The 2020 JTBC drama 18 Again (18 어게인) is an all-around fun and heartwarming series depicting relatable life lessons about family, friends, school and career. Though it loses a bit of steam towards the end, it is a wholly satisfying series that is powered by sincere performances and a positive overarching message.
Jung Da Jung (Kim Ha Neul) and Hong Dae Young (Yoon Sang Hyun) gave birth to their twin children Shi A and Shi Woo (Roh Jeong Eui and Ryeo Un, respectively) in their last year of high school. The unexpected arrivals forced the two to put their dreams on hold to start their family at such a young age. Now 18 years later, Da Jung and Dae Young are on the verge of divorce, the stress and pressure of their everyday lives, careers and the regrets of the past taking a toll on their marriage.
But something happens one night when a simple wish by Dae Young results in him reverting back to his 18-year-old body. With the help of his best friend Deok Jin (Kim Gang Hyun), Dae Young decides to go back to high school and make the most of his second chance at youth and to move on from his failed marriage. Taking on the identity of transfer student Go Woo Young (Lee Do Hyun), Dae Young’s plan gets thrown out the window when he ends up in the same class as his son and daughter. And in turn, keeps him in close proximity to his soon-to-be-ex-wife.
As Woo Young, Dae Young’s experiences interacting with his children open his eyes to feelings, emotions and memories he has taken for granted all these years. Dae Young slowly realizes his shortcomings as a father and a husband all while doing his best to keep his true identity a secret.
18 Again is a great premise. At its most basic, it’s about living your best life with no regrets. Making sure to cherish the everyday and the people closest to you before it’s too late. Dae Young finds out just how much he’s missed or overlooked over the years. And his interactions with his oblivious family also open their own eyes to their own shortcomings as well.
There are plenty of great moments throughout the series. Whether funny or heartwarming, 18 Again is not short of memorable and enjoyable scenes. But as a complete package, there may be something missing. The series starts out very strong. Likeable characters and amusing situations make for a brisk ride for most of the series. But it does run out of steam towards the end, especially as the series is supposed to be revving up for its emotional climax.
As satisfying as the neat and effective finale is, the final episodes highlight what the series might have missed the mark on.
I can’t help but think of the 2017 KBS drama Go Back Couple starring Jang Nara and Son Ho Jun. The similarly themed series also tells the story of a married couple on the rocks who get transported back in time to when they first met. Their eye-opening time travel is at times hilarious and silly and other times emotional and poignant. It packs a considerable emotional punch, especially in its soaring finale.
With 18 Again, it seems to rely too heavily on the novelty of the dynamics between Dae Young as Woo Young and his family. That is, Dae Young befriending his son who he learns is an outcast at school. Or teasing the possibility of his daughter falling for the handsome, kind Woo Young (not knowing he is her father). And especially the potentially scandalous May-December visuals of middle-aged Da Jung and the high school-aged Woo Young in romantic situations.
That focus on the novelty of the situation rather than on the characters themselves sometimes hinders the story and prevents it from reaching its full potential.
A majority of the series deals with the usual high school angst. And it serves as the backdrop for Dae Young’s enlightenment. Some of the series’ best scenes are those of Dae Young befriending and caring for his children who know him as their classmate Woo Young. The scenes of Dae Young essentially getting to know his children for the first time are very emotional. The meaningful interactions and realizations by the father and the children are the series’ best character moments.
Those touching and impactful interactions extend to Dae Young reconnecting with his father, mother and mother-in-law as well which all deserved much greater focus than they were given. Episodes 7 and 8 are especially outstanding in that regard.
But the rest of the series, including Dae Young and Da Jung’s broken relationship, never holds as much impact as it could have. Star pitching ace Ye Ji Hoon (Wi Ha Joon) begins to fall for Da Jung, but the most impactful moments are of Dae Young’s jealousy played merely to comedic effect. Da Jung’s workplace subplot always feels like bonus footage instead of the intended purpose of supporting Da Jung’s growth as a character.
The story essentially follows Dae Young as Woo Young longing to reconcile with his wife and be with his children again. But not once does he ever try and figure out what in the world has happened to him or try to go back to his normal, age-appropriate body.
The weaknesses of these subplots are amplified in the final episodes when it seems like the series has maxed out on the close calls and fish out of water gags for Dae Young/Woo Young. The high school angst subplots also feel more like vignettes rather than part of the narrative as a whole.
There is plenty of great foundation for each main character, but other than Dae Young, the series never runs with that potential.
The cast is certainly well-equipped to handle deeper and better material. This is a great cast, young and old.
Lee Do Hyun carries most of the emotional weight of the series and he does so with irresistible charm and a sincerity that immediately gets you to care about Dae Young’s unusual situation. Even as we learn more about Dae Young as a husband through flashbacks. Having to essentially play three different characters (the young Dae Young, adult Dae Young and Dae Young as Woo Young in 2020), Lee Do Hyun effortlessly shifts from one character to another.
Kim Ha Neul and Yoon Sang Hyun turn in reliably great performances, though many of their characters’ scenes are of a shallow nature. Their shining moments come in the first and last episodes of the series. Certainly a missed opportunity for such experienced vets.
Kim Gang Hyun and Lee Mi Do (as Da Jung’s BFF Ae Rin) are hilarious as the couple’s respective sidekicks. Wi Ha Joon’s charisma makes him a more than viable “option” for Da Jung. And the young cast, including Hwang In Yeop and Golden Child’s Choi Bomin, also prove their talent with strong, if not familiar performances.
Roh Jeong Eui and Ryeo Un especially give pitch perfect performances. And as I mentioned earlier, Dae Young’s interactions with his two children are the series’ best moments. And they definitely deserved more.
Han So Eun as young Da Jung is also a standout as she must convey the conflicted feelings of a young mother and wife. And she does that very well. She gets a lot of the series’ most emotionally charged moments.
18 Again really had a lot of great potential to become a truly profound series. Instead, it is simply a fun, amusing and heartwarming ride. It does lose steam right before what is an otherwise satisfying conclusion. As much as they dropped the ball and perhaps undeveloped some of its many good ideas and themes, 18 Again is still a fully worthwhile series to enjoy.