This show is so adorable. It’s perfectly nostalgic, all about looking back on being eighteen with all its attendant highs and lows. It’s like a cross between Freaks and Geeks (though less broad) and My So-Called Life (though less angsty), set to the soundtrack of my adolescence, 90s kpop.
A note about format: The show is actually 16 half-hour episodes, just aired back to back for an hour each Tuesday. I can see now why they ever labeled it a sitcom—for length of episodes, not anything else—because it’s in no way sitcom-esque. I’ve shown the break in episodes, but since they air together, I’ll recap them together.
SONG OF THE DAY
H.O.T. – “전사의 후예(폭력시대) (Warrior’s Descendant) “ [ Download ]
EPISODE 1: “Eighteen”
We open in the summer of 2012, as Mom and Dad (Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il) sing an oldie at a noraebang. Suddenly their daughter, our heroine SUNG SHI-WON (Jung Eun-ji) fast-forwards Dad’s song and butts in for her turn.
Dad characteristically rants, saying that Shi-won wears her head on her shoulders as decoration. He adds with a fist in the air, “If you pick one of those songs where you jibber-jabber in English, you’re dead!”
He says oldies are the best, and Shi-won lights up. An oldie you say? Cue her anthem, H.O.T.’s “Candy.” He flares up that this isn’t an oldie, but she argues that it is for her—it’s fifteen years old. Well damn, way to keep it real. *stops to do the math and cringes*
On a different night she takes a cab into Hongdae as she deals with a work emergency over the phone. She’s a TV writer (though clearly a junior one, since she says the writing part of her job mostly consists of labeling props).
She says in voiceover: “At times like these, something small can be comforting, like a song. Thirty-three. An age where we can’t say that we’re exchanging nostalgia yet—our ’90s were still too bright for that. If our bodies can’t go back, at least our souls can. Right now, I’m going back to the ’90s.”
She looks down at her phone to check the time, and still, Tony oppa graces the wallpaper. Ha. New gadgets, same idols. She walks into a restaurant and outside we see a little sign marking the 38th high school friends’ reunion dinner for Busan Gwangan High.
She greets her old friends, introducing one as Dan-ji, known as the Hee-jun oppa fangirl back in the day, while she herself lived as Ahn-seung-bu-in [Tony Ahn’s Korean name Ahn Seung-ho + wife]. Pffft. Everyone greets Shi-won with the annoying “Did you gain some weight?” She scowls.
In walks bestie MO YOO-JUNG (Shin So-yool), as Shi-won narrates that she’s had a lot of nicknames, but her oldest one is Ship-sa-ppa, short for “falls in love easily.”
Sure enough, she squeals over Infinite (and L in particular), and last month it was Park Yoochun, and Kim Soo-hyun before that.
And then, the boys enter. Awww yeah. Slo-mo foursome entrance for the win. Shi-won narrates that they’re here, her boys, her youth’s everything.
She introduces them one by one (right to left): the refined and delicate KANG JOON-HEE (Hoya), the talkative BANG SUNG-JAE (Lee Shi-un), the charismatic DO HAK-CHAN (Eun Ji-won), and the gruff and prickly YOON YOON-JAE (Seo In-gook).
Turns out there’s a reason they’re dressed like F33—they’re coming straight from a teacher’s funeral. Sung-jae talks a mile a minute about the ceremony and then asks for a picture of their group.
The six best friends pose for a shot, as Shi-won narrates, “Today, at this table, one couple will announce that they’re getting married.”
That takes us back to the spring of 1997, in Busan. They fire up a computer to play Dance Dance Revolution, and I sort of can’t believe how ancient this game looks now. Sung-jae, Yoon-jae, and Joon-hee play the game, and then Shi-won pulls the plug because it’s time for Star Docu, featuring H.O.T.
Gah, I love that she’s fumbling to make sure it’s recording on VHS. There is something so specific about that as a part of my adolescence. The boys grumble and sit back, bored, while the girls squeal.
It’s our first of many cameos by Tony Ahn playing himself, as he shows the fans his bedroom. There’s a big white teddy bear sitting on his bed, with “TN ♥ SW” stitched across the chest, and Shi-won freaks out: “That’s the teddy bear I sent!!!”
