So.. I’m making the decision to pull the plug on Thirty-Nine, you guys.
I’ve watched all the available episodes (6 at the time of this posting), and I’ve concluded that while I don’t hate it, I really don’t love it either. And more likely than anything, Show and I are just not that great of a match.
However, it’s not an objectively terrible show, so there’s a chance that you might like it?
In this dropped post, I’ll do my best to lay it all out, so that you can figure out whether this one’s for you or not.
MY TRAJECTORY WITH THIS SHOW
When this show was announced, I wanted to love it right away. I mean, it stars three very solid actresses, and purportedly celebrates the friendship among their characters, while exploring the nuances and foibles of being thirty-nine.
In a drama landscape where characters in their teens and twenties are given the lion’s share of the spotlight, this promised to be refreshing and mature, at the same time.
Writer-nim and I
Of course, this is the part where I conveniently overlooked the fact that I have not enjoyed a single other drama that this writer has written, which would be: Bel Ami, Entertainer, and Encounter. For the record, I dropped all 3 of those dramas, even though I’ve only got a Dropped post for Encounter (which you can find here, if you’re curious).
I guess writer-nim and I just have very different preferences, because, as I was watching this show, I realized that it was the writing that bothered me the most. And, in Encounter, which is the only other show of hers which I’ve watched a significant chunk of, it was my discomfort with the writing too, that eventually made me decide to drop it.
I started feeling iffy about this one, at the episode 4 mark, but decided to keep going, just to see if things would settle in a manner that worked for me. They did not. And that’s why I’m writing this post today.
STUFF I LIKED
1. The friendship among our three leads
The main draw of this show for me, is the friendship among our Main Three.
From episode 1, I found myself genuinely enjoying the friendship between Mi Jo, Chan Young and Joo Hee (Son Ye Jin, Jeon Mi Do and Kim Ji Hyun). I like that the three of them are so different from one another, yet have been friends since forever.
It kinda-sorta reminds me of my friendship with my two best gal pals, and that’s definitely one of the reasons I decided to keep watching, despite hearing very mixed reactions to this show.
The fact of the matter is, these women aren’t living clean-cut, straightforward lives. Sometimes, it’s messy, and sometimes, people don’t make the best decisions. And friendship is about navigating through the mess, instead of giving up on one another, because of the mess.
A great example is Chan Young’s emotional affair with Jin Seok (Lee Moo Saeng), which we learn about, right from episode 1.
She knows it’s not right, even though she tries to justify it to herself, in her own mind. It’s a clear case of her knowing what she ought to do, versus not being able to do it, because her feelings are too invested, and her emotions are clouding her judgment.
She knows that the best thing to do would be to cut things off with Jin Seok, because it’s clear that he has no intention of divorcing his wife (Song Min Ji), but she also has long-standing feelings for him that she finds hard to overcome.
What does a friend do, in this situation? How does a friend express love, in such a situation?
Joo Hee chooses to express her love, by giving Chan Young the time and space to come to her own conclusion, while Mi Jo chooses to be vocal in nudging Chan Young to hurry up and make that decision to cut Jin Seok off, before she wastes more of her life on him.
It’s hard to say which is the better way, because I actually think that Chan Young needs both. She needs a bit of a nudge, but she also needs the time and space to get to a place in her life where she feels ready to do the mature, logical thing, and cut Jin Seok off.
What’s important, I feel, is that through it all, whatever Joo Hee and Mi Jo choose to say or not say, it doesn’t actually put the friendship in jeopardy.
I really like the fact that even when Chan Young’s annoyed at Mi Jo for voicing an uncomfortable truth, she doesn’t respond by cutting Mi Jo off. I really like that their friendship can withstand that kind of uncomfortable honesty.
2. Kang Mal Geum as Mi Hyun
I get a real kick out of seeing Kang Mal Geum as Mi Jo’s outspoken, quirky sister, after having just seen her as San’s very decorous mother, in The Red Sleeve. Just that mental juxtaposition alone, tickles me, and I find myself grinning every time she shows up on my screen. 😁
In particular, I love that beat in episode 3, where Mi Hyun backhugs Mi Jo with so much gentle affection, right there in the middle of the clinic, in a bid to connect with Mi Jo in the midst of her emotional funk. What a sweet unnie she is. I love her.
