so far that I could be wrong on that.
Looking at the panel, I’m disappointed that Rain is absent. Did his involvement in the show end with part one? I know that Zico enlisted, so obviously he’s not part of the series anymore. I guess Rain discovered that his profile is better raised by hanging with Yoo Jaesuk and Lee Hyori. He wouldn’t be wrong! Still, it’s a loss for the show.
On a related note, I always find it to be shortsighted when these judging panels are comprised exclusively of men. I would much rather see a diverse group of opinions scoring these trainees, especially since their eventual audience will be diverse as well.
DNA (Niki, K, Jay and Hanbin)
I feel like I’ve seen DNA covered more than any other BTS songs. Truthfully, it’s not one of my favorites, but I do think that its choreography is really strong. And, that suits this unit, which is full of good dancers.
This felt like a perfectly competent performance. I don’t know that it brought out many charms I hadn’t already noticed about these individual trainees, but they definitely pulled off the song. I feel like the camera work has gotten better as well. The dance break was the highlight for me, given that it was one of the few moments that felt different from the original performance.
However, I think these stages really suffer from the lack of a live audience. There’s just a certain energy that’s missing. Still, you could put this on any weekly music show and I would’ve assumed these four were an already-debuted group. So, I guess that’s pretty high praise.
Judges’ Score: 287
I Need U (Jake, Daniel, Jungwon and Geonu)
I always claim this as my favorite BTS single. Honestly, I’m not sure if that’s totally true all the time because it’s a song that doesn’t necessarily fit every mood. But, it’s an important track for the group, and one that is so tied to their identity that it’s difficult to convincingly cover. I imagine that’s why you see tracks like DNA and Fire performed on these types of shows more often then I Need U.
This group did a fine job, though I don’t think this is a song that works well in competitions like this, unless you’re willing to change it up enough to make it your own. I didn’t think the vocals were particularly great. They sounded more canned then expressive, and all four guys have a pretty similar tone. There wasn’t a lot of interesting interplay between them. And, unlike the cool dance break in DNA, they didn’t really bring anything new to the track.
Judges’ Score: 275
Fake Love (Sunoo, Sunghoon, Heeseung and Taki)
I’m surprised this episode has gotten this far without deeming this unit “The Avengers.” Maybe they finally retired that well-worn trope from Korean survival series!
Opening with a more interpretive lyrical dance was a smart move that contrasted with the previous performances. Like I Need U, I didn’t feel like we were given much of a spotlight on the guys’ individual voices. Heeseung stood out the most in this regard, and I thought this was a particularly strong performance from him.
But, when the chorus hit, all individuality was drained from the vocal performance. This has been a persistent problem with the musical arrangements of I-LAND performances, and plays into the idea that Big Hit prefers a heavy-handed way of mixing vocals that doesn’t embrace individual character as well as it could.
Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. I thought this was a perfectly fine performance. Nothing mind-blowing here, but they delivered the song competently.
Judges’ Score: 306
Personally, I would have put DNA at the top with Fake Love in the middle and I Need U at the bottom. DNA is more of a performance-based song, while the other two were largely dependent on vocals. This I-LAND format is proving itself to be a difficult showcase for vocals, which rendered I Need U and Fake Love less impactful than the songs deserved.
Part Five: Judges’ Ranking & Elimination
12. Taki (but he’s exempt from elimination given his unit’s victory)
So, the eliminated trainee this week is Geonu, who really didn’t get a fair shake this episode. Of course, Taki is upset that a higher-ranked competitor is leaving rather than him, but that’s how I-LAND is forcing itself to work.