Light high-school melodrama
What it’s about
A pair of teachers whose philosophies are apparently at odds manage Victory High’s toughest class, facing bullies, academic underacheivers, and demanding parents.
This curiously teacher-centric school drama has yet to develop a strong pull for me. The first few episodes have done a fine job of setting up story lines for the rest of the drama—the college entrance-obsessed teacher versus the one who wants to teach the kids to think, the bully versus the bad boy with a heart of gold, the badass school chick versus the world—but none of the characters feel particularly compelling as of yet, and neither does the show’s overarching plot. Based on what I’ve heard, though, the secret ingredient has yet to be added to the mix: Kim Woo Bin’s magnetic troublemaker Heung Soo.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with School 2013—it’s a sympathetic exploration of the difficulties and dangers inherent in high school told from the perspective of both students and their teachers. It’s generally low-key and realistic, rather than being exaggerated and hyper melodramatic.
As a viewer, I just didn’t find it very compelling. Its scattered storytelling didn’t provide the kind of single focal point I prefer in dramas; if anything, its “lead” character is the central class as a unit, not the students or teachers as individuals. Each episode’s running time is divvied up between multiple characters and their problems. And because the show’s scope is limited almost exclusively to the classroom, it never feels like you get to know anyone or understand their motivations. As far as I’m concerned, this resulted in an anchorless narrative that was too broad for its own good.
I also missed any hint of progress. Characters grew and developed over the course of the show, which is definitely a good thing, but the drama itself never developed an endgame. The plot was just day after day in the classroom, filled with the same old conflicts that have been used in this kind of show since time immemorial: bullies against bullied, academic achievers against hopeless cases, noble teachers against the evil establishment. (And let’s not forget School’s go-to narrative device: students in need of money against items of value left in the classroom.)
This drama does have one great saving grace: the relationship between former bad-boys Go Nam Soon and Park Heung Soo. They start off as adversaries, thanks to a nasty bit of shared history, but by the end of the show their friendship is one of the strongest in recent Kdrama memory. Out of all this show’s multiple plot threads, theirs was the only one that made me feel anything; when they were on screen I was actually swept up in what School has to offer. (I’m watching the final episode as I write this review, happily typing away through most of the dialogue. But the second a scene cuts to Nam Soon or Heung Soo, I can’t tear my attention away from the television.) It probably doesn’t hurt that their story is told with all the trappings of my beloved Kdrama romances. They do all the things we’d expect of the bickering couple that’s meant for to be together: tenderly share blankets, exchange longing glances across the room, and get locked together in confined places, where they’re forced to work out their differences.
Ultimately, School 2013 was never going to be a winner for me—in all its screen time, there’s not a single true romance subplot. (Well. One that’s not subtext, anyway.) To quote my beloved webtoon editor from Flower Boy Next Door: Must be full of love!
• Episode 1. It seems that America is pretty much the go-to country for school shootings, and that may be a good thing: these Korean classrooms with all their windows would be very, very dangerous in that kind of situation.
• Episode 1. A piece of advice: if you’re teeny tiny and having trouble maintaining authority in your classroom, you should consider not wearing jeans and a blazer that’s virtually indistinguishable from your students’ uniforms. Dress like a grownup and maybe they’ll treat you like one.
• Episode 2. It’s bizarre that Daniel Choi is so convincing as a teacher in this show, while Lee Jong-Suk (he of the beautiful, beautiful mouth) is so as a convincing student: They’re only 3 years apart in age.
• Episode 3. I like that this drama downplays its background music. After watching an episode or two of I Miss You, I felt as if I was being beaten about the head and shoulders with a violin. Here, music is used sparingly, which helps the show feel more realistic. (Although why they felt the need to go with a cheesy 80s electric guitar riff for its signature sound is beyond me—I’m pretty sure bringing back my memories of watching the original Degrassi Junior High wasn’t the goal. Yet here we are. Maybe it’s a nod to School’s 1990s predecessors?)
• Episode 4. No wonder America is such a failure when it comes to math competency; these sophomores are doing work that’s more advanced than I ever did, even in college.
• Episode 4. Korean textbook publishers have a great racket going: instead of the school buying and reusing textbooks from year to year, in Korea the kids each have to buy their own textbooks. Plus, the books are all paperback and probably wouldn’t survive more than a year’s use, so there’s no resale value. Genius.
• Episode 5. It’s actually hard to watch this drama with an American mindset. A teacher just slapped a row of ten students to punish them for misbehaving, and the show is playing it as if she’s the one we should be feeling bad for, not the kids. Thanks but no thanks.
• Episode 7. Back when I used to read a lot of fanfiction, the designation “USR”—unresolved sexual tension—made me laugh. The word “unresolved” was almost always utterly superfluous: they were going to have sex by the end of the story, no matter what. In School 2013 the circumstances are slightly different: the sexual tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife, but there’s no way it’s ever getting resolved. Why? Because it’s between two boys. How is it even possible to read this as anything but a frustrated love story?
• Episode 10. Whenever the tiny female lead and the giant male lead have a conversation in the school’s hallway, they end up on the stairs with her standing several steps higher, which allows them to talk eye-to-eye. Cute.
• Episode 10. This drama is treating the relationship between its youthful male leads in an unexpected way—as a Kdrama romance. In my dream world School would end up as a coming-out drama with the boys dating. It’s interesting to consider that this story would never make it on the air if the genders were reversed. Two girls bonding with no central romance and nary a boy in sight? Inconceivable, in both Korea and America.
• Episode 12. If only all Kdramas were more like this show, I’d probably have a social life. Every time I hit play a laundry list of things I’d rather be doing comes to mind. Things like filing my income taxes, cleaning behind the stove, and plucking my eyebrows—all of which seem both more pressing and more fun. Usually I sail through multiple episodes of whatever I’m watching per day, but it’s rare I even make it through half an episode of School.
• Episode 12. Why is it that built-in closets are considered a God-given right in some cultures but are nonexistent in others? In Korean drama, an actual closet is rare. Instead, people have wardrobes and chests of drawers. (They even store their vacuum cleaners out in the open in random corners of their houses.) I know we Americans are notorious for having a lot of junk, but I have no fewer than six closets all to myself, which is just how I like it.
• Episode 12. I really think you should consider building schools with fewer stories, Korea. Maybe that way kids would quit trying to off themselves by leaping off the roof. If The Rage: Carrie 2 taught me anything, it’s that gory splats in the parking lot are morale killers.
• Episode 15. This is the second or third show I’ve seen that included a piggyback ride of death. It creeps me out every time...
• Episode 16. Early on, I was impressed by School’s restraint when it came to music. By episode 8, though, it had started including the same old score of sweeping, swoony string music that’s all the rage this season. And now it’s fully relying on ham-fisted musical cues to tell the viewer how to feel rather than trusting the actors and the dialogue to do the job.
You might also like
Hello, My Teacher, for its episodic, classroom-based storytelling. (This one is definitely worth watching: it includes a strong central lead and a romance subplot featuring a young, darling Gong Yoo.)
Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, for its moving bromance and gritty take on high school life