3. Chan Young’s parents
I really like how cozy and warm Chan Young’s relationship is with heir parents (Seo Hyun Chul and Lee Ji Hyun). The affection that the three of them have for one another, is really heartwarming to see. And, despite the grumblings on the surface, it’s clear that they are all really happy that Chan Young’s there for a visit.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
1. The terminal illness thing [MINOR SPOILER]
So.. this isn’t really a spoiler, because Show serves up right away, in episode 1, that one of our Main Three is dying, and it isn’t very long at all, before we’re told that that person is Chan Young.
That’s not exactly a fun time, yes, but I decided that I’d rather have Show tell me upfront, rather than spring it as a surprise in a late episode. At least this way, I know what to expect (a poignant story about learning to live even in the face of loss), and what not to expect (a story about someone beating a grave illness).
Knowing this upfront sets me up to get the most out of my watch, I feel.
It’s kinda-sorta like how it’s helpful to know, going into The Red Sleeve, that the story has a bittersweet ending. Knowing that actually works out to be freeing, because you’re no longer wondering about the end point of the journey. Knowing where the journey ends, actually allows you to focus more on the journey itself – or at least, that’s how I’d like to think about it.
2. The meet-awkward between Mi Jo and Seon U [SPOILERS]
I don’t actually have a serious issue with the loveline between Mi Jo and Seon U (Yeon Woo Jin), but I will say that I found the one night stand starting point really quite awkward and weird.
As far as the execution goes, it’s clear that it’s a very awkward encounter for both parties, and Show doesn’t do a very good job of selling why she would agree to sleep with him, or why he would ask, in the first place.
I did try to rationalize this, and Show does attempt to explain in a subsequent episode that he didn’t realize he’d said the words until they were out of his mouth, but.. the rationalization doesn’t really work for me, if I’m being completely honest.
3. The promise of a loveline between Joo Hee and Hyun Joon
I’ll talk more about this later, but for now, I’ll just say that while both Joo Hee and Hyun Joon (Lee Tae Hwan) are written as pleasant characters, I don’t find either of them very interesting. Part of that is because Joo Hee doesn’t get a lot of screen time at all (more on that in a bit as well), and so this whole thing feels very perfunctory and tacked-on.
In episode 3, I think Joo Hee’s supposed to be annoying but cute, in that whole drunken thing, where she keeps Hyun Joon from closing the restaurant, and then hands him a waste disposal card instead of a credit card. But.. I’m sorry to say that the tipsy-cute isn’t quite landing for me. 😛
4. The thing between Chan Young and Jin Seok [SPOILERS]
In episode 1, I didn’t think a great deal of Jin Seok, for wanting to stay married to his wife, and yet, not wanting to let go of Chan Young.
I felt that the right thing to do, would be to make a choice, and stick to that choice.
If he wants to stay married, then he should do the right thing by Chan Young, and let her go, so that she has a chance to be happy without him. And if he wants to be with Chan Young, then he should get a divorce, to be fair not only to Chan Young, but to his wife as well.
In episode 2, I liked that Chan Young made the decision to cut Jin Seok out of her life, but then I got annoyed with Jin Seok for not respecting her decision, and continuing to barge his way into her life, even though she’s told him that she’s cutting him off.
Jin Seok is annoyingly persistent in trying to keep Chan Young in his life, and Chan Young – sigh – is too soft-hearted when it comes to Jin Seok, to stand her ground for too long. It’s tough to watch, but.. I have to say, the situation is not unrealistic.
I appreciate that the point at which Jin Seok asks his wife for a divorce is before he finds out about Chan Young’s diagnosis. I’m grateful for that silver lining, that he asks for a divorce, without this knowledge. At least it means that he’s not being driven to do something, only now that Chan Young’s dying.
And I get that he chose to stay in the marriage even after finding out that Ju Won’s (Ki Eun Yoo) not his son, because he cares about the boy, and doesn’t want to put him through something like a divorce in his family, at such a young age. I can buy the idea that he’d stay in the marriage for his son’s sake.
Plus, I can see why Jin Seok might then be even colder to his wife than ever. After all, he’d found out that she’d tricked him into marrying her, which had then caused him to lose Chan Young in the first place. (Although.. if he’d been in a Thing, with Chan Young then, why was he sleeping with someone else? 🧐)
The thing is, all this doesn’t make it right for him to continue this emotional affair with Chan Young. Even when I now understand his context better, I still think that it’s been selfish of him to keep Chan Young in his life all these years, when he’d had no intention of leaving his wife – that is, until now.
All that said, I must say that the scene where Chan Young and Jin Seok finally tell each other their sad secrets, was one where I genuinely felt engaged with the emotional beats of the scene.
