KBS’ venerable School franchise has not only catapulted young up-and-coming actors toward stardom, it has also presented an honest and (sometimes unfortunately) realistic look at education in Korea. And this is all while allowing for an endearing and relatable character-driven experience. The latest entry in the franchise, School 2021 (학교 2021) certainly continues following in those footsteps. And in a well-written, well-acted and thoroughly engaging package.
This time, School 2021 follows the students of a vocational high school including former taekwondo athlete Gong Ki Joon (Kim Yohan), talented and aspiring carpenter Jin Ji Won (Cho Yi Hyun), broody transfer student Jung Young Joo (Choo Young Woo) and dedicated, ambitious Kang Seo Young (Hwang Bo Reum Byeol).
The series sees the students navigate familiar teenage themes such as school, young love, friendships and family. And of course, as is usually the case in the School series, having to deal with more mature dilemmas that sometimes even adults are unable to help with.
For any Korean high school series, facing school corruption and disinterested supposed-educators are almost requisite themes. It says a lot that such plots are as relevant today as they were maybe a decade ago. Perhaps as a continued critique on an unfortunate reality still present in the Korean education system.
A common and familiar theme especially for the School series is students being shoved aside by a judgmental and indifferent society and school setting. The ultimate focus, however, is rightly on the students with dreams and goals who, despite many factors trying to hold them back, find a way to persevere and move forward. All while doing their part to weed out the malevolent forces within the school community that is supposed to be fostering and encouraging youths as they set out into the world.
And of course, there’s the one or two actual adults who, while dealing with problems of their own, take the time and effort to be that support for the teens when they have no other source of it otherwise.
One of the most engaging aspects of the series is character development. Just know up front, an investment is advised when coming into School 2021. But that investment will yield wonderful and satisfying results. Unexpected twists and turns are sprinkled throughout the series. And each is always well-earned and fits perfectly in the grander narrative.
Maybe unique to this series compared to previous entries in the franchise is that School 2021 is more of a slice of life. As it focuses more on the characters, the series plays like a series of vignettes which together present the students’ second year in high school. Especially as the series is set in a vocational high school as opposed to a traditional curriculum school, it provides an opportunity for different approaches to familiar characters and themes.
The downside to that character-driven focus is maybe the lack of an overarching mystery or dilemma. But the series makes the direction they’re going towards pretty clear at the start.
There’s of course a bit of romance between the characters and a romantic aura to life as a high schooler, even when faced with hurdles and injustice. But it is that interesting combination that helps add to the engaging story.
Well-placed emotion and appropriate lighthearted moments pair well to support grounded and realistic situations. The characters are fully developed over the course the series. Character growth is more than evident. And quite unique to many other series, it is that character growth and the journey for each of the characters that really draw you in and keep you coming back for more.
Excellent pacing and a steady flow to the story is one of the series’ strong suits. And that allows the familiar stories and plot threads to feel fresh and new thanks to the characters and talented young cast. As light as some scenes may be, the cast actually delivers their strongest performances in heavier scenes.
Singer Kim Yohan of WEi makes his debut as a drama series lead and is more than up to the task. He is able to take Ki Joon from being a directionless high schooler to one who becomes more proactive for himself and the people around him. Yohan also shares wonderful scenes with veteran Park In Hwan as his grandfather and are highlights of the series.
Ji Won is a unique female lead character, especially in a high school series. Cho Yi Hyun effectively brings her to life as a positive and confident teen who may have some insecurities, but nonetheless pursues what she is passionate in. It is refreshing to have a young female lead who is strong and assured and Choi Yi Hyun effortlessly conveys that.
Choo Young Woo endeared in his acting debut in the wonderful webseries You Make Me Dance and quickly followed it up with a solid performance in the 2nd lead role in KBS’ Police University. As Young Joo, he has perhaps the most challenging task as he must effectively convey the conflicted emotions stemming from a mysterious past while also being able to properly place the character in the familiar high school setting. And he does so very well. He too shares great scenes with Seo Jae Woo and Jo Ryeon as his brother and mother, respectively.
Hwang Bo Reum Byeol gets the opportunity to bring the most interesting character of the series to life as the layers of Seo Yeon’s enigmatic personality get peeled back in a way that is most compelling. Her performance helps to give Seo Young an emotional depth that subverts a first impression that might stem from seemingly similar characters from past high school series.
Jeon Seok Ho as new teacher Lee Kang Hoon similarly has to deliver a carefully nuanced performance that introduces us to the character one way before slowly peeling back his true nature and own character growth.
Those performances as well as those from the rest of the ensemble cast, coupled with solid writing and careful direction make for an appealing and enjoyable experience. Overall, the healthy mix of coming-of-age angst with stories about family, friendship and love make School 2021 an endearing and ultimately satisfying slice of life series.