TYPE OF REVIEW : HINDSIGHT REVIEW
Fair amount of spoilers. Less spoilery First Impression Review here.
There have been many high school-set Korean dramas in recent years, all with varying degrees of commercial and creative success. But none have been able to (though many didn’t aspire to) accurately and realistically portray the lives of contemporary youths.
But KBS’s School 2013 was able to do just that.
This 2013 revival of KBS’ successful turn of the century drama franchise which ended more than ten years ago was a harshly realistic, but sincere depiction of today’s youth and the people and situations that will play a part in shaping the rest of their lives.
Everything from high school angst to bullying to familial pressure for grades to politics between students and politics between faculty and parents; School 2013 didn’t shy away from tough and sensitive subjects, no matter how hard it might be to realize a lot if not all of these things are present in our everyday world.
The students of Class 2 at Seungri High School were a diverse group of kids who showed that yeah, teens can be punks. They can be jerks and assholes who could care less about work or school, but that’s true of any age group of course. But unlike other high school dramas that may like to put definite parameters for their young characters (either squeaky clean or big bad bully), School 2013‘s realism and authenticity started with how they presented their young students.
There are the studious kids who sincerely want to learn and do well for themselves and there are the studious kids who merely want to get this over with so they can live the high life or those pressured by their parents. There are the students who treat school as their all-day naptime and there are the students who care more about the newest Samsung smartphone or caking on pounds of makeup on their faces.
For all the things the students do right or wrong, School 2013 also touched on the struggle for the school itself. For every passive faculty member, there is a teacher who sincerely wants to set their pupils on the right path in life.
For School 2013, it was teacher Jung In Jae. Played by Jang Na Ra, teacher Jung was a teacher with sincere intentions to educate her students. But it wasn’t an easy road, Teacher Jung was dejected, discouraged and defeated much of the time while fighting for the kids she truly believed in.
She’d collect small victories along the way, but there was never a guarantee or assurance that the changes she helped bring about in a student’s outlook in life would stay with them, let alone the next day.
The characterizations of the students, teachers and parents spoke to not just the state of today’s education system, but of society in general. And not just Korea.
A lot of times, schools do nothing for the kids. And in turn, the youths develop a passive attitude to the whole ordeal. It’s a two way street, but with a common “I don’t care” or “I feel helpless” attitude on both sides.
Ripe for Storytelling
That basic push and pull of high school is so full of storytelling possibilities that School 2013 could’ve lasted more than 16 episodes. And maybe should have.
The “bromance” of Go Nam Soon and Park Heung Soo (Lee Jong Suk and Kim Woo Bin) definitely took up a major chuck of the series. The tragic past and eventual reconciliation of best friends and, really, blood brothers was an emotionally fulfilling journey to follow.
But the major focus on their story, though excellently brought to life by both Lee and Kim, took time from other possible stories that seemed to get tacked onto the series’ final third.
The episodes focusing on the other kids in the class towards the end were great. Each story was unique, allowing to touch on the many different personal high school dramas one could face. It allowed to feature the other students in what is really an ensemble drama.
The back and forth between Nam Soon and Heung Soo grew repetitive, especially when big chunks of the middle episodes treaded similar waters over and over. There were times when you just couldn’t take yet another scene of Nam Soon or Heung Soo getting called to the counseling room or the teacher’s office again. Which is why the later episodes that opened up the stories of the other students (while still moving the Nam Soon-Heung Soo story forward) were the best.
On the other hand, because their story as well as that of Oh Jung Ho had already been established, the show now had the luxury to take a step back and check in with the other kids. And since half the class ended up being unused, this series could’ve easily gone a couple more weeks.
Now there was a similar focus on the story of Oh Jung Ho (Kwak Jung Wook), Yet, it was his story that ended up being the deeper of the two main threads of the series. It was his long redemption arc that connected much of the latter stories and his open ending that was maybe most representative of how authentic and real School 2013‘s storytelling was.
A Strong Cast
The School series has been known to launch the careers of some of today’s biggest Korean actors and actresses. And with this cast of young talent, it’s likely many of them will follow in those footsteps.
First, of the main cast, I feel like Park Se Young and Hyo Young as Ha Kyung and Kang Joo were the most shortchanged. They had a presence from the very beginning, but very little material to work with.
