While watching the batch of Monday-Tuesday second episodes, God of Study was hovering on my “to-drop” list. Frankly, I probably had the highest hopes for this drama, and while I found things be hopeful about in Episode 1, it was contingent upon factors that weren’t quite materializing in Episode 2.
But just as I was thinking to myself that this was turning out to be a boring dud, things picked up. And even though this isn’t my favorite of the four Monday-Tuesday shows, it’s the only one that made me cry. For that alone, I’ve got to stick around another week, right?
SONG OF THE DAY
Dynamic Duo – “청춘 (Spring Time)” [ Download ]
First, let’s assemble our cast, starting with the leader of the five friends at Byungmoon High School:
HWANG BAEK-HYUN (Yoo Seung-ho) is too busy trying to make a living for himself and his grandmother to worry about school. He works a part-time job delivering Chinese food while Granny toils as a janitor, and together they barely get by.
However, they find out they’re being kicked out of their tiny home, which is disastrous for them. The landlord has foreclosed and the building is being put up for auction, meaning that they won’t even get their deposit back. Granny tries to keep this information from Baek-hyun and has been looking for a new place, but the moment he hears about it, he has to figure out a way to find a new home, too.
KIL PUL-IP (Go Ah-sung) lives with her mother, who runs a shabby bar. She’s not a good student but seems to want to do better; it’s just that she has no resources. She lives above the noisy bar and can’t even afford all her school materials.
Pul-ip is an uncommon but rather pretty name meaning “blade of grass.” I actually wish they hadn’t chosen that name because it draws that unwanted connection to Boys Before Flowers, where the name Jan-di (“grass lawn”) was a key point of the character.
OH BONG-GU (Lee Chan-ho) is another kid who actually tries to study, but to little avail. His parents don’t expect much of him since he’ll inherit their barbecue restaurant, so he only squeezes in bits of study time in between helping them out. He’s a good-natured kid who dislikes conflict.
Less is known about NA HYUN-JUNG (Ji-yeon), who’s often with HONG CHAN-DOO (Lee Hyun-woo) although they’re not dating. Rather, she dotes on Baek-hyun, for whom her nickname is “husband.” It doesn’t seem like she and Baek-hyun are exactly dating, but rather that he tolerates her clingy behavior (barely). It’s telling that he regularly ignores her phone calls when he’s busy, but will pick up for Pul-ip.
Of the five, Chan-doo has the most well-off family, and spends all his time practicing dancing in his room, wanting to become a pop star. This makes him a disappointment to his stern father.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
The plot gets going when KANG SEOK-HO (Kim Su-ro), a poor lawyer with his own shabby office, gets called in to Byungmoon High School, a school with such a poor record and lackluster students that it’s often referred to as a “craphole.” The school’s parent company, Byungmoon Construction, has just been bought out by another company, Wangbong Construction, and the new owners are looking to get their acquisitions in order.
With the school’s awful reputation and its student body of rabble-rousers, even the local residents are looking forward to the school either being moved or closed. Seok-ho is brought in to handle the administrative details. It seems like an easy job and his brief flashbacks of a tormented high school experience at Byungmoon indicate that he’s ready to see the place closed.
Once there, Seok-ho announces to the teachers that the prospect of shutting the place down will be presented at the school board meeting tomorrow (and likely pass).
The only teacher who is gravely upset by this news is HAN SOO-JUNG (Bae Doo-na), who cares for the kids and tries to engage them in class, usually with no effect. She pleads with Seok-ho, saying that the kids can’t be left to scatter to other places where they’ll only fall further. Coldly, he says that this isn’t his concern.
However, the more he walks through the halls and sees things for himself, the more dismayed he grows. He also hears from his lawyer colleague that Wangbong Group is going to move into the neighborhood once Byungmoon High School is gone — they’re going to develop luxury apartments and change up the whole place. He urges Seok-ho to wrap things up fast, but this news solidifies Seok-ho’s resolve the other way. (His friend later suggests that he’s only doing this to stick it to Wangbong Group, though for what reason we are not yet sure.)
The school has a new director, JANG MARI, whose father is the former headmaster and now corporate director of Byungmoon Construction. However, he’s also in a coma. Mari wants to settle matters quickly — she has no interest in education or academics. So when Seok-ho asks for a year’s time to manage everything, Mari balks. She doesn’t want to stay another year! This job is hard!
Seok-ho makes his case methodically, laying down all the work required to shut down the school. It’s a huge headache — she’ll need to handle documents, balance sheets, contracts, and an evaluation team consisting of lawyers, auditors, tax accountants. Plus, she’ll be deemed a failure as administrator. Instead of that, he proposes that if she gives him one year, he will revive the school. Mari laughs in his face when he declares that he will turn the school around by sending students to the top school in the country, Chun Ha University. (Every time someone says Chun Ha University in this drama, you can mentally substitute “Harvard” and you’ll get the idea.)
