THE SHORT VERDICT:
An understated, quiet creature compared to its other prime-time cousins, Twenty Again manages to prove its worth while bucking quite a few drama trends.
Despite having a central romance, Twenty Again’s main focus is consistently about one woman’s journey of discovery – discovery of truth, discovery of self, re-discovery of her self-worth – and everything else, including the romance, fits around that in a satisfyingly organic, uplifting way. Wonderful performances by our leads bring that journey to life, and make it completely worthwhile.
Far from flashy, but winsome and inspiring in all the best ways.
THE LONG VERDICT:
In a sea of trendies where the lead characters are either in their teens or twenties, Twenty Again stands out as that rare drama that dares to be different.
Not only does Twenty Again feature leads in their late 30s, it also unabashedly takes its time with its story and character development. Milestones are more often carefully teased out than rushed through, making for a comparatively richer emotional payoff than the average drama tends to offer. So refreshing, in a drama landscape where many dramas tend to cram more plot developments into fewer episodes, in a bid to grab a bigger bite of the ratings pie. How much do I love that Twenty Again is rewarded for standing firm in its own unique slow-bake approach, recording extremely strong cable ratings all through its run.
Better yet, in spite of Show’s slow-and-easy approach with its story and character milestones, writer-nim still managed to surprise me on a regular basis. Hey now. That’s skillz.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album in case you’d like to listen to it as you read the review.
STUFF I LOVED
I will admit that it wasn’t immediate love for me, with Twenty Again. The initial episodes were hard to watch, because not only were we in set-up mode, everyone in this drama world just seemed inordinately mean to our central character No Ra (Choi Ji Woo), and I didn’t like that.
Happily, once we got set-up out of the way, Show became more endearing by the minute, and I was soon very much in love. I literally welcomed each week’s new episodes the way a starving person in an empty house would welcome the takeout delivery guy: with excitement, glee and a huge appetite. Chomp.
Here’s a quick spotlight on all my favorite things about this lovely little drama.
1. It’s all about No Ra, and No Ra’s awesome
I find it a literal breath of fresh air, to have a trendy drama feature an older heroine as its central character. In a dramaverse that tends to favor lead characters in their teens or twenties, Twenty Again boldly bucks the trend by not just showcasing an older heroine, but celebrating her, with loving, careful touches. I love that No Ra, at 38, gets to learn that she’s not only not over-the-hill, but is in the prime of her life. That’s a message that is universally uplifting, and I love it.
Choi Ji Woo is wonderful as No Ra, portraying her with heartfelt earnestness, and fleshing out every part of No Ra’s journey of self-discovery with layers of believable emotional resonance. From being meek and confused, to hurt and sorrowful, to determined and tenacious, to being vulnerable and strong at the same time, Choi Ji Woo is a pleasure to watch. Her interpretation of No Ra’s emotional landscape feels effortlessly faceted and detailed, and that imparts a lovely.. fullness to our vicarious experience of No Ra’s journey.
I couldn’t help but love No Ra very quickly after meeting her. Despite her simplicity, her earnestness, and her all-around goodness, No Ra’s no tropey Candy, and feels very, very real. I found her to be such a sweet person that I just totally wanted all the good things for her that she never managed to have earlier in life. And I couldn’t help but root for her, to rediscover herself, and win at all the things in life too.
There are a lot of things that I like about No Ra, but my favorite one has to be her earnest, grateful appreciation of everything that she does have, in spite of all the things that she doesn’t.
Like in episode 7, when, while walking on the street, No Ra quietly muses to herself, “My loving son, my college friends, all living their youth while studying and dating. My old true friend who’s thankful that I’m alive. It’s a lovely day. I’d like it to always be like today.”
This, despite the fact that her life is technically still sort of falling apart, with her husband intent on divorcing her, and her son still actually unable to understand her. Yet, No Ra’s able to count her blessings and be genuinely grateful for them.
In episode 8, when No Ra realizes that Hyun Seok is personally responsible for so many of the recent positive things in her life, I love that No Ra doesn’t hesitate to thank him, in spite of all the bickering that’s gone on between them prior. Ignoring Hyun Seok’s gruff protests, No Ra thanks him for everything, one item at a time.