And then Tony climbs into bed hugging the teddy, and the girls die of happiness. So cute.
But Dad comes home from work (he’s a baseball coach) and nags Shi-won for the ruckus, so tired of seeing those monkeys on the tv again.
She gasps, but he just keeps going, saying that they should all have their heads shaved and be shipped off to army. Dads, they never change. I remember my dad saying almost this very speech verbatim about Seo Taiji.
Yoon-jae wakes up the morning of his eighteenth birthday to find a present and a card waiting for him. He tears into it to find a Guess t-shirt. He gapes, can it be?
Cut to his fifteenth birthday, where his present was an Adidos t-shirt, and then his sixteenth birthday, when he got a Westpak backpack (instead of an Eastpak, HA). He looks at the Guess shirt skeptically.
But when he wears it to Shi-won’s house she takes one look and says it’s not a knockoff this time, and he beams. Mom is busy in the kitchen making birthday soup for both Dad and Yoon-jae, who happen to share a birthday. It seems that whatever Yoon-jae’s family situation is, he eats his breakfasts here normally.
Shi-won refuses to come out and have birthday soup for that ajusshi she doesn’t know, and Yoon-jae has to remind Dad about his comments on her precious Tony oppa. Mom: “Oh the one that looks like a monkey?”
She reluctantly joins them and only wishes Yoon-jae a happy birthday, presenting him with her usual gift, a page full of coupons. He sighs that it’s the same gift every year, but she counters that she’s never known anyone who used coupons so well.
Flashback to Yoon-jae age 11, at his parents’ funeral. Aw, sad. Little Shi-won does a silly dance and the coupon reads: “Use whole body to make me laugh.” That’s so adorable I could cry.
And then Yoon-jae’s middle school graduation, where he proudly takes pictures with Shi-won’s parents. The coupon: “Borrow anything you want for a day.” HA. He borrowed her parents? At the same time, she graduates from her middle school parent-less. Hee.
He looks to see if there are any new ones this year, and sees that all the coupons have a theme: “No matter what,” like “Piggyback no matter what,” “Stop being mad no matter what,” and the biggie, “Grant a wish, no matter what.”
She promises that as long as it doesn’t cost her money, she’ll make good, no matter what. She scritches his chin like a little puppy.
As Shi-won floats away on cloud nine telling the girls in her class about Tony and her teddy bear, we see that outside, Yoo-jung and Yoon-jae are sitting on a bench together. Something makes Yoo-jung blush.
At lunch, Shi-won asks Yoon-jae to record the last episode of Star in My Heart tonight, because she has to go to Daegu for an H.O.T. concert. Yoo-jung sighs at the dilemma: Kang-ta oppa or Ahn Jae-wook?
Sung-jae scoffs but Joon-hee joins in, saying that he thinks Cha In-pyo is better. Sung-jae teases him for liking the drama like a girl, but he counters that Choi Jin-shil is really cute.
They wonder how Shi-won plans to ditch study hall to get to Daegu, and she says she’s already got a plan. Cut to an uncomfortable Teach, who gets the I-can’t-choose-not-to-have-my-period and You-don’t-know-what-it’s-like speech with the puppy eyes. He tells her to go, just to stop her from saying “period” over and over.
Teacher TAE-WOONG (Song Jong-ho) is on watch that night during late-night study hall, and when he comes by the boys’ class to gripe about the noise, the guys complain that he only seems to care about the girls’ classes. Rumors abound and Sung-jae decides he doesn’t like Teach because he clearly knows he’s good looking.
Sung-jae notices Yoon-jae’s new Guess t-shirt, and everyone oohs and aahs. (Oh the power of a brand name—why does that feel so important in high school? But it does.) He’s skeptical that it could be real and Yoon-jae flashes the shirt proudly, saying it is.
Even Joon-hee agrees—it looks real. But Sung-jae dies laughing, “Guess is a question mark, not an exclamation point!” And sure enough, inside the logo is an exclamation point. Hahaha. I totally never would have noticed.
