Oh, I like this show a lot. Yay! It’s been a while since I responded to a show strongly and immediately, but I feel like School 2013 has the potential to be something special. It’s all there, with interesting and well-acted characters, layers of conflict, and done with a nice vibe.

The show feels different from other high school dramas, which I find refreshing. Less trendy, more atmospheric. A little bit of bite, but not so much that it feels like a grim show. To the contrary, there’s a lot of room for character growth and heartfelt moments, with some light-hearted interludes keeping things from going too All Serious, All The Time.

SONG OF THE DAY

Daybreak – “꿈 속의 멜로디” (Melody in a dream) [ Download ]

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EPISODE 1 RECAP

We open in a high school to scenes of ordinary school life: students in class, taking tests, hanging out. A teacher voice-overs the famous Emerson quote, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” He continues, “Where children hide, and adults don’t know—this is school.”

Next, we catch up at nighttime with a teenager on a scooter, making a delivery. This is GO NAM-SOON (Lee Jong-seok) and he carries his package in.

Inside a classroom, teacher KANG SE-CHAN (Daniel Choi) confirms to his disappointed class that he will be leaving his position here. He’s clearly a popular teacher here, and they pout about his departure. In the class is a familiar face (Park Se-young), whom we’ll get to know in a bit.

This is a nighttime academy (cram school), and judging from the attentiveness of the class it must be the kind where overachiever students go to supplement their learning (rather than, say, the remedial sort). And when Teacher Se-chan pulls out his legendary notes to distribute to the class, they’re excited to get their hands on such a coveted book.

Delivery boy Nam-soon interrupts this class; one of its students ordered the cake. Feeling generous about his grand farewell, Se-chan offers one of his sacred notebooks to Nam-soon too—prompting an outcry from the others of “It’s not fair”—only to have Nam-soon say with supreme indifference that he doesn’t want it. Blink, blink. This barely computes in Se-chan’s brain.

Seeing the cake, Se-chan tells his class that he’s feeling good today and will let them off early to party. So magnanimous when he’s the guest of honor, isn’t he? Only… the kids blankly tell him it’s for a student’s birthday, ha. Se-chan covers his surprise and disappointment, but what was momentarily funny is now tinged with an air of melancholy. If this is an example of how well the drama is going to engage its mood, I’m gonna really like what School has to offer.

So Se-chan shuffles out of class practically ignored by his class, though he perks up when a student comes out of the class behind him. He’s bolstered by this one show of loyalty by SONG HA-KYUNG (Park Se-young)… only she isn’t here to see him off. Aw. I love that this teacher’s got an ego, but also that it can so easily be punctured.

Ha-kyung catches up to Nam-soon at his scooter and asks if his errand service really does anything. They aren’t friends but they recognize each other from school, and Ha-kyung asks how much it’ll cost to ensure that Nam-soon will keep his mouth shut—she doesn’t want anybody to hear that she was here at this academy. Hm, interesting. Is she ashamed, or is she uber-competitive?

Nam-soon can’t even be bothered with her and rides off.

The next morning, Nam-soon readies for school. Aw, he’s waiting for his rice cooker to finish cooking, but with just minutes to spare he can’t risk being late. He takes some of his hard-earned cash from his money tin instead and catches the bus.

A tomboyish girl sidles up to him with a friendly grin—LEE KANG-JOO (Ryu Hyo-young)—but he barely acknowledges her. Then a trio of mean-looking bullies pushes toward him, and without a word Nam-soon gives up his seat. He’s far from scared of them, but you get the sense that he’d rather just do the easy thing than stir up trouble.

The girl, Kang-joo, follows him to the other side of the bus and asks if he’s nice or dumb. Nam-soon doesn’t answer.

The trio of bullies intercepts Nam-soon on the road to school, pulling him aside. They want to “borrow” some money, and Nam-soon hands over his five, asking for two back. They laugh in his face.

