As you know, we started out with hopes for Dream High 2 that quickly fizzled, and recaps were dropped after the first two weeks. I don’t regret that choice in the least, but I did continue watching the show out of curiosity, and now that it’s over, I’m weighing in with some overall thoughts on what worked for the show and what didn’t, and why I feel like it had what it took to make a good show but never got there.
SONG OF THE DAY
Dream High 2 OST – “Hello To Myself” [ Download ]
Note: Spoilers are everywhere!
Let’s do this in hyperspeed, hitting the main points:
Picking up where recaps left off (with Episode 4), the Superidol audition series commences, with each stage focused around a certain theme. The tension mounts between Hae-sung and Ri-an, who are on opposite teams (idols versus underdogs), reluctant roommates, and rivals for JB’s affection. I know, it’s weird; JB has something of an offscreen lobotomy and goes from sneering derisively at Hae-sung (because he still has feelings for ex-girlfriend Ri-an) to declaring that he likes Hae-sung a few episodes later.
Yoo-jin continues to help hapless Hae-sung, who has so little self-esteem that she lets everyone walk all over her, and then apologizes to her harassers. Eventually she becomes the school outcast and even her friends ditch her, shuffling away for fear that her suckitude is contagious.
You’d think that Yoo-jin, the confident, brash lone wolf who doesn’t care what anyone thinks and who likes Hae-sung, would be the one who’d step up and stand by her side in the moment of need. And he tries a few times, early on. But as the drama progresses he falls behind, either failing to come through or getting there too late. Maybe Yoo-jin’s failure to come through in crunch time is what makes him ultimately unsuccessful in love. (I know! So frustrating.)
Instead, JB is the one to extend a friendly hand when everyone else is shunning her. It’s strange, because he was the assy mean boy who looked down on her. I’m not sure why he changes his mind, and it’s one of the drama’s several hairpin turns, but we go with it because we have to if we’re going to buy the rest of the plot. (Although I don’t think we buy the rest of the plot in any case.)
Hae-sung is ostracized and ridiculed to such extremes — even by her own teacher — that she decides to leave school, per her father’s wishes. And for some inexplicable reason, after she leaves her “friends” cry over her departure, even though they were the ones who ditched her just an episode ago. Ugh. It’s this flip-flop that makes the supporting cast hard to care about for the rest of the drama, even though they have some cute moments. To feel the cute, though, it almost requires you to turn off your brain to the part that can’t quite make sense of their behavior changes.
This is a problem that pops up in multiple instances: that to enjoy what’s unfolding in the moment, you have to actively ignore what just came before it. Consistency is a major flaw, with little thought to story or character integrity.
JB follows Hae-sung back to her hometown to try to bring her back, and works his way into the good graces of her family. Yoo-jin follows one step behind, and gets distracted by swooping to Ri-an’s rescue, which sets up the four-way conflict for the rest of the series. Except, the drama really only fixates on the JB/Hae-sung angle, dropping potential development along the Yoo-jin/Hae-sung and Yoo-jin/Ri-an fronts. Basically, Yoo-jin is the drama’s saving grace, and then he’s wasted.
Ri-an pulls a few dick moves, like stealing Hae-sung’s first song composition, “Hello To Myself,” and claiming songwriting credit for it. Hae-sung, problematically, is such a pushover that she isn’t angry (thankfully, both boys are angry on her behalf) but actually manages to work up some gratitude to everyone for performing her song, even if she wasn’t credited for it.
On the upside, she’s belatedly acknowledged as songwriter and discovers her new talent. With that goal, Hae-sung decides to come back to school and is welcomed with open arms, including the teacher who’d turned against her, who has now turned back. There’s a lot of character turning in this drama.
At about halfway through, we enter the kinder, gentler half of Dream High 2, where characters are suddenly warmer to each other, even if it’s not quite understood why. It makes for a cuter, fuzzier watch, because I enjoy watching characters bond and support each other. But it does have the countereffect of dropping narrative flow, with everyone getting along.