Poor Yoon-jae crumbles in mortification, as the whole class laughs at his expense. But that raises the ire of Teach, who bursts in, furious that they’ve ignored his warnings to be quiet. He demands the class leader to come up front. Yoon-jae stands up.
He gets up but argues that he wasn’t the one talking, which just infuriates Teach even more. He orders Yoon-jae up to the front of the room, to be punished for his classmates. He asks how many times he wants to be hit, and Yoon-jae growls, “Ten.”
He grits his teeth as Teach spanks him with a giant ruler, ten times.
In Daegu, the girls line up for the stage recording of a music program (like a Music Bank or an Inkigayo), and Shi-won prepares with her Tony oppa beach towel, worn like a cape.
They take to the stage for “Warrior’s Descendant” (posted above), and while Yoo-jung screams along with the other girls, Shi-won just saunters into the aisle like a badass.
The music starts and she performs along with her oppas, dancing and singing along to every move. That wave of emotion passes through the crowd, and the girls start to cry as they scream and chant and sing along.
At the same time, Yoon-jae comes over to record the last episode of Star in My Heart, grumbling that he is NOT Shi-won’s flunky, thank you very much, all the while diligently doing what he was told.
He watches the episode with Mom, who sings along to the big final concert scene. (Ahn Jae-wook parting the crowd to declare his love publicly to Choi Jin-shil, the classic kdrama swoonworthy moment.)
After the concert, there’s an H.O.T. fan quiz for prizes, and Shi-won cleans up, answering everything in hilariously excrutiating detail: Tony oppa declared his feelings to his first love on April 15! It was a Wednesday and it was raining a lot! LOL.
But then when it counts, the last question for the t-shirt that Tony wore onstage today, she flubs and answers too quickly, and Yoo-jung swoops in and gets the big prize.
Shi-won stews about it the whole night, but on the bus ride back home, Yoo-jung sweetly gives the shirt to Shi-won, saying that if she ever wins Kang-ta oppa’s shirt, she can return the favor. Aw.
Shi-won pretends to be cool about it for two seconds and then caves, clutching it happily and deciding she’ll never wash the shirt for the rest of her life. But Yoo-jung says she has something she needs to tell her…
Yoo-jung: “Earlier today… I confessed to Yoon-jae.” Eep! Shi-won doesn’t betray anything but surprise, and Yoo-jung blushes, saying that he hasn’t given her an answer yet, but wanted to make sure Shi-won would be cool with it if they dated.
Shi-won asks why she should care if they did or not, but then adds that just last month it was another boy, and a few days ago she was hot for Teacher. Yoo-jung says she’s changed her mind—Yoon-jae is good-looking and smart and good at sports, and very mature. Shi-won: “Is he? I wouldn’t know.”
She walks home just as Yoon-jae is stepping out, and all she does is ask about the recording. He stops to tell her about Yoo-jung’s confession, and says he doesn’t know how he feels.
But tellingly, he asks, “Should I not date her?” Shi-won: “Why are you asking me?”
He takes a step closer and entreats her, “Should I not date her?” No answer. He takes another step forward, “Should I not date her?”
Aaaaaack! Say something! Still nothing. He sighs and takes out his birthday coupons. He rips one out and hands it to her silently. It’s “Grant a wish no matter what.”
She looks down at it, “What’s the wish?”
Yoon-jae: “Tell me not to date her.” Eeee! They stand there like that, the wish hanging in the air.
We don’t know what she said, because we cut to her inside, watching the last episode of Star in My Heart.
Yoon-jae goes home, where Teacher Tae-woong greets him? Wha? Tae-woong starts to apologize about earlier, but Yoon-jae cuts him off and slams his door. Tae-woong hangs his head, and we see a birthday cake sitting on the coffee table, waiting.
Yoon-jae bursts out of his room to yell, “It’s not an exclamation point! It’s a question mark! Hyung, can’t you even get that right?!” Whoa, they’re brothers? Dude, you publicly humiliated Little Bro twice on his birthday?
How interesting that they turn out to be brothers. That’s a surprising twist. Hyung is left stammering, “Question mark?”
Mom rewatches the episode with Shi-won, redoing the whole hands-in-the-air sing-along. They’re so cute. They swoon over Ahn Jae-wook together, and Mom declares that he’s gonna be a big star, and Cha In-pyo’s on his way out. Ha.