“Hey! Cha Hyun Suk! …Thank you for taking me to a midnight showing of a movie. And thank you for letting me use your locker.” … “And putting on a show for Min Soo’s dad, so I can go to school in secret. Thank you.” (Her voice quivers) “My grandma… Thank you for going to her funeral. Haekwang Arts High School… Thank you for taking me there for a visit.
And thank you so much for acting like my friend. Even if it was just for a moment, thank you for being the friend you once were. Even if it wasn’t for real. Even if it was because you pitied me. Even if it was out of sympathy. That heart of yours. Thank you.”
No Ra’s thankful speech to Hyun Seok is just so sincere and earnest and so heartfelt. I love that she isn’t one to hold grudges, nor allow her pride to get in her way. I love that she doesn’t try to explain herself at all, about why she wasn’t at Gran’s funeral, and only thanks Hyun Seok for having been there. And, the way she almost-cries when she thanks him for being her friend for a while, even if it was out of pity, coz it meant a lot to her. Awww. How can one not love No Ra? ❤️
2. Lee Sang Yoon as Cha Hyun Seok
My minor quibble with Hyun Seok as a character, is that he took a couple of episodes to settle. After he settled, though, I luffed him.
In the initial episodes, I felt that Lee Sang Yoon played Hyun Seok too hard and too mean, particularly when interacting with No Ra. I found it jarring, and couldn’t imagine him being any kind of romantic hero. Very quickly, though, Lee Sang Yoon settled into the role, and proceeded to make Hyun Seok the most adorable ball of gruff I ever saw. Hyun Seok’s growing curiosity about No Ra, which pretty much turns into an outright obsession, is the cutest and funniest thing, particularly because he’s fantastically grumpy and rather bemused through it all, even when he’s being nice to her.
Lee Sang Yoon is endlessly entertaining as Hyun Seok. Whether Hyun Seok’s indulging in egoistic bluster, or reluctantly worrying about No Ra, or being a petty boy-man, Lee Sang Yoon injects a distinct adorkability into Hyun Seok that makes him really endearing and funny. Seriously, it wasn’t long before I wanted a Hyun Seok of my very own.
In spite of Hyun Seok’s grumpy exterior, there are a lot of things to love about him. I’m just picking my top 2 to highlight here.
I really like the way Hyun Seok cares for No Ra, and does his best to help her do what she wants to do, regardless of his own opinion.
In episode 5, he says as much to Sang Ye (Choi Yoon So), when Sang Ye asks if it wouldn’t be better for No Ra to spend her last days with her husband. I love what Hyun Seok says, “Sang Ye, I want No Ra to leave with a peaceful heart. That’s the only thing I want, to do what No Ra wants.”
Another instance of this is in episode 10, when Hyun Seok bites the bullet and does what he can to give No Ra and estranged husband Woo Chul (Choi Won Young) a second chance together, in spite of the fact that Hyun Seok personally has a poor opinion of Woo Chul.
There’s just something very endearing and selfless about it, even though Hyun Seok does it grudgingly. The look on his face as he looks No Ra in the eyes, just before dragging Yi Jin (Park Hyo Joo) to his car and leaving No Ra alone with Woo Chul, is so conflicted. It’s like he’s steeling himself for the act, and reproaching her with his eyes, for wanting to settle for a lousy bum like Woo Chul.
I just love that Hyun Seok doesn’t presume to know what No Ra should do, but is so considerate and respectful of what she wants. That’s so awesomely caring, from the outward curmudgeon.
The other thing I seriously love about Hyun Seok, is how he sees the awesome in No Ra, and works to help her see that awesome too.
Like in episode 8, when he talks her into helping Soon Nam (No Young Hak). On the surface, he’s a touch grumpy and pushy about it, but it’s thanks to his prodding that No Ra gathers the courage to finally achieve her dream of dancing on stage. And what a thrilling and liberating experience that turns out to be, for No Ra.
And then there’s the instance in episode 12, when Hyun Seok gives No Ra his memory box. More than the act of him giving her the box, I love why he gives it to her. It’s not to confess his feelings for her, but more to prove to her that he doesn’t pity her, and that she’s a good person, a worthy person.
From start to finish, Hyun Seok’s never about winning No Ra for himself, but consistently about empowering her to be the awesome person he knows her to be. He’s always about her worth, and I freaking love that about him.
3. The OTP
The delicate thing about this OTP, is that for much of Show’s run, No Ra is still technically married to Woo Chul. Because of this little but all-too-important detail, the romance between Hyun Seok and No Ra needs to be handled in an especially sensitive manner.
To this end, I feel that writer-nim made the best possible choice, of letting Hyun Seok and No Ra spend most of the series purely as friends; friends who learn to appreciate each other as people first and foremost, rather than as potential partners. By the time the relationship between this OTP turns romantic, it’s clear for all to see, just what it is that they value about each other, and why they love each other. In that sense, I really like the strong foundation on which this OTP relationship is built.
In a drama landscape where bickering romances often take the route of going too strong on the bickering, I really like the tone that Twenty Again achieves with this. The petty squabbles between Hyun Seok and No Ra hit the right balance for me, with just enough abrasiveness to make it an argument, but not so much that it becomes hard to watch.
It’s true that when things finally turn romantic, the vibe of this OTP is markedly more teasing fun than sexy rawr, but given how heartwarming and sweet they are in so many other ways, I find it hard to be nit-picky.
While we get quite a bit of cute fun with Hyun Seok helping No Ra fulfill her bucket list, lots of amusement when they’re bickering, and lots of significant moments when Hyun Seok demonstrates his particular brand of gruff care and concern for No Ra, the thing that really stands out for me, with this OTP, is how endearing they are in the little moments.
Like in episode 5, when Hyun Seok takes No Ra to eat at the street food stall. I really enjoyed watching them just talking and finding out about each other, and just generally spending time together. It’s almost a throwaway moment, but still so significant, that in this little conversation, No Ra realizes that Hyun Seok really had regarded her highly back in school.
In episode 10, it’s again in the little moments that the closeness and comfort between Hyun Seok and No Ra shines through. Like when they speak in lowered tones as he passes her his clothes to change into and she thanks him silently. It’s something that only people who enjoy a particular degree of closeness in their relationship would be comfortable doing, and this exchange between them feels so very natural. No Ra doesn’t protest, and Hyun Seok passes the clothes to her like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
In episode 12, No Ra finally finds out that Hyun Seok had protected and kept Gran’s store all this time, and, tasting Gran’s ddukbokki again, starts to cry. I love that Hyun Seok tells Dong Chul (Kim Kang Hyun) to close up the shop and just let No Ra cry. It’s such a matter-of-factly understated moment, but I find it so very melty, in the way Hyun Seok fundamentally understands No Ra’s heart and how she needs the space and time to process and grieve, at this moment. That gesture, of closing the shop to give her space, is so sweetly understanding. I love that Hyun Seok shows his love for No Ra in ways that are so different from the usual romantic gestures, but manage to be so much more meaningful and deep.
These little moments of clear connection and unspoken understanding between Hyun Seok and No Ra totally added to the squee I experienced over this couple. Altogether, a very heartwarming, cozy sort of squee that I enjoyed very much. ❤️
4. The spotlight on friendship
I love, love, love Show’s focus on friendship. It’s literally way up there, alongside No Ra’s journey of self-rediscovery, and quite possibly outranks even the endearing OTP, in my fangirl heart.
From old friendships that endure the test of time long after high school is over, to new friendships forged on campus in No Ra’s venture into college, I enjoyed them all. Any time Show chose to focus on the friendships among our characters, gratifying, charming winsomeness was practically a guarantee; something that I appreciate about this show, So Much.
Among No Ra’s long-standing friendships, my favorite is her relationship with Yoon Young (Jung Soo Young). Although there are times when this friendship fades into the background a little bit, the strong bond between these women is clearly a strong one. I just love that they’re such good friends.
