In a nutshell: Oh, the heady, heady draw of a good bromance. Boy, did this drama know how to get their audience and keep their audience. Not that bromance was what this drama was about (which would be, current issues and challenges facing high-school students and their teachers), but it’s certainly what brought all the buzz to the yard. And wisely, the storytellers ran with it. Which meant I adored part of the story and felt a bit meh about other parts. But the good outweighed the bad(dish) and in the end I’m really glad I gave it a go.
The Awesome: It began with Lee Jung-suk playing high-schooler, Go Nam-soon, an ancient soul with the calm, unruffled air of someone who’s seen it all before. Petty high-school shenanigans did not bother him and he ducked and weaved his way through the everyday indignities of high-school life with a grace that had me intrigued from his first scene.
Then Kim Woo-bin (a White Christmas alum) arrived in ep. 3, playing transfer student, Park Heung-soo. His effect on Nam-soon was immediate and electrifying and the drama did an excellent job teasing out the story between the two boys: where they’d been, where they wanted to go, how they were going to get there. I enjoyed their story from beginning to end and it frankly made School 2013 worth the watch all on its own.
Bonus Awesome: Another White Christmas alum (my most favorite drama from which many good actors have sprung, hence my constant mention), Kwak Jung-wook, played the ubiquitous school bully. I was happy to see him playing against type (he’d been the bullied in other dramas), and happy to see him handling the role so well. His Oh Jung-ho was seriously intimidating. There’s a scene early on when he clashes with a teacher, where I honestly feared the outcome because he came at it with such viciousness.
So he was handling the antagonist role quite well, and I was pleased and then it got kicked up a notch. Instead of keeping Jung-ho and his two minions as typecast, we got to dive into what made them tick. Why were his minions so loyal, why was he so angry, what motivated them? Their story folded in nicely with Nam-soon and Heung-soo, adding a rich undertone to that original story, but also creating an arc of their own. It was completely unexpected and I adored that the drama went there.
Didn’t quite work for me, but I got why it was there: The teachers’ stories were a little… dry, for me. Especially compared with the awesome student storylines above. Much as it seems like while you’re in school, the teachers didn’t really exist outside the school doors. They each represented a type (jaded, probably been here too long, teacher; scary strict but secretly awesome teacher; Yoda). Even our two main teachers were more types than full fledged characters, with Jung In-jae (played by Jang Na-ra) as the heart, and Kang Se-chan (played by Choi Daniel) as the brain.
Plus, there was a lot of “pause for insightful commentary” where the teachers dutifully took opposing sides of various how-to-teach arguments or explained the challenges of teaching in this modern world. None of which I’m all that interested in. But, teaching in this modern world is the purpose of the drama — dealing with current issues faced by students and teachers is what viewers are signing up for. So while it didn’t float my boat, it’s not like I can really complain that it was there.
Also, I really appreciated what the actors brought to their characters. Choi Daniel and Jang Na-ra especially, managed to put a lot of life and heart into their roles. Though we never saw it in-drama, they still gave us a sense that these characters breathed past the school doors. And the drama took full advantage of their chemistry, throwing them together as often as possible. The teacher storylines still weren’t my favorite, but they didn’t bore me.
The Big Disappointment: The girls were ignored. Especially when compared to the loving story-arcs the boys got. Which was too bad. Because they also had intriguing characters and actors I admire who could have handled much juicer roles. And it made some unfortunate implications (inadvertently, I’m sure) that girl-bullies are just bad to the core and have no chance of redemption, while boy-bullies have squishy, marshmallow hearts beneath their bravado and are worthy of effort.
My hope is that the next “School” drama (I think this is planned as part of an on-going series?) will rectify that. Because, even while I loved it, I suspect the popularity and depth of the original bromance ate up other storylines. And while the secondary story arc, involving the boy-bullies, worked with the bromance, I don’t think any of the girls’ stories would have fit into it as gracefully. And there were some nice stand-alone stories about the girls sprinkled throughout. (It was those brief glimpses that made the lack of any real story arc so frustrating, actually.) So I think there was an intention to explore the girls’ issues as well, just the timing didn’t work. And that made me sad.
In Conclusion: This was a drama that shouldn’t have worked for me. But, because of the chemistry between Lee Jong-suk and Kim Woo-bin, and because their story was told so well, I fell for it hard. There were flaws, definitely, but there were also unexpected flashes of brilliance. And it’s for that brilliance that I’m glad I watched.