Of the five friends, Baek-hyun is the one most often missing from classes. It’s telling that when the teachers see that he’s gone again, they just sigh, knowing his difficult circumstances. Other schools might discipline truancy strictly, but here it’s just a fact of life. Today, Baek-hyun is late because he has been busy looking for new places to live, although he tells his friends he merely overslept.
Seok-ho picks one student to help him out at the meeting with the board, and gets Pul-ip to come along for 50,000 won. The directors are just as incredulous as Mari was, laughing at Seok-ho’s ludicrous proposal. The kids at this school aren’t smart! Hoping for a Chun Ha student isn’t only wishful thinking, it’s downright foolish.
Seok-ho counters that rich kids aren’t any smarter. It’s not their money that makes them better students — it’s that they have different opportunities. Technique, not inherent talent, yields results. Furthermore, since sending one kid to Chun Ha can be seen as a fluke, he promises to send five. They ask who he’ll send, and he presents Pul-ip (just for show): she may not have good grades now, but he’ll put her through training.
Teacher Soo-jung can’t bear to hear his ridiculous claims and butts in, but he sticks to his assurance that he will achieve his goal. After the meeting, he tries to convince Pul-ip to join him. She thinks he’s crazy, but he argues that if she continues her life like this, she’ll be miserable: “It’s not like you don’t want to go [to Chun Ha]. You just can’t dream because you’re skills aren’t up to par. I’ll help you dream that dream.”
Mari makes Seok-ho promise to two conditions. First, he has three days to gather his five students. Second, he has to raise their scores in the June exams. If he fails, he must leave the school.
Seok-ho signs the contract, although he asks to keep the second condition a secret for now — it’ll just add pressure to the kids. Mari then calls an assembly to introduce the new teacher for the special class. And so, Seok-ho takes the podium to address the rowdy, skeptical crowd. When he speaks, his words startle them into silence.
First, he calls the kids dumb fools, voice dripping with derision. That raises their hackles, but he just yells at them to shut up and listen:
Seok-ho: “If you guys continue this way, you’re going to live your entire lives being cheated by others until you die. In this society, there’s such a thing as rules. You have to live by them. Who do you think made these rules? Smart guys. Laws, the educational system, the estate system, taxes, finance, the wage system — smart guys made them up to suit their tastes, to make their lives comfortable. But they made it difficult for those less fortunate and less smart than them to even understand them. Smart guys use these rules to live the good life. For idiots like you, for fools who think using your brains is a hassle, you’ll live your entire lives conned or endlessly injured by those smart guys, and in the end, you’ll be defeated.”
The students are offended, but listen nonetheless. One kid bursts out, “So what are you saying then?!”
Seok-ho’s tough-love speech has gotten everyone’s attention, but his answer breaks the nice effect it achieved: “If guys like you don’t want to be the victims of those smart guys — if you don’t want to be scammed or hurt by them! — there’s only one way. Study!”
Hearing that the magic answer is to study hard and go to Chun Ha, the students break into jeers. A basketball is hurled at the podium and hits the board behind Seok-ho’s head, and the crowd parts as Seok-ho faces his challenger.
It’s Baek-hyun, who scoffs, “Then did you come from Chun Ha University? Does Chun Ha feed you? Do you love Chun Ha University that much?”
Seok-ho answers matter-of-factly that no, he didn’t go to Chun Ha (*ahem*, Harvard). He doesn’t even like Chun Ha (Harvard). He hates guys who act cocky because they came from Chun Ha (Harvard). But the students have this opportunity, and going to Chun Ha is their answer to rising above their current pitiful lives.
Baek-hyun is still unimpressed — does he think the kids don’t know that? He delivers a reality check: More than half the kids that go to Byungmoon come from broken homes. They have to earn their own spending money, and they’re busy just surviving. Baek-hyun tells him to get lost, and storms out. The students cheer him on, impressed.
Undeterred, Seok-ho gets to work, cleaning out an old classroom he’s given. Mari and the other teachers are sure he’s going to fail to collect five willing students, and smirk at his insistence that he will succeed.
Soo-jung is reluctantly roped into helping him, and even she’s skeptical. He goads her into making a bet that he won’t succeed, and he gets her to promise (sarcastically) that if he does, she’ll help by being the class’s secondary teacher. Despite her distrust of his abilities, Soo-jung is the one teacher who actually would like for him to succeed, because if Seok-ho is actually right, it would be best for the school and the students.
Seok-ho begins his recruitment process, which targets several students aggressively. For instance, he sets his sights on Baek-hyun after realizing that his grandmother is his weak spot. He visits Grandma to tell her that Baek-hyun is joining a special class and studying extra-hard. He also hears about the housing problem from a worried Granny, and goes online to look up possible solutions to the problem.
