I put The Final Match on my watch list mainly because it’s one of the classic grandaddies of Hallyu.
Not only did it take audiences – fangirls, in particular – by storm when it aired in 1994, its presence can still be felt in dramaland nowadays, when, every so often, it gets referenced in dramas.
Case in point: Answer Me, 1994, which not only played the famous rousing riff from The Final Match’s OST, but also mentioned characters from the drama by name.
I knew I had to watch this show, if only to acquaint myself with the drama that created the waves that it did, way back in the day.
My viewing experience of the show was admittedly uneven, even though I dutifully put on my retro lens when watching it.
For the record, here are both the pluses and minuses of the show.
1. Zippy beginnings
Show starts off at a nicely brisk pace, which was a pleasant surprise, especially considering the vintage. Even though I’m generally not big into sports shows, I felt nicely engaged, and quite quickly too.
It wasn’t the game per se that got my attention, but the friendships between characters, and their potential growth trajectories.
After just one episode, I felt like I’d already been given some idea of the conflicts ahead, in terms of the game itself and how it affects the boys’ futures. That, and they’d met the girls, amid an awkward mix of bemusement, disdain, and curiosity.
I was definitely interested to see more, and that’s a solid accomplishment by any standard.
2. Jang Dong Gun is adorable
Yes, the very tight, very high-waisted retro jeans and the admittedly stiff acting made me cringe, but a young and sporty Jang Dong Gun is nothing to sniff at.
Fresh-faced, lean and with a tendency to brood, Jang Dong Gun as Chul Joon is lovely to look at. And as the underdog to Son Ji Chang’s Dong Min, he was mostly pretty easy to root for, too.
Additionally, when Chul Joon shows his shy side, he is super endearing and melty. I could totally see why everyone swooned over him in this role.
Here, have a lookie:
Aww. Sweetness, right?
3. Retro awesome
Being over 20 years old, Show is full of retro awesome, from ugly fashion to ugly hair, both for the guys and the girls. Just look at that ridiculously tall pouf on Son Ji Chang, and he’s supposed to be a star athlete, ha.
Another great thing about watching a show of this vintage, is spotting actors that we recognize, in their much younger days.
Exhibit A: Lee Jong Won
When I first set eyes on the angsty, broody, athletic character Sun Jae, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I know that face, just not quite in its 1994 iteration.
What a big aha moment, to realize that he’s Lee Jong Won, who’s totally been around all this time in supporting roles, like in Master’s Sun.
Lee Dong Won looks a lot less lean and a lot more.. prosperous in recent years, but his gaze and smirk are still unmistakable.
Exhibit B: Heo Joon Ho
No similar problems recognizing Heo Joon Ho who plays a Terrible Sunbae in the show, who is a total gangster to Dong Min. Little wonder that Heo Joon Ho graduated to play gangsters in so many of his other projects, heh.
In the interest of not being too much of a downer on a much loved Hallyu classic, I’m just going to briefly highlight the things that didn’t work in Show’s favor.
1. Pacing is uneven, and particularly in the middle stretch, Show really felt rather slow.
2. Show dips into melo angst more than I expected for a show that’s billed as being under the category of “sports, romance, school” (Dramawiki). “Sports melo” would’ve been a more accurate description.
3. Show has several points of focus, like basketball, friendship, romance, family, and personal growth, and the transitions between these points of focus feel haphazard.
Sometimes a point of focus can stay on the backburner for hours of screentime, before suddenly coming to the fore with a bang. It feels a little clumsy, in this sense.
4. Our female lead Da Seul (Shim Eun Ha) is frustratingly vanilla and soft-spoken, and I found her – and therefore our OTP – rather uninteresting.
5. Characters and their growth arcs are painted in large, broad strokes, which means that oftentimes, characters would display changes of behavior that don’t quite feel organic, and sometimes that felt like emotional whiplash.
Despite its melo tendencies which dragged our narrative for a good stretch, by the end of the show, I was pretty interested in watching the characters’ arcs develop around the game itself.
I mean, I even found myself holding my breath for some of the basketball scenes, which were fast-paced and quite well done, especially considering Show’s vintage.
I do think that the note on which Show chose to end was less than thrilling – ending it after the university championships or perhaps during nationals, would’ve been more exciting, I thought – but I do appreciate Show’s effort to portray a future that felt true to each of our main characters.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Despite its unevenness and other weaknesses, this is THE grandaddy sports kdrama of dramaland, and is worth a look for that fact alone.
FINAL GRADE: B-