Racket Boys: Episode 1
The newest drama from the writer of Smart Prison Living is here, and it’s just as heartwarming and fun as his first. The show centers around a family who moves from the big city to a small town, but things aren’t as simple as Dad initially hoped. With plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy and a whole trove of lovable characters, I think it’s safe to say that Racket Boys will turn out to be another gem of a show.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A man struts over to a dark badminton court, and with a grim expression, he hits the birdie over the net. As it lands on the other side, the music suddenly cuts off, and the empty room turns into a bustling and loud gym. This is badminton coach YOON HYUN-JONG (Kim Sang-kyung) who currently teaches in a club to entitled ladies. While it might not be a dream job, it pays the bills, and at the moment, money is tight for his family.
Hyun-jong’s sunbae (cameo by Park Ho-san) drops by and tells him about a lucrative position at a school… five hours outside of Seoul. Hyun-jong gasps and immediately turns it down since it basically means being exiled.
His sunbae expected as much and gets to his real offer: he wants Hyun-jong to help out his team when he is acting as umpire. Hyun-jong refuses because he still has pride as a former athlete, and his sunbae warns him that he will lose everything if he holds onto such silly things.
Not long after he leaves, the same sunbae calls Hyun-jong and asks him to work as a mover for a day. Hyun-jong’s ears perk up at the money, but he hangs up when his sunbae tells him that it is for a health club.
When his phone rings again, Hyun-jong assumes that it is his sunbae and yells at him. Alas, it is his landlord, and she shouts back at him to pay his overdue rent. After hanging up, Hyun-jong’s phone buzzes once more, and he picks up thinking that it is his landlord. This time it is his son’s baseball team calling him about the training fee.
Hyun-jong stops by the baseball team office and learns that only players who go to the training camp will be allowed to compete. They only have one spot left for the remaining five players, and Hyun-jong promises to bring the money by tomorrow.
During practice, the baseball coach calls over the five students who have not paid and tells them that the first person to finish thirty laps will be allowed to go. The others congratulate teammate Him-chan on winning since he used to run track, but pitcher YOON HAE-KANG (Tang Joon-sang) scoffs because he intends to win. As they run, Hae-kang huffs and puffs behind Him-chan, but when they pass first base, the coach announces Hae-kang as the winner—he nearly lapped his competition!
Elsewhere, Hyun-jong acts an umpire for a badminton competition, and the game reaches match point. At this crucial moment, the birdie lands outside the line, and all eyes turn to Hyun-jong to make the call. Throwing away his pride, Hyun-jong takes his sunbae’s bribe and calls it in. While Hyun-jong deals with the losing team’s fury, his sunbae ignores him and moves on to his next prey.
Still short on cash, Hyun-jong accepts the moving job as well and lugs heavy gym machines up the stairs since the sign on the elevators say they’re broken. Only after he finishes does he realize that the elevators are working just fine.
Though he does not have the full amount, Hyun-jong goes to the baseball team office to strike a deal, but the employee tells him that Hae-kang won the coach’s impromptu competition. Hyun-jong puts the money safely back into his pocket, promising to pay them back soon, but the employee says that there is no need.
On the baseball field, the other players marvel at Hae-kang’s tenacity and concede to the results. When the coach calls him over, Hae-kang assumes he will make the team as well, but the last open position goes to Him-chan instead of him. The coach tells him that Him-chan’s dad paid the fees, and Hae-kang turns silent.
Walking home that night, Hyun-jong recalls what the baseball employee told him about Him-chan’s dad working multiple part-time jobs to procure the money. When Hae-kang runs up to him, Hyun-jong asks about his training camp fee, and Hae-kang lies about coming in second place and losing to Him-chan. As his son runs ahead of him, Hyun-jong receives a text message about his daughter Hae-in’s medical fees.
