TV Review: Itaewon Class (Spoilers!)

Ever since I first watched Park Seo Joon in “Fight for My Way”, I knew that this was one actor that would always be on my watch list. So, it wasn’t surprising that I had my eye on “Itaewon Class” when it was announced, and I got more and more intrigued in it after Kim Dong Hee (whom I saw in “Sky Castle”), and Ahn Bo Hyun (whom I saw in “Her Private Life”), became attached to the drama as well. “Itaewon Class” boasts a stellar cast, an OST that has quickly become a favorite of mine, but unfortunately (at least for me and my own drama tastes), the magic of its first half quickly fizzled and underwhelmed in the latter half of the drama.

“Itaewon Class” ran for sixteen episodes, and aired on JTBC from January 31, 2020 to March 21, 2020. It was based on a webcomic by Jo Gwang Jin, who also wrote the screenplay for it. It was directed by Kim Sung Yoon, who also co-directed Park Bo Gum’s and Jin Young’s 2016 drama, “Love in the Moonlight”. It was also released on Netflix.

Image Source: JTBC

The drama follows Park Sae Roy Yi (Park Seo Joon), an ex-convict who decides to open a pub in Itaewon called Dan Bam in order to go against a big food conglomerate, Jangga Co., who was also responsible for several unfortunate circumstances in his life. Alongside him in his journey to bring Dan Bam to greater heights include Jo Yi Seo (Kim Da Mi), a young but brilliant sociopath who takes an interest in Sae Roy Yi; Choi Seung Kwon (Ryu Kyung Soo), an ex-convict who was cellmates with Sae Roy Yi; Ma Hyun Yi (Lee Joo Young), a chef whom Sae Roy Yi met when he worked at a factory; Kim Toni, a Guinean-Korean who can’t speak English; Jang Geun Soo (Kim Dong Hee), Yi Seo’s good friend and a lost soul who started looking up to Sae Roy Yi as a role model; and Oh Soo Ah (Kwon Na Ra), Sae Roy Yi’s childhood crush and good friend who works Jangga Co. During the course of the drama, he butts heads with the chairman of Jangga Co., Jang Dae Hee (Yoo Jae Myung); and his son, Jang Geun Won (Ahn Bo Hyun), who was also high school classmates with Soo Ah and Sae Roy Yi.

One of the things that I really enjoyed was how diverse the cast was, especially in terms of the Dan Bam staff, and how it felt very natural. I guess, from what I’ve seen about Itaewon in the drama, it’s because there really is a lot of diversity there. Because of this, they were also to talk about some interesting social issues and points in a way, again, that felt natural to the characters within the drama.

Park Seo Joon as Park Sae Roy Yi
Image Source: JTBC

Park Seo Joon’s acting here was great! I’ve mostly seen him as a romantic lead in romantic comedies, so his character here was different and refreshing to see as it was more serious, which allowed me to see more of his range. (I would very much like to watch his movies as well one day!) Also, I’m not sure if this was intentional, but as someone who is has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, I thought that the character of Sae Roy Yi was also on the spectrum in some way because of some of his mannerisms and behaviors, but I thought that it was well done. It’s rare for me to chance on characters on the spectrum that I can relate to without it feeling forced or patronizing, and this portrayal was one of those.

Kim Da Mi as Jo Yi Seo
Image Source: JTBC

Kim Da Mi’s portrayal of our resident sociopath, Jo Yi Seo, was also great. Yi Seo was a different sort of character than what we usually see in dramas, and I initially did enjoy watching her grow as the series went along. Kim Da Mi expertly showed her range of acting here, and didn’t let me down at all, even though I ended up not really liking the character in the latter half of the series.

Ahn Bo Hyun as Jang Geun Won
Image Source: JTBC

Ahn Bo Hyun surprised me here, as Jang Geun Won was a total one hundred eighty degree turn from his role as Nam Eun Gi in “Her Private Life”. I do enjoy it when actors surprise me like this, as it shows me their range. I like the fact that even though I was annoyed at Geun Won half of the time, there’s also a little bit of me that pitied him as well.

Kim Dong Hee as Jang Geun Soo
Image Source: JTBC

Even though I feel that Kim Dong Hee still needs a little bit more experience, I’m glad that he was also able to show off what he can do in this drama, as his role was also different from his role in “Sky Castle”. I’m definitely looking forward to see him improve and to show us what more he can do.

Kwon Na Ra as Oh Soo Ah
Image Source: JTBC

At first, I wasn’t sure what to think of Kwon Na Ra’s Oh Soo Ah, and in fact, I wasn’t fond of the character at all. However, surprisingly enough, her character ended up being one of my favorites in the end. Also, I think that Soo Ah is a very grey character, and I think that Na Ra did well in that aspect.

A very special shout out goes to the cast of the Dan Bam staff- Lee Joo Young, Ryu Kyung Soo, and Chris Lyon. I’m glad that each of them were able to have their moments to shine, although I wish that there would have been more. Another shout out also goes out to Son Hyun Joo, who portrayed Sae Roy Yi’s father really well.

Sae Roy Yi’s father (Son Hyun Joo) and Sae Roy Yi
Image Source: JTBC

I really loved the first eight episodes of this drama as there were a lot of nice and meaningful scenes, and I liked the character arcs in which our characters were heading. However, after the halfway point, I felt that even though the revenge element was very much there, a lot of it fell too heavily into the romance part, and in the process, I felt that Yi Seo’s growth as a character didn’t progress at all. I also felt that the writing got weaker after the halfway point, and I felt that the way Soo Ah was written didn’t give the character justice, especially in the end, when her motivations were finally made clear to the viewers. This made me feel quite frustrated, to be honest, and I almost dropped the drama as well because of this. (I did end up watching until the very last episode, but ended up fast forwarding some parts in the process).

