[Vote for your boy on Produce 101 Season 2! You can vote for your top 11 boys up to the end of this voting period.]
"Being a trainee is like standing at a crossroads."
Hong Minchan, three years trainee.
"It's like standing in the middle of a river, and you can't cross it, but everyone else can."
Lee Daeyeol, five years.
"It's a fall off a high cliff."
Kim Haon. Four months.
"The word makes you feel… very small."
Yoon Sanha, one year.
"To me, the word trainee…"
Choi Junhyuk, six years.
"Is a word I want to see disappear from in front of my name."
As a disembodied, yet pleasant, female voice reads off the quotes, a printing press stamps a face, a name, and a training time onto old-fashioned paper. As we watch, the speed of the press gradually accelerates until it's just a blur. Pan to BoA, sitting at a desk.
"You have the power to turn the dreams of these 101 boys into reality."
The tone, overall, is much more somber than the playful atmosphere Jang Keunsuk had created in the introduction for Season One. It's sadder, nostalgic almost, in the set and the music and everything else about the production. But the next scene - the one where BoA stands, and the set pulls away, and the 101 boys stand there, waiting, at attention -
"National producers, please take care of us!"
- has the same feeling.
[Produce 101 - Season 2 ]
The first trainee to walk in is Fantagio Entertainment's Yoon Sanha, eighteen years old. He's lanky, tall, but cute, with a roundness to his cheeks and eyes that suggests he's a little younger than he actually is.
In a video shot in the Fantagio practice room, Sookyung and Suyeon - Fantagio's trainee girls who had been members of IOI - sit down with Sanha and talk him through some of what's to come on the show. "Most importantly is, be yourself and have fun!" encourages Sookyung, who's the same age as Sanha. "The bonds you make on this show are really something special. I still talk not only with my members but with other unnies and dongsaengs from the show."
Return to the pyramid. Sanha looks around cutely from his selected seat, number forty-six. It's awkwardly quiet for a moment - then Sanha's head turns at some loudness coming from the corridor.
[Who has caught Sanha's attention?]
The next three trainees are from Beat Interactive - Lee Donghun, Kim Byeongkwan, and Kang Yuchan. They're rowdier - maybe by nature, maybe to fill the space, maybe just because they're together - but kind, smiling down at Sanha from their seats in the mid-thirties.
A few more quiet trainees, alone or in pairs, walk in before the next large, loud group walks in. The name on the screen is this: Woollim.
A cut of Infinite is played, then one of Lovelyz.
[Successful global-dols, who has Woollim sent to us?]
Their leader, a tall guy with a bad haircut, counts them into a greeting. "Hello, we are Infinite's little brothers!" The leader gets a few playful punches from his dongsaengs.
"It's just that Sungyeol of Infinite sunbaenims is my actual older brother."
[We have the pictures for proof]
"Of course there's the pressure. I don't want hyung to look bad because I do badly. But I will focus on leading my team and doing my best."
A few other higher-profile companies send their trainees in - Jellyfish and WM each sent four, and FNC three, and RBW with their recent success of Mamamoo gets mentions by many of the trainees, including a mimicry of the Decalcomanie dance from Woollim's Lee Jangjun.
And still no one has sat on the first-place seat.
Not even the top three, in fact - the highest anyone's dared to go is fourth through seventh, occupied by the Jellyfish boys.
Park Hyunho of Dream T Entertainment enters, smirks when he looks around, and immediately beelines up the steps.
"I thought, oh - is he going to sit in the number one seat?"
"In that moment - the room filled with tension."
He ends up at seat two instead.
"I suppose I got intimidated. The rule with the number one seat is that other people can take it. I didn't want to give up the seat."
The next challenger for the first place seat is KQ Entertainment's Kim Hongjoong.
"He's kind of scary…"
"Definitely a rapper, I thought."
"Ah, KQ… they own Seven Seasons, right? Block B?"
Hongjoong goes straight to the first place seat and sits with no hesitation.
"Well, no one was sitting there, so I thought, why not?"
"As expected, someone with a lot of charisma. He deserved to sit there."
A few companies later are the independent trainees. This year there are four - Lee Inpyo, Hwang Inho, Jung Yeontae, and Han Hyunwook. Hwang Inho walks up, and then further up, and then faces Kim Hongjoong at the first place seat.
"They're allowed to fight for it, right?"
"Alright," says Hongjoong. "How do we settle this… what's your position?"
"Vocal," says the older.
Hongjoong makes a face. "Okay… uh…"
"Rock paper scissors," suggests Park Hyunho from the next row down. "Best of three."
The two boys shrug at each other. "Sure," agrees Inho. "Seems fair."