February, 2021. Hyun-jong’s family is moving, and Hae-kang is irked about his dad’s decision to uproot their lives. Little Hae-in is caught in between their crossfire, and she scolds them for using her as a messenger in their tiny apartment. Heh, I love her already.
Hae-kang takes his boxes outside and flinches when a dog bounces towards him. The neighbor comes out to retrieve her pet, and she mistakes them for newcomers. She badmouths her old neighbors right in front of them, and they become too embarrassed to correct her. Keeping up the ruse, they walk back into their apartment. Pfft.
Piled into the van, the kids ask where they’re going, and Hyun-jong exaggerates about being scouted for a great coaching job. They know he is lying, and Hae-kang asks if they will at least arrive there soon.
Six hours later, Hae-in is passed out in her car seat, and both father and son have dark circles under their eyes. Hae-kang grumbles at his dad to let him play baseball and says that he misses his mom. Hyun-jong just sighs since he cannot remember her face anymore.
Growing frustrated, Hae-kang asks if they are driving to the end of the world, and his jaw drops when he sees the sign literally welcoming them to the end (a.k.a., Ttangkkeut Village, Haenam, which is the southernmost village on the Korean peninsula). To make things worse, their new place looks haunted, and the kids are at a loss for words.
The village head MR. HONG (Woo Hyun) pops up from the back to greet them and offer any assistance. Still a bundle of optimism, Hyun-jong counts all the benefits of country life—especially the affordability—but Mr. Hong corrects him since things are expensive here, too.
Hyun-jong notices footprints near the side, and Mr. Hong tells him that those are bear tracks. Hae-kang asks if bears bite humans, and Mr. Hong assures him that they rarely do… they rip them to shreds, usually. Ha!
As they settle in, an elderly neighbor bangs on their door, clearly in a grumpy mood. Hyun-jong misspeaks when he says that he came down from the city, and she tells him to move his car so her husband can get their tractor pass.
That night, Hae-kang tries to play on his phone before bed, but with no Wi-Fi, he decides to sleep. As soon as he turns off the lights, the creepy noises from outside get louder, and he hides under the blanket.
Sleeping with Hae-in, Hyun-jong looks spooked as well and jumps up when Hae-kang appears in the doorway to join them. Though worried about the noises, Hae-kang’s biggest concern is the lack of Wi-Fi, but Hyun-jong ignores his question and pretends to sleep.
The next morning, the kids find a note from their dad to buy themselves some lunch, so Hae-kang calls the local Chinese restaurant for two bowls of noodles. The owner knows all about the orange-roof family from the city, but unfortunately, they only deliver for ten bowls or more to their area.
While the kids roam the streets in search of food, they run into a neighbor’s dog. Unlike her brother, Hae-in chases after the dog to pet it, and they end up at the elderly couple’s house. Hae-kang introduces himself, and Grandma asks if they ate. He lies that they did, but his growling stomach gives them away. More interested in the dog, Hae-in asks for his name, and Grandma tells her that it’s Flex. Pfft.
Grandma makes her guests some warm noodle soup, and the kids are awed by the taste (courtesy of MSG, heh). As they eat, Grandpa turns on the television, but all they get is static. Grandma complains about their broken remote control which lacks an external input button and pulls out her smartphone to call customer service. Hae-kang pays her no mind, but when he looks down at the remote, he sees the button on top.
Meanwhile, Hyun-jong checks out the middle school, and Head Coach BAE (Shin Jung-geun) welcomes him to the team. Cutting right to the chase, Hyun-jong asks if he could get a three months advance, and Coach Bae says that it might be possible if they even last that long. As his senior, he offers him a piece of advice: avoid creativity, challenges, and most importantly, creative challenges. Hyun-jong replies, “Doing nothing is my specialty.”
Hae-kang fixes the television and tapes up all the unnecessary buttons on the remote. Watching from the side, Hae-in points out to her brother that the button is right there, but he stops her from mentioning what they all know: Grandma and Grandpa cannot read.