I loved the little beat in episode 4, when Yoon Young pops right out of the car when No Ra calls her to tell her about the hospital mix-up, and dances on the street with No Ra, with matching squeals of joy. Clearly, Yoon Young had been waiting in position to surprise No Ra, and be there for her, post-hospital visit, which is so sweet. Aww.
Another Yoon Young moment that stands out for me, is how Yoon Young decides in episode 6, to allow Hyun Seok to continue thinking that No Ra’s dying, as revenge for him having been mean to No Ra before. Ha. So funny, and so awesome. Yoon Young’s a good friend.
While I love No Ra’s friendship with Seung Hyun (Jin Ki Joo), I must admit that my soft spot is for the burgeoning, reluctant, all-around adorable relationship that forms between No Ra and Soon Nam.
From the moment Soon Nam avoids No Ra in the beginning of the show, I could guess that he was basically going to be a goner. In the face of the No Ra awesome, how could he not come around to love her? The pleasure is in watching the how, of course. I love just how reluctant Soon Nam is, to have No Ra in his orbit. Even more, I love how that evolves over time, and how he comes to really appreciate and respect her.
One of my favorite things about No Ra’s friendship with Soon Nam, is how they fall into a sunbae-hoobae relationship. I love how Soon Nam insists on buying her lunch in episode 5, and tells her that she’ll eat what sunbae buys. The Cute!
In particular, I love the beat in episode 9 when Soon Nam’s affection for No Ra leaks out in so many ways. From addressing her as “noona hoobaenim,” to saying that she’s pretty, to expressing wistfulness now that she’s not his partner in class, to the affectionate, admiring way he looks at her. Ahhh! I seriously want them to be besties forever and ever.
5. General pace and writing
In spite of the deliberately slow-bake approach, Show – surprisingly and delightfully – never actually feels boring.
1. It’s cohesive
The writing consistently feels confident and assured, and we always get a sense that writer-nim knows what she’s doing and has planned ahead. [SPOILER] For example, I love the way so many seemingly random things shift into new focus for Hyun Seok in episode 4, once he “realizes” that No Ra is dying. [END SPOILER]
2. It’s forward-moving
Not only is the narrative a cohesive one, I do love that more often than not, writer-nim would take me by surprise at how early some plot milestones are reached. I found that really refreshing, since many drama writers tend to drag out certain arcs in order to fill their episode count. In Twenty Again, I never felt like writer-nim was afraid to move forward in our narrative, and she often moved a lot faster with it than I expected.
For example, No Ra finds out about Woo Chul’s affair as early as episode 6. I honestly had expected that arc to have dragged out until maybe episode 10. Similarly, I’d expected Hyun Seok to be kept in the dark about No Ra’s not dying for longer. But he finds out pretty quickly (also by episode 6), that she’s not dying after all.
While these plot developments took me by surprise, I actually find them to be shrewd choices by writer-nim. This way, No Ra gets time to get over her attachment to her marriage, and Hyun Seok gets time to start considering a potential future with No Ra, now that he knows she will have a future.
3. It’s in the details
I really like that there is generally no convenient exposition in the way the story is developed. Instead, we learn about our characters, and our characters learn about one another, in very organic ways, in the little details. This treatment does a lot to help make this world and its characters feel real and believable.
In episode 7, Woo Chul being surprised at how good No Ra’s kimbap tastes, is such a tiny little detail, but so very telling. It shows the audience how Woo Chul’s avoided eating No Ra’s cooking all this time, not even knowing he’s been missing out on. From there, it’s easy to understand that the same dynamic goes for the rest of their marriage. Woo Chul’s been avoiding getting to know his wife all this time, not knowing what an awesome person he’s been missing out on.
In a similar sort of way, I love how Hyun Seok gets a clue that No Ra hasn’t received much love from her husband. He learns it by being with No Ra, and picking up on the things that she says, which give it away. Like how she waxes lyrical about her pretend date, and praises her date for being so, so nice and sweet. I love how appalled Hyun Seok is, that such simple things impress her so much.