The punkass leader, Jung-ho, offers him a cigarette (pushes one on him, more like) and clarifies that they’re not stealing the money; they’re borrowing it. Nam-soon rejects the smoke and scoffs.

On to the administrators: A younger teacher, JUNG IN-JAE (Jang Nara), catches up to the older Teacher Yoo. Ha, In-jae actually took a taxi to school so she could avoid the students smoking in front. (She would have to discipline them, but must lack the confidence. Or maybe just authority.) Teacher Yoo is the more pragmatic sort, saying that she ought to just turn a blind eye.

It’s the beginning of term and the school, Victory (Seungri) High, has lost a homeroom teacher (“After thirty years of teaching, (s)he must not know how to run a class now that corporal punishment has been banned”). Thus the teachers have to figure out who gets stuck with the hard-to-manage Year 2, Class 2.

The vice principal suggests In-jae, and the other teachers are happy to let her have it. Vice Principal Woo reminds his staff to keep the slackers in line, mindful that the school’s producing terrible grades right now. Especially the second-years.

As anticipated, Class 2 is a mess and out of control. In-jae tries to assert some authority and slams her book down to get their attention, at which point we see that the class contains some familiar faces—indifferent Nam-soon, tomboy Kang-joo, bookish Ha-kyung.

The principal has a problem on her hands: A report came in this morning, with photo evidence, of their students smoking outside school. The pics are of Nam-soon and bully Jung-ho. Crap.

Jung-ho and his posse stroll into class late, without a care. In-jae can’t ignore Jung-ho’s blatant rebelliousness and orders him to spit out his gum and sit up. He sticks the gum under his desk and purposely settles back for naptime.

But the entrance of stern Teacher Uhm has the students sitting up at attention—they don’t like him or his disciplinarian ways, but they listen to him. He orders them to place their hands on their desks while he conducts a brief search, and they mutteringly obey.

Jung-ho sticks his pack of cigarettes under the desk using his gum, so when he’s singled out, the pack isn’t on him. Teach orders Nam-soon to search Jung-ho’s desk for him… and the cigarettes fall to the ground. Arg. This is not going to end well for Nam-soon, is it?

The teacher pulls the two boys out of class and tells them to write their confession statement. Jung-ho takes the denial route, since the photos don’t clearly show their faces, and says he can’t confess to something he didn’t do. “Why don’t you hit me?” he goads, knowing that the teacher can’t. Nam-soon remains quiet.

The other students learn wonder at Nam-soon being included since he doesn’t smoke. But they know he’s in deep water with “Uhmforce” on the job. (HA! They didn’t name the character Uhm Dae-woong fer nuthin’.)

Principal Im tells the teachers that this isn’t merely about smoking, but a blight on the entire school’s image. Make an example of those boys.

In-jae has to go to the actual book to see what the rules are, and there’s a catch-all clause for bad behavior that gives the school grounds for expulsion.

Uhmforce takes Nam-soon aside and asks him to confirm that Jung-ho is the guy in the photograph. When he doesn’t say anything, the teacher asks if he’s scared of Jung-ho, or if they’re buddies now. All Nam-soon says is “no” and “no,” giving no explanation for his silence.

In-jae follows him out to ask if he smoked. He says no, and she urges him to tell everything, wanting him to know that he could really get kicked out. He either doesn’t believe her or doesn’t much care, and just says it’s unlikely the school would be that careless.

She doesn’t have his confidence, and pores over her book of students. A small number of them have already dropped out. The stress gets to her.

She plucks up the nerve, though, to face Teacher Uhm and state that as their homeroom teacher, she can’t accept the school disciplining students based on a photo that doesn’t even conclusively show their identities. She uses the same word Nam-soon did—the school can’t be that careless. She warns that if this proceeds, she’ll file her objections.

Ha, but she doesn’t see till it’s too late that she has an audience—the principal and vice principal. Whoopsie. If anything, this makes her seem defiant, and she’s mortified.

