Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drama Review: What's Up and Shut Up! Flower Boy Band

(Warning: Light spoilers for recent shows ahoy!)

What’s Up: B-

Shut Up! Flower Boy Band: A

As a sucker for coming-of-age dramas, musicians, and (especially) cute boys, it was almost inevitable that I would like both What’s Up and Shut Up! Flower Boy Band. Lame (and oddly similar) titles aside, both take a grittier-than-average approach and focus on a stable of youthful characters hoping for success in the Korean entertainment industry.

Of the two, What’s Up is more traditional in tone and plot, complete with an ending ripped right out of the Big Book of Korean Drama Clichés. It manages to feel different, though, at least partially because it’s set at a residential college: Instead of coming home to mom every night, the What’s Up kids are learning to be independent and make their own way in the world. The true focal point of the show is their education, both as students in the musical theater department and as human beings. They ask the questions everyone asks at that age—Who am I? What will I be?—and answer them in a variety of ways, some noble, some foolish, but all genuine.

On a small-scale level, this show is full of idiosyncratic pleasures—fun musical numbers, interesting characters brought to compelling life by a cast of likeable actors, and a random ghost for good measure (and occasional purposes of exposition). It’s on the large-scale that things go horribly wrong: after carefully setting up a number of conflicts during the first 18 or so episodes, almost all of them are abandoned in favor of a cheesy (and largely unearned) Dead-Poet’s-Society-meets-Autumn-in-My-Heart finale that’s so totally unsatisfying I wish I’d stopped watching at episode 19. It’s possible that a second season was originally intended to address the many, many strings left hanging, but we won’t be seeing that now: What’s Up sat on a shelf for more than a year between the completion of its filming and its eventual air date. The cast is off to bigger and better—or, in the case of my charming Im Joo Hwan, two years of mandatory military service.

For me anyway, What’s Up’s ending-fail retroactively ruined what had been a fun show to watch. Shut Up, in contrast, suffered from a shaky start but grew into an irresistible delight. Its first two episodes may have seemed fragmentary—a bunch of fights and concerts strung together with no true center—but by the beginning of episode 3, it was clear that the writers had very good reason for allowing this: They were expertly setting viewers up for a major emotional wallop and what ultimately amounted to a shift in male leads.

I started watching SUFBB with low expectations. As the second drama in tvN’s Oh! Boy series, it seemed likely to follow in the shallow, soulless footsteps of its predecessor, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop. A straight-up comedy, FBRS featured limp storytelling and good-looking, one-dimensional characters; nothing about it rang emotionally true. But it turns out that Shut Up could not possibly be more different. Devoid of the glittery trappings of a fairytale chaebol love story, it features believable, working-class characters that clearly inhabit planet Earth, not planet Drama.

SUFBB transcends its gimmicky premise (pretty boys! In a band!) to become a genuinely affecting, well-made drama about the power of friendship and the pain of growing up. Although lacking the nihilist bite of true “punk rock,” it has an indie, alternative feel, complete with a harsh-light-of-day color palate and grainy, documentary-style filming techniques. But beneath this gratifyingly edgy exterior is a pleasantly soft and cuddly show about a group of underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks and the unbreakable ties that bind them together.

Although made from the same building blocks as most Korean shows, Shut Up turns everything on its ear with one subtle premise shift: It isn’t a love story between a man and a woman. It’s a love story between the members of a band. Sure, the show includes well-executed romance subplots, but they’re secondary to the story’s real center of gravity. The six boys in Eye Candy are more than friends; they’re family. Largely failed by the adults in their lives, they’re the most important people in each others’ worlds, and together they struggle and suffer and slack off and work hard, all in hopes of becoming a successful rock band. 

The death of Eye Candy’s charismatic front man, Byung Hee, is a good example of how Shut Up differs from FBRS. Someone died in FBRS, too, but the death of the female lead’s dad was nothing more than a throw-away plot trick. It maneuvered characters to where they needed to be for the rest of the story, but had no lasting emotional repercussions. Byung Hee, on the other hand, continues to be one of the most important characters in Shut Up long after he’s dead. He’s in every scene, really: in Ji Hyuk’s heartbroken loneliness, in Hyun Soo’s hatred of the classmates involved in his death, in the way the boys idealized the female lead. Byung Hee’s relationship with the other band members—part worshiped hero, part beloved brother—and the dreams of music superstardom he inspired in them inform every moment of the show’s sixteen episodes. 

