18 Again is JTBC’s currently airing Monday-Tuesday drama based on the 2009 American film, 17 Again, starring Zac Efron. I’M TELLING YOU GUYS: this show is the most wholesome, heartwarming, heartachey show on TV right now, and if you aren’t watching it already, you should. It’s funny and painful in all the right places, and Kim Haneul and Lee Do-hyun are absolutely killing it in their roles. In fact, the whole cast is just GREAT.
Our version stars Yoon Sang-hyun as the ajusshi version of Hong Dae-young. In his teens, Dae-young was a basketball player on the brink of greatness, but when he found out his girlfriend, Jung Da-jung, was pregnant, he dropped everything. With tears, earnest promises and a glorious sunburst, they poured themselves into their new life and family.
Fast-forward eighteen years and the roses are dead, the babies are sullen teens, and being a high-school dropout is a curse that dogs Dae-young’s heels. Da-jung (now played by Kim Haneul 😍) has achieved a degree and is struggling to realise her dreams of becoming a news anchor, but her late start sees her lose opportunity after opportunity, despite her obvious skill.
This is where the characters are at when we’re dropped into the show. We launch into its central conceit when, at the end of a spectacularly bad day, Dae-young goes out in the middle of the night to shoot some hoops. He challenges himself to make a particularly hard shot, and sends up a wish that if he gets it in, then he gets to “turn [it] back”. He makes the shot…
I’m really excited to welcome a new guest writer, who will be covering this show with me each week. Meet Saner (pronounced san-air), who is an award-winning writer, knitter, kimchi-maker, baby-wrangler, and more! She is one of my very favourite real-life K-drama pals and her belly-laughs make. my. day.
Saya: Let’s jump right in! Do you love this show, or do you love this show? 😂
Saner: Oh. My. GOODNESS. I am OBSESSED with this show. I absolutely love the writing, the characters…ALL OF THEM. The side characters are fleshed-out real people!
Well, kinda all of the characters. But the ones I dislike I’m not supposed to like, right? 😅
Saya: Oh darn, I am going to start out on a negative note then, and I hate doing that 😅 But: WHY did they have to go make Choi Il-kwon (Lee Ki-woo) a Bad Guy? I was genuinely enjoying his complexity as a reformed-bully-turned-PE-teacher, and now he’s all cartoony moustache-twirler.
Saner: Can I be honest? When he phoned bully Goo Ja-sung’s dad, as someone in the teaching profession, I found his laid back, relaxed kindness to be…odd. What, two boys have a physical bust-up and you brush it off like, “Well, everyone fights?” Well, no they don’t. And, also, I don’t know Ji-ho very well (at this point in time in the story), but he doesn’t seem like a fighter. So either you don’t know your kids very well or you’re just weird.
Saya: I agree that his take was really weird. But is that meant to be foreshadowing now? 😂 Seriously though, it’s my only gripe, and it’s not so much gripey as it is eye-rolling sigh. I really want to talk about the kids (I adore Ji-ho!), but shall we start off with the main characters? By which I mean, Da-jung, Da-jung, and Da-jung.
Saner: For a second, I thought it was a typo and then I realised it was just the truth you’d written, haha!
Saya: DA-JUNG IS OUR QUEEN.
Saner: SORRY BEYONCÉ!
Saya: NOT SORRY AT ALL
Sorry carry on 😂
Saner: I’m dying! Da-jung is kind of why I was feeling some way over Il-kwon being a potential love interest—she’s incredible. Like, really, truly, realistically incredible. And as a good guy, Il-kwon was a little bit…flat for me. She’s too complex for that sort of boring loveline. How is she so amazing? How?! I tried to explain the beauty of that Blackpink parody/rendition to a friend and I was genuinely lost for words. Ack, I’m going to stop because I could talk about her FOREVER.
Saya: I think you are going to need to explain it to me, I don’t know K-pop 😅 P.S. We are going to talk about her forever. Sort of. Steel yourselves, readers.
Saner: I’m not a K-pop aficionado myself…so if someone asked me, in my professional job, to learn a dance routine by a band and perform it and then discuss it…er, I mean, I’d do my best but I’d definitely have a giraffe-on-stilts-caught-in-headlights look about me. She does it so coolly and well that I had a hard time not thinking of the other professional dancers as her back-up dancers.
And it’s not her actual job.
Just something she prepped for a news segment.
Like…what the actual heck!?
Saya: Oh I get what you mean! I thought there was a hidden meaning in it that you had to K-pop to know. And you are right, she is FLAWLESS in that. She’s actually flawless in everything.
Saner: Impossible to overuse the word flawless when referring to Da-jung, so just be ready everyone.
Saya: It’s not that she’s this perfect heroine and has everything handed to her, because looool no. She struggles so hard. After getting pregnant with twins at 18, her life has been anything but expected, and at the point we are dropped into the show, her kids are high school seniors and she’s spent years working on getting herself up to scratch to make it as an anchorwoman. Where other people take expensive courses and study it out, she’s self-taught, practices endlessly, and is INCREDIBLE.
Saner: I love that she’s incredible by her hard work instead of being a geeeeeeenius. Her kindness and care is an integral part of her personality and that sometimes pays her back in terms of the warmth she gives off being reflected back to her. I remember a throwaway line about her graduating from university late and she mentions she wanted to wait for her kids to enter school…
Saya: About her graduation: I also laughed my head off when the interviewers at the blind casting wrongly calculate her age based on year of graduation. I cackled so hard.
Saner: Oh my days, I laughed and fist-pumped for her. They shouldn’t have been asking that question but Da-jung has a way of dealing with unscrupulous behaviour with such elegance and grace that she turns it to her advantage. Like the Wing Chun master of dealing with terrible behaviour.
Saya: I do find the ageist, sexist, mother-ist, divorcée-ist comments really upsetting. I always wonder if people are genuinely like this, or if it’s exaggerated for drama reasons. It’s such an ugly double standard to at once expect women to stay at home and raise the kids blah blah blah but then also expect them to make a living on a par with men, etc.
Saner: I think it’s both. We don’t have time to delve into the mindsets of these minor, bad-mouthing characters so the writer has them say their thoughts out loud. It’s so insidious, the expectation of women when they get married and have children (even in “the West”) that it’s quicker to have them just say it out loud!
Saya: That’s a good point. It’s still so exhausting, though, to have to keep letting that conversation play out, even from the mouths of villains. Though I do understand why we have to. I think it would be less ugh if it were just one character, but the show is definitely commenting on a cultural environment of stigma. Like the whole divorce “scandal”, gah.
Saner: I think It’s good for us to see what expectations and viewpoints she is up against. Like the Director’s plotting to get rid of her because she’s a mum of high school seniors seems really bad…until the news is shared out and his fears are realised. The divorce “scandal” made me so mad!
Saya: Gosh can we talk about the little vixen Kwon Yumi (played by Kim Yoon-hye)?
Saner: THANK GOODNESS YOU MENTIONED HER! I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to spoil that she is a bratty wastrel.
Saya: We’re allowed to spoil everything up to and including Episode 6!
Saner: I also don’t know how London I’m allowed to get, but she is a proper wasteman.
Saya: I think you are more London than me because I have never heard that phrase! 🤣
Saner: 🤣🤣 Err, a wasteman is a person (usually male, but we make an exception in this case) who basically wastes their life away not doing much and not taking responsibility for themselves and their life choices. I find it fascinating that people are ready to give Yumi the benefit of the doubt when she clearly lies about making that post “congratulating” Da-jung on her divorce accidentally…
Saya: It’s because she’s young and pretty—I call it “pretty privilege”—with a misplaced confidence in her own skills. At least she doesn’t get one over on their fellow noob, Ja-young (Go Eun-min), who is a real ally, bless her.
Saner: I’m so glad that there are so many positive female relationships in this drama to lean on when Yumi is doing shenanigans.
Saya: I hadn’t realised that she’s the only really bad egg, but it’s true! Which I guess goes to show that one rotten viper really can poison the bunch and muddle your metaphors.
Saner: Interesting thing I just thought of—Yumi does actually seem to have a genuinely good relationship with her (equally snotty) sunbae—she warns Yumi about the outcome of their probation period AND that Yumi is in fourth place in a three-horse race…but the way they decide to go about solving that is destructive (towards Da-Jung) instead of constructive (towards Yumi) and that’s why I can’t root for her.
Saya: I…am struck a little speechless at how you put that.
Saner: 🤣 Thanks? I feel like I may have over serious-ed the conversation and stopped it in its tracks now, haha. I will note that even Yumi’s sunbae gave Da-jung her props when she saved them from that “I don’t have my make-up” car crash of a situation and got them 12 headline captions!
Saya: So impressive! And that is a perfect illustration of why Da-jung is the best as well—because she is constructive, no matter the situation. There are so many times she could get an easy win for her ego, but she doesn’t take that road. She is the classy woman I want to be (but never will). 😭
Saner: Yeah. I agree that Da-jung is serious classy goals. When someone is behaving or acting ridiculously, it’s easy for our hero/ine to stand there and criticise or roll their eyes or wish desperately to be given that chance. Da-jung…just does her job. But so freaking well!
Saya: You know one of the things I value K-drama for in life-terms is this. To be given characters who really model how you can approach difficult situations in real life. And how many working women and/or mothers would not have encountered situations so like these?
Saner: “Da-jung’s Guide to Living Your Best Life” would be an absolute best-seller.
Mainly because I’d buy all the copies.
Saya: And give one to me, I hope 😂
Saner: Definitely. And I know Kwon Yumi would buy one under a pseudonym too.
Saya: I am not even rolling my eyes at all the men who are into her! Well, one of them turned out to be a dodgy dude, but our baseball hotshot Ye Ji-hoon (Wie Ha-joon) is kind of a keeper? I was iffy about his value as a character initially, and he was finally attractive to me when I saw him holding his daughter, who is glommed onto him like a little limpet. And then I was a goner for this stoic guy who has eyes only for his kid. And Da-jung, obviously, because what sane man wouldn’t.