This lack of clashing and tension means that the conflict has to redirect to other outlets, and that happens in the form of (1) romance, (2) sudden injuries, and (3) the Superidol auditions.
With the romance angle, JB admits he likes Hae-sung, and they start dating. She finds herself the target of fangirl hate, but deals with it even though everyone’s accusing her of being too ordinary to attract JB oppa’s affection.
There’s some lingering friction between Ri-an and Hae-sung regarding JB, but it never flares into anything serious because it seems the drama wasn’t sure whether to make Ri-an into an antagonist or keep her likable. And so it does both, to middling effect.
Even the idols-versus-underdogs tension loses what bite it had earlier on. It’s understood that everybody is still competing to make it to the Superidol group at the end, but the competition lacks… well, competitiveness.
In Season 1, there was a raw, cutthroat element to the students’ efforts, which is missing here. When somebody loses in an audition round, they sort of sigh in disappointment and then move on — no ratcheting up of tension, no intensified drive to win. It makes it hard to root for these kids when they don’t seem to care very much.
For instance, the idols lose the “B” round (which I’ll talk about more below), and they look kinda bummed about it. Then JB shrugs and says that as long as Hae-sung won, he’s happy. Sweet for a boyfriend to say, but with the stakes supposedly so high (it’s a super idol group, not just idols!), there’s a curious lack of intensity.
A problem that presented itself early on was the huge disparity of talent between the idols and the underdogs. The idols have already made it; they’ve proven their musical and dancing talents and are working as professionals. The underdogs weren’t merely underprepared, but it’s doubtful whether some of them even have any talent to begin with (I’m left wondering why pseudo-psychic Soon-dong, for instance, ever bothered to come to Kirin in the first place, while the headmaster’s rebellious daughter Seul is nice as a character but merely an accessory on the music front — she raps, sort of).
So, the drama levels the playing field by taking a few of our idols out of commission. Nana develops cysts on her vocal cords that require operation and recovery, and JB gets hit by a truck. (Urg!)
Plus, since Nana can’t sing while she’s healing, HershE is disbanded. The boys of Eden decide to take matters into their own hands and announce to the public, without consulting their management, that Eden will disband in solidarity. Which is nice of them, but again, it begs the question: If you’re going to give up your dream so easily, why am I rooting for you again?
Plus, at this point Shi-woo is back and cheerful and adorable, having magically cured his womanizing, street-fighting, troublemaking ways. I don’t complain about liking him all of a sudden; it’s just that I’m not entirely certain this is the same Shi-woo; is he really the good twin who’s managed to swap places with the evil Shi-woo, who’s maybe locked up in a basement dungeon somewhere? (Except… would that make good Shi-woo the bad one? Hmm…)
These aren’t actually bad things to have happen, in that you need a little dramatic tension for the characters. Especially once it’s revealed that the whole Superidol auditions are really just a sham, to develop JB into a world star (against his knowledge, ’cause, yunno, that’s a good idea) — and the only reason Yoo-jin was picked to join the Superidols was because it would literally piss JB off and therefore make him work harder.
Here they co-opt that marathon-running term, pacemaker, dubbing Yoo-jin the tool that’ll keep JB on course. Instead JB gets hit by a truck.
I do like the conflict of the pacemaker, since the boys were set up from the start to be fierce rivals. I wanted to see that play out, I wanted sparks to fly, I wanted the competition swinging from one to the other and back again, in a constant push-pull of dynamic one-upsmanship.
That could have then been reinforced by the romantic rivalry, because Yoo-jin’s pining for the girl who’s dating JB (sort of), who’s sort of still got a thing with Ri-an (sort of), who has a few flirty moments with Yoo-jin (sort of). See the problem? Enough with the sort ofs, Drama, and just get to the damn point!
I’m sad that the Yoo-jin/Ri-an story never went anywhere romantic, because of all the potential couples, they had the most chemistry. Part of my mental block with JB and Hae-sung is that they had zero romantic rapport — I kept seeing her as a noona humoring her cute little brother. Their real-life ages weren’t solely to blame, but the fact that Kang Sora’s four years older than JB surely didn’t help.
