Let’s put it this way. High Society is pretty much The Drama Who Cried Wolf. Except instead of Wolf, Show was crying stuff like, “I’m interesting! And dramatic! My leads have sparky chemistry! And! I bring hawt kisses!”
Insistently and repeatedly, Show sang its siren song. BUT. Consistently and repeatedly, episode after episode, despite managing to coast by on the faint promise of things to come, ultimately, Show failed to deliver.
Can someone point me to the Time Refund counter in dramaland, please? Coz I’d really like to have my 16 hours back.
When High Society dropped this first teaser, I sat up quickly and Took Notice. I mean, just check this out:
There just seemed to be so much promise there, right? The sparks, the kisses, and the potential for an intense, heartfelt romance that would boldly defy the class divide between our leads – I looked forward to it unfolding on my screen in all of its romantic, sparky glory.
THE REALITY (AKA WHAT DIDN’T WORK)
Given that the selling point – and really, also, the drama’s whole ENTIRE point – is the OTP, we really needed strong writing of the characters themselves and their relationship, strong performances from our leads individually, and also lots of chemistry when they shared the screen.
Sadly, in reality, none of those checkboxes got checked.
Both Sung Joon and UEE put in decent performances, but neither was actually good. From the get-go, neither is very nuanced in their delivery. Worse, when they shared the screen with second leads Park Hyung Shik and Im Ji Yeon (both of whom seemed much more comfortable onscreen and with each other), our leads actually appeared stiff and quite flat in comparison.
Additionally, the writing around both leads didn’t feel well-thought-out or robust.
Yoon Ha (UEE) is written as incredibly naive, clueless and self-centered from start to finish. Her cluelessness wasn’t really a problem in the beginning of the show for me, since I put that down as Show setting her up to have room for growth. Except that growth doesn’t actually happen, and she ends the show as pretty much the same self-centered, naive person.
Worse, Yoon Ha’s treatment as a character feels random, pretty much all the way through. [SPOILERS] We start the show with her fighting tooth and nail to keep her part-time position at the supermarket, but in episode 6, she suddenly decides to quit her job, and work in her family’s company after all. She says it’s to investigate her brother’s disappearance and supposed death, which feels random in itself, but even before she finds out that Oppa (Lee Sang Woo) is alive, she seems to forget that goal, and makes competing with unni Ye Won (Yoon Ji Hye) to take over the company her goal instead. So. Freaking. Random. And that’s not even counting how wildly her mind changes when it comes to Joon Ki either. [END SPOILERS]
Joon Ki (Sung Joon) is presented as quite the cipher for much of the first half of the show, which I thought had its pros and cons. On the upside, it made him feel mysterious and potentially interesting. On the downside, I felt very disconnected from him as a character, and having that stretched out over so many episodes also got old. Because we aren’t shown what his motives, plans and feelings are for many episodes, I didn’t know how to feel about him either.
Unlike Yoon Ha’s character, we do see a change in Joon Ki’s behavior as we get deeper into the series. Unfortunately, the changes in his behavior are sudden and unexplained, and that made everything around his character feel unbelievable and unnatural.
All of this, combined with poor writing, made the OTP really hard to get behind. Early in the series, I already felt that the OTP relationship felt hollow, with no real emotion from either side. I had hopes that this would be fixed with character and relationship growth as we got deeper into the show, but I was ultimately disappointed.
Instead of actual relationship growth, we routinely spent episodes circling around similar arcs, and the relationship movement between arcs felt artificial and contrived.
Yes, the kisses were actually pretty decent, but that just wasn’t enough, given that the OTP was designed to be the point of the story. Hot kisses notwithstanding, I was bored by the OTP, unfortunately.
The idea of “High Society”
Besides the spotlight on the romance, Show also serves up lots of machinations and politicking in the chaebol families in our main cast. We were routinely shown scenes of family feuding in Yoon Ha’s family as well as Chang Soo’s (Park Hyung Shik).
Not that the politicking was actually interesting, mind you. The family stuff is melodramatic in concept, but not quite so in execution. [MODERATE HIGH-LEVEL SPOILERS] In Yoon Ha’s family, we’re shown a brother trying to kick his sister out of the family business and the sister trying to do the same to her brother; a mother telling one daughter to just live with paternal discrimination, and telling another daughter that she shouldn’t have been born; a father openly using his children against one another and emotionally abusing his wife, all while wielding a metaphorical whip. [END SPOILERS]
All of this dysfunction is meant show us just how the rich and privileged live, but really, none of it is terribly riveting, and the machinations all feel like mere set dressing for the main event, which is the relationships between our leads.
For a show that titles itself High Society, Show didn’t do a very convincing job of actually making any kind of meaningful statement about high society, really.
Characters who mostly don’t make sense
Aside from the OTP, Show had many other characters in it, that didn’t actually make sense. From spouting odd, lofty-sounding lines that were pretty illogical, to their motives and decisions, Show had no lack of moments that caused me to raise my eyebrows and go, “Wha..? Really??”
