Once Upon a Small Town: Episodes 1-3
Once Upon a Small Town is finally here and it’s as fluffy and adorable as you would imagine for a show about animals and the people who take care of them. Everything about this drama is pretty from the animated intro to the pastoral setting — and the budding romance promises to be just as lovely. I am so in the mood for bike riding and peach picking in the sunshine, and now that I’ve got it, there’s no going back. Countryside, here I come!
EPISODES 1-3 WEECAP
This could not be further from the other show I’m covering right now, and I could not be happier about it! Green grass, natural light, flowers in bloom, and a crop of new young actors that are as good-looking as their surroundings. For a small drama, the first three episodes are big on heart.
We start by meeting HAN JI-YOOL (Choo Young-woo), a veterinarian at a state-of-the-art clinic in Seoul. In the middle of treating a pampered pet, he receives a message about his grandfather telling him to come quickly because there’s not much time. In a panic, he drives to the rural village of Huidong, repeatedly failing to get ahold of his grandparents. At their house, no one answers the door and he begins to climb the gate. Here, three minutes in, under the pouring rain, we get our meet-cute — and it’s everything you’d hope it would be.
AHN JA-YOUNG (Joy) is a local police officer touring the neighborhood on the lookout for a small-time thief who’s been robbing the elderly. She spots Ji-yool, pulls him down, twists his arm behind his back, and asks to see his ID. It’s hilarious as he tries to explain what he’s doing and she doesn’t believe a word. By the time she realizes she’s mistaken and lets him go, her partner comes along, thinking she’s in danger, and flips Ji-yool over his back and onto the ground, knocking him unconscious.
This is the first in a stream of physical comedy that earns its laughs not from the outrageous actions (throwing people down, falling in the mud) but from the other characters’ nonchalant reactions to it all. In this case, Ja-young’s partner has no idea what’s going on and plays the scene straight-faced as she gives him a dumbfounded look. This is the show’s style. The setups are over the top, but the punchlines are slight — making for playfully funny results.
Ji-yool wakes to find he’s in his grandfather’s vet clinic and the text messages were a ruse. His grandfather lured him there so the grandparents could go on a two-month cruise and leave him in charge of their animal hospital. When he protests that he has to be at his own clinic in Seoul, his grandfather says it’s all taken care of and, no, he doesn’t (heh).
From here we’re off and running. It’s a classic fish out of water story as Ji-yool tries to make sense of country customs, maintain his boundaries, and get used to his new job. It’s not easy to go from the everyday issues of dogs to vaccinating pigs and checking up on baby goats with colic. But it’s even harder to get used to the neighborly ajummas walking into the house unannounced (even if they come with kimchi).
For Ji-yool, the new customs aren’t just confusing, they sometimes violate his animal-loving ethics and penchant for sticking to the rules. When he goes to help out a farmer whose chickens are being attacked by a wild dog, he finds the dog’s leg in a trap, bleeding. He gets angry, takes the dog’s side, and states it’s illegal to trap a dog like that. Ja-young is there but says it’s her job to defend the farmer’s property, not to give him a citation. Ji-yool takes the dog back to his hospital and fixes him up but the animal refuses to eat. After a week or so, the dog finally starts eating and the nurse says, “What can he do? He has to adapt” — and we see our hero agree, just as he begins to take steps toward adaptation as well.
Because Ja-young does double duty as police officer and farm hand (of course), she and Ji-yool are in constant company. Though they snap at each other over their different ways of seeing the world, Ja-young actually has a terrible crush on Ji-yool — from when they were twelve. That’s right, they were “secret friends” as kids but Ji-yool hasn’t recognized her yet. She knew the minute she saw the name on his ID when she had him detained at his grandfather’s gate.
Even though Ji-yool doesn’t remember Ja-young, his feelings toward her soften when he finds out that she was abandoned by her mother. He lost both of his parents as well, and seeing her vulnerability makes him wonder who takes care of her while she takes care of everyone else. He realizes that the local people have no boundaries but starts to see it’s because they care about each other.
The group of gossipy ajummas that run the women’s association want to set up Ja-young with someone but the town only has a few young people. One is the stunning new veterinarian in town and the other is Ja-young’s best friend LEE SANG-HYUN (Baek Sung-chul), who runs a peach farm (can you get any cuter than this?) and also has a crush on her. And while the show is setting him up as a second lead, it’s also setting him up for heartbreak, because it’s very clear she only has eyes for Ji-yool.
I’m liking Ji-yool a lot too and it’s not because he’s so fresh-faced and pretty (not totally). He’s adapting quickly to his new environment and seems like a truly good person. In fact, all the characters strike me as good people. So far, we have no high drama. The minor conflicts have cleared up easily and everyone is easy to forgive without a grudge. And even though Ja-young wants Ji-yool to remember her from when they were kids, it’s more important to her that he has a nice time while he’s in town this summer. (Of course, she could just tell him — but if she did that, this wouldn’t be a K-drama.)
Another reason I like Ji-yool is because the actor is proving to be very funny. This is my first time seeing Choo Young-woo and his slight, quick facial expressions are just hilarious. One of the running jokes is that he’s looking for a good cup of coffee. When the nurse at his hospital gives him instant coffee, he asks, “Is this the only coffee you have?” She responds, “Are you afraid we’ll run out? No, we have more. Don’t worry!” And his small, reflexive head movements are comedy gold (and impossible to capture in a screenshot).
Other highlights in these episodes are watching Joy handle live pigs (I don’t know why I found this hysterical) and the cast of side characters at the police station, the vet clinic, and the women’s association, which I’m sure we’ll continue to get to know. Notably, we have Jung Suk-yong as police chief HWANG MAN-SEONG and Baek Ji-won as CHOI SE-RYUN, the loudest of the three ladies leading the upcoming conflict against the neighboring town. We just saw these two in Extraordinary Attorney Woo and their roles here couldn’t be any more campy and different.
So far, Once Upon a Small Town has elements of an old-school silly K-drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously and will make you smile all the way through. I’m totally camping out for more.
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