When she calls her grandson up to express her pride in him, Baek-hyun realizes with anger that Seok-ho is meddling in his life.
Both Bong-gu and Chan-doo had scoffed at Seok-ho’s idea, but his speech has planted tiny seeds of doubt in their minds. They think the idea is crazy, of course, but on the other hand, it’s not like they’re happy with their current lives.
For instance, Bong-gu’s former grade-school classmate comes by the restaurant with his family, who are treating him out for doing well on his school exams. Bong-gu’s parents aren’t embarrassed to say that Bong-gu is still going to Byungmoon — the other kid left for a better school — but Bong-gu sees how the other parents react. It makes him aware that he’s in an embarrassing situation.
Chan-doo takes a break from his dancing and finds that his parents have guests over. While the other couples all brag about their children, Chan-doo’s parents look uncomfortable and stay silent, and he feels their shame.
Pul-ip comes home to find the bar in a shambles — the wife of her mother’s boyfriend’s came by and caused a ruckus. Pul-ip feels sorry for her sad, lovelorn mother, but on the other hand she can’t condone that she’s carrying on with a married man, either.
When Seok-ho drops by, he repeats his earlier sentiments — that Pul-ip has to turn her life’s direction around now, otherwise she’ll regret it in the future.
Last, Seok-ho finds Baek-hyun that night to urge him again to join his class, adding an intriguing comment: there are ways for Baek-hyun to prevent getting kicked out of his home. He can take over his landlord’s defaulted loan and become the new owner. Baek-hyun scoffs — he knows that. It’s the part where he needs money that’s the problem.
Seok-ho counters that he’s a lawyer — he knows how he can do it. He will help, but not for nothing — Baek-hyun must join his class. He dangles that over his head like a tantalizing piece of bait, but Baek-hyun rejects him again, angrily. He doesn’t want help from a guy like him anyway.
Left with little choice, Baek-hyun has decided to quit school to work full-time. That night he broods over Seok-ho’s words, but in the next morning he heads out to his new job at an auto mechanic shop.
He almost confides the truth to his grandmother, but can’t — especially not when she hands him the lunch box she made him. Seok-ho had told her that his special class will run late, and her precious grandson can’t go hungry.
At lunchtime, he unwraps his food to find a note tucked inside. It reads, in big block letters that are childish but written with love:
Granny: “My grandson Baek-hyun. Other young mothers would make you a better, prettier lunch, I’m sorry. Rice is like tonic — eat up so you stay healthy. Grandma loves her grandson.”
Choking down his food tearfully, Baek-hyun thinks back to his childhood, with his grandmother always by his side.
Lunch is interrupted by a call from Seok-ho, who tells him to come by and help Grandma. When Baek-hyun gets home, he’s shocked to see her lugging their belongings up a hill all by herself. He starts to run after her, but Seok-ho jerks him back — he can’t show up like this, in mechanic’s clothes and having ditched school.
Granny hadn’t told her grandson that they had to move out today, not wanting to upset him. She planned to move everything first, then tell him later. She had told Seok-won that they would live in a gosiwon, which is a sort of super-stripped-down dormitory that is often occupied by poor students. It’s a shabby living arrangement, but Granny had told Seok-ho happily that at least the gosiwon has a kitchen so she could continue making her grandson lunches.
Hearing about his grandmother’s troubles makes Baek-hyun seethe in helplessness, and when he grabs Seok-ho angrily, his tone is desperate: “Then what can I do? What am I supposed to do?”
Seok-ho answers that it’s not too late for him. Forget his pride — he’s not in a position that requires him to put pride above his future. He hands him a change of clothing and leaves him with that thought.
A short while later, Baek-hyun surprises Granny by taking over her cart, now dressed in normal street clothes. She’s bewildered — and sorry for not telling him the truth — but he speaks to her gently. Hoisting her up, he tells her to sit back while he pulls the cart, and turns it around. He’s heading back home, and they don’t have to move anymore.
She can’t see his conflicted expression as he assures her, “You’re grandson figured it all out. So don’t of me as a young kid anymore.”
Both Bong-gu and Chan-doo mull over their growing desire to change their lives — should they trust in the teacher’s words and try for the special class? Bong-gu thinks fondly that it would be nice just to say he’s in the Chun Ha class — that would be enough of a source of pride when talking to old buddies.
Chan-doo thinks of his father and wonders if the class would make them smarter. Can it actually change things around for them?
Today is the last day for Seok-ho to gather his students, and he waits in his empty classroom as time winds down. The other teachers gleefully anticipate his failure and announce that nobody in any of their classes has volunteered.
