K-pop and K-dramas: ‘Itaewon Class’ Review

Screenshot of Ryu Kyung-Soo, Lee Joo-Young, and Park Seo-Joon from ‘Itaewon Class’. Copyright goes to Showbox, JTBC, and Netflix.

Hey! Hallie here!

I just finished watching ‘Itaewon Class’ and I have so many thoughts. First off, before I say anything about what I think about this, I want to highly recommend that you go and watch this. It has its ups and downs, but it’s diverse cast of characters alone are worth watching this series. Also, this review is definitely going to have some SPOILERS so be aware of that. But if you’ve already watched this series, or if you just don’t care, these are my in-depth thoughts about this series. To be completely honest, I have some mixed feelings.

The Good:

The Characters. I mentioned this above, but the characters are really great in this. The main character, Saeroyi, is really easy to route for. Time and time again he proves to be a really good guy who nearly always looks for the best in people. You can’t help but like the guy, despite the fact that his main motivator for most of the series is revenge. Along with him the series focuses on a number of side characters. Oh Soo-A is the first of Saeroyi’s friends we meet. Saeroyi has a crush on her at first, and promises to spend his life with her once he achieves his goals. Oh Soo-A has her goals too which can sometimes make her seem self-centered, but she’s pretty clear that her priorities lie in her career almost the moment we meet her. In the end this pays off and she’s one of the major reasons the bad guys are taken down in the final episode. Jo Yi-Seo is a social media influencer who suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder. She decides to help Saeroyi because she has a crush on him and slowly begins to grow as a person while she does. As the manager, she’s just as important to Saeroyi’s business as he is. She also has a few hilarious moments in some otherwise tense scenes that make you instantly gravitate towards her. Seung-Kwon is an ex-con just like Saeroyi, who turned his life around after meeting Saeroyi in prison. He isn’t focused on nearly enough during most of the series, but the last few episodes highlighted his past criminal relationship with his boss so he could kick ass and look awesome. Hyun-Yi is a transgender woman who constantly proves both her strength and her cooking skill despite the wrongful judgement thrown her way. There was a point where I though they had dropped her storyline completely, but then the series came through with the best part of the entire series, the cooking competition storyline. My sister wrote an entire piece about her character that I highly recommend you check out. There are other side-characters, but these five are the ones who’s storylines pay off the most in the series.

The Representation. This series does a lot to normalize the vast population of different people in South Korea. For one, Saeroyi is an ex-convict. Considering the terrible treatment that most ex-convict’s receive, it was a bold and excellent move to make the main character of this series part of this group. Not to mention that another one of the main characters, Seung-Kwon, is a friend he met while both were in prison. Hyun-Yi is excellent transgender representation as well. The series includes full episodes where she deals with prejudice against her, even from some of the main characters, simply because she’s transgender. But this isn’t the entirety of her character, either. She’s allowed to be herself go through her transition, and enjoy spending time with friends without the plot using the fact that she’s transgender to inform her entire personality. Yi-Seo has ASPD, and the series does a pretty good job of showing the actions she can’t help as opposed to the moments where her disorder doesn’t excuse her wrong actions. My main issue with this interpretation is that it gets somewhat lost around the last few episodes, but I’m glad it’s being normalized even if this interpretation isn’t completely accurate. Then we have the character of Kim Toni. Toni is one of, if not the first, main Black characters in a K-drama. He gets some good plotlines that highlight his struggles. On one occasion he isn’t let into a bar because he’s looks like a foreigner, and when he claims he is Korean, even some of his friends don’t believe him. He also reunites with his grandmother later in the series, who admits to falling out with his father because he married a Black woman. These are good things to bring up, but there’s a reason why I didn’t mention Toni above. I’ll get to that later.

