tvN’s Crash Course in Romance (일타 스캔들/Ilta Scandal) is an unexpectedly delightful, dramatic, but sincere series. Led by excellent performances from Jeon Do Yeon and Jung Kyung Ho, Crash Course in Romance takes a refreshingly bold approach to familiar stories. And it does so in a way that is both emotionally affecting and fun to watch. Its excellent balance of tone immerses you into a fully realized world of character-driven stories.
The series plays out a bit like a slice of life story, set in and around a bustling Seoul neighborhood. It is here where Nam Haeng Seon (Jeon Do Yeon) runs a popular banchan shop along with her adopted daughter Hae Yi (Roh Yoon Seo), younger brother Jae Woo (Oh Eui Shik) who has Asperger syndrome and best friend Young Joo (Lee Bong Ryun).
Like most students in their 2nd years of high school, Hae Yi juggles school with having to prepare for the all-important CSATs. She wishes to be able to enroll in the hagwon classes of star teacher Choi Chi Yeol (Jung Kyung Ho), where her best friend Seon Jae (Lee Chae Min) is also a student.
However, even as Haeng Seon is eventually able to get Hae Yi into the class, it only gets them further entrenched in the vicious, hyper-competitive environment where ruthless parents will do absolutely anything to give their children the biggest leg up against the competition and teens succumb to the immense pressures of society and their own families.
But in the midst of this competitive chaos, friendships are formed, romance develops and the meaning of family is put to the test. And not just for our main characters, but for the makeshift community that is smashed together through the tense, pressure cooker that is the desire to reach the peak of higher education.
Crash Course in Romance is an interesting title and perhaps a bit broader in the way that it can encompass the series’ more slice of life aspects. But its Korean title Ilta Scandal may be a bit more fitting in a different way. “Ilta” is an abbreviation of “first ranked star.” And here on the series, it can apply to Chi Yeol as the most popular and most-sought after teacher. But it also relate to the competitive nature of Korea’s education system where being #1 in the class can mean something as serious as life and death. That competitive nature drives many different types of “scandal” in this community.
And so coming into the series, the differing English and Korean title might affect your perception of what you are about to be watching. But essentially, the series sets that harsh, competitive landscape as the backdrop to tell very human stories about love, life, friendship and family. Each character and each story thread that runs through the series is affected, one way or another, by the culture surrounding Korea’s education system. Whether it is the parents who will do literally anything to get their child into the top spot and into the best school (even if it is for selfish reasons) or the children who struggle to balance the pressures laid upon them while trying to navigate their own teenage lives; those struggles and difficulties can affect relationships and one’s mental health.
Mental health specifically continues to be a major, unaddressed concern in Korean society. And the harsh education system is one big source of mental health struggles.
Crash Course in Romance walks a very fine line being able to offer depth and sincerity in tackling these difficult issues while still having a lot of warmth and fun along the way.
The series is well paced as it deftly introduces Haeng Seon’s family and the community at large before carefully laying out the (sometimes self-imposed) high stakes of education. For some, it is a well-intentioned want for children to succeed in life. For others, it is a selfish endeavor for the best bragging rights.
Those and everything in between opens the door to stories about a wide variety of families. There are both warm and happy families as well as dysfunctional and toxic families. Well-placed humor pierces through the sometimes upsetting, but more than plausible situations our characters have to endure.
The series does not shy away from telling difficult stories. And that is probably what makes it so unique when seen alongside lighter, less-dramatic moments.
As the series depicts the struggles and pressures of youth, loneliness in a harsh world as well as the all-too-familiar themes of discrimination, classism, corruption and injustice in society, it also seamlessly shows plenty of moments of sincerity and perseverance. Being able to overcome such hurdles in many different ways is something the series regularly highlights. And that uplifting message fits very well with what the series aims to express.
Even with the romance aspects of the series, especially between our two leads Haeng Seon and Chi Yeol, the most striking moments are the more dramatic ones. But those moments in turn allow for the lighter times in the series to be more meaningful. And in the end, all serve as pieces to a final puzzle of emotions that make the final episodes wholly satisfying with just the right amount of bittersweet touch.
The excellent ensemble cast is able to elevate the already strong material even more. And their pitch perfect performances enhance the series’ character-driven narrative which in turn allows for the series to foster that connection with the audience. Especially with its well-paced story that properly builds to a climax that last a few episodes.
It is hard to name every single actor that delivered wonderful performances here. Jeon Do Yeon and Jung Kyung Ho lead a truly excellent cast that comes together in a way not often seen on Korean drama. The romantic chemistry between the two is one of the best you’ll see. (And their characters’ maturity is also something you rarely see as well.) But whether it is friendship or family or even an antagonistic relationship, the cast really work hand-in-hand with each other to make this a fully realized world. Or at least, a fully realized neighborhood and community.
Affecting, real-life stories alongside warm-hearted emotions and sincerity; all of this together with an excellent cast make Crash Course in Romance truly a must-watch.