Messiness aside, I did feel the raw emotion of the moment, where they are both grieving the fact that Chan Young doesn’t have long to live.
STUFF THAT DIDN’T WORK SO WELL FOR ME
1. There’s something about the execution
At around the episode 2 mark, I realized that I liked this show more in concept than in execution.
What I mean is, I like the idea of the friendship among our 3 female leads, and I like the idea of them navigating their way through the messiness of life and love, while supporting one another through it all, and I like the idea of each of them having distinct personalities, and yet having fun when they’re together, like they’re back in their teens again.
However, in the execution of it, there’s something that lands weirdly for me, at least some of the time. I’m trying to put my finger on it, and right now, what I can articulate is, that it seems to come down to timing and pitching.
Timing and pitching
I feel like our characters are being pitched a little larger than life than actually lands naturally, and what this means for me, is that so far, I haven’t been able to really think of any of these characters as real people.
At this point, they are still very much just characters in a drama, and some of them even land kind of like stereotypes, even. 😬
What I mean by timing, is that the rhythm of the dialogue feels a little off, in terms of timing. It feels as if the actors are waiting a beat too long, for the punchline of other actor’s lines, before starting to deliver their own. I feel like the rhythm of the dialogue isn’t flowing in a smooth enough manner to make it sound natural.
Put together, I can sort of see why some viewers have remarked that this show has an old-fashioned drama feel to it. It does kinda-sorta give me echoes of more stagey-flavored dramas, from years ago.
Show’s comedic side
When Show brings out its more comedic side, like in episode 4, with Mi Jo’s family being suuuper interested and curious about Seon U, the minute they catch a whiff of Mi Jo’s connection with him, I mostly don’t feel it much.
I mean, I like Unni and think she’s great. But when Dad (Park Ji Il) shows up at the clinic trying to suss out Seon U, while lying that he’s suffering from athlete’s foot, I cringed.
That was supposed to be funny, I think. And that was also supposed to add a sprinkling of levity to the heavier topics in our drama world, I think. But yeah, that didn’t work for me.
2. Our story has one protagonist, not three.
When I’d signed up for this show, I’d assumed that this would be a story shared by three main characters, and that the story and screen time would be more or less evenly divided between them, and that we’d get to share their stories reasonably equally.
That hasn’t turned out to be the case. This isn’t a story about three friends. This is Mi Jo’s story, and she happens to have two friends.
Even when Chan Young is the one who’s terminally ill and has a limited amount of time left to live, Mi Jo continues to get the lion’s share of screen and story time. Not gonna lie; this bothered me and made me resent Mi Jo as a character – which I’ll talk about next.
3. Certain narrative decisions [SPOILERS]
In episode 2, the results of Chan Young’s checkup get told to Mi Jo instead of Chan Young herself, and I didn’t like this, at all.
Aside from the lack of patient confidentiality, which in quite commonplace in kdramas, I chafe at the fact that Show finds it more important to give Mi Jo a reason to have a meltdown and receive some comfort from Seon U, than to give Chan Young the chance to receive her checkup results directly.
I get that this also circumvents the possibility of Chan Young keeping the diagnosis to herself for an extended period of time, but honestly, the fact that the whole of episode 3 is spent on Mi Jo being distraught about Chan Young’s diagnosis, felt very lopsided to me.
As a reflex, I couldn’t help thinking that the spotlight, and all of my sympathies, should belong to Chan Young, rather than Mi Jo.
It felt a bit weird, to me, to be spending essentially the entire episode, soaking in Mi Jo’s (very weepy) feelings, while Chan Young is kept in the dark about her own condition. Plus, I have to admit that a lot of Mi Jo’s thoughts and ruminations felt very self-focused to my eyes.
I had to rationalize (pretty hard, actually) that before Mi Jo can be in a position to support Chan Young and be there for her, she needs to process her own feelings first; that it’s only after she’s processed her own feelings, that she would be ready to break the news to Chan Young, and be strong for her.
The silver lining
I do appreciate that in the process of this, we get to see that Seon U’s a really decent guy, who is thoughtful and sensitive, even as he does his best to support Mi Jo through her crisis – even when he has no idea what that crisis is.
I like how he does practical things for her, like offer to drive her places without asking questions, getting food for her because he knows she’s not eating, trying to make her feel better by making her laugh and getting her flowers, offering to be a listening ear so that she can get things off her chest, and even going running with her so that she can work off her frustrations.
Importantly, when Mi Jo does tell Seon U the secret that she’s grappling with, he keeps that secret and doesn’t tell anything to Jin Seok, even when Jin Seok asks him if he knows anything. Additionally, he has the sensitivity to know that when Jin Seok asks whether Mi Jo is in her office, that Mi Jo’s preference is to not see Jin Seok.
All pretty darn good traits, I’d say. I’m definitely coming around to the idea that Seon U’s an appealing potential boyfriend.
4. Son Ye Jin as Mi Jo
If I had to sum up my issues with Mi Jo as a character, it would be that she’s coming across a bit too much like a victim, to my eyes, when Chan Young is the one who’s dying. Essentially, she appears to need more comfort than Chan Young herself, and that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Let me state upfront, that this is very likely a “just me” sort of a thing.
If you love Son Ye Jin (like so much of the dramaverse does), then you might actually really enjoy Mi Jo as a character. In which case, please don’t come after me with flaming arrows &/or stones. I’m just telling you why I personally struggle with her as an actress, I’m not saying she’s a bad actress.
Far from it.
In fact, she might be doing too good of a job, for me, because I think my struggle is primarily with how Mi Jo’s written, and then, my personal struggle with certain aspects of Son Ye Jin’s delivery, just adds to it.
Some personal context
I’m going to have to admit that Son Ye Jin as Mi Jo isn’t really working very well, for me.
Before you come after me with flaming arrows, allow me to share some context. I’d been neutral towards Son Ye Jin as an actress, basically until Something in the Rain mostly ruined her for me, because I’d felt so aggravated by her character in that show. Also for context, in that show, Son Ye Jin spent A LOT of time being weepy and looking like her character was playing the victim.
This did not endear her to me.
However, I thought that my Son Ye Jin aversion was cured by Crash Landing On You, where I enjoyed her very well indeed.
Unfortunately, with my attempt to watch this show, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m quite possibly still suffering the after-effects of Something in the Rain.
What I mean is, every time Mi Jo gets weepy, I find myself instinctively bracing for the worst, and also, recoiling from her character.
All that to say, if you don’t have a similar issue with Son Ye Jin’s weepy face, and also, if you loved Something in the Rain, you might not have the same trouble with Mi Jo that I do.
Specific instances where I struggled with Mi Jo’s actions [SPOILERS]
1. In the context of what Mi Jo’s dealing with, I can understand why she would act impulsively and slap Wifey like that, and then even pull her hair, after Wifey responds to the slap by calling the police. I get the idea, that with Chan Young’s mortality hanging over her head, nothing matters to Mi Jo anymore, and that’s why she throws caution to the wind and just leans into the crazy emotions of the moment.
That said, I have to admit that even though I am working hard to understand Mi Jo’s emotional state, I don’t appreciate her choices very much. And, like I said earlier, the weepy faces don’t help.
2. I have to admit that after all the circling and build-up, I felt a little underwhelmed at Mi Jo’s conversation with Chan Young, at the close of the episode.
I know in my head that what Mi Jo had needed to do, was to get to the point where she felt able to talk to Chan Young about it, and that this is more important than the actual words that she says. At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed, that all Mi Jo ends up saying, is, “Why didn’t you tell me that you got a CT scan?”
The other thing that I find underwhelming, is the fact that after all this preparation, it’s Chan Young who actually appears more grounded and in control, in this conversation, despite the fact that a bombshell’s just been dropped on her. I do love how Jeon Mi Do plays the scene, where we see Chan Young’s vulnerability through her tears, even in the midst of her stoicism.
I’m also annoyed in principle, that Mi Jo is weepy, which makes her come across as a bit of a victim, when Chan Young herself is working to be strong and stoic. To put it bluntly, it feels rather too indulgent, for Mi Jo to be weepy and getting upset that Chan Young’s refusing treatment.
3. I get the idea that Mi Jo cares about Chan Young, and doesn’t want her to die, but I have to say, this episode, it really does feel like Mi Jo and Joo Hee – but Mi Jo in particular – are invading Chan Young’s personal space too much, and suffocating her.
I feel that in this respect, Joo Hee’s a better friend, because she has more sensitivity in terms of when to back off and give Chan Young some space.
Like when Joo Hee comes upon Jin Seok with Chan Young in the studio, Joo Hee knows instinctively that the two of them need some time to talk it out, and it’s Joo Hee who tells Mi Jo, who’s immediately concerned that Chan Young shouldn’t get stressed, that the two of them need time to sort things out.
