In a nutshell: It starts off so promisingly! It’s a teenage romance / coming-of-age that splits equally between the girls and the boys while breaking a few gender expectations along the way. (The hot, possibly gangster, back-of-the-room brooder is a girl.) It’s a musical showcase with talented performers giving (what I assume are) refreshing new takes on old pop and rock favorites (my knowledge falls seriously down in this area of Korean culture). The music breaks worked remarkably well within the story, somehow adding to the feeling of young almost-adults struggling to make sense of the world they’re entering. But all that possibility fizzles out with a confusing whimper. It’s not so much that the stories are told badly. The ending is so abrupt it’s more like they’re not told at all.
Stories that are told: Part of what makes the ending so disappointing is we get some wonderful teasers with three stock characters. Instead of remaining in the background, adding comedy and depth to the main characters’ storyline as per usual, these three get sensitively told story-arcs of their very own.
The wimpy class outcast, Gyu-dong (Kang Eui-shik), the thuggish bully, Do-nam (Park Kyu-sun), the classic pretty girl’s best friend, Eun-ha (Kim Min-young) are each brought forward into the spotlight and given the chance to tell their story. The broad outlines are familiar — in that achingly painful way coming-of-age stories should be familiar. But they’re also deeply personal, with details, challenges, and solutions unique to the characters.
Once seen as individuals, it was impossible for those characters to sink back into their expected places; they became something so much more than their cliched parts. It was absolutely lovely and I looked forward with eager anticipation to that same thing happening with our main characters — the ones whose story-arcs began at drama’s opening.
Only — it didn’t happen.
Stories that are not told: It starts out well with our main characters’ stock characteristics quickly deepening into something unique and interesting. Se-yi (Ha Yun-soo) is a light-hearted bohemian with an unexpected dark streak. Na-na (Da Hee) is a menacing brooder with unexpected sorrows. Sul-chan (Young Joon-hyung) is a pop-idol pushing against the constrictions of his role (an early running joke is his boss worrying that he reads). Sun-woo (Kang Ha-neul) is a perfect student hiding a deep emptiness.
Se-yi and Sul-chan begin a delightfully amusing courtship that delicately balances their relative innocence (Se-yi, especially, is completely new to feeling sexual attraction) and their burgeoning desires (Sul-chan is new to the feelings, but he’s aware of the concept and is deeply imaginative).
While a more mature take on teenage romance comes from Na-na and Sun-woo, both of whom are more tuned in to their own desires.
[Tiny little tangent: Veteran actor, Ahn Nae-sang, does such a refreshing take on the “wise and guiding adult” character. The writing is excellent in that his character is wrestling his own demons and is in no position to guide. The acting is excellent in that Ahn gives great reactions as the kids take their turns spilling out their woes, leaving him to kind of boggle helplessly at them. It added a nice dash of comedy to some otherwise painful moments.]
I told myself that it was too much to expect an actual peek into the dark underbelly of the idol-system. But the drama did hint that they’d explore at least some of the pressures put on these kids. Especially when Sul-chan began rebelling against the false construct of “unsullied sexual fantasy object” that his company (and sometimes more creepily, his fans) were so desperate for him to maintain.
And there seemed to be subtle connections to that theme (breaking away from adult control; aka teenage rebellion) within the drama. From Sul-chan’s home life, to Na-na’s desires to escape from her own socially enforced role, to the mysterious souring of Sul-chan’s and Sun-woo’s past friendship that left Sun-woo so cynical and withdrawn, to Se-yi’s epic running away from home. So I hoped for — if not an outright, system changing, rebellion — at least the beginning shift from powerless child to independent adult as our characters faced down their various demons.
But… it never happened. Romances sank into unchallenging conventionality or never got off the ground. Mysterious backgrounds were left forgotten in the shadows. Demons were glanced at but not faced — certainly not faced down.
It felt like the storytellers put so much effort into teasing us with possibilities they completely forgot they needed to deliver an actual story. (And the fault definitely lies with the storytellers, not the actors.) The last two episodes arrived and there wasn’t time to fulfill their promises. Storylines were either tied up with unrealistically neat and frustratingly shallow bows or just not ended at all.
In Conclusion: So much of the drama is great: the music, the characters, the humor and the angst. And we’re introduced to some talented young actors. But the ending is so frustrating! I wasn’t sorry I watched but I was sorry I wasn’t given a complete product. Is it worth the watch despite the disappointment waiting at the end? You’re going to have to decide that one for yourselves.