[Revisiting Dramas] Different year, same old School
These days I’m obsessed with fresh-faced high school drama School 2017, so I considered rewatching its big brother School 2013 for this month’s challenge, except I remember that show and its bromantic angst like it happened yesterday, so I decided to go alllll the way back to where School first began, back in 1999.
I don’t remember watching the first season of School very closely back when it aired, because the series has always been very episodic and loosely plotted, so it was one of those shows you could catch a few episodes of here and there and not miss a lot of plot. I figured I’d give it a watch with fresh eyes to see how much has changed in the School franchise, which is—aptly—turning eighteen years old this year.
School is a veteran KBS drama series about high school students that initially ran for four seasons from 1999 to 2002, and then got a reboot in 2013. It’s famous for launching careers of up-and-comers (like Kim Rae-won, Jo In-sung, Ha Ji-won, Im Soo-jung, just to name a few).
Of the recent seasons, I hardly count Who Are You–School 2015 as part of the franchise, because that show was really the odd man out—it was much more of a slick, conventional drama, whereas the rest of School is very episodic and slice-of-life, weaving in and out of various students’ and teachers’ stories with the loose common thread of problems they face at school.
So what’s changed in School between 1999 and 2017? Not much, actually. The video quality might not hold up, but the teen angst does, and I was kind of surprised at how familiar the characters were from season to season. School starred young starlet Choi Kang-hee as the central character, an earnest, sunny tomboy with a strong sense of justice and a knack for always getting into other people’s business. Kim Se-jung’s Ra Eun-ho in School 2017 is cut from her mold, and the two seasons are pretty similar because of this central character, who can’t help but care about the things happening to her classmates and will always go to bat for her friends.
The runaway star of the first season was bad boy Jang Hyuk, because it’s just the unwritten rule of School that the bad boy always ends up being the breakout. He’s cool and aloof and quietly trying to live the straight and narrow after a violent past. Sound familiar? That’s because it is—I realized that Lee Jong-seok’s Go Nam-soon of School 2013 is Jang Hyuk’s character copy-pasted almost to the letter.
They have the same quiet aura, the gang members trying to lure them back over to the dark side, and a reputation they’re trying unsuccessfully to shake. Overall I’d say that the character development has improved a great deal from the original series, which painted its characters in broad strokes—the skeleton is the same, but Jang Hyuk definitely felt like the prototype, whereas Lee Jong-seok got the fleshed out character complete with agonizing backstory.
Among their classmates are bad girl Bae Doo-na and class clown Yang Dong-geun. Choi Kang-hee also has a best friend in the nice, popular Ahn Jae-mo (Jung Do-jeon), who harbors a longtime crush on her and becomes increasingly dismayed as she falls for rebel Jang Hyuk. Meanwhile, Jang Hyuk has a crush on teacher Yeom Jung-ah (Mirror of the Witch), who has a bickering loveline with new teacher Lee Chang-hoon (I’m Sorry Kang Nam-gu)…
Basically, it’s a merry-go-round of one-sided loves, and I won’t tell you how it ends, but what I like about it is that friendship is at the core of all these relationships, rather than romance. For instance, it’s not about the rivalry so much as the growing pains of confessing your feelings and getting shot down, or not knowing your true feelings until it’s too late. The boys experience jealousy, but they also become friends eventually, which is far more rewarding than a simple love triangle.
The promise of romance did keep me watching though, because in high school dramas, you only need the tiniest hint of a loveline to keep that hope alive. It was really cute because Jang Hyuk is badass, but he’s no smooth operator (unlike School 2017’s Kim Jung-hyun, who gives rom-com heroes a run for their money), and the fun is in watching Choi Kang-hee melt his icy, unapproachable exterior and get him to say more than two words at a time. He slowly goes from quiet loner to somebody who steps up in defense of bullied classmates, and he even starts smiling and joins a school club (begrudgingly) because of her.
Rewatching the original School highlighted how much the storytelling has tightened up in recent installments, if you can believe that. The first season has all of the same elements—overworked and overstressed overachievers, a flawed school system, bullies everywhere you turn, too much parenting, not enough parenting—but the plot is so loose that some storylines feel entirely incidental, and they get dropped and picked up again like an afterthought.
The prevailing sentiment, though, was familiarity and comfort. It was a different year and the hairstyles were dated, but the problems of eighteen-year-olds were by and large the same—searching for their place in the world and struggling through relationships of all kinds—and the series had that familiar low-key vibe and earnest tone that I’ve always loved.
It’s interesting that School launched as a drama series that always aimed to be specific to its particular generation of youths, but the more of them that I watch, the more I realize that the core conflicts aren’t that different after all. In 2017, rumors spread faster and there’s a more pronounced difference between the haves and have nots, but at the end of the day, some things remain unchanged: All you really need to make life bearable at eighteen is a true friend, the influence of a good teacher goes a long way, and trying not to fall for the bad boy is an exercise in futility.
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