See, I like Joo Hee’s approach. She takes time to bring Chan Young nourishing food and tonics for her health, but she knows when to back out of the picture, to give Chan Young privacy.
Mi Jo doesn’t appear to know how to do that, and the scenes of Mi Jo hanging out at Chan Young’s house and making her salads, and driving her to work, are a little much, I feel. To be fair, Chan Young does call her out on it, and tells her that if she keeps doing this, she’ll just make Chan Young feel like she’s about to die right away.
4. The fact that Mi Jo doesn’t stop badgering Chan Young about getting treatment, the whole of this episode, also rubs me the wrong way. Just because Chan Young says no, doesn’t mean that she’ll change her mind if Mi Jo bulldozes her way through with more of the same question, but that’s basically what Mi Jo does.
To be fair, Mi Jo does admit that she actually understands Chan Young’s rationale for refusing treatment, so it’s not like she’s completely blind. I guess I don’t identify with Mi Jo’s way of showing affection to Chan Young.
I actually want Mi Jo to back off a bit, because as much as I believe that Chan Young thinks the world of her friends, it’s clear that she’s got other people and other priorities in her life as well.
And the way Mi Jo is playing it, it feels like she’s ready to move in with Chan Young and become a permanent fixture in every part of Chan Young’s life, and I just don’t think that that’s what Chan Young wants or needs – at least right now.
5. It kind of rubs me the wrong way too, when Mi Jo needs and gets all this comforting screen time with Seon U, when what I would like to see, is how Chan Young is doing, and how she’s coping, and who’s there to comfort her.
The fact that Mi Jo gets a comforting hug while she continues being weepy on Seon U’s shoulder, and Chan Young is alone at home, unable to answer that phone call from her mother, kinda makes me resent Mi Jo, weirdly.
It’s like, I want that kind of comforting presence for Chan Young – although, to be clear, I don’t actually want the source of that comforting presence to be Jin Seok.
After episode 4, I was really in two minds about whether to keep watching this show.
Like I said, I don’t hate it, but I’m not loving it as much as I’d like to, either. And so, I went on to watch episodes 5 and 6, just to see how I’d land.
In the end, I didn’t hate the episodes, but there are a couple of things that gave me pause.
The insistence of a romantic connection between Joo Hee and Hyun Joon
The big one is, I don’t get Chan Young’s dying wish to set up Joo Hee with Hyun Joon, despite knowing that Hyun Joon’s got a girlfriend. Just, why? She could’ve just said that her wish was to find a boyfriend for Joo Hee, and that would’ve solved it. Why pick a guy who’s already got a girlfriend, and is not looking to break up with said girlfriend?
That scene, where Mi Jo and Chan Young protest quite vehemently at the news that Joo Hee had actually helped Hyun Joon reconcile with his girlfriend (the horror!), was in pretty poor taste, I felt.
Seon U’s dad
The other thing is, although I appreciate the spotlight that Show is trying to shine on the stigma around adoption in Korea, I do feel like Seon U’s dad (Jo Won Hee) being portrayed as prejudiced and condescending, is done with a much too heavy hand.
The deciding factor
To be brutally honest, though, these weren’t really the things that ultimately made me decide to pull the plug on this one. I mean, I’ve said it several times already; I don’t actually hate this show, even though I haven’t loved it all that much.
The deciding factor, really, was the closing scene in episode 6, where Mi Jo’s just fought Jin Seok’s wife, and collapses from (what I assume to be) the effort, the emotional stress, and the cold.
This particular shot of Mi Jo, all fragile and heroic, after fighting for Chan Young’s privacy, inadvertently triggered my personal aversion to seeing Son Ye Jin in this victim space, and I realized that I just can’t do this anymore.
I think it’s time to admit that I want Show to be something that it’s not, and will never be. Rather than try to force it, I realize that I’d be happier spending my drama hours elsewhere.
If you do love the show, though, please carry on, and don’t let my personal experience be a damper on yours. Happy watching! ❤️
The next drama I’ll be covering on Patreon, in place of Thirty-Nine, is A Business Proposal. I’ve taken an initial look, and I’m happy to say that I’m actually kinda loving it, so far!
Here’s an overview of what I’m covering on Patreon right now (Tier benefits are cumulative)!
Foundation Tier (US$1): Confession (bonus show!)
Early Access (US$5): +Rainless Love in a Godless Land [Taiwan]
Early Access Plus (US$10): +A Business Proposal
VIP (US$15): +Uncle
VVIP (US$20): +Reset [China]
Ultimate (US$25): +Twenty Five, Twenty One