I wanted to see Hae-sung and Yoo-jin have more flirty moments, but for me the Ri-an loveline was the bigger dropped ball. I say that because Yoo-jin’s relationship with Hae-sung was like a life coach urging his client do better while she felt sorry for herself. With Ri-an, I felt a reciprocal dynamic, with both of them turning into unexpected sources of emotional support for each other.
Yoo-jin turns out to have a painful past, with his early fame as a now-embarrassing child role ending with his parents’ bitter divorce. Now he’s estranged from Mom, and it’s Ri-an who prods him to make amends. He, in return, is there to poke and prod Ri-an, and they develop a cutely bickering rapport.
Meanwhile, the Hae-sung and JB line undergoes a frustrating bout of noble idiocy, because Hae-sung is told she’s holding JB back. For one of the audition rounds, he had picked Hae-sung to be his partner, which everybody believes to mean he chose failure, just so he could be with his girlfriend. Ergo, love over career. (It requires a few leaps in logic, but I see what they did there.) So to bring JB’s focus back, she’s asked by several people to let him go, using that dreaded phrase, “…for his own good.”
She breaks up with him, and he sort of refuses to acknowledge it but sort of doesn’t insist on staying together, either. Instead, they continue kind-of-not-dating for a while. Gah, this drama is so wishy-washy it drives me up a wall. And then back down. And then around in circles. It can’t decide which way to go so it goes all ways, and gets nowhere.
Then, to return the favor, JB is later told he’s holding Hae-sung back, because she has the chance to go to Berklee School of Music and turns it down to be with him. Therefore he should let her go “for her own good,” and off she goes.
And this leads us to…
The Ending (WTF?)
By the time the last Superidol audition rolls around, the extraneous characters have been whittled away and our finalists are the usual suspects: The idols, with Yoo-jin, dancer Eui-bong, and guitarist Hee-joo up for the final six spots.
There’s an added carrot dangled in front of the kids: the one winner will get the chance to be sent abroad solo as a world star. ‘Cause world stardom works like that, don’tcha know: Just drop an idol into a ready-made slot, and presto, fame!
Ri-an rocks the audition and wins with a heartfelt song she composed, using lyrics Yoo-jin had written (this time taken with permission). JB has been hiding from everybody that his leg still pains him and collapses onstage. And Yoo-jin? He throws the competition for himself, choosing not to be pushed down another path before he’s ready, like he did as a child star.
So, the two people who don’t make the Superidol group are the ones we probably most expected: JB and Yoo-jin. Those who make the group: Ri-an, Nana, Ailee, Shi-woo, Eui-bong, and Hee-joo.
Ri-an chooses, however, to give up the solo gig and stays with the Superidols, saying that she made it this far because of her friends, and doesn’t think she can continue on without them.
When we jump forward eight months to graduation day, the Superidols have become big stars. Yoo-jin’s just a regular high school student, and he welcomes them back to school with a big wave. When asked how they feel about their respective fates, Yoo-jin and Ri-an echo each other: It wasn’t that they gave something up, but chose something else.
Then, we skip forward eight years….
…and here’s where the massive disappointment sets in. (Even deeper, I mean.) I’m pretty sure the drama chose the eight-year jump to mirror Season 1, but in my opinion this show really shouldn’t be drawing any more attention to the season-by-season comparisons.
The former Superidols all come back to Kirin High, mobilized by Yoo-jin… who is now a teacher. WTF? You have the most charismatic, most musically interesting character and you make him a teacher? Urg, my heart feels for poor Yoo-jin, so wasted.
In the intervening years, Nana and Hong-joo have become a successful vocal duo — her voice can’t sustain a solo career, but together they’re doing well. The love triangle that served as comic relief is still going strong, with Shi-woo huffy over Nana paying all that attention to Hong-joo. What’s that guy got that he doesn’t?
Back in high school, Seul had patched up her relationship with her dad and asked to be allowed to train as a manager. He’d put her in charge of the Superidols, and now she’s coupled up with Eui-bong, who teaches at a dance academy.