She apologizes to Uhmforce afterward, but to her surprise he backs her up, though he says she should have picked the proper time and place to say it. At least the boys’ punishment has been deferred, and she’s pleased to hear it.

Nam-soon is welcomed back to Class 2, but Jung-ho storms inside in a foul mood. When the class president asks for his tardiness fine, Jung-ho bullies the poor kid next to him for it. His buddies loom threateningly and slap the boy around, demanding cash.

Nam-soon tries to ignore the growing tension, but finally he has enough and chucks his book at the bully’s head. But instead of fighting, he steps in with a smile and asks the victim a pleasant question, as though he’s completely oblivious he’s interrupting anything.

It breaks up the moment, though it only makes Jung-ho’s posse madder at him. One bully starts after him, but Jung-ho holds him back. For now.

In the next period, In-jae tries to conduct her literature class and orders Jung-ho woken from his nap. He makes a point of taking out his phone, and she storms over, determined to assert some authority. Even his friends warn her to back off—clearly Jung-ho’s a lost cause—but she’s taken her stance and confiscates the phone, telling him he can have it after school.

But that pisses him off, and Jung-ho actually grabs her—so forcibly that she’s completely rattled. The other students are too scared to step in, and Jung-ho grabs his phone back.

Trying not to lose it, In-jae just walks out of class in silence.

Just her rotten luck, then, that she’s on lunch duty and Jung-ho cuts in line right in front of her, mocking her with his phone. In-jae confronts him again (oh, honey) and says she’ll have to call his mother—and that finally gets a rise out of him. She takes his phone, and he starts talking to her in banmal, and now they’re both pissed off and yelling.

He calls her “not even a real teacher” and finally she loses her cool and slaps him. Uh-oh. We’ve only been told corporal punishment has been banned a half-dozen times already. Jung-ho grabs her like he’s about to punch her in the face—and thankfully, someone steps in. Oh thank god. It was getting a little too real up in here.

Nam-soon shoves him back and warns, “Cut it out, bastard.” Jung-ho grabs him menacingly, just as Uhmforce arrives. Oh thank god, again.

Outside, In-jae watches her class playing soccer and is joined by a sympathetic PE Teacher Jo. She attempts a laugh, but she’s near tears as she admits that she can’t do a thing as a teacher. Teacher Jo says encouragingly that she’s doing a good job.

The next bit of advice comes from pragmatic Teacher Yoo, who reminds In-jae that she’d cautioned her not to work too hard. Why kick up a fuss with the kids? The other teachers think it’s a good thing she’ll soon be rid of the punk (for the smoking picture), but In-jae says, “I don’t know yet, what kind of kid Jung-ho is.”

He’s currently lounging outside with his buddies, pointedly avoiding their conversation of what they’ll do after high school. Hm.

In-jae pulls Nam-soon aside, asking him to tell Jung-ho to pick up his phone. He awkwardly thanks her for sticking up for him this morning—and she awkwardly thanks him back. Aw. They’re cute. Nam-soon advises her not to confront the kids, adding that she’s weak.

Principal Im asks In-jae to confirm the reports—did Jung-ho use violence against her? They’re all eager for a reason to cut him loose, but she doesn’t confirm or deny, asking for more time to talk it over with Jung-ho. Principal Im allows it, but warns that if this happens again, In-jae will also be on the hook.

That afternoon, Principal Im makes a special announcement to the entire school, wherein she lays out their dire situation. The school is in the bottom of the heap of all the schools in Seoul, grades low and reputation miserable. She’s been principal for six months—ah, that explains her fervor for turning this ship around—and says that they’ll be tightening up the rules and punishments around here. And they won’t hesitate to start expelling students, either.

The statement is met with mostly incredulity by the student body, and dismay by the staff.

Ah, and now we come back to Se-chan. He’s talking with a prosecutor friend, glum about his job prospects. I’d assumed he’d quit the academy for a cushier gig, but as it turns out, he was forced to quit because he was caught giving illegal lessons for exorbitant fees.