But they get to the end of the recording and Shi-won screams. It’s the tape that had her episode of Star Docu on it—the one with Tony and her teddy bear. Oh noes! Gone forever! Sigh, this is a pain the digital age knoweth not.
Yoon-jae cries himself to sleep as Hyung apologizes through the door—he didn’t know Yoon-jae was the leader of that class, he swears.
And as he cries, his pager goes off in a round of angry messages from Shi-won: “18 18 18 18 / 4 4 4 4 4.” [Fuck fuck fuck fuck / Die die die die die.]
Shi-won narrates: “A rear end hit, by Hyung for the first time in his life. A ripped heart, like a video tape that’s been cut.”
Yoo-jung sits up calling Yoon-jae’s pager too, but just to hear his voice on the recorded greeting. The narration continues:
Shi-won: An age where you feel like you could love anyone, where you put everything on the line for the smallest of things. Eighteen. Adults say that it’s an age where we laugh if a leaf tumbles by. But back then, we were more serious than any adult, more intense, and had our strength tested. 1997. That was how our eighteen was beginning.
Epilogue: Shi-won walks out of her bedroom in the morning wearing her own Guess! sweatshirt, and freaks out to see that Mom has washed Tony t-shirt. Not the one with oppa’s sweat on it! She collapses in a tantrum. Turns out the exclamation point is more fitting than they know.
EPISODE 2: “Becoming More and More Different”
SONG OF THE DAY
Yangpa – “애송이의 사랑 (Youth’s Love)” [ Download ]
We open at the reunion again, and this time Yoo-jung whispers that she’s “picked a date.” Er? A wedding date perhaps? Shi-won gasps that she’s fearless and tells her not to do it, but she swears she’ll be reborn as a Yoo-jung with a bigger chest. Ha, nice misdirect.
The boys ask what surgery and she says they needn’t know; it’s a surgery only women can have. As they laugh over her obvious plan to get breast implants (and Hak-chan gives a slow clap), Yoon-jae narrates, “There’s a surgery only men can have…”
Back to 1997, where Yoon-jae limps out of a clinic after getting circumcised. At eighteen? Ouch. Shi-won’s mom helps him out, and he asks her not to tell Shi-won about this, because it’s embarrassing. Mom swears her lips are sealed.
But just as she says it, Shi-won comes running up and jumps onto Yoon-jae’s back, “I hear you’re a man now!” He doubles over in pain and she teases him relentlessly, “Does it hurt that badly? I wouldn’t know. If you’re such a wuss about it, it’ll fall right off!”
He scowls at Mom, who insists it wasn’t her who told, only to have three random neighborhood shopkeepers stop to ask Yoon-jae how his surgery went. Oh no, that’s terrible.
Later that day, Shi-won practices her “Candy” steps while Yoon-jae looks for something in her room, and swears he can’t find it. She stomps in and digs through her backpack for him, handing him one item at a time without looking.
She doesn’t notice until it’s too late that they’re standing there holding onto each side of a maxi pad. They freeze like that, not knowing how to get out of this awkward moment.
A few days later, Tae-woong plays Go Stop with Shi-won’s parents, and Mom asks if Yoon-jae is healing okay after his surgery. Tae-woong says with a smile that he’s perfectly healthy.
Flashback to earlier that morning, when he found Yoon-jae hiding in the bathroom, washing his underwear. He snickers, “Did you have another dream? Who was it? Kim Hee-sun? Lee Seung-yeon? Uhm Jung-hwa?” Omg, dying of mortification for you.
Back to the game, where Tae-woong asks why Shi-won isn’t coming home. Mom says she ran away again because she fought with Dad, and they say it like it’s an everyday occurrence.
Flashback to two hours earlier. Dad opens the mail to find Shi-won’s report card. It’s got 48s all over it, as in 48th place out of 48 students. He flips his lid, while Mom just laughs, acting like getting last place is an achievement in and of itself.
He storms into Shi-won’s room, where she’s too busy listening to H.O.T. to hear anything Dad says. She says nonchalantly that she knows she’s last place. Dad: “What’re you going to be when you grow up?”