By the end of episode two, Byung Hee has delivered a strange piece of wisdom that shapes the second half of the drama. While sharing a daydream about playing for a screaming crowd of adoring fans at UK’s Glastonbury Festival, he wraps up by saying, matter-of-factly, “that day we’ll die.” In response to Ji Hyuk’s question about this strange ending for a good dream, he explains: “I want to die at my happiest moment.” The thing about happiest moments, Byung Hee seems to realize, is that they’re momentary. And following in their wake are always a slew of other moments that aren’t so happy, as Eye Candy will learn the hard way once they’ve finally been signed to a talent agency. Later in the show, archrival Seung Hoon will echo this sentiment: “You’re still unhappy, even though you got everything you wanted.”

And that’s Shut Up’s true message: What we think we want and what we truly need to be happy are sometimes two very different things. An essential part of growing up is growing apart, stepping away from the family that has always sheltered you to be your own person, however hard and scary and painful it may be. It’s Ji Hyuk, having taken over as leader of Eye Candy, who comes to realize this first. And his realization leads to one of the most bittersweet but genuinely truthful drama finales I’ve ever seen. The boys realize they will always be a family, but as they become their adult selves that family won’t be the centerpiece of their lives the way it was when they were young.

Shut Up is never in stasis. It doesn’t hinge around one lead couple finally getting together—it’s made of characters who will instantly take up residence in your heart, and structured as one high-tension set piece after another, with the show growing and changing just as its characters do. 

From the halls of high school to the halls of a talent agency dorm, Shut Up somehow manages to travel a lot of miles in not a lot of time. And I’m so glad I got to go along for the ride.


  1. I see that you devoured SUFBB! :) I loved this drama. I agree that it took a bit of time for me to really adore it, but adore it I did. It's my fave drama this year (but I've only finished a handful so far...) and I still think of the characters from time to time. I really felt like they were real people in Seoul, living, breathing, playing music, loving each other. My grade for it is also A.

    Are you really going to watch all the episodes of Family's Honor? I guess no one is strong enough to resist Park Shi Hoo.

    1. I've only seen a few 2012 dramas, too, but SUFBB is definitely my favorite so far. When I realized I was about to start watching the last episode my heart actually sank—something that doesn't often happen. Usually by the end of a drama I'm ready to move on, but not this time.

      Someone on one of Dramabeans' open posts was singing the praises of Family's Honor, and I do love the Park Shi Hoo, so I think I'm going to give it a shot. I have yet to watch a drama longer than 30 episodes, and I'm interested to see how the writers manage such long runs. It's like doing three seasons of an American show in the space of six months.

  2. I feel like What's Up had the better actors and music (Les Choristes and Phantom of the Opera in the opening ep = win), and more interesting female characters, but SUFBB had the better story overall. I suspect the main reason What's Up left so many plot threads untied was because of the editing--apparently the original eps were supposed to be 70 min each, but they were forced to cut it down to 45 min for broadcast. It's a pity, because I thought the ensemble of characters needed the extra time.

    1. I completely agree that What's Up won in the acting and music categories. SUFBB had some real cringe-worthy performances—especially from the drummer. (His hotness and the strength of the plot made it possible to overlook, though.) And I literally squealed when I realized they were singing Seasons of Love from Rent...in Korean, nonetheless. Awesome. The SUFBB music was my least favorite thing about the show. You've got all these angry young men in expertly applied guyliner, so what do you make them sing? Vapid songs about schoolgirl crushes. Blurgh.

      I had heard that What's Up was cut down. (I imagine the little bits after the closing credits were remnants from the cutting room floor.) Maybe someday they'll release a director's cut version, so we can really watch it as it was meant to be watched. I saw some review saying the same thing happened to that Tamara the Island show—poor Im Joo Hwan must be cursed.

  3. I agree with hot review on SUFBB. The name is lame, and it doesn't ever reach the real gritty rock punk feel, but it's one of the most realistic dramas I've ever seen in terms of characters and character development.

    BTW I really love this blog! Your posts are well thought- out! Please keep writing! Dramas ain't a deep topic, so I don't exactly roam around the Internet looking for philosophy, but your posts show me WHY I spazzed over that scene, or geared up when a character did a certain thing (and why I didn't lol). So yeah, I love your blog! Keep going, please! :)

    1. The more time passes since my watching of SUFBB, the more I like it. It was just so well done compared to most youthful dramas, which tend to be sickly-sweet fluff instead of something meaningful. Long live Shut Up!

      And than you for the kind words about the blog. I think you can turn anything into a deep topic, if you try hard enough—and there's just something about Korean dramas that makes me want to put my literature-major-close-reading hat on and go to town. So I do ;)

  4. Just watched the series few days ago (just started watching k-dramas religiously this year). The angst, the emotion, just so raw. Seems like the end is the beginning. There were some awkward acting moments but the heck, the show itself is somehow rough around the edges. That’s more like it! =)
    I have to say, the credit shouldn’t be given to the actors alone but to the people behind the camera, the director and writer/s themselves.
    Haha… a very late comment for a show that ended more than two years ago… =D