For Ha Kyung, the controlling-mother-concerned-only-about-grades story was more deeply examined through Kim Min Ki’s arc. Instead, she served merely as the “Is anything there?” not-love interest to Nam Soon.
For Kang Joo, she ended up being almost like a sidekick to Ha Kyung (who already had little to work with) and Nam Soon. The minor characters that got the little focus eps toward the end of the series got better material than both Ha Kyung and Kang Joo got all series.
That was the opposite of Choi Chang Yeob who was tasked with maybe the heaviest story of the series by playing Kim Min Ki. His story unfolded perfectly and climaxed with the emotional scene between him and Jang Na Ra on the rooftop and the aftermath of his decision not to jump off. He’s definitely come a long way since getting his big break on KBS’ reality show The Challenger.
Even Lee Yi Kyung and Lee Ji Hoon as Jung Ho’s left and right hands had much more story to work with (and do well with) than Park Se Young and Hyo Young.
Lee Jong Suk was a great, charismatic lead. His chemistry with both Kim Woo Bin and Jang Na Ra drove much of the series. He was brooding, but also fun.
For me, it’s always great to see familiar faces on Korean drama. And that is especially true when they are faces from previous series I absolutely loved. So it was nice to see a little White Christmas reunion with Kim Woo Bin (then going by his birth name Kim Hyun Joong) and Kwak Jung Wook.
And it was Kwak Jung Wook that ended up getting the spotlight. Like I said earlier, Jung Ho actually propelled more story himself and a less talented actor might not have been able to carry Jung Ho’s redemption arc and make it believable. But essentially closing the series on his story worked very well and that is thanks to Kwak’s ability to make you ultimately care about his character even after all the horrible things he had done.
But the heart and soul of show was Jang Na Ra as Teacher Jung. In my First Impression Review, I said Teacher Jung needed to be that common thread that would serve as our window into the lives of the various students we would eventually meet. Teacher Jung was definitely that and the character definitely kept everyone’s stories grounded.
But it was her fight and struggle to make a difference that really took center stage and made Jang Na Ra the real center of the series. Jang Na Ra’s talent and likeable personality immediately draws you in to any character she plays, but evem more here, she was able to keep Teacher Jang sincere and motivated.
She may have already won a KBS Drama Award for School 2013 at the recent network end of the year party, but she did even more amazing and commendable work in the episodes that aired this year. Would she be eligible again for the 2013 prize? She would definitely be deserving of that 3-peat.
And speaking of; I was a big fan of Babyfaced Beauty. The 2011 romantic comedy made me a big fan of Jang Na Ra and Choi Daniel, so I was excited to see them reunited for School 2013.
While there wasn’t much in the way of romance on the series (for the adults or the teens), School 2013 made great use of the undeniable chemistry they showed in their previous series. Kang Se Chan’s own story may have developed a little later than maybe it should have, but Choi Daniel and Jang Na Ra’s chemistry quickly perked up and reminded me of how great they are together. They play off each other so well. Even if not romantically (though there were some tease-y scenes), they make a great team.
A Franchise is ReBorn
There is no doubt KBS is already prepping for School 2014. School 2013 likely exceeded their expectations and proved to be a ratings winner. KBS may have hoped Dream High would be their next long-running high school franchise, but resurrecting the School franchise may have turned out the better option.
Friendship, rivalries, even very small touches of romance and realistic ones too. There aren’t necessarily OTPs in real life, things take time and go slowly and we saw some of that here. Like real life, you aren’t going to just suddenly fall in love and everything’s are all hearts and roses. There may be hints and tingles, but it’ll take time.
Like real life, not everyone reformed, not everyone saw the error of their ways, not everyone got helped onto the right path.
And just like real life, not everyone will stop being an asshole. There will still be assholes in the world. And especially in high school.
Everyone grew (to varying degrees) over the course of a semester and 16 episodes, but not magically. Most if not all of our characters, even teachers Jung and Kang, are works in progress and will continue to grow long after the show has ended.
Or maybe they go back to their old ways. We won’t know. As a slice of life drama, we saw this particular chapter in their lives.
It was a very eventful chapter, but definitely not the final one.
School 2013 was realistic and sincere. It wasn’t all tension and tears. There were genuinely happy and uplifting moments and plenty of fun, lighthearted moments too. But overall, the series was an emotional, contemplative and thought provoking series about contemporary high school life.