With multiple characters that behaved in head-scratching ways, the uneven tone of the drama became even more pronounced. Show wasn’t doing itself any favors, that’s for sure.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this, is in the character of Yoon Ha’s brother Gyung Joon (Lee Sang Woo). From plotting his own disappearance and fake death (and devastating his entire family), to his unapologetic, underwhelming return, Gyung Joon makes little sense.
When he finally articulates some kind of explanation for his fake death in episode 16 in a conversation with Yoon Ha, he says cryptically, “Father loves me. He will never throw me away. That’s the knot between our relationship. That’s why I chose to disappear. Unless I’m reborn, Father and I can’t be separated.” Uh. Say what?
And that’s on top of his oddly matter-of-fact reunion with his mother (Go Doo Shim), who’d been delirious with grief when she’d believed him dead. To her, he says, “Mother, let’s be honest with ourselves. No matter how much parents love their children, there’s no way they love them more than themselves. I know about parents, too. That you bet your life on me… I know it was for yourself.” No apology for making her worry, no empathy for the trauma he put her through, nada. I mean, really?
On top of all this, Gyung Joon is a character who has a daughter of his own. That he plotted his own fake death seems so selfish and cruel, especially given that his daughter would’ve grieved too, believing him dead.
I couldn’t understand nor get on board with Gyung Joon as a character, at all. To think that he’s presented as being one of the nicer, more reasonable chaebols in our story, too.
On a somewhat related tangent, and as another example of Show’s weak writing, the plot point in episode 7 is ridiculously laughable, where So Hyun (Yoo So Young) points out to a suspicious Ye Won the supposedly odd fact: “Why would a man [Gyung Joon’s] age have already prepared a will?”
What? I mean, it’s not uncommon for normal, non-chaebol people to make wills once they own property, so what’s the big deal about Gyung Joon having had a will? In fact, given how much property these chaebols seem to own, and how they have professional legal teams at their disposal, I’m surprised that the other chaebol siblings didn’t have wills.
THE (SORT-OF) SILVER LINING
The Second Leads
Through most of Show’s run, I found our second lead characters a nice spot of bright amid Show’s other, more bemusing, storylines. I don’t think that the writing around our second leads was better, necessarily. Rather, I think that the difference was mostly in the delivery.
Im Ji Yeon comes across as natural, endearing and disarmingly charming as Ji Yi, which was a very pleasant surprise for me, since I’d found her delivery quite insipid and flat in Obsessed.
Im Ji Yeon did very nicely, elevating somewhat stock Candy-type behavior (unsurprising and not terribly spoilery examples include: stepping aside to let her bestie pursue a relationship with her crush; grappling with money troubles; and stepping aside for the better future of the man she loves). She injected Ji Yi with an earnest sincerity that not only made Ji Yi pop as a character, but made her feel relatable, believable and very real. I also really enjoyed how refreshingly candid and forthright Ji Yi was as a character, often not hesitating to speak her mind, even in the most awkward situations. In Im Ji Yeon’s hands, Ji Yi was quite literally one of my favorite characters in the show.
As Chang Soo, Park Hyung Shik turns in a surprisingly note-perfect performance, making Chang Soo roguishly, infuriatingly charming, yet imbuing him with a very lovely layer of pathos in his quieter, more melancholic moments.
Essentially, I found it easy to believe their attraction and affection for each other. The writing around Chang Soo’s and Ji Yi’s relationship wasn’t much better than the writing around the OTP’s relationship. What made the difference, for the most part, was how heartfelt their performances were. They made the longing, the attraction and the tenderness in their relationship feel organic and believable.
I especially love the recurring beats, where we see Ji Yi bringing out a very particular tenderness in Chang Soo. No matter how angry or upset he is, when he holds her in his arms, his gaze takes on a very appealing softness which I dig very much.
Whether this couple was being cute, or sexy, or sad, they felt believable. It felt like there was a depth of feeling that was feeding into whatever we saw on the surface, and I liked that very much.
Here’s a bit of evidence:
Exhibit A: Cute
Exhibit B: Sexy
Exhibits C & D: Sad
So much sparky chemistry, and so believable too, right?
Whatever this couple was selling, I bought quite happily – for the most part. I have a minor(ish) gripe about how their arc was resolved, which, unfortunately, made this couple’s arc less of an overall bright spot in the drama than I had hoped for. I’ll talk about that in a bit.
A touch of bromance
It’s not really played up very much, but we do get a small spot of bromance between Joon Ki and Chang Soo, which I thought was rather nice, in a show with relatively few bright spots.
We don’t get a whole lot of exposition, really, but by series’ end, the estrangement between Joon Ki and Chang Soo, which sets in fairly early in the series, gets smoothed over. It all happens in a gruff, not-a-lot-of-words-needed sort of guy-fashion, which I found rather amusing and endearing. I guess I just liked seeing them on proper talking terms and on the way to being real bromantic besties, this time without the hidden baggage.