Also, I’m not sure if it’s just because of my own values, but there were moments where I did feel uncomfortable when Sae Roy Yi was triumphing, but maybe it was because I wasn’t too fond of the romance part, and more importantly, because I didn’t like the fact that the way they were achieving things wasn’t right, and he knew it as well. However, in the end, I’m glad that Sae Roy Yi’s character arc did come full circle when he finally realized what was important to him and how he should be living his life instead.

“Itaewon Class”, in the end, wasn’t really my cup of tea because I felt that some character arcs and growth were ignored, the writing of the latter half of the series was really weak, and because I felt that the romance element overshadowed other interesting plot points. However, the performances were nothing short of stellar.

Now, you know the drill! From here on out, there will be spoilers!

First off, let’s talk about what I really liked about “Itaewon Class”.

The Dan Bam Crew (minus Toni)
Image Source: JTBC

I really enjoyed meeting the Dan Bam staff, and I would have loved it if they were given more of the spotlight. To be honest, I thought that the drama worked best when we saw Sae Roy Yi being a good mentor to his staff while trying to enact out his revenge plot against Jangga Co. I really admired Sae Roy Yi’s leadership and mentorship skills, and how he encouraged his staff to do better. Most of my favorite moments of him as a leader actually involve him teaching Yi Seo how to see things with more empathy, and because of that, I felt that Yi Seo was actually starting to grow more internally as a character.

Sae Roy Yi, a good mentor
Image Source: JTBC

I also like how the ragtag Dan Bam crew allowed for social issues to be talked about. First off, both Sae Roy Yi and Seung Kwon are ex-convicts, Toni ends up facing racism and discrimination due to the color of his skin, and Hyun Yi undergoes her own trial when it’s discovered by the public that she is transgender. And again, as these are all just aspects of the characters that make them who they are, I like how natural it felt to the plot. And I hope that this is just the starting point for more and more dramas to be more inclusive and diverse with its cast while making it feel natural and not forced.

Lee Joo Young as Ma Hyun Yi
Image Source: JTBC

I also liked that in the end, although I wasn’t comfortable with the way he was going about getting revenge and seeking justice against Jangga Co., that he finally understood that having his Dan Bam family with him is what was really important to him, and that with that in mind, he can start living peacefully, and with hope for the future. I knew that he was going to end up with this conclusion, but I didn’t like the fact that it took us sixteen whole episodes to get there.

Now, let’s go to the things that I didn’t like.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t like the fact that the latter half of the show felt like it leaned to heavily on the romance part. I like a good romance drama and a good revenge drama when I can get them, but unfortunately, I felt that the secondary characters got pushed to the back a lot because of it, and I felt that a lot of Yi Seo’s character growth was thrown out of the window.

Kim Da Mi as Jo Yi Seo
Image Source: JTBC

Towards the halfway point of the drama, I could see that she was becoming more empathetic towards others due to Sae Roy Yi’s influence, and because she was putting in the effort to see things his way as she wanted to understand him more, and because she also wanted to do things his way to make him happy.  From there, I would have loved it if she started changing and becoming more empathetic towards others on her own because of that. However, that never happened, and it felt that she became a bit more clingy towards Sae Roy Yi, and all that character growth flew out the window, especially towards Geun Soo.

Geun Soo and Yi Seo
Image Source: JTBC

Geun Soo was one of the characters that I kept on watching the show for. I wasn’t surprised by his turn to the dark side, thanks to Yi Seo, but I wish that the way his character was transitioned to it was handled better.

Geun Soo, heir to Jangga Co.
Image Source: JTBC

Going back to the romance element, I would have preferred it if Sae Roy Yi hadn’t ended up with anyone. I felt that Yi Seo was young and still needed to grow up a lot in terms of character. It would have been nice if she still kept her crush on him,  but used that and the lessons she learned while staying around him improve her for the better. As for Soo Ah, in the end, I felt that she needed time to be herself and to discover herself, as she really hadn’t been able to do so all this time.

Sae Roy Yi’s dad with Soo Ah
Image Source: JTBC
Soo Ah and Sae Roy Yi as classmates
Image Source: JTBC

I do wish that the writer had seeded us more clues about Soo Ah’s actual motivation for staying in Jangga Co. For most of the drama, Soo Ah was written as if she had a choice to leave the company, but selfishly decided to stay there despite everything they’ve done to her and Sae Roy Yi. Although I’m pretty sure Soo Ah wanted to show it that way to Sae Roy Yi so that he would not like her anymore, it made most of the audience not really like her until we’re finally shown that she had actually been collecting enough data on Jang Dae Hee’s dirty deeds, enough to bring the entire company down. When that’s finally brought out to light, we finally get that flashback that finally makes us understand her reason for staying there- she promised Sae Roy Yi’s dad that she would pay him back threefold, and that was exactly that. This is why, in the end, I loved the fact that she decided to open a tea shop in Itaewon and hired the cutest chef (Park Bo Gum) in town.

Soo Ah, Tea Shop Owner
Image Source: JTBC

In all of this, I am in no way faulting the performances, which I thought were great. This all boils down to the writing, which I felt became weak and pretty subpar in the latter half of the drama, as compared to its really strong first half, which both confused and frustrated me.

In the end, “Itaewon Class” had great life lessons, great performances, and a very strong first half that ended up losing its magic progressively until the very end due to weak writing. It may have worked for some, but if your taste is anything like mine, avoid this one more than you should avoid “Black”.

What did you think about “Itaewon Class”. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Image Source/s: JTBC Drama Facebook Page/

 

 

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