Inho gets rock, Hongjoong gets scissors. Hongjoong gets scissors, Inho gets paper. Inho gets scissors, Hongjoong gets rock. Hongjoong can keep the seat. Inho sighs, but the third-place seat is still open, so he sits there instead.
Another independent trainee, Lee Inpyo, looks around for a seat before the camera cuts to YAMA&HOTCHICKS' Lee Hangyeol. The younger boy seems nervous, kicking the legs of his plastic chair and darting his eyes around.
"Mind if I sit?" Inpyo smiles. Hangyeol's relief is pretty visible.
"I was very nervous because I didn't have company friends there, and I'm really thankful for Inpyo hyung for reaching out. It helped me feel much calmer before the evaluations."
"I'm someone who likes to take care of other people. People who have trained with me before call me a motherly sort of person, so it felt natural to try and make friends. I don't know anyone here that well either, not even the individual trainees."
Starship Entertainment flashes up on the screen, and the trainee who walks in is familiar to many of the contestants.
"The show that formed Monsta X."
Starship's trainee is Im Changkyun, known to No Mercy viewers as IM. He looks around awkwardly before settling at seat number 30. "Hi," he whispers tentatively to TS Entertainment's Jo Wooyeop. Wooyeop gives him a tense smile in return.
"I'm so nervous. My last experience on a survival show was unhappy… the other trainees didn't like me and even after all the drama I came last in the final."
The next trainees are from WM Entertainment. Changkyun is shot from above, looking down at the new entries. His eyes land on the third to come in and he freezes.
"Minkyun hyung…" he whispers.
"Changkyunnie and I were at Starship together. We were both in No Mercy. After I was eliminated, the company brought him on the show, and the other members thought he was a replacement for me and that it was unfair. I think he's a bit afraid of me.
The trainees enter and soon there are only seven places left.
"This is where the big three come in."
True to his word, the next logo onscreen is JYP's. The trainees who come out this time are pretty unknown to the others, but Bang Chan, Han Jisung, and Seo Changbin have a bright familiarity to them that suggests they'll make friends with many of the trainees in no time.
SM, naturally, is last. Once again, SM has sent part of their SM Rookies team. The three who come in are very different. One seems shy, one seems calm, and one seems very excited. The only seats left are those in the eighties, and so that's where they sit.
There are whispers, of course. About SM, about Kim Yerim, about favoritism and a number of other things. The camera remains focused on Kim Jungwoo, Lucas, and Qian Kun even as the audio plays back of the whispers. The rumors.
But, well… that's that. And the world - well, the show - moves on.
BoA enters, followed by the trainers. A few of the boys startle upon seeing BoA - most notably the SM boys.
"I've never seen BoA sunbaenim before. Ever. She's so… beautiful?"
"Hello, 101 trainees." she greets them. "As you all probably know, my name is BoA, and I will be the representative for the national producers on this second season of Produce 101."
Cue cheers, of course.
"I really didn't think it would be BoA. I thought it would be an actress, or a famous presenter like Jang Yun Jeong sunbaenim. But BoA… amazing."
"It made it feel even more like a dream. Like, when would I ever see BoA in real life? In front of my own eyes?"
"And let me introduce to you your mentors," continues BoA. "For vocals - Shin Yumi and Lee Seokhoon!" The mentors smile and bow calmly. "For rap - Cheetah and Don Mills!" These two are more intimidating - maybe it's just a rapper thing or maybe it's how they in particular present themselves. "And lastly, for dance - Kwon Jaeseung and Kahi!" The dance mentors, like the rap mentors, seem fearsome rather than graceful. "Do the mentors have any words for the contestants before we begin auditions?"
Kahi steps up. "Remember that this ranking does not determine everything. If you mess up, you have a chance to redeem yourself before the title song. Likewise, if you rank well, you cannot get too cocky, because you can always fall."
"Thank you, instructor Kahi," says BoA. "Now, we shall begin the auditions. Who would like to go first?"
Awkward music plays over a cut of the trainee boys looking at each other.
The four trainees from Jellyfish Entertainment, sitting in the top row, raise their hands eagerly.
"Ah, Jellyfish," says Art and Artist Entertainment's Cho Mingyu to DSP's Kim Taehyung. "Vixx's company."
"They have the same sort of visuals as Vixx," comments HF Music Company's Kim Junhyung.
"The Jellyfish girls ranked well last year," says Kahi as Lee Dongheon, Hong Minchan, Jo Gyehyun, and Yoo Kangmin walk onto the stage. "A and B classes. They stayed there after the reevaluations, too."
Cheetah agrees. "I'm expecting a lot from them."
But the Jellyfish boys' stage of Vixx's Dynamite doesn't live up to expectations. Only Hong Minchan can hit the vocals without sounding shaky - Lee Dongheon is spared this embarrassment by being in charge of the rap parts - and there isn't as much power in the dance moves as there should have been.