Show knows one of its strengths is in the Pretty, and it didn’t hesitate to trot out the goodies to whet our appetites.
Both Sung Joon and Park Hyung Shik look great in their sharp business suits and carefully coiffed hair. Very easy on the eyes, for sure. Plus, Show doesn’t stint on the shirtless scenes either, even managing to cram two shower scenes into episode 5.
Yes, the Pretty didn’t quite make up for Show’s flaws, but it did help to soothe a little bit of the pain.
So here’s a handful of Pretty, just coz:
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
WHAT I WOULD’VE PREFERRED
In the end, Show serves up happy endings for both lead couples, and since Show was always really about the romance anyway, I’ll limit my thoughts on the could’ve beens, to the 2 main couples.
If I had to distill it to just one thing, I think I’d have liked to see more fairness, in how our romances were resolved. Yes, all four main characters take steps towards one another, in order to reach reconciliation and their happy endings. But the chaebol characters take pretty minor steps, while the non-chaebol, ordinary folk take much bigger ones.
Joon Ki quits his job and basically lets go of – or at least seriously downgrades – his career ambitions, which are changes that are huge for him, while Yoon Ha, quite simply, chooses to be with him. She, on the other hand, gets to keep her chaebol environment, and stays in the family business, rising to director level by the time we arrive at the one-year time skip that marks the end of the series. We don’t see that she has to do anything other than decide to love him again, really.
On the other love boat, Chang Soo – after drunk-crying a lot – basically and quite simply, wheedles his mom (Jung Kyung Soon) into not only accepting Ji Yi, but getting his dad’s acceptance, Ji Yi’s agreement, and taking charge of grooming Ji Yi into acceptable daughter-in-law material too. All that talk during the series, about “moving neighborhoods” never actually happens, since Chang Soo essentially gets to keep everything and marry Ji Yi. Ji Yi, on the other hand, has to then work hard on upgrading her specs post-marriage, even while heavily pregnant.
I get that love shouldn’t be calculated and all that, but as a drama, Show certainly seems to be (inadvertently?) sending an odd message about “high society” and the privileges and power that come with it. Am I supposed to think Show is saying that if I’m from a chaebol family, I’ll eventually get everything I want, romance-wise, if I wait long enough and whine and wheedle artfully enough?
To fix this, I think the writers would’ve done well to create some kind of variance across the rich/poor divide, as far as our romantic outcomes went. Having at least one chaebol making more of a sacrifice, would’ve gone a long way in making this all feel more balanced, I think. I don’t even care which way that slices, to be honest. But I do think that one or more of these would’ve been nice:
- Seeing Ji Yi continue to charm the socks off her mother-in-law even post-marriage, all while infecting (and changing for the better) her new chaebol family with her down-to-earth charm and ready compassion;
- Seeing Chang Soo actually go independent from his chaebol family, and becoming a success in his own right;
- Seeing Yoon Ha fulfilling her housewifely dreams and being the one that’s pregnant with her first child;
- Seeing Joon Ki finding a way to balance ambition with love, instead of having to choose one over the other.
Perhaps this way, we could’ve worked towards seeing actual, meaningful growth in our characters. Which is something that I’d hoped for, from the beginning of the show, but which never really happened, in the end.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
Ultimately, I feel like the writers never really had a good sense of what they wanted to do with our story, or where they wanted to go. It felt like we spent a lot of time cycling in place, only to make several very stilted and unnatural moves in the last stretch, so that everything and everyone would be in position for the required happy finale.
In general, almost all our characters started changing their behavior in stark and sudden ways that felt far from organic. Joon Ki suddenly being so forthcoming, and even understanding of Yoon Ha. Yoon Ha suddenly realizing that her revenge had been childish. Yoon Ha, suddenly speaking more freely with Joon Ki. Yoon Ha, suddenly opening up to Mom in a very sudden emotional breakdown. Mom suddenly being like a mother instead of the distant figure who used to despise Yoon Ha’s existence. Also, Mom suddenly being a proper lady of the house, caring for her husband and being reasonable yet firm. Chang Soo’s mom suddenly being sympathetic to his heartbreak.
I found it hard to get on board with anything, and actually cringed at points, when Show’s efforts landed our story in unnecessarily cheesy territory. I think with heavy rationalizing, it might be possible to sorta-maybe figure out reasons for why these characters behaved in these bemusing ways. But honestly, when Show makes it that obtuse and hard to figure out, and if viewers at large experience mostly confusion instead of understanding, something’s Pretty Darn Wrong. Right?
In the end, our story reaches its conclusion in such a narratively convenient fashion that it’s far from engaging and worse, almost laughable. Looking on the bright side, though, at least everyone lives happily ever after?
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A show that seems as confused as its characters, about its goals. Feels like empty (& pointless) drama calories.
FINAL GRADE: C