It has been over eