The K-List #5: Age of Youth
Welcome back to the fifth stop into K-Drama land, a remote territory among the TV series’ landscape that I aim to present you through reviews of what have been so far my favorite shows straight from South Korea.
What I bring you is a rarity, not only as a K-Drama, but as a series in general: a dramedy. As Latins went about it, a dramedy is “nomen omen”, true to the name it’s a blend between a comedy and a drama, and as such it contains elements of both: you’ll see a lot of slapstick scenes and pure humor to then drift into serious matters and emotional situations.
For those of you into the TV series world but not K-Dramas, this description should bring to mind one and one name only: Scrubs, a classic of the late 2000s where a group of fresh-out-of-college medical students try their best to survive working in a hospital with all ups and downs. That was one of the first real dramedies, a gem that was able to offer memorable characters, but more importantly to combine, in an episodic structure, hilarious sketchs and settings with some of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve witnessed on TV, because at the end it was an hospital indeed.
The K-Drama I’m going to present you is not a medical drama rather a coming of age one, where characters are into their early 20s and school is in session. If I had to do a parallel with a well-known series, the closest example would be the first generation of my favorite UK series of all time, Skins, where a ragtag bunch of adolescents get on with their last year of high school, dealing with their own feelings, sins and tragedies.
Still this won’t be as hard and raw as Skins, moreso a watered-down and female-centric version that is focused on the value of friendship, less straight to the point but easier to fall in love with on a general audience’s perspective.
Today I’ll review Age of Youth, a 2-seasons JTBC drama aired between 2016 and 2017.
- Genres: drama, comedy, romance
- Eps: 12 (Season 1) + 14 (Season 2)
- Runtime: 1 hr
- Leads: Han Ye Ri, Park Eun Bin, Ryu Hwa Young, Han Seung Yeong, Park Hye Soo
- Storyline: five college girls, with different personalities and paths, learn to stand and protect each other while living under the same roof in a sharehouse called Belle Epoque.
- Who finds a friend…
The key element in Age of Youth is friendship, although the focus is not static, on the presence of it, rather on how it blooms and develops with time: our five girls have different backgrounds, lifestyles and aspirations, not to mention their personalities are set to clash.
Becoming friends with someone is not as easy, and this drama points it out early and often: sometimes the first impression is vanilla, otherwise it could be even bad, making the road to a kinship much more difficult.
Shots are fired without restraint: you’ll see girls fighting in hair-pulling fashion, smiling at each other and then talking behind their back or straight cursing their guts off, an honest display of all the obstacles one has to hurdle trying to connect with people.
Still, with their hard feelings, those girls have their own battles to fight, either at school, work or life: that’s where the group starts to bond, as the misfortunes of one are felt by the others, even more in a closed space such as the sharehouse. To clear the air and live well with one another, our five find themselves rooting for each other’s success, giving a shoulder to cry on when needed to finally form relationships that are more than simple “being friends”: respect, mentorship, someone to look up to, a family to protect from danger.
In a buildaround of such bonds Age of Youth takes a quiet pace and delivers a picture that hits close to home and adds layers to already good stand-alone characters.
- Laughing and crying
As mentioned, Age of Youth is a dramedy on all accounts: there’s a lot of fun but also things you won’t help to feel sorry for, scary and dangerous situations, dramatic shockers and sad goodbyes.
In a sense Age of Youth is really close to a lot of Skins’ themes: death is a fact that young people unfortunately have to deal with and acknowledge too, on a brighter note there are “easier” issues such as money, family and love that our girls go through, initially alone and then as a unit, one beside each other.
One of the selling points of this series is a careful balancing of good and bad, of happy shenanigans and tense havoc into the same episode and for the same girl: there’s not a clear line between positive and negative characters on our Fab Five, so each one of the protagonists has pleasant showings and emotional clunkers.
This willingness to mix up done well is what raises Age of Youth from good to above average: although the plot is not perfect and there are some head-scratchers here and there, the final result is a complete package, a fine dish that cares about both flavor and presentation, without being too sour and bitter as a drama can be, but also avoiding the sweetness overload of a rom-com.
- Us, united as one
Along with balancing drama and comedy the biggest of the deals in a dramedy are the characters, our metronomes oscillating between joy and sorrow.
Age of Youth is one of the few K-Dramas that had more than one season and that helped a lot in terms of character building. Each girl has a lot of screentime, alone and together, so that we can see not only how they act around each other but moreso how that “edition” of themselves is different from the ones in their own private sphere.
There’s a wide range of different emotional displays and traits: a girl can be shy and scared of a new environment, someone else deals with it by being upfront and brutally honest, others are the complete opposite, hermits in their room avoiding all contact, heck there’s even the village’s jester!
You’ll obviously come to like a couple and maybe not care a lot about the others, still what can’t be faulted is how well the girls are portrayed by a cast of young and upcoming actresses, some fresh from girl groups, others already having a long career behind them.