He complains that he barely even did that, but he won’t be able to recover his position without some image rehab. His prosecutor buddy advises him to “donate” his talents for a good cause, and in six months he’ll be able to resume his former gig.

Thus it is with extreme reluctance that Se-chan is persuaded to go back to… gasp… public school.

The next day, In-jae begins class with the election of leaders. To everyone’s surprise, overachieving Ha-kyung volunteers as vice president, though it seems more like a resumé-booster for her. She admits she’d rather be veep since president is the one stuck with all the work.

On to president nominations. This class treats it more like a punishment than anything, since it’s a hard job to be the one keeping peers in line. Some joke nominations fly around, and then—that victim from the day before timidly nominates Nam-soon. Aw. That is so sweet. Even if it makes Nam-soon look like a deer in headlights.

Principal Im asks for a list of the school’s bottom ten students. She notes that a bunch of them are from Class 2, and a bunch more are on leave. Two have been caught for smoking twice; third time earns expulsion. Nam-soon is on the list.

Principal Im tells her VP to take the list and post it. Is she going to shame the school into reform?

The vote results in a tie between Nam-soon and the current president, and you can practically see Nam-soon willing the other guy to win. Jung-ho stalks in late, sees the results — and offers up the tie-break with a smirk, voting for Nam-soon. Ha. What a way to say fuck-you.

As the new leaders, Ha-kyung and Nam-soon have extra duties like distributing materials to the class. Ha-kyung keeps a meek, polite attitude with the teachers but drops the nice act with Nam-soon, telling him to do all the work himself. And if he cuts into her study time, she’s gonna kill him.

She walks off, reads the board, and smirks at him. He goes in for a closer look… and sees his name on the Worst Students list. Eeeeeek. He just sighs, “Damn, that’s embarrassing.”

In-jae looks at the same list glumly, knowing that her own job is on the line. If a teacher amasses too many low performers, it reflects poorly and could lead to firing.

Teacher Yoo sighs over In-jae’s lot, since it’s an uphill battle at best. That class was barely functional with the former president (the best of the worst), but now that Nam-soon is the president? That’s just asking for misery all around, she says.

In-jae goes out for drinks that night with her friend, the school nurse. The nurse guesses that In-jae’s feeling down, guessing that it was her first time hitting a student. “What now?” her friend asks.

“I don’t know,” In-jae says. “If I hang in there, will I figure it out?”

Somebody else has been drinking: Nam-soon picks up his drunk father at the police station. He tells his father he was elected president with an air of self-deprecation, but it’s enough to make you wonder whether he’s hoping for a sign of approval, or just acknowledgment. But Dad’s dead drunk, so out of it that he has to be tied to Nam-soon’s chest for the ride home.

Time for the beginning-of-term open house. Teachers prepare the school for parents, and In-jae asks her class to please, for the love of god, just don’t cause trouble.

As the class files out to go to their next period, Nam-soon hangs back to help his victim-classmate, Young-woo. Jung-ho comes in late as usual, itching for a fight as usual. He picks on Young-woo and demands more money, so Nam-soon steps in to face Jung-ho himself.

Jung-ho shoves him to the ground and tells him to cut it out, and stop acting the president.

Today marks Se-chan’s first day at Victory High, and despite his distaste at the gig he’s fully confident he’ll raise grades and be outta here in one semester. He strolls into the hall with his usual bravado and asks the nearest student if she’s a good student—what’s her ranking?

Only, it’s In-jae and she corrects him: She’s not a student. Ha, he self-corrects quickly and says of course, he meant the school. She returns that fathers usually don’t come to these things, and it’s his time to correct her: “Don’t you know who I am?”

Oh man, he just pulled the do-you-know-who-I-am. Lulz. I guess he’s just that famous as an educational guru, and soon he’s ushered along by the VP.

At the assembly, Principal Im announces their special guest, Kangnam’s star teacher Kang Se-chan. He also happens to be an alumnus of Victory High, and thus was happy to accept a position here.