Shi-won: “Tony’s wife!” Dad: “Who would like a chicken brain like you?” He says that Yoon-jae is always first in his class, and Shi-won counters that the Busan Seagulls (Dad’s baseball team) are always in last place too. Ha, not the best approach, methinks.
Dad loses it and starts tearing up all the posters in her room, calling her certifiably crazy. Dude, did you steal this from my life? Or does every teenage girl’s dad do this at least once?
She screams bloody murder, while he shouts that if she ends up in last place one more time, he’s going to disown her and adopt Yoon-jae instead. He rips up everything in his path, leaving her clutching her posters in tears.
She sits on her floor sobbing, trying to tape all the pieces together. It’s both heartbreaking and hysterical.
Back in the present, Mom and Dad figure there’s only one place she ever ends up—with Yoon-jae, so they don’t even pretend to worry. Shi-won puts a coin in the payphone to make a call, but hesitates.
Yoon-jae sits at home, stewing about something else. Flashback to nine hours earlier in his day, when Sung-jae was insisting he had to listen to his new Yangpa tape. Yoon-jae calls her name ridiculous (it means onion) and her song “Youth’s Love” childish.
He scoffs that if a song like that becomes a hit, he’ll strip down and tumble ten laps around the field at the all-girls’ high school. Cut to a month later, where Joon-hee and Sung-jae watch, as Yoon-jae does cartwheels around the field, in nothing but his tighty whities. LOL.
Back to 9 hours before the card game. Shi-won shows off her latest idol magazine and judiciously gives her friends the pages with their oppas. They swoon over all the members of H.O.T. and then scowl when they turn the page to find rival idol group Sechskies (and a tiny baby Eun Ji-won) in the same zine as their oppas. How dare they?
She’s about to rip those pages out, when Yoo-jung asks for the page with Woo-hyuk oppa on it, which happens to have Eun Ji-won on the backside.
Class starts and the teacher asks why Shi-won didn’t do her homework. She says she really wanted to, but couldn’t because her friend borrowed her book. The teacher wants a name so she says Yoon-jae’s…
But when interrogated, Yoon-jae denies it. Shi-won sits the rest of the class with her arms in the air, out in the hallway, cursing him.
Seven hours pre-game. Joon-hee comes by during lunch to tend to Shi-won’s sore arms, while she calls Yoon-jae one syllable short of a son of a bitch, incidentally meaning “dog bird.” The air is still icy when he comes by to eat with them.
Shi-won cuts herself opening a can, and Joon-hee immediately takes her hand in concern, while Yoon-jae scoffs, “You won’t die.” She gives him a kick in the shoulder for being an ass.
In the present, Mom wonders where on earth Shi-won went if not to Yoon-jae. Shi-won does call Yoon-jae’s pager, but lets out a long sigh, not knowing how to proceed.
Four hours pre-game. Shi-won searches for something in the grass and grins. On their way home from school, Yoon-jae apologizes, and Shi-won asks if he’s really sorry. She tells him to put out his hand.
She gives him something and closes his fist around it. In voiceover he says: “There are two things I am afraid of in this word. Sung Shi-won and frogs.” He opens his hand to find a little green frog and he flips out.
Shi-won picks it back up and chases him all the way home, cornering him with it and taunting him endlessly, to his utter horror.
Suddenly the ruckus stops. We pan down to see them at the bottom of the steps, frozen. In his haste to get her to stop, Yoon-jae has put both his hands straight out in front of him… and right onto her chest. Hahahaha.
They’re both stunned so speechless that they just stand there, as the frog leaps to his escape.
Now we know why they’re both cringing in the present. Shi-won holds the phone up, just listening to the dial tone. She finally puts it down, unable to make the call.
She calls Yoo-jung instead and leaves a voicemail that she’ll wait at her place, and as Yoo-jung listens to the message, she takes off running in a panic.
Ooh, suspense. Shi-won gets closer as Yoo-jung runs. Her mom lets her in and Shi-won heads upstairs. She opens the door to Yoo-jung’s room…
Commercial break? Aaaaah!
She opens the door, and sees something. Yoo-jung arrives behind her, with a panicked expression on her face. Oh no, is it going to be what I think it is?