Their chemistry as a whole is so good and makes for an entertaining watch as they bicker and pester each other but regroup to a solid core around the one in need on worse times. Personally I loved Han Ye Ri, seen in Parasite, as the elder and more responsible among the girls; there’s also Stove League’s Park Eun Bin, here on a unique role as a naughty airhead; a mention also to Ryu Hwa Young, ex member of girl group T-ARA with classic bangers, that has the best arc in Season 1 about a woman’s decisions about her own body.
- Revolving doors
This is a classic caveat on multi-season shows: there are a bunch of characters coming and going, usually secondaries early and, only on season 4+, maybe a main one.
In Age of Youth there are big changes from Season 1 to Season 2 in the cast’s lineup, and not for the better.
From starters, Ryu Hwa Young’s character says goodbye in the first ep of Season 2 to then come back in a couple of eps late into the series. Her absence is felt heavy and clear: she has an amazing development in Season 1 where she gets to question her choices in terms of lifestyle and self-respect, bonding with Han Ye Ri’s character, that she goes from being jealous of to considering as an aspiration as someone who strives for her dreams.
Moreover she is the most vocal and visually direct among the Five, and as such she has a ton of funny interactions but also honest conversations with the others, rising up to them as a motherly figure, someone that is going to battle for each one of the girls as they were her sisters.
That’s not to say that the new girl in Season 2 is less good: Choi Ae Ra’s character is a mood, a tall and boyish girl escaping from her family and learning what it means to live with other people, while also falling in love for the first time, with all due issues.
There’s also something a little unusual: Park Hye Soo doesn’t come back in Season 2 due to scheduling conflicts yet her character does, but with a new actress. That bothered me a lot as she was the real FL in Season 1, the newcomer who’s afraid of everyone and doesn’t want to bother, a bundle of shyness that PHS displayed with a calm demeanor and a quiet piece of great acting.
In the second season Ji Woo, the new actress, reprises the character but it just feels weird: her acting is much more expressive, with a couple of big deery eyes and a wide smile that don’t suit such a role, although the series makes a point of her changes and jokes about it in a fourth wall-breaking manner, lessening a bit such an impactful change.
- Swings and misses
Another classic problem of seasons on a TV series is that they usually lose in quality as they go by, and Age of Youth does too. Season 1 is almost perfect in all its plots, maybe not too equal in giving the same amount of time and progress to each character, but Season 2 has some ups and downs.
The latter come up on big spots: the main plot is a big whiff, a long story about a minatory letter directed to one of the girls that makes its way to each one of them, causing misunderstandings and some big time dramatic moments. While the construction is long and on point, the whole thing is blown up of proportion and ends too quickly in a modest result, one that doesn’t justify all the screentime devoted to it.
There’s also the plot related to PHS, now Ji Woo’s character and her ex, which doesn’t go anywhere and is just there to remind us of her existence, a big letdown after being the main girl in Season 1.
With this I’m not saying Season 2 is just bad, on the contrary it’s a welcome addition for a lot of characters, shining a light on the girls that were snubbed in Season 1 and introducing a new good one, but with that come also a couple of flops.
- Ain’t no place for men
When I say that Age of Youth is female-centric I mean it, not only because our Fab Five are girls but moreso because the majority of the guys is either nothing to write home about or straight underwhelming.
There are only two men who come out on top, rivaling with the girls in terms of character quality, while all the others, particularly love interests, are boring, cowardly and sometimes even disgusting in their behaviors or inaction.
In Season 1 the crown goes to a middle aged guy, one that interacts with Ryu Hwa Young’s character forming a sort of father-daughter relationship with an unpleasant backstory connecting the two. The respect they have for each other and how their bond changes his and her choices when their past is brought to light is no small feat, and it serves as a reminder that there can be much more than cheesy romance between a man and a woman in a K-Drama.
The same can be said for the other good male character, an idol that clashes with Han Ye Ri’s character in Season 2: the parallel between her hard road to a job and the fact that she now has to put him under the same troubles is the most emotional arc in all of the series, one that shows how ironically cruel life is sometimes and why being true to your own words is so important. They never develop feelings but their relationship is the most convincing one, going far beyond all scattershot romances and strange friendships the drama offers in its two seasons.
Age of Youth is not perfect: you won’t fall in love with all the characters, some will be a little too egregious, others just boring and plain; not all the stories hit the mark and there’s a clear drop between Season 1, great, and Season 2, good but not nearly as the first.
Still there’s no denying the charm of such a series: a well done dramedy is always a sight for sore eyes, a well balanced mix between the happiness a comedy brings you through jokes and situations and the angsty heart-gripping tension that is peculiar of dramas.
Age of Youth closes out as the rare series better than the sum of its parts: while the second season lacks in impact and novelty, it works wonders as to complete each character’s picture so that when looked at it, the drama has not much fault in its entirety.
Our wonder girls, the Fab Fives as I like to call them, are a comfy group of friends we’d love to have, a family, surely with their troubles, but one indeed, grieving together a loss and celebrating together a win as a team does, and as one they are a relaxing, nostalgic and compelling experience, reminding us of the value that friendship brings in one’s life.
That’s all for Age of Youth, my #5 entry in the K-List. See ya in the next one, and bring friends!