While Grandma packs up some side dishes for them to take home, Hae-kang notices a side door and absentmindedly reaches for the doorknob. Before he grabs it, Grandma stops him and says that he might lose his hand if he is not careful.
The principal’s office is decorated with flags from the badminton team’s national competition wins, but the latest one is from ten years ago. Hyun-jong promises to bring home another flag, but the principal’s dreams are much, much smaller: all he expects is for them to enter a national competition.
Apparently, the rules were changed, and now the government will only fund sports clubs that compete in national tournaments. Undeterred, Hyun-jong promises to show them results as well, but the principal says that skill is not the issue.
Coach Bae takes Hyun-jong to the gym and introduces him to the team. First is Captain BANG YOON-DAM (Sohn Sang-yeon) who whips out his phone to take a few selfies with the new coach. He is the third-year ace of the team as well as a social media addict. (In Korea, the third year of middle school is the equivalent of American 9th grade.)
Second is fellow third-year NA WOO-CHAN (Choi Hyun-wook) who pulls Hyun-jong into a chest bump. He is the tallest student at their school, a hip-hop king, and a handshake addict. Joining them late is their youngest member, second-year LEE YONG-TAE (Kim Kang-hoon), who is a Lee Yong-dae fanboy, motor mouth, and a badminton know-it-all.
Hyun-jong stares in disbelief at the team, and Coach Bae tells him that they could not enter any competitions these past couple of years because of the lack of students. Though they only need one more player, finding even one is a huge ordeal in their small town.
Walking home from the elderly couple’s house, Hae-kang says that they seemed like nice people unlike their first impressions. Hae-in wonders if that is true since Grandma told her to come eat snacks when she is alone, and their dad always warned her to be wary of people who entice her with treats.
Hae-kang sleeps with the rest of his family today as well, and while they lie under the covers, Hyun-jong tells him that they need one more body. Hae-kang turns him down before he can even ask and reminds his dad that he still wants to play baseball.
In the morning, Coach Bae calls Hyun-jong about a potential new badminton player, and he rushes to the school with high hopes. To his surprise, it is a foreign exchange student with no knowledge of the sport, but with five days left until the regional competition, they accept him.
Things look up for Hyun-jong, but the very next day, another obstacle blocks his path: the school shut down the dormitory. Hyun-jong asks if they can commute, and Yong-tae tells him that it takes him four hours since his dad is a “nature man” (like the famous variety show). Cut to Yong-tae’s dad living off the land and washing in rivers.
Hyun-jong whispers to Coach Bae that this is not what he promised, but Coach Bae tells him that they warned him about the challenges. With his job on the line, Hyun-jong takes them to his house, which does not go over well with his son. Despite Hae-kang’s crabby attitude, the other students saunter in and make themselves at home.
During dinner, Hyun-jong warns them that baseball is a taboo word in their house and asks about their housing fee. None of the students have the money, though, since their parents would not pay or could not be contacted in Yong-tae’s case.
The boys sit around Hae-kang’s room playing mobile games before bed, and scaredy-cat Hae-kang asks to join them since the rest of his family is at the hospital. While they sleep, Hae-kang says that baseball is better, and the badminton team quickly defend their sport. However, Hae-kang points out that badminton has neither a professional team nor fans, and the others have no rebuttal.
Every day seems to bring a new challenge for Hyun-jong, and this time, his fourth member is leaving the team. He says that a seat opened up in Seoul, and he happily waves goodbye as he goes to see his favorite idol group, GFriend. Heh.
At breakfast, Hyun-jong asks if they know anyone, and Hae-in says that they have Hae-kang. Hyun-jong tells his daughter that her idea will not work, but Yong-tae disagrees. The others quickly catch on to Yong-tae’s plan, and they start praising badminton over baseball.
Their goading works, and Hae-kang challenges their ace to a match. Yoon-dam agrees, but in exchange, he wants Hae-kang to play for their team if he loses. Hae-kang accepts the condition but wants a reward, too. He asks his dad to let him play baseball if he wins, but when that doesn’t work, he settles for Wi-Fi.