This is one of the only satisfactory resolutions, both romantic and otherwise, because while their cute little loveline never occupied much screentime, it was one that made sense. Eui-bong was the one who urged her to make nice with her father, and was happy for her when she finally did.
Meanwhile, Ri-an left idol-dom behind to become a successful actress who has been to Cannes, so I’m assuming she learned how to act at some point. JB is now a producer, who is working on a song recorded by Ailee, a non-dancing solo singer.
Hae-sung flies in from the States… having become a successful Broadway director? Um, okay. But what about the newfound talent and her gift for writing songs that resonate with the mainstream pop market?
Yoo-jin is implementing a big musical at Kirin, which is titled “Dream High” and features the story of an ordinary, untalented student named Shin Hae-sung. Funny how “Dream High” was also the name of the movie Ri-an shot with Sam-dong in the first episode. Drama, you’ve already used that meta joke — you’ve gotta keep them straight!
The musical is supposedly a Big Effing Deal and will be a joint collaboration between alumni and students. Curious, then, that there are no students onstage other than Hae-sung’s little sister, who’s now a student and who’s meant, I’m sure, to echo Hye-mi’s sister in Season 1’s “eight years later” epilogue. It’s weird.
The epilogue is essentially an excuse to give us a final dance number with our main cast, who tell us in alternating voiceovers that nobody has achieved the dream they had at the outset, but that now they’ve all changed and developed with their dreams.
The drama is riddled with writing flaws, but in my view the biggest one — the one that I can’t rationalize or get past — is that the characters don’t make sense. It wasn’t even a simple matter of not liking the characters, but that I often had no idea what they were doing that I couldn’t decide whether they were supposed to be likable or unlikable. They were just… there. Doing stuff. Pushing the plot along.
If I care about the characters, I can put up with a lot, whether it’s questionable conflicts or bad acting or strange musical interludes. When you get invested in a character, you might start feeling like they’re real people, not just tools for telling a fictional TV story who are destined to live comfortably within their four walls, with no connection to your own life or the real world.
When I don’t care about the characters, no matter how great the story is, I’ve already got one foot out the door, my mind only partially engaged. What Dream High 2 did, seemingly, was tick off boxes to make sure it had all the components there — the voice, the rebel, the rocker, the outcast — without figuring out how to turn those single elements into real people.
And it’s not like it’s not possible. See Dream High 1 for proof of how, with a little thought, a seemingly flat character can break out into more dimensions. The underdog in the beginning isn’t the underdog at the end; people freed themselves from their initial trappings and went on to develop facets. In Season 2, everybody’s all surface.
One huge failing was the character of Hae-sung, who should have been the one we rooted for whole-heartedly to overcome her mediocrity and find her talent. Yet even when she tapped into her songwriting potential, she was such a frustratingly weak, meek character that I just wanted to shake her. She starts out with such low self-esteem that when people abuse her, she practically apologizes for sucking so hard that they were driven to the abuse. She means to be modest when saying, “I have no talent, but…” What I hear is a morose, sad character who has no spine. And no matter how much you want to give somebody spine, that’s something they’ve got to figure out for themselves.
I thought that as the drama headed into the final stretch, at least we could look forward to her spreading her wings and standing on her own two feet. After all, she outlasted JB in the audition round, and is still in the running for making the Superidol cut. And what does she do?
She declares, “My dream is… making JB’s dream come true.” She gives up her second original composition and forfeits her audition slot to him, to keep JB’s dream alive. Blech. I want to like her, but I just can’t get past her wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed nature. You want to yell at her to have more respect for herself — you can have a spine and still be a good person!
Speaking of JB: He’s another flawed characterization, though rooted in a different problem. In the drama, he’s the one marked for superstardom — so much so that their hoity-toity producer designs the competition to hone his talents. This is a point that requires suspension of disbelief, because everybody waxes poetic about JB’s superior talents, and then he goes out and performs and I’m left wondering, Him?