Saner: Dads and their children = my melty heart. Even more because he had been running himself ragged trying to find her when she was lost.
I love the way they’re presenting reputation and how what we know about characters affects our perception of them. For example, when Il-kwon was a high school teacher acknowledging how he wronged Deok-jin, we hoped for his redemption while the “cheating” baseball star was perceived as more sleazy. Now we see Il-Kwon making 90s high-school-teen-movie bets about seducing women (eye roll) and Ji-hoon as a father…and the tables are completely turned 180°.
Early on in the show, there’s a scene where Ji-hoon watches Da-jung whilst on the phone to a date, and someone gave that as evidence of his douchebag ways…but we now know that he was talking to his daughter. Doesn’t that make that scene look so different now?
Saya: YES and that is what I love about the way the show frames perspective. And what you say about reputation comes very closely tied with this question of who is telling the story, and with what intent. I think it’s really neat that this is all taking place in the world of news media—and social media—to boot.
Saner: I so agree and am using italics and bolding now so as not to overuse the caps 🤣
Saya: 😂 Ooo can we talk about how JUST GREAT Lee Do-hyun is as Hong Dae-young/Go Woo-young? His return to high school life is so good for SO many reasons.
Saner: Yesssssssss. Love that he went back to school and immediately went to check on his kids. He is the cutest young ajusshi in the world. So many of his actions could come off as romantic but he manages to carry the dad-vibe off so well!
Saya: Even the way he trails around behind Da-jung isn’t creepy or weird, and it so easily could be. It’s been forever since I saw the Zac Efron film, do you remember how it played out there? I only remember that I really liked that film at the time, though as I look at it now, it is like it was born to be a K-drama and nothing else.
Saner: That last statement sums up a lot of my feelings (thankfully!). The movie felt like it wanted to really show off Zac Efron’s acting chops and kinda maligned the ajusshi character (played by the loveable Matthew Perry, aka our Chandler). Here, the K-drama reminds us starkly that the two are one and the same.
The title of Episode 4 is The Boy We Used to Know, and no matter how people react to Dae-young as an ajusshi, the show does a great job of showing us that he is almost exactly the same person at 38 as he was at 18. So that whole thing with Da-jung’s bestie, Ae-rin (played by Lee Mi-do), I found really amusing because stuff that Dae-young did as an ajusshi really narked her off, but she finds it romantic when he is younger and good-looking…
Saya: I was worried that the role would waste Yoon Sang-hyun, but one of the things the show does so well is visually transitioning from young Dae-young to old, especially at these emotionally significant junctures, so you never forget that despite his flower boy appearances, who he really is in the present is that ajusshi.
Saner: Great example of your most excellent point: When he walks out of the courthouse and Ajusshi Dae-young looks back at Da-jung, but Da-jung looks over and just sees Go Woo-young.
Saya: Speaking of the courthouse! I so wanted him to out himself there and then! Though I knew he couldn’t. BUT WHERE EPISODE 6 LEFT OFF OMG—
Saner: I TOLD YOU! And now I’m shouting again, lol, mian everyone.
Saya: It was a very shout-worthy ending! Though I still don’t think Da-jung will find out. But her bestie Ae-rin knowing is MOST EXCELLENT. (Also how much do you love how badly she wants to give herself permission to fall for handsome swoony TOO YOUNG Woo-young?)
Saner: I LOVED that. All us noonas who swoon over flower boys felt seen, haha. I liked that it wasn’t unexpected, once we discover Dae-young was her first love and see the enormity of the feelings she had towards him as a young girl/woman and how the appearance of Go Woo-young fans those flames. It’s not necessarily just because he’s handsome but because of what he represents in terms of her youthful hopes. But Da-jung, ever the realist, puts her in her place: “He’s the same age as my son!”
Saya: What gets me most about Dae-young’s character, and his realisations as Woo-young, is how deeply he begins to understand that he wasn’t the person he thought he was, or wished to be. And that despite his romantic, dedicated and downright swoony 18-year-old self, the last two decades have worn him out, and he’s worn himself into the same dull rut. Nothing changed for him, no matter how hard he tried, and once it finally did, it was for the worse. The failure to get the promotion, the divorce, the smug superiority of his high school peers who are all doing so well that they got their jollies from putting him down…and so you see exactly why he feels how he does.
But then as Woo-young, he gets to see himself through the eyes of his family who needed him to be more, and different. From Da-jung to Shi-woo and Shi-ah. And especially with Shi-woo and Shi-ah. Who are also such great characters.
Saner: I think losing everything he had helped him appreciate what was important. Da-jung didn’t want him to buy rounds for everyone at a reunion—just wash up! And that bit where he’s talking himself down and reminds himself to “just be [Shi-ah’s] friend.” Sir, who wouldn’t want to be Shi-ah (and Shi-woo’s!) friend?!
Saya: I love that it hurts him so much to hold back. It’s terribly funny, but it’s funny in the way that makes your heart hurt a little. But it wasn’t funny at all when he found out Shi-woo was being bullied, that was just horrible. (But it was HILARIOUS that Shi-ah pretended to be this little thug to scare him hahahaha.)