School 2021: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
School 2021 is here, and it’s dreamy, retro, and adorable. Despite the slow and meandering start, the intro to our characters and story is full of color and cuteness, and by the end of the premiere week, I fell in love with the world of this story.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
It’s been almost five years since School 2017, so my memory on the details is fuzzy, but the squees and caper-like cuteness linger in my mind. What we have with School 2021 feels quite different. At first it threw me off, and I spent the first half of Episode 1 confused about what I was watching, what story I had just been dropped into, and what the tone was actually supposed to be. But then, after a little more time and a little more story, the dreamy retro vibes sunk right in.
Before the story or the characters, the direction stood out to me the most (you know the moment; you have to pause the drama to investigate who the PD is). Han Sang-woo notably brought us Black Knight, which doesn’t fit the vibe at all, and Cantabile Tomorrow, which I missed but also doesn’t seem to fit — and so, maybe School 2021 is a step in a new direction.
Whatever the case may be, I love the way the story is being captured. The dreamy sun-drenched takes, the pastel colors, and the very structured shots. It has the feeling of being a manhwa, and maybe vibing with Extraordinary You a little more than the token angst of the School series — but that’s certainly not a complaint.
The beginning of the drama is a bit of a hodgepodge, and it takes more work than you might think to patch the story together. We’re dropped right into the thick of things, and left to draw our own conclusions about the three main characters that we meet. We first see them in little snippets, whether in flashback, or at their high school.
There’s GONG KI-JOON (Kim Yo-han), the heartthrob of the school, who’s surprisingly tender. He often acts with swagger, but it mostly falls short. Thus he becomes adorable. Ki-joon also has a lot of emotional burdens — he’s been raised by his grandfather and they’re now in dire financial straits with their house being auctioned off. Ki-joon also lost a best friend when he was a boy, and the death (which we later learn was a drowning accident) still haunts him.
There was a third friend in that group, and he’s JUNG YOUNG-JOO (Choo Young-woo). It doesn’t seem like he’s met Ki-joon in a while, and when they encounter each other again as classmates, it’s with much rancor on Young-joo’s side. He blames Ki-joon for their friend’s death to hide his grief; Ki-joon shoulders all the guilt to hide his.
Young-joo himself is the epitome of the tsundere second lead, so I naturally already love him. Motorcycle, bad attitude, propensity towards fist fights, disregard for authority, and a cataclysmic soft spot for our heroine. The drama gods can write this character one hundred times, and it will never get old.
Lest the drama sound more depressing than it is, let me assure you, it’s anything but. And half of that is thanks to our feisty, lovable, and adorable heroine, JIN JI-WON (Jo Yi-hyun). I went from liking her right away (from her first scene where she’s protesting the dismissal of her favorite teacher), to flat-out adoring this character by the end of the premiere week. She’s every bit the “vitamin” character — treating everyone like a happy puppy might — but she’s also strong-headed and passionate.
The school itself is also interesting. Rather than the usual prestigious high school with top performers in the nation, Nulji High School is a vocational school, and the students that attend are training in hands-on technical industries that will get them jobs straight after graduation.
Our main characters are all studying in the architectural design space, with Ji-won being the most passionate about her future career as a builder. A girl that is passionate about carpentry? Now I love her even more.
Ji-won and Ki-joon have an interesting relationship and bickering friendship that’s been going on since grade school, but when we meet them in 11th grade, the air is shifting between them. Ki-joon can scoff at her and make fun of her, but he also can’t hide the fact that he cares about her. Likewise, Ji-won acts like Ki-joon is a nuisance, but suddenly finds herself acting differently around him, and being affected by him in new ways.
With a great backdrop and our characters set up, what’s the story that lies ahead? While it seems to lean in the same direction as previous School installments — broken friendships in need of healing, struggles at home, the comfort of friendship, fluttery first love — our 2021 rendition also adds some additional elements to that.
Ji-won and her passionate heart are at the core of the show, and we see her jumping headlong into her first internship only for it to backfire in her face. At the end of Episode 2, she and her school are facing the consequences of her righteous anger.
But there’s also a deeper current running through the show, and that’s when Ki-joon finds someone’s suicide note in his locker, and he and Ji-won try to figure out who’s written the note and save them in time.
In between the friendships and the overall cuteness, the story seems to be a lot about grief and hardship – in fact, maybe that’s what makes the School series so great to begin with. It’s a sunny and sweet story, but with pockets of depth, and characters that push on instead of wallow.
I’ve focused a lot on our main trio here, but there are also a lot of supporting characters that add to the story quite a bit, and will have bigger roles to play: Ki-joon’s grandpa, Ji-won’s parents and sister and her complicated relationship with them, and Young-joo’s mother and brother (adored as the neighborhood oppa). And of course there’s the colorful teachers at Nulji — and the rest of the student body. In short, all of the colorful characters fill in this world completely.
Even though the full trajectory of the story might not be apparent yet, the setup that we’ve seen, and the taste of our characters, is enough to keep me tuning in. School 2021 seems the kind of a drama whose world stays alive even after the episode comes to a close. And I think that has more to do with how the story is told than the actual story itself.
Circling back to my initial thoughts on the drama, I just love the direction, the colors, the sets — all of it. Whether it’s Ki-joon and Ji-won working at their little retro burger joint, the sun-drenched classrooms, or the corner store where Ji-won runs into Young-joo, it’s all so picturesque and delightful that it’s like peering into another world (which is basically what a good drama should be, I guess).
It might have been a slow start, and it might have taken longer than I expected to win me over, but in the end, I think this will be a lovely little drama world to sink into this winter. It’s so obviously a summer drama (and would have been if not for all the production woes) that it feels out of sync with the current season — but perhaps that makes its summery dreamy tones all the more special. Add in a sprinkle of comedy, mischief, and a totally heartfelt story, and you have me hooked.