The 2018-2019 drama series My Strange Hero (복수가 돌아왔다) appears to try and bring a new take to a familiar theme and setting. But being unable to commit to ideas it offers up results in a talented cast being given material that lacks cohesion and weight to really leave a lasting impression.
My Strange Hero has a familiar, if not typical overall theme: A few good, honest teachers try to help a group of misfit students overcome corruption in Korea’s education system, familial and societal pressure for success in school and the everyday teen angst.
To add a twist to the premise is Yoo Seung Ho as the title character Kang Bok Soo, a 27-year-old who returns to the high school nine years after being expelled when he was falsely accused of pushing a fellow classmate (Kwak Dong Yeon as Oh Se Ho) off the roof.
He learns his first love Son Soo Jeong (Jo Bo Ah) is now a teacher there. But to make matters even more complicated, it was Soo Jeong’s witness statement that sealed his fate nine years ago. And his life has been negatively affected ever since.
After being lured back to school to help its public image after a student attempts suicide, Bok Soo’s main goal is to find out why Se Ho and especially Soo Jeong would ruin his life the way they did back then. Especially when Bok Soo and Soo Jeong had only just started embracing their feelings for each other.
The premise and set-up seems perfectly fine so far. But as the series revs up, it ends up being a roller coaster in the most frustrating and awkward way possible.
The series is at times a romantic comedy as Bok Soo and Soo Jeong pick up where they left off once they sort out what exactly happened all those years ago. (And it happens relatively quickly.) The latter part of the story is considerably more dark and serious, especially compared to the awkwardly-placed cute, romantic scenes between the two.
The tonal whiplash extends throughout the series as it moves away from that conflict between Bok Soo, Soo Jeong and Se Ho and onto the usual corrupt high school storylines.
The series shows the cruel and harsh conditions in the Korean education system as well as the culture that places high ranking students on a pedestal and treats low ranking students as also-rans unworthy of getting even a passable education. Not to mention students’ family background or bank account balance being regarded as determining factors of a student’s intelligence and worth. Students fighting for the top spot, usually upon the goading and manipulative pressure from their parents, takes center stage at various points during the series. And a few times resulting in students contemplating taking their own lives.
All serious, important topics to cover. And since it’s still prevalent in today’s world, obviously, it’s still relevant and necessary to bring light to, even in a scripted television drama.
But the series is unable to find the right tonal balance that allows those topics, characters and stories to get the care and attention they require and deserve. Not only are the romantic comedy scenes randomly sprinkled throughout the series, sometimes at the most inopportune times, the perpetrators of the corruption and manipulative abuse of students are treated like comic relief characters.
That tonal imbalance and lack of seriousness undermines any possible depth and meaningful discussion the series may have had and provoked. Having lighthearted moments amidst unfortunately realistic stories of educational corruption and mental and physical abuse of teenagers is absolutely doable. And when done right, can be an excellent way to make series accessible to a wide audience.
My Strange Hero does not seem to know what it really wants to be. Thus, it never truly commits to one thing. It feels like they take all the familiar high school drama elements, threw them on a wall and see what stuck before then throwing it all into the series without figuring out how to effectively thread everything together.
The series is never fully invested in any of its directions. Whether it’s the one or two honest teachers fighting back against their corrupted sheep-like colleagues. Or the challenges the teens face as students. And even the main conflict between the three main characters. There is never any depth or weight to any of the situations. There is rarely any risk or threat of consequence.
There is a rather long section of the show where it becomes a series of little events depicting the aforementioned topical issues in successive order. But none of it is character driven for the mere fact that the series seems to refuse to focus on anyone other than our main trio.
The least interesting (yet most featured, obviously) plot of the series is the love story of Bok Soo and Soo Jeong. But their love story is purely situational and plot-driven. Any character development either has is undermined by contrived and foundation-less twists and “events” that never contribute to anyone’s growth.
The series doesn’t even play around with Bok Soo being a 30 year old man in high school. Except for the scenes of Bok Soo and Soo Jeong making googly eyes at each other during class.
The most interesting characters were definitely the students themselves. One wonders if the series would have been better off as a typical, paint-by-numbers high school drama.
Yoo Seung Ho, who has nothing to prove as an actor at this point in his career, elevates what is otherwise sorely lacking material. The series sadly wastes the talents of both its experienced cast particularly Jo Bo Ah, Kwak Dong Yeon Cheon Ho Jin (who is excellent as teacher Mr. Park) and Kim Yeo Jin (as the effectively evil villain Im Se Kyung) as well as the talented young actors playing the students. There is no question that the series has the talent to pull off what could’ve been some excellent storytelling.
Overall, My Strange Hero is a major waste of potential. Dropping the ball in writing and execution, the series has a lot of good ideas, but ends up not truly following through on any of them. A stellar cast helps prop the series up. But it is a series that is hindered by its awkward tonal imbalance and the lack of emotional sincerity towards what should otherwise be important and interesting topics to discuss about today’s youth.