There aren’t very many college-set youth dramas on Korean television. So it is refreshing to have a series like SBS’ Cheer Up (치얼업). A big bonus if it is a good series. Which it is! Cheer Up is a lighthearted drama about the members of a struggling university cheering squad. And though the series does have a few exciting scenes of cheer performances, its strongest moments are when it focuses on the relationships and bonds formed between the characters.
Cheer Up centers around Do Hae Yi (Han Ji Hyun) as she enters Yonhee University as a freshman. Because of her family’s financial situation, Hae Yi places a high priority on making money. That’s one reason she reluctantly joins Theia, the university’s cheering squad. Initially, Hae Yi forces herself to get through the rigorous training. But she soon grows to love cheer and makes new friends. Together, they all experience the many highs and lows, joys and difficulties of youth and college life.
The series uses the cheering squad as the backdrop to tell a bit of slice of life story of a diverse group of characters. Cheer Up touches on some deeper issues, including the pressures on students, young people having to grow up too soon and mental health. But those issues are all part of the varied everyday struggles and joys that the characters face.
That definitely includes romance, especially for Hae Yi and her two potential suitors in squad captain Park Jung Woo (Bae In Hyuk) and popular pre-med student Jin Sun Ho (Kim Hyun Jin). But also, perhaps more importantly, the friendships and bonds that are formed while the squad helps each other overcome hardships both with cheerleading and in life in general.
The series’ title certainly applies not only to cheerleading itself, but in looking at the various ways those relationships help to lift each other’s spirits and help one another take those critical steps forward. Steps that may be a bit more difficult without the support of friends and loved ones.
Cheer Up has an overall lighthearted approach. There is plenty of well-placed humor mixed in with the legitimately spirited scenes of the squad leading cheers to a raucous crowd. The series briefly touches on more dramatic ideas while a series-long mystery lurks, though never overpowers the other aspects of the narrative. In fact, all of these things (while appearing widely varied on their own) come together in the final stretch to deliver what is probably one of, if not the most satisfying end to a Korean series this year.
There is certainly a lot of missed potential in terms of giving some important issues more time in the necessary spotlight as well as leaning into actual cheerleading a bit more to give the series more of its unique energy.
But the strong, charming young cast help bring to life endearing characters you are drawn to and compelled to root for.
After a breakout role in the blockbuster drama Penthouse, Han Ji Hyun gets the opportunity to show her versatility with Hae Yi quite possibly being the complete opposite of her character in the aforementioned series. As Hae Yi, Han Ji Hyun must be overly bubbly at times while depicting a character who must juggle between being able to enjoy her youth and taking on the responsibility of supporting her family. Those lighter moments may be a surprise for some people who have seen her previous work. But those moments, along with the more serious and dramatic moments show Han Ji Hyun is more than capable.
For Bae In Hyuk, he seems to be two-for-two with college-aged characters. Though he’s had some notable projects in the last few years, his best performance so far has been in KBS’s excellent At a Distance, Spring is Green. There, he delivered a captivating performance of some difficult and very dramatic material. But here on Cheer Up, he is able to loosen up a bit more being a true romantic lead while also delivering the necessary dramatic performance. Especially with this series’ own heavier moments.
The two of them lead a strong ensemble cast who are able to take their respective characters and allow them to truly be distinct and memorable in their own ways.
And all together, their chemistry helps bring to life all the feels of true friendship. A real “squad,” not just on the stage with their cheer uniforms, but in their everyday lives too.
With the series being set in pre-COVID 2019, there is also a sense of nostalgia. Though Cheer Up isn’t necessarily the most groundbreaking concept, it successfully tells the story of the moments and relationships that help shape who you are today. A talented, charming cast help to elevate the series. And overall, Cheer Up is a feel-good and relatable series of stories.