4. It’s unexpected
In a general manner of speaking, this show’s choices surprised me more often than not, and in a good way. [SPOILER] Like in episode 13, when No Ra opens the memory box while sitting on a park bench. I’d expected the sound of Hyun Seok’s voice to be in No Ra’s head, but no, he’s really standing right there! And then, I’d half-expected Hyun Seok to confess his current romantic feelings to No Ra, but instead, he turns the moment into something matter-of-fact and gruff; it’s completely platonic, but so deeply meaningful. Talk about a one-two punch in the art of surprise. Likey muchey. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I LOVED LESS
Much as I enjoyed almost everything about Twenty Again, there are a couple of things that I didn’t like so much. Here’s them.
1. Min Soo’s romance arc
I generally had little to no interest in Min Soo’s romance with Hye Mi (Kim Min Jae and Son Na Eun). Hye Mi’s tendency for unreasonable tantrums made me roll my eyes, and I never quite managed to care whether or not this romance worked out.
I honestly would have much preferred if Min Soo’s arc had purely been about him seeing his mom in a new and different light. Coz those beats were much more appealing, to me.
2. Some of the later plot developments
While I heartily enjoyed Show’s episodes as a whole, I didn’t much like some of the plot developments in the later part of the show.
Thankfully, the stretch is a short one, and overall, doesn’t dampen my appreciation for this show.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
Episode 15 in particular wasn’t fun to watch.
No Ra not only turns away from Hyun Seok, but tells him that she doesn’t need him in her life. Again and again, and then again. No Ra basically pushes Hyun Seok away, no matter what he says or does, and it was painful to watch.
Just as bad, is the fact that No Ra drops out of school, which is a plot point that I felt very disappointed with. After working so hard to get into college, and after finding such satisfaction and growth by going back to school, and finding such awesome friends while she was at it, I found it extremely dismaying to have No Ra choose to drop out of school. Boo. 🙁
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
Generally speaking, I felt that Show’s last two episodes are a little more muted and a little less satisfying to watch, compared to the rest of the episodes. The silver lining is that with every point that I found less than exciting in the ending, Show managed to serve up a silver lining. Here’re my top 3 downside-upsides in the ending.
1. I didn’t like that Hyun Seok and No Ra had to spend time apart. The upside was, it’s cute that they basically spied on each other all the time they were apart.
2. I found No Ra’s sudden backhug and declaration to Hyun Seok a little sudden. On the upside, she gets to proactively reach out and tell Hyun Seok that she wants him in her life; something that I felt was very much needed.
3. I really didn’t like No Ra’s choice to drop out of college. The upside, is that she chose to do so, for herself and herself alone. To her, it’s clear that she doesn’t have a lot of interest in college, and she’s satisfied with what her college journey has given her. And as much as I don’t like her decision, I get that she’s content with her choice.
Another upside, is the fact that Soon Nam and Seung Hyun are dating. Really cute! I wish we’d had more screentime with them, but I’ll take what I can get. Ultimately, everything’s pretty understated, but I appreciate that everyone’s at a happy place, that – importantly! – Hyun Seok and No Ra have found each other, and that we get open-but-uplifting endings for all our characters.
In my head, I would much rather see No Ra stay in college and keep dancing, with Hyun Seok and Soon Nam and the rest of her friends cheering her on. Coz who says you can’t be a dancer at 38? I’d have loved to see her rocking the dance thing, all while shattering stereotypes, dropping jaws and stealing hearts along the way.
Still, I very much appreciate No Ra’s journey.
Much more than a stab at college to prove herself, No Ra’s journey is literally about finding her self-esteem and her self-worth, one little step at a time. Over Show’s run, we see No Ra regain her confidence and her voice, one small event at a time. Knowing what she’s been through to get to this point, every little victory that she scores feels incredibly meaningful and worthwhile.
While I wanted bigger and more exciting things for No Ra, every milestone in her journey of self-reclamation resonated with me in a very real way. And perhaps that’s the biggest message of all, that Show wants to leave us. That it’s not the destination per se that’s most important, but the contentment and peace that you find in the journey itself. Which, when I think about it, isn’t a bad lesson at all.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Sweet & cute, but more importantly, uplifting & inspiring.
FINAL GRADE: A