Disclaimer: this review has spoilers for Itaewon Class
The hit 2020 Korean drama series Itaewon Class has recently broadcast its last episode. With over 16% national viewership, Itaewon Class is the sixth highest-rated cable drama series ever in Korea. The show is based on a Daum webtoon of the same name that premiered on December 27, 2016. Though the storyline of the original webtoon is slightly different from that of the TV series, Itaewon Class mainly depicts the hardships of Sae-ro-yi Park.
Played by the Korean actor Seo-joon Park, Sae-ro-yi Park is expelled from high school for punching Geun-won Jang, the son of the powerful CEO of Jangga Group, the largest food corporation in Korea. On top of his expulsion, Sae-ro-yi’s life is shattered when his father is killed in an accident caused by Geun-won’s reckless driving a few days later. However, there is no apology or justice for the accident as the police are bribed to cover-up the murder. Sae-ro-yi, left alone in the world and enraged at Geun-won, is caught by the police just moments before attacking the company heir in retribution, and his life goes downhill after he is jailed for attempted murder. Meanwhile, Geun-won continues to live his lavish lifestyle as the heir of the Jangga Group. Sae-ro-yi is determined to continue his father’s dream of opening a pocha — a bar restaurant — and after being released from prison, he worked up from the bottom to fund his very own DanBam pocha. Enduring hardships and seeking help from a variety of colorful characters, Sae-ro-yi managed to successfully expand his business to a franchise that rivals Jangga Group. In the end, Sae-ro-yi acquires Jangga Group and receives an apology from the CEO, fulfilling his dreams.
One of the main reasons why I believe the series was such a hit is its commentary on social class. Geun-won, a murderer, gets away with his crime thanks to his family’s wealth, while Sae-ro-yi, the victim’s family, is jailed and spends his youth isolated from society. Itaewon Class clearly depicts that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, drawing a connection to the gapjil scandals in Korea. Gapjil — a Korean expression referring to an arrogant and authoritarian behavior of people in power — has long been a social issue. Sae-ro-yi’s eventual success, in spite of the social class he was born into, satisfied the audience and served as a vindication of the push against class inequality.
Initially, I very much enjoyed Itaewon Class. It had a good mix of both romance and vengeance, and the storyline moved very quickly. The first episode clearly sets up the rivalry between Sae-ro-yi and the Jangga Group family. The fast pace of the show quickly hooked me. However, while the show gathered more attention, the storyline seemed to slow down. The subsequent episodes had more needless slow-motion shots, longer dialogues that didn’t contribute much to the overall storyline, and endless product placement advertising. Although it’s clear that, these days, TV shows are produced with profit for the distributors in mind, I think product advertising should be at least limited to some extent. The cameras seemed to be focusing more on the characters’ cars, phones, drinks, and clothes, not the characters themselves. Maybe I am just being too picky, but I personally found it interfering with the story.
Though the webtoon version of Itaewon Class does not have a sequel, the TV show ended on a cliffhanger, introducing Bo-gum Park as the new chef. His fame has caused many to suspect a sequel, despite the lack of a continuation in the original webtoon. Especially considering the show’s wild success, a second season seems very viable. However, I believe that the producers should listen to viewer feedback on Itaewon Class. Effectively carrying the story without losing pace or focus should be more important than earning profit from sponsors. In fact, without viewership, there wouldn’t be any products to advertise.