When Soo-jung asks her homeroom class for interested students, nobody speaks. Chan-doo and Bong-gu exchange worried looks, wanting to join but chickening out at the last minute.
Pul-ip also wrestles with the last-minute dilemma: She looks around at the students goofing off, thinking of her sad mother, and how Seok-ho told her that her life was headed the same way. Finally, she stands up and shocks everyone by stating her intention to switch classes.
Her move gives the boys courage; immediately, they trade looks and stand up together. They follow Pul-ip to the other classroom.
Mari and the other teachers are startled, but still, it looks like Seok-ho has lost. With only a minute left, he only has three students, and the deal requires five.
The kids worry that this was all for nothing, and Seok-ho starts to apologize to them, saying, “The special Chun Ha University class won’t be happening…” Which is, of course, when a fourth voice chimes in:
Baek-hyun: “Says who?”
Just as the teachers are about to point out that four is still not five, another head pops through the doorway and clings to Baek-hyun’s arm. It’s Hyun-jung, always ready to stick to his side no matter what.
Mari leads the disappointed teachers away. She’s been bested here, but still has that second promise on her side.
Seok-ho mutters quietly to Baek-hyun that he’ll take care of his house problem. Baek-hyun answers (without attitude for once), “I promise I’ll pay you back.” But he can’t concede too much, and adds that he’s only here because he has no choice; it’s not because he actually believes the teacher will succeed.
Seok-ho answers, “Either way, fine. In any case, in a year you’ll definitely be headed to Chun Ha University.”
He welcomes the students to his class, and lays down his rules: First, they have to follow what he says. Second, until the day they’re accepted to Chun Ha University, they cannot leave. Thus begins their new class.
I have two main complaints, one which is fixable and one which is less so.
First, the fixable one: The first two episodes of God of Study really dragged. This drama takes a LONG time to get things set up. There are some nice bits of character development and there are a lot of people to introduce, but frankly we’ve all seen this before and some shorthand wouldn’t have been so bad. The very premise tells us that these five kids join a special class so we know right away how this ends, and spending two hours getting there felt needlessly long. I’d rather that the end of Episode 2 were the end of Episode 1. This made the drama feel a little labored. On the upside, we’re done with the setup so I’m expecting pacing to improve starting next week. If it doesn’t, I’ll be inclined to drop the series.
Second, the less-fixable problem: I really, really don’t like Seok-ho. I didn’t like him in Episode 1, but I kept holding out hope that he would show some inner depth in Episode 2, that his reason for saving this school would make sense. His change of heart is explained, but it happens pretty quickly and I found that I had to tell myself to let that go and accept it in order to get on with the plot. What’s worse, though, is that there’s no real reason to believe that he can do what he promises, or that getting these kids into Chun Ha University is the answer to all these problems. It feels like a not-quite-logical plot point we’re supposed to swallow in order to get the story moving.
Even so, that’s all stuff I could close an eye to — but I’m really having a hard time with Kim Su-ro here. I usually like him, but I think he was terribly miscast. Even without comparing him to the great Abe Hiroshi, he feels so abrasive, but without a likable counter to his sternness. He’s stiff and hard to understand — he plays Seok-ho as a rigid, rule-loving blowhard whose motives aren’t quite clear. There are ample opportunities for the actor to show a connection to these kids (and he doesn’t even have to show it to them directly, just to us), but Kim Su-ro didn’t do that. I get that the character is difficult to like, but it’s the actor’s job to show us some spark of humanity to let us relate to him. I didn’t feel it, not even a little. I kept wishing we could have gotten another actor instead — someone like Eom Ki-joon.
Fortunately, I did like all the kids, a lot. They’re well-cast and well-acted, and I love that for once in a high school drama, the students are age-appropriate.
I’m sensing a bit of Yoo Seung-ho backlash, but honestly, I’ve got to stick to my guns because this kid is fantastic. He made me cry in Episode 2 when he ate that lunch, and he does a great job of conveying Baek-hyun’s desperation. His character is on the cusp of adulthood but he isn’t yet a man, and Baek-hyun’s caught in between the two worlds, unable to provide for his family in the way that he wishes he could. As hard as it is to accept, he really is best off concentrating on his education.
Go Ah-sung plays her character very naturally, and in keeping with the realistic tone of the drama, her relationship with her mother isn’t simplified into an easy formula. She loves her mother and feels sorry for her, while also resenting her for her own lack of choices.
Lee Hyun-woo is another budding child actor who has been in a lot of sageuks (Cha-dol!), so I had a feeling he’d be one to keep an eye on. Lee Chan-ho is sweet and likable as the gentle Bong-gu who wishes he could study better, while Ji-yeon is the least known so far, but is holding her own with her simple, happy spirit. Most of all, I like the friendship between these five and want to see that develop.