Kahi shakes her head when they're done. "I'll be honest," she says. "With the exception of Dongheon-gun, you guys are too young for this type of song. Half of them are underage," she comments to the other mentors, showing them on the sheet she has in front of her.
"We will announce the grades for Jellyfish Entertainment," Lee Seokhoon says. "A… there is none."
A long pause. It's completely silent - not even ominous music is edited in over the tension.
"B… there is none."
It feels like the pause is even longer this time.
He bows. "Thank you."
[Hong Minchan, D; Yoo Kangmin, Jo Gyehyun, F]
"It's regretful because everyone had such high expectations for us. I feel ashamed. And so I will work hard to raise my rank before we perform the title song."
The next trainees are the three from RBW. Son Dongju, Kim Youngjo, and Kim Geonhak perform Block B's Nillili Mamba, and, well…
"Considering that they are from RBW, it was just… bad."
"We all know RBW for Mamamoo, who are really talented in vocal, rap, and dance. But these three trainees coming out, I was surprised."
Although it's not that they're untalented. Main rapper Kim Youngjo scores a B grade, but Kim Geonhak can't keep up with the rap and their lone vocal, Son Dongju, has trouble carrying all the vocal parts by himself. The latter two both get Fs.
"Of course I feel bad for my dongsaengs, but this is a competition. Every man for himself. I scored high; isn't that what matters?"
There are cuts, now, of trainees who perform the same songs. Dongyo Entertainment and GH Entertainment both perform BTS' Blood Sweat and Tears, Byking Entertainment and Music K each do Haji Haji Ma by Got7 (as well as four of the independent trainees doing Hard Carry), and BG Entertainment, JJ Entertainment, and J-Flo's lone trainee all perform Exo's Monster.
Cheetah wrinkles her nose. "Those songs are good and all, but I want to see something different. Don't they know it helps their case if they stand out?"
Don Mills nods beside her. "If I have to hear one more song by Exo I might up and leave." Boa laughs at him.
The next trainees onstage are the trainees from Cre.Ker Entertainment, a sublabel of CJE&M. There are five of them - Lee Sangyeon, Heo Hyunjoon, Ji Changmin, Choi Chanhee, and Lee Juyeon. The camera zooms in on Hyunjoon to show that despite the nervousness, he's struggling to hold back a laugh.
"Are we funny, Hyunjoon-gun?" asks BoA.
"I think you'll find that we are," he answers.
The boys begin their audition. When the first notes of the song come on, Kahi's head shoots straight up, from looking at her paper to directly at the trainees. SM's trainee Lucas bursts out laughing. Why?
Because their song is Girls' Generation's 2011 hit The Boys .
They're taking the song 100% seriously, and execute it pretty well. Vocals Sangyeon and Chanhee handle the riffs with ease, rapper Hyunjoon commands his parts energetically, and dancers Juyeon and Changmin's moves are sharp. The mentors seem impressed.
(When they sing the lyrics "We bring the boys out", DSP's Matthew Kim, backstage, moves as though he's going to walk out onstage. Labelmate Kim Taehyung looks at him quizzically; he explains, "I'm a boy. I'm being brought out." Taehyung rolls his eyes but laughs anyway.)
[Heo Hyunjoon, B; Lee Sangyeon, Choi Chanhee, C; Lee Juyeon, Ji Changmin, D]
"So we didn't get A… but none of us got F rank either, and I think that's important. All five of us will work hard so we can go up together."
A few other trainees perform. We only see the company names - Widmay, Cube, S.How, J-Flo, and Yuehua are among the logos onscreen long enough for us to read - and the grades. D, D, D, F, D.
WM Entertainment's Shim Jaeyoung whispers to Park Minkyun next to him, "I would have thought more people would get A rank by now. Last year, didn't someone get A rank early on? It feels like we've been going for a while now."
Split screen on Kim Haon and Kim Hongjoong entering the stage.
[Will these contenders be the first A grade?]
"Hello, I am 18 year old from H1GHR Music, Kim Haon." He bows.
Park Jaechan slaps his labelmate Jang Munik rapidly on the arm. "Jay Park! That's Jay Park's label!"
"I didn't know they took trainees," Jung Youngkyun murmurs to himself.
Kim Haon performs Zico's Artist. His rap tone is very different from the original song's but his flow is good, and he has Cheetah and Don Mills nodding along approvingly.
"Kim Haon trainee," says Kwon Jaeseung. "I have one problem with your choice of song, and that is that we couldn't identify your dance skills very well. Do you perhaps have another song prepared, or shall we do a random dance?"
Turns out Kim Haon had in fact prepared another song - 2PM's Again and Again. Kwon Jaeseung seems appeased.
The trainers discuss before Kahi takes the paper.