The parents mill around, loving the good-looking and well-known teacher. In fact, it’s like In-jae’s the only one who doesn’t know who he is. I suppose a Western equivalent might be the Kaplan test prep guides, and he’s Kaplan. Or Kumon.

Back in the homeroom class, Jung-ho’s goading Nam-soon for a fight, poking him in the chest and slapping his face. Why’d he step in? Does he take Jung-ho for a pushover?

He shoves Nam-soon into a desk, and finally Nam-soon’s temper flares and he grabs the first thing he touches to swing it at Jung-ho. A chair.

We don’t see what happens next, though I’m praying Nam-soon gets a hold of his anger, but we do hear the yells from the hallway. Principal Im leads her group of teachers and parents outside to give them a tour… and a chair smashes through the window (which, Phew and also, Oh no). It falls from the second floor and crashes at their feet.

In-jae looks up in surprise — and sees Nam-soon’s face at the broken window. The mothers start walking away amid disapproving murmurs of how the school can’t control its students, which sends Principal Im into a first-rate seethe.

Teachers race up to Class 2, where they find Nam-soon standing there in shock.

 
COMMENTS

Yay for strong premieres. There was a lot going on, and a lot of plots to set up with a lot of faces and names. Yet it didn’t feel confusing or hard to grasp, because we had a solid core of conflict and emotion that it was enough to ground us in the setup. We saw lots of faces, but weren’t inundated with too much backstory; I appreciate that this drama is backing off on the infodump and is trusting us to warm to the rest of the cast gradually. Coming so soon on the heels of Jeon Woo-chi, I’m particularly grateful for that.

For that this episode can thank two characters in particular, who have very different but equally relatable places in the story that make your heart pull for them. I mean, of course, Jang Nara and Lee Jong-seok, whose In-jae and Nam-soon characters feel like well-considered, fully fleshed out people.

Jang Nara has a teacher type we’ve seen before, but I liked the way she approached hers. There’s naivety and idealism there, but it wasn’t done to such an extreme that I felt annoyed with her for being stupid, or excessive. You almost want to tsk-tsk her for her idealism, but it’s the thing that makes her someone to root for—that she hasn’t given up on the kid everybody’s given up on. She almost wants to, but she just can’t bring herself to—and I suspect that this is as much about her as a teacher and a person as it is about him. She has to believe that she can do something, that she’s not a useless figurehead who takes roll call, as you suspected she was thinking when she confided in the gym teacher about not being able to do a thing. So Jung-ho means more than just the kid who gives her trouble at work.

Speaking of whom, I like that Jung-ho isn’t some soft, dramaland version of the misunderstood kid. I’m pretty sure that’s where they’re going with him, but the viewer is fully aware that he’s a troublemaker, and if we’re with the characters in thinking him a lost cause, it’s a lot harder-edged a portrayal. He’s not oozing with charm to make up for his brashness, and you don’t necessarily want to cut him any slack. He’s the instigator, he’s the one you think would solve everyone’s problems by just going away.

Except, that wouldn’t solve his problems, whatever they are. It’s too easy to just get rid of him; it’ll be an interesting test of In-jae’s character as a teacher to see how she solves the problem including him. If she can, that is. I suspect this will not be an easy project.

Interestingly, Jung-ho tenses up noticeably whenever his mother/parents are mentioned, so I’m sure there’s something there. I even wonder if that could be a thread of connection between him and Nam-soon, who has my heart bleeding for him already. I LOVE HIM. So much.

I wondered whether this was residual love for his character from High Kick 3, who admittedly shares similarities with Nam-soon. They’re both aloof, indifferent, and removed students who are good kids at the core. But Nam-soon’s story seems more nuanced, and I think I’m going to like his trajectory even more. I’m looking forward to seeing how he comes out of his shell of indifference—which I’d bet my hat on being not quite as indifferent as he appears on the surface. I have faith that the show will take us to interesting places with him, and I can’t wait.

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