At the same time, the Go Stop game is building to a high point, and Mom thinks it’s in the bag. She plays her hand and starts her victory cheer, when Tae-woong and Dad initiate their reversal. Mom slaps Dad upside the head, and everyone gasps.
Back to the girls. Shi-won sneers and looks back at Yoo-jung, who’s near tears by now. She looks back at Yoo-jung’s walls… covered with posters of Sechkies, and of Eun Ji-won in particular, surrounded by hearts.
HAHAHAHAHAHA. I’m dying. This cracks me UP. It’s the utter seriousness with which they play the moment. For them, it’s et tu Brute?
To add insult to injury, there’s the page from her magazine that Shi-won gave her earlier, only now it’s clear that she wanted it for Ji-won oppa.
As the parents break out into a fight and Yoo-jung calls Shi-won in tears in the aftermath to say that it doesn’t mean she loves H.O.T. any less, Yoon-jae narrates:
Yoon-jae: Go Stop, a game where you have to match the same shapes to get points. There was a time when we struggled to be the same. But in one moment, we began to be different. That we were becoming different types of people—why was that so hard to acknowledge back then? People are all different; that’s the law of the universe, the law of human growth. Eighteen. We were maturing into different people, and having to accept those differences meant we were faced with yet another consequence of growing up.
Sometime later, Shi-won comes out to find Sung-jae washing up after gym class and they tease each other about whose chest is bigger. She comes around the fountain and has a very different reaction to Yoon-jae.
He narrates that it was 1997, and already a while since their second stage of maturity had begun, when they had already become different. He says he wanted in that moment to confirm, if what they were feeling was embarrassment over having discovered that they were different…
Or if she had become his first love.
He inches closer to her and then stops. He says just one word: “Confirmation,” and kisses her.
She blinks in surprise, and as they kiss, we get flashbacks to their childhood together.
As he pulls away slowly, he narrates that by the law of maturity, a boy grows into a man and a girl will grow into a woman. But the problem is when a boy who grows into a man, and the girl is still a girl. When the timing is wrong…
She kicks him in the shins, “You crazy bastard!” Ha. She attacks to cover up her embarrassment, and chases him up and down the schoolyard.
Back to 2012. The boys swear there was a month during their junior year when the girls didn’t speak to each other. They’re like, “Us?”
And as they chitchat, Shi-won’s bra strap falls out of place, and Yoon-jae leans over to pull her shirt back in place. They smile. Hm.
I love a high school drama done right, when it manages to capture that feeling of youth that can’t compare to how you see the world as adults, when everything is fire and ice, life and death, and your oppa is everything. It’s just universal, no matter where you live or what your idol group was (or is)—and I think the show does something great in conveying that feeling, outside of the specific pop culture references of the time. The fact that it’s also my adolescence that coincides with theirs is just icing on the cake for me, because I get to relieve it in a personal way.
It already feels like a full world with a rich set of characters, and I love pretty much every single one of them. I can’t wait to see the various friendships develop as Hak-chan joins the group next week. (I hope they make a reference to him looking like Yoo-jung’s new favorite idol, or is it funnier if they never do?) Yoon-jae’s growing crush already breaks my heart in a great way, and I can’t wait to see Shi-won, if ever, catch up to him.
There’s something so awesome about telling an enclosed story about one year in people’s lives. The writing feels very assured—after the first two episodes I trust that they know completely the story they want to tell, and how every little event that seems insignificant will end up shaping the adults they become. The tone of this sits so well with me—not hammy but just broad enough to be silly at times, totally willing to play a scene straight for the characters to get a laugh out of us, and completely earnest and heartfelt.
It’s not a story that could be told in 1997, but only now, looking back on then. But that’s what I adore about gems like Freaks and Geeks, though it was set in an era before my pop references (think: Grateful Dead). It conveyed a view on adolescence that only someone who’s suffered through it and survived could do. Gotta do the time to tell the tale. Making that point of view transparent by using narrative voiceovers and the class reunion as a framing device helps to root it as that kind of story, plus I love the mystery of which couple makes it to marriage fifteen years later. Consider me hooked.