"Now announcing the final grade for H1GHR Entertainment's Kim Haon trainee."
The screen freezes, and we move to Kim Hongjoong's audition.
When he walks onstage and the logo for KQ Entertainment is shown, the trainees are once again abuzz.
"Ah, he'll be a hip-hop trainee, then," says Hwang Inho, leaning across the aisle to Park Hyunho.
"He'll be the one to get an A for sure," comments Hwang Sorim.
Kim Hongjoong explains that the song he will be performing is self-produced, although he'd borrowed the basic beat from Zico's Boys And Girls.
"As expected from the home of Zico… self-producing…"
Hongjoong performs, to much acclaim from the mentors.
[But will his self-produced performance be enough for an A grade?]
The show cuts back to Kim Haon.
"Kim Haon," says Kahi. "A class."
Haon makes a celebratory fist-pump motion before bowing and thanking the teachers.
"I'm very proud. It seems like it's very hard to get an A so I will take this as proof of my skill."
Then, we cut back to Kim Hongjoong's audition. He also gets an A - however, it appears that this audition is chronologically before Haon's, because Cheetah says, "The first A."
Woollim's audition appears to be directly after that. Sungyeol's brother Lee Daeyeol and his boys are confident as they walk onto the stage - although not as confident as they appeared walking into the room.
"Because we were just after the A grades, we felt nervous because we might be compared to them."
"Lee Daeyeol," murmurs Kahi. "And you look like Sungyeol-ssi too, heol."
"I'm, ah. I'm his actual younger brother, Kahi teacher," he explains. Kahi for some reason finds this very funny.
"All right, little Sungyeol," she says, ignoring (on purpose?) Daeyeol's visible discomfort when she says it. "Let's see what you have to show me."
The six trainees are performing Infinite's song Bad. Not much time is spent on the aftermath of the evaluation, although they all score well - Lee Jangjun takes the third A grade to be aired, Daeyeol as well as Choi Sungyoon and Son Youngtaek score a B, and Hong Joochan and Kim Donghyun get a C.
What's next to be shown is actually a break from filming. They pause in the auditions so everyone can take a breather, get their makeup touched up, all that jazz.
Amidst this, BoA seems bored. She starts to sing under her breath - and the song is Pick Me, last year's theme song. She hits all the notes easily, even mimicking the instrumental very well.
[BoA representative, 101's jukebox]
Kahi and Cheetah smile at her. Then Kahi, perhaps out of curiosity, motions to the producers. "Play it," she whispers.
When the first beat starts, many of the trainees startle. But most of them know the dance - in fact, nearly all of the - and so they start dancing along in their seats.
And then two trainees come out of their seats, and begin to dance the song on the stage.
[Cre.ker's Ji Changmin of D class and Woollim's Lee Jangjun of A class]
BoA bursts out laughing as the two contestants dance, not for a grade but for the hell of it. They seem to be having fun, and their fellow trainees in the seats cheer them on.
"I saw Changmin get out of his seat so I thought, might as well go too, right? I know the entire dance. And it was fun to dance together. I want to get closer with him, I think."
"It just sort of struck me. I guess I wanted to prove myself to the viewers, or to the judges, or to the other trainees, that I was more than just a D grade. And hopefully… it worked. I think at least Jangjun hyung sees me as more of an equal now."
Now we cut back to the auditions. This company is DSP Media - known to many of the boys as the company of IOI's center Jeon Jiwoo.
In a behind cut, we see Jeon Jiwoo and Jeon Somin of IOI meeting with Matthew Kim and Kim Taehyung.
"The most important thing is to try your best," says Somin. "And to persevere. There were many times we felt like we had made the wrong choice in coming, but in the end everything turned out well."
[DSP Media, who sent two trainees to IOI. What will their male trainees have to show?]
Kim Taehyung and Matthew Kim perform Kanto's Lonely, a song that lets them show off both their rap skills and their low vocal range. The song originally doesn't have choreography, but Matthew explains that he'd come up with some. "My position is dance, even though I also do rap," he tells the judges, who seem very impressed.
"It's polished," acknowledges Shin Yumi. "It's not the type of song we expect idol trainees to audition with, but the addition of choreography was a good move. It had the potential to be low-energy but it wasn't… at least as far as I can tell."
Lee Seokhoon announces the grades. "For the DSP trainees… A grade, Matthew Kim."
He gasps - clearly not expecting this - and bows.
"B grade… Kim Taehyung."
Backstage, the two of them hug and hi-five.
"Ever since I came to Korea four years ago, Taehyung has always been there for me. We have been close even since before I knew Korean well. It makes me happy to know we are succeeding together."
And, with that, the episode ends.
[Vote for your boy on Produce 101! You can vote once a day for up to 11 trainees.]