The Romance. This is apparently a controversial opinion, but I’m going to put it here anyway. I liked the relationship between Saeroyi and Yi-Seo. I thought her crush on him was cute. Though she could definitely get pushy on occasion, and I definitely didn’t like the fact that she stole his first kiss after he passed out drunk, her crush was ultimately pretty harmless. They also didn’t actually get together until the four year time-skip. I appreciated that they waited until they were both more mature and sure of their feelings to start a relationship. Oh Soo-A was the other option for Saeroyi in this love triangle, but she chose her career over him time and time again. It was clear where her priorities were, and they weren’t with him. It only made sense that they wouldn’t work out in the end.

The Bad:

The Villains. Every single one of these villains was disappointing. There were some points where an attempt was made to make Jang Geun-Won sympathetic, but they squashed every attempt almost as soon as it was over. None of them were interesting or brilliant. Jang Dae-Hee was a typical mob-boss type who spent most of his screen time monologuing and looking menacingly at the camera. Jang Geun-Won was portrayed as stupid and undesirable. All he really did for the entire series was pick public fights with the main characters that were quickly and easily shut down, and flirt creepily with Oh Soo-A after she rebuffed him on multiple occasions. Jang Geun-Soo turned over to the dark side a little while in, and though he was portrayed as being more diplomatic than the rest of his family, he outed Hyun-Yi to the public. I never forgave him for that, and he never did enough to redeem himself, either. I could also mention that one of the guys Saeroyi met in prison shows up at the end and gets completely destroyed by Seung-Kwon, but he only really shows up to give the rest of the villains a few goons to do their dirty work. None of them are impressive.

The Treatment of Toni. Yes, it’s cool that you have a major Black character in your show. But that doesn’t mean you get a pass for shoving him into the background every chance you get. He’s introduced after all of the other characters are introduced when he’s interviewed for a job position at the restaurant. After that he gets small parts of episodes dedicated to showing his struggles as a Black Korean…and that’s it. He’s excluded from most scenes where all the other characters are gathered because he’s “taking care of his grandma”. After several episodes of his complete absence, we finally see him at the end of the series. All so he can reveal he learned English because the rest of the main characters told him he had to once they figured out that he wasn’t a foreigner. What? His entire character reminds me of Winston from ‘Ghostbusters’. He comes in halfway through and doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.

The Love Triangle. I’m not a huge fan of love triangles anyway, but this one was particularly bad. It wasn’t because any of the characters were bad, though. It was because Oh Soo-A and Yi-Seo turned the entire situation into a competition for Saeroyi’s affections. We don’t need two women fighting over a guy. We get that enough in dramas. The two main women in this show should not have a connection based solely on a guy they like. It’s a pretty sexist plot-line and it needs to die.

The Entire Food Company Storyline. Yep, I said it. This was weird and unnecessary. Jangga Co. being portrayed as some sort of mafia took me out of the story frequently. The amount of control Dae-Hee had over literally everyone, including police officers and school teachers, was ridiculous. Yes, his riches could probably sway some, but it was fear that caused most people to side with him. It was almost comical how much he could convince random people to do his dirty work. After Saeroyi’s father is shown in one scene showing off sauces (for some reason) while working for Jangga Co., I realized just how ridiculous the portrayal of this food company was. At one point my sister and I started yelling “But you sell sauce!” at Dae-Hee every time he started scheming something outlandish against Saeroyi. I found the story was at it’s best when it focused on Saeroyi and his team working on their restaurant, and very weak when it focused on the food company situation. This was especially apparent when the story did it’s four year time-skip to show Saeroyi and his friends working at their own food company. All of the charm that came with the restaurant disappeared entirely. The plot was either odd or boring depending on the scene. I wish they would have kept this to a restaurant success story.

So what’s the verdict? It was okay. You don’t know how much it hurts me to say that. I loved parts and hated others. There was nothing I was indifferent about. Most times when I say something is only okay, I’m very indifferent about it. But this show is uncommonly frustrating because I love it. But I also deeply dislike it depending on the scene. I wish that I could take out certain parts of this series and ignore the rest. But, as it is, it’s okay. Hopefully the work that it does when it comes to representation leads to many more series that explore diversity. There’s so much more that could be done with a diverse cast.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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