The team takes Hae-kang to the sports shop to buy a racket, and the owner playfully calls them the Racket Boys (a pun referring to BTS). He mistakes Hae-kang for someone else, but as soon as he mentions the name, the mood dampens.
After they choose a racket, Yong-tae suggests stopping by Yoon-dam’s bakery which is in the area. Hae-kang wonders why Yoon-dam is staying at his house if his family lives nearby, and Yong-tae tells him that Yoon-dam’s parents are very lovey-dovey (they’re expecting their sixth child).
As they sit down with their breads, they talk about the upcoming competition which will be their first in three years. Yong-tae asks the others what the d in “D-day” stands for, and they rack their brains for an answer. Woo-chan guesses “drive,” and Yoon-dam answers “day.”
Shaking his head, Yong-tae says that it means “dream” to him since it was always his wish to go to a competition with them. Yoon-dam promises their youngest that he’ll win tomorrow in under ten minutes without even breaking a sweat.
The next day, Hae-kang picks up his racket and joins the others at the gym. Though Hae-kang only needs to score a single point to win, it becomes clear from Yoon-dam’s first serve that this will be a one-sided game.
As he promised, Yoon-dam reaches match point before the ten-minute mark, but right before they start the last rally, Hae-kang switches from his left to his right hand. His aura completely changes, and Hae-kang starts smashing the birdie over the net.
The rally goes on for minutes, and once Hae-kang sees his chance, he jumps up and hits the birdie across the court. It bounces near the line, and they turn to the others to make the call. Woo-chan says that it is out, and Hae-kang’s protests are ignored.
On the bus ride back home, the others wonder about Hae-kang’s skills, and Woo-chan admits to not actually seeing where the birdie landed because it was too fast. Once they get home, Hae-kang challenges Yoon-dam to a rematch and rushes to the bathroom.
The store owner calls Yoon-dam to ask about the match outcome and tells him that he figured out Hae-kang’s identity. When he came to pick up his racket, Hae-kang asked for some specific modifications, which made the owner remember reading about Hae-kang winning the 2016 Korea Junior Open.
After hearing the news, the boys gather around the trophy display case and realize that one whole shelf is dedicated to Hae-kang… for badminton. When Hae-kang steps out of the bathroom, they whoop in excitement.
The boys wonder what a genius like Hae-kang is doing at their school, and Woo-chan recalls his competitiveness. Clearly some things have not changed as Hae-kang bursts into the room and calls Yoon-dam out to play a game right now.
Hae-kang storms back into his dad’s room and takes his spot in the middle. Though he will play in the upcoming competition, he tells his dad that he will not be joining the team nor will he tolerate any nagging from him.
With only a day left before the competition, Hyun-jong announces the starting lineup, and Woo-chan is cut from singles. No one complains about the decision since they acknowledge Hae-kang’s abilities, and after practice, they all walk home together.
Hae-kang asks about their ranking, and they tell him that they are second in their prefecture… out of two teams. Woo-chan wonders if Hae-kang is anxious, and he tells them that nerves are for the weak. He plans to beat their opponents and return to baseball afterwards.
They run into Hyun-jong on the way, and he tells them that he is going into town to fix his phone. Once Hae-kang comes home, he looks for his sister, but the house is empty. With no way to contact his dad, Hae-kang runs to Mr. Hong, and the rest of the badminton team helps search for Hae-in.
Since none of the villagers have seen her, Hae-kang gets an inkling about her whereabouts and tells the others to wait at home. He runs to his elderly neighbor’s house, and without a moment’s hesitation, he opens the side door. His mouth drops as he finds his sister inside, playing with Grandma in a spacious room filled with toys.
