THE SHORT VERDICT:
High School King is definitely a drama that is better in concept than in execution.
While the idea of a high schooler going successfully undercover as a sharp-suited corporate warrior is intriguing, the hijinks unfortunately come off as more try-hard than amusing. Characters are treated in broad strokes for the most part, and we get a lot more campy and theatrical than layered and nuanced.
There are definitely some moments of heart, but you’d need to be patient to find them in the midst of the comedic intent, which sometimes feels like it’s on steroids.
On the upside, Seo In Guk looks great in a sharp suit.
THE LONG VERDICT:
First of all, I really, really loved the concept of the show when I first heard about it. Seo In Guk playing a high schooler going undercover in the corporate world sounded like SO much awesome. I loved that he has the face to play both parts; that he’s got enough dork about him to be a convincing high schooler, and yet at the same time, enough suave about him to look the part of a corporate warrior.
Sadly, I didn’t love this show the way I wanted to. And I really, really wanted to.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t love it, since I’ve heard quite a few raves about this show too.
I really think it all boils down to what works for you and what doesn’t; what you find funny and what you don’t; what you find sweet and romantic and what you find awkward and uncomfortable.
Oh, and it definitely also boils down to exactly how much you love Seo In Guk.
For the record, I really do like Seo In Guk. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to this show to begin with. From watching this show, though, I’ve learned that I probably don’t love him quite enough to make this show work for me.
I had mixed feelings about the show through most of its run, and came away with an underwhelmed feeling of meh.
Let me try to break down my mixed feelings a little bit, by touching fairly quickly on a couple of main pieces and their pluses and minuses.
Seo In Guk as Lee Min Suk (& Lee Hyung Suk)
Seo In Guk can be dashing in a suit, and dreamy when he kisses (both big plus points), but as Min Suk, he’s also portrayed as immature and explosive, and that does not help at all. The aegyo that Min Suk puts on quite a lot of time also does not help. It makes him appear immature to the point of me finding it hard to buy into his character as the show’s leading man.
Min Suk’s mile-a-minute teenager speak, punctuated with “jinjja” to fill any and all dead space, also eventually got really old for me.
On the upside, Seo In Guk can indeed kiss.
Many of those moments were very nice indeed.
Lee Ha Na as Jung Soo Young
Soo Young is kind-hearted and warm, and those are her big plus points. But she’s also made out to be rather strange and very socially awkward, which we see presented most often in her odd tendency to hunch with both arms hanging limp by her sides, and her equally odd habit of practically shouting her greetings at people.
While I found her doormat tendencies aggravating, it was how she was often portrayed as pathetic that bugged me more. Additionally, I found it hard to watch the multiple occasions when she was put in ultra embarrassing situations.
Here are 2 quick examples of when I squirmed from all the second-hand embarrassment.
E1. Soo Young’s inner monologue about Director Yoo Jin Woo (Lee Soo Hyuk) about his “signals,” and her subsequent confession. Spectacularly embarrassing.
E9. Min Suk’s discovery that Soo Young’s bag is full of lingerie, in expectation of sexytimes. So embarrassing that I had to take breaks every few minutes from watching the scene.
I was cringing too much to find it all genuinely funny, so this just didn’t work for me.
Min Suk and Soo Young are cute together, and the kisses are sometimes hot, but their relationship generally runs too cute for my taste. It doesn’t feel terribly romantic when they’re mostly just playing like kids. Also, there’s Min Suk’s tendency to raise his voice and manhandle her when he’s upset. Which, again, is something that doesn’t sit so well with me.
I liked that the show touched on Min Suk’s insecurity about his age and station in life when compared to Soo Young’s friends, but overall, I found it hard to buy into this OTP.
Honestly, the plotting in this show is pretty predictable. A reasonably experienced drama fan would be able to predict pretty much every milestone in this story’s narrative.
Which wouldn’t be a problem in itself if the execution and characterization of our main players were well done. Unfortunately, neither is very strong. While the execution had some bright spots, it mostly felt rather uneven and I didn’t find the intended funny all that funny, really (more on that in a bit).
Characterization-wise, we got mostly broad strokes all around, with things getting into two-dimensional, flat territory even among our main cast.
The clearest offender in this area is the writing around Jin Woo, who starts out all cold and dismissive towards Soo Young. And then in episode 6, we see a sudden turnaround when he suddenly wants to spend time with her.
I thought maybe this was all part of him plotting something, but we were eventually led to believe that he had real feelings for her. While it’s fine for him to have a change of heart, the writing didn’t make that change of heart at all believable or plausible.
Additionally, the duality of the nice side that he showed Soo Young and his not-so-nice corporate spy side did not feel organic. The different sides didn’t meld very well, and as a result, Jin Woo’s characterization felt stilted.
The Funny.. isn’t so funny
To be honest, I didn’t find the funny all that funny at all, in this show.
Stuff that the show played for laughs just didn’t amuse me the way the writers intended. Like the way Min Suk was irresponsible with the corporate credit card, using it to buy his friends a ridiculous amount of expensive clothes and shoes. Am I too responsible to find this funny? Coz I’m so sure it was supposed to be funny.
The petty rivalry between Jin Woo and Min Suk is also supposed to be funny, but their behavior degenerates to that of little boys fighting over toys, and I didn’t find it very amusing at all.
Here are 2 occasions in a tiny bit more detail, where the writers were gunning for funny, but it didn’t work for me.
E12. Soo Young’s Noona crusade on Min Suk is understandable in concept, but really hammy in execution. That she’d beat his door down to ask him to call her Noona, in front of all the other employees watching on the other side, is just not in character. When the writers do things like this, it totally takes me out of the moment and reminds me that this world isn’t real. And I need to at least be able to sorta believe it’s real in order to feel invested.
E15. The lookalike effect of the brothers confusing other people is ripe for the mining, but it just isn’t funny in execution. Maybe it’s the awkward comic timing of the actors; I cringed through Soo Young’s extended cheek-pinching encounter with an unsmiling Hyung Suk, and then cringed again through Min Suk’s friends’ handsy encounter with the stoically poker-faced Hyung Suk.
Essentially, this show tries hard to be funny, but the trying shows so much that it’s just not very amusing to me. Exaggerated shouting and other OTT antics do not necessarily funny make, at least for me.
Still, I concede that a lot of viewers actually found this show gut-bustingly funny. Which means it really boils down to a matter of preference and personal taste.
For a show about a high schooler disguising himself as a corporate warrior, the need to suspend disbelief while watching is a total given.
Even so, there are a number of logic fails in the writing which I found hard to swallow, and therefore, distracting.
Here’s one of the big ones.
After Min Suk basically destroys his shoulder playing ice hockey, the doctor explains that his ice hockey career is over, and that there’s simply No Way that he’ll be able to compete again. And then Soo Young proceeds to learn how to rehabilitate Min Suk by looking up stuff on the internet, and succeeds in helping Min Suk play again, with his coach’s permission.
Soo Young trying to help Min Suk with physiotherapy is nice in concept, but unbelievable in execution. If rehabilitation was so possible, wouldn’t the doctor and coach have known to push for it? Her amateur attempts move Min Suk, but surely that shouldn’t result in him getting back on the hockey team? And the coach allowing it, given that the doc had specifically said that continuing to compete might make it hard for Min Suk to live life normally, is just irresponsible.
Much as I’ve practiced suspending disbelief in dramaland, I couldn’t buy this one, even with both eyes closed.
Before I end this review, I wanted to give the quick spotlight to a couple of secondary characters.
Oh Kwang Rok as Dad
Dad was quite possibly my favorite character in this entire show.
I loved that he was such a kind, sweet, loving father, even though he wasn’t even the boys’ bio dad.
In episode 9, when the doc tells Dad that Min Suk’s injury is too serious and that Min Suk basically can’t play ice hockey anymore, Dad is heartbroken and tearfully pleads with the doc to give Min Suk his arm instead. Oh, Dad. His earnest tears broke my heart and warmed it, all at the same time.
All drama long, Dad’s love for his sons was long-suffering, sacrificial, and so, so warm.
I loved Dad. So very much.
Kwon Sung Duk as Gramps
Gramps was a total scene-stealer in this show, and his childlike antics and gleeful innocence were very endearing indeed.
I loved all his scenes with Min Suk, but in particular, his scenes towards the end of the drama with the heretofore absent Hyung Suk, were the most poignant of all.
Gramps totally deserved his own show.
Lee Yul Eum as Soo Ah
Granted, I found Yoo Ah bemusing in the early stretches of the show, with her determined stalkery (and borderline disturbing) obsession with Min Suk.
But the cute sisterly moments that she shared with Soo Young in the later episodes eventually won me over, and I came away thinking that Yoo Ah wasn’t half bad after all.
In the end, I felt like the show missed some potentially great opportunities.
A lot of time was spent on office shenanigans, which got really old by the time we entered the later stretch of the show. Instead of all that, we could’ve spent more time exploring the dynamic between the Absentee Hyung and the kid brother who steps in to right hyung’s wrongs.
Seo In Guk is very convincing as both brothers, and I found the dynamic between the brothers way more interesting and engaging than the OTP dynamic, which was played more awkward and childlike than I would’ve preferred.
The brothers who looked so alike, but who were so different in personality, was a potentially rich plot line to mine, but the show – sadly – chose to gloss over this with a pretty light touch.
Overall, there were moments that grabbed me in this show, and that’s definitely a good thing. At the same time, the OTT characterization of the characters sometimes really got in the way of my enjoyment of the show.
When we got moments of poignancy and tenderness, I found the show enjoyable and engaging. But when our characters – in particular, our leads Soo Young and Min Suk – went into OTT mode and it felt like they were on steroids, I found it distracting more than endearing.
Still, I wanted to like this show.
As I watched the show, I kept waiting for the balance to shift. I kept waiting for all the pluses to outweigh the minuses, preferably by a landslide.
Sadly, that didn’t happen.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Some bright spots but overall pretty unremarkable, with a tendency to lean overdone. More for Seo In Guk fans.
FINAL GRADE: C