I mentioned this in the last podcast, that the drama was unwilling to actually portray the characters as they were described and therefore sacrificed story credibility for vanity. Ri-an’s supposed to be HershE’s pretty face and nothing more, yet she takes the stage and Ji-yeon sings well — because you can’t have her singing poorly, can you? Similarly, Yoo-jin is supposed to be a poor dancer who gets schooled by JB — and while Jin-woon shuffles a few steps, in the end there’s no real disparity between the two.
There was also the laughable “Proposal” themed audition, where JB and Hae-sung sing a song together that gets everybody marveling with jaws dropped, saying that Hae-sung radiates light and has never been better… but the song is mediocre at best.
As a result, confused viewers are left wondering if the characters are supposed to be good or bad in this scene, rather than trusting the drama’s presentation to tell us.
As I said, characters change without explanation, which is bad enough. But in some instances the drama essentially rewrites its own history, like with the idols. At the outset, Eden is on the verge of self-combusting with Shi-woo always in trouble and JB wanting a solo career. The HershE girls acknowledge that Ri-an holds them back and an early episode shows tension between Ri-an and the others.
But later in the series — in its Nice Half — flashbacks take us back to the trainee days, when they were all a big happy family, forming bonds that have lasted till the present day. Not only does it confuse you, it invalidates its own self by changing its tune later down the line. Oh, then maybe Eden wasn’t a contentious duo after all. Maybe Ri-an didn’t suck. Even though Episode 1 tells otherwise.
I won’t complain about the characters getting nicer, because despite the show’s numerous stumbles, at least the cute moments between the cast buoyed the tone. If I didn’t think too hard about why the characters were behaving in such a way, I could enjoy the squabbling, the petty rivalries, and the group bonding. They never got me in the heart, but as a loose string of amusing encounters, they were fine. Better light-hearted fun than needless angst, right?
In that, I’m reminded of the K necklace: cute, but random. The pendant makes brief appearances throughout the show to get passed along from person to person. It’s supposed to be a callback to Season 1, though it doesn’t have the same function: Last year, we were curious every time it got passed on, because we know that the person left with the necklace would be K. Here, it has no such meaning. Ri-an gets it from Sam-dong when they’re shooting “Dream High” in Episode 1, and it acts as a good-luck charm. But it carries no real significance — it’s an empty meta reference, is all.
As for the romance: a huge dropped ball. A show doesn’t have to have clear-cut romances to be satisfying, and I can think of a number of dramas where that’s true. Dream High 2, on the other hand, actually sacrificed story logic to keep its romantic entanglements alive, so it’s especially aggravating that nothing concludes to satisfaction. (Seul and Eui-bong notwithstanding.)
No Yoo-jin love? Damn, if you were going to leave him hanging at the end, you could’ve at least given Hae-sung and JB their neatly tied romantic ending (and I say that having disliked their relationship). How can this show have given up everything it had going for it and exchanged it with everything that didn’t work? Urg, urg, urg!
I’ve already outlined my dissatisfaction with the musical numbers in the previous recap, and I won’t belabor the same points here. Suffice to say that the same complaints hold true throughout the show, although they did improve. The 10-minute music-video montages that cluttered the initial episodes mostly worked their way out of the show, and the musical numbers that remained were mostly tied into the audition process. So, score one for relevance.
I did wish they’d taken more care to be realistic with the performances, which all sounded like CD tracks laid over a scene. At times I was confused whether the characters were supposed to be singing “live” or if they were lip-synching — like in the scene when the Eden and HershE idols band together and sing (“I’ll always be by your side, I’ll hold your hand”), and suddenly there’s background music in an a cappella (?) scene. Where’d that MR track come from? In another scene where Hong-joo performs onstage with his guitar, suddenly we hear cello and piano accompaniment. Er?
The thing is, the raw, in-the-moment version is often much more moving anyway. Shut Up Flower Boy Band showed us that, giving us performances that sounded live — and so did Dream High 1, in fact. Pil-sook’s hospital guitar scene with Jason listening outside the door? Guh, had me in near tears. Trust your story, I want to say.