Grandma tells him that Hyun-jong asked her to babysit, and she shares with them how her grandson found their home boring which was why she remodeled in hopes of having him stay over more often. He notices her looking forlorn, but she assures Hae-kang that she is fine because she can see photos of her grandson on her phone.
When Hae-kang returns home with Hae-in, they notice the entranceway filled with shoes. The villagers all stopped by since they were worried about Hae-in, and Hae-kang thanks them for their help.
Later that night, Hyun-jong asks Hae-kang how he feels about the upcoming competition and brings up old memories of when he was little. Though he turned into a prickly teenager, Hyun-jong thanks Hae-kang for growing up well. He also apologizes for not being able to support his baseball career, but Hae-kang does not hear him since he is already asleep.
Dream-day is here, and the badminton team gathers in a circle to cheer. Hae-kang cringes at their cheesy chant, but the others are too thrilled to care. When they arrive, the team runs into their competitors, and both sides engage in some pre-game trash-talk.
Meanwhile, Hae-kang walks around the building and notices someone entering the girl’s bathroom. He tells the other person that he is going the wrong way, but a fiery female student, LEE HAN-SOL (Lee Ji-won), slaps him on the back for mistaking her teammate for a boy.
As the different teams get ready for the competition, Hae-kang warms up by running in the halls and knocks into the bathroom girl again. HAN SE-YOON (Lee Jae-in) scowls at Hae-kang for picking a fight, and he tells her to jump rope elsewhere. Her teammates come to her defense, and they threaten to call their coach. Hae-kang tenses up as they surround him, and Han-sol warns him a second time to watch himself.
The girls’ coach is RA YOUNG-JA (Oh Nara), and her infamy as “Ranos” has even reached our little badminton team. They feel bad for the girl’s team, but most of their pity goes out to her family.
Though Young-ja might be tough, her team is undeniably a powerhouse especially with Se-yoon as their ace. Even Hae-kang watches slack-jawed as Se-yoon plays, and Yong-tae tells him that she is rumored to be a future national youth athlete.
The others tell Hae-kang that you just have to avoid two things with Se-yoon: mistaking her for a boy and bothering her when she is jumping rope. Hae-kang asks what happens if someone does both, and Yong-tae answers, “They die.”
After warming up in the hallway, Hae-kang walks onto the court with confidence. The first rally starts off well, and the players get absorbed into their game. Though Hae-kang is focused and determined, his opponent is better and widens the gap. In the end, the other player wins with a nicely placed smash to the corner.
The others worry about how Hae-kang is taking his loss, but rather than feel defeated, Hae-kang seethes and asks if his opponent was the other team’s ace. Yoon-dam tells him that he is still in elementary school, and Hae-kang laughs uncontrollably.
He vows to destroy the kid in the upcoming spring competition, and the others watch him stomp away. Breaking into grins, they mention how the opponent is considered one of the top five players in the region despite being young and even called a prodigy. Heh.
On the ride home, the others sing along to a BTS song, and Hae-kang yells at them for being so cheerful after they lost every game. They stare at Hae-kang for a brief moment before returning to their song and giving each other hearts. Ha!
Coach Bae treats the team to jajangmyun, but Hae-kang reminds his dad that they need to order ten bowls for delivery. He tells him that three more people are joining them, and on cue, Young-ja steps into the room. The students ask how they know her, and Hae-in answers for them as she rushes into her mom’s arms. As for the remaining two, they are Se-yoon and Han-sol who will also be staying over for a while.
Hyun-jong and Young-ja share a drink alone, and she asks her husband if he told the truth about their money problems to their son. He says that he could not, and she agrees with his decision since they can help Hae-kang play baseball again once they save enough money.
While their parents catch up, the kids play games at Grandma’s house, which they deem the best place in the world. She invites them to sleep over, and noticing the time, she gets up to see her grandson. Hae-kang smiles as she leaves since the day before he taught Grandma how to video call her grandson.
Hae-kang wakes up in the middle of the night when he hears banging, and he tells Hae-in to stop it. However, Hae-in is fast asleep, and the banging continues. Gathering his courage, Hae-kang checks outside and sighs in relief when no one is there. As he closes the door, he hears heavy footsteps and makes eye contact with the local bear.
In the morning, the badminton team runs laps around the gym, and everyone but Hae-kang falls to the ground in exhaustion. Ignoring his players’ complaints, Hyun-jong announces the upcoming matches. When they hear that Ayeon Middle School will be there, the three boys jump to their feet and fling curses into the air. Hae-kang watches confused as his teammates sprint around the gym, fueled by a newfound motivation.
It’s only been one (very long) episode, but I’m already in love with this cast of characters. Racket Boys is filled to the brim with lovable people from the fish-out-of-water city folks to the tenderhearted villagers with each their own quirks. The writer has done an excellent job creating three-dimensional characters who are genuinely nice without being boring, and the show captures the youthfulness of its main quartet without making them feel overly juvenile. Though the show has just started, it packs a lot of characterization and plot into the first episode, which helps the audience get a good sense of all the different personalities while also leaving plenty of room for growth.
In this first episode, Hae-kang is the heart that carries everything from the beginning to the end, and Tang Joon-sang is absolutely amazing as the sweet, competitive teenager who just wants to play baseball. His first impression comes across as prickly as he tells his teammates that he can beat them while hopping, but immediately, the show reveals his thoughtfulness when he lies to his dad about losing the competition so he doesn’t feel guilty about not paying the fee. At the same time, Hae-kang is still a teenager, and I love how the show makes him out to be a regular kid who bickers with his dad constantly but clearly loves his family.
I also found it funny that Hae-kang is a scaredy-cat, but none of the other characters tease him for it. It’s the audience who gets to laugh in these situations, and it’s not necessarily because of Hae-kang’s fears but the juxtapositions that make it humorous. Take, for example, the scenes where Hae-kang gets scared at night and appears in doorways. The joke does not lie solely in Hae-kang’s fear of the mysterious noises but from his sudden change in attitude and how he begrudgingly asks to sleep with others even though it goes against what he said earlier. Another great thing about this characterization is that the show does not only use it for laughs but also to emphasize how much Hae-kang cares for his family. When he thought Hae-in was lost, he runs to the elderly couples’ house and does not blink an eye as he passes by Flex. In that moment, Hae-kang’s determination to “save” his sister outweighs his fear of animals, and it shows the audience how much our scaredy-cat pitcher loves his family and takes his responsibilities as the older brother seriously.
The general setup of the show is ridiculous in the sense of everything happening so quickly, but the actual circumstances and reactions come across as realistic. The populations in rural towns are decreasing, and plenty of schools are shutting down because of the lack of enrollment. In most situations, the badminton team would have disbanded, but because Hyun-jong and his family are thrust into this world, it sets off a chain of events which leads to the current story. The addition of Hae-kang to the team felt natural, and I loved how the others were excited to have a young genius on their team. They balance out Hae-kang’s initial prickliness with their exuberance (as demonstrated in the car scene), and it was great to see the team quickly adopt him into their ranks even if Hae-kang might still be in denial about the whole thing. It was also a great subversion of the geeenius player trope, and Hae-kang’s reaction to losing his first match was perfect. He still saw himself as a top player, so losing to an elementary student scratched his pride and gave him a legitimate reason to stick with the team on his own accord.
Overall, the show is part sports drama and part coming-of-age story, and the forthcoming cohabitation hijinks make me excited to watch our group of young teens bond with each other as they go through this rollicking period in their lives. With the addition of the girls who seem just as opinionated and headstrong as our badminton boys, I’m sure things will not be an easy ride for any of them as they learn to live under one roof. Most people can probably agree that middle school is a painfully awkward time, but it can also be unforgettable fun with the right friends. In the case of the Haenam Seo badminton team, my bet is on the latter, and I can’t wait to see them grow closer and truly become a team.