However, there were some shining moments too, with several musical numbers rivaling Season 1 for thematic resonance. Many didn’t, but a few selections elevated the show by tying in a performance to a character arc, like with Hae-sung writing “Hello to Myself,” or the underdogs coming together to write “B List Life” together. Given only the word/letter “B” as a prompt, they struggle to make meaning of the direction — is it Bi (as in singer Rain), or bi (literal rain), or B (the letter)? They draw on their status as the misfits and compose the lyrics that go:
Dream High 2 OST – “B급인생” (B List Life) [ Download ]
I am a boy, just a boy
Just one boy out of countless others,
I’m not special, with nothing to show off
I am a girl, just a girl
the kind of girl you’d just pass by
I’m not pretty at all, just totally ordinary looking
We are the B, B, B list life
We want to be A list
We are ab, ab, abnormal
and want to stand at the top
We are the B, B, B list life
We want to be A list
We are ab, ab, abnormal
and want to stand at the top
I’m just a nobody, with no real use
Just sweating pointless beads of sweat
More than my own frustration,
I tire seeing those frustrated expressions around me
One day I’ll find that special something inside me
Will that day come?
Before I lose the dream fading inside me
Will I be able to shine my light?
There was also Seul’s song selection for the last audition, which was supposed to be sung on behalf of someone else. She toys with the idea of using the moment as a great big fuck-you to Dad, who embodies the philosophy of “Dirty Money.” Thankfully with some urging by Eui-bong, she changes her mind and chooses a song about a childhood dream she’d forgotten as she grew older; “But when I’m troubled, I want to run and play like a child… In my bygone childhood, I dreamed a beautiful dream of flying in that yellow balloon.”
She offers a balloon to her father mid-song — outing their relationship to the school — and tells him she wants to try liking him from now on. And crusty old Dad sits there holding a balloon with a big goofy grin on his face. *Tear.* That might’ve been the only moment that made me feel something in the heart, and I wish there had been more like it.
In that same audition, Yoo-jin extends the olive branch to his estranged mother, whom he’s always told people was dead. At Ri-an’s prodding, though, he manages to invite her to the show, and dedicates “I’m Sorry” to her, singing his apologies for hesitating and hiding his feelings.
These are the flashes that showed us what the drama could have been, if it had tried a little harder, if it had stayed a little truer to its characters and not tried to stuff them into an imitation of Season 1.
I feel like Dream High 2 pretty much encapsulates the Korean concept of mi-woon jung, aka hate-affection. It’s the kind of grudging attachment you develop despite feeling friction, irritation, or outright hate. It’s true of the characters — they start out all awash in dislike and clashing personalities, and grow into their bonds — and it’s true of myself as a viewer.
Clearly there was something there that kept me tuning in, despite the numerous frustrations with the show, so it wasn’t all bad. It’s just that you really do have to lay aside that need to make sense of the world, to have a story with a proper rise and fall, or a resolution that fits with the rest of the show. Funny enough, I think if I’d stuck with recaps of the show, I would have quit quickly, and with a lot of aggravation — recapping requires a much closer watch, and the show just doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny. As a casual viewer, though, I was more willing to turn off my brain and shrug when something didn’t make sense, just to see where they were going.
Sadly I think the ending nosedived from the rest of the series (which was already on shaky ground), because it neither worked for our characters nor gave us satisfactory conclusions. If you’re abandoning logic to the wind anyway, then why couldn’t you just throw in some happy resolutions and fanservice while you’re at it? Funny that the whole show was a big ol’ exercise in fanservice at the expense of narrative, but it didn’t even deliver on that last front.
If I have one takeaway from Dream High 2, it’s Jin-woon, who was charismatic and looks to be pretty musically talented to boot. The others, I could take ’em or leave ’em. (Mostly leave ’em.) A lot of us were willing to give this drama a whirl based on the strength of the original, but if the Dream High franchise continues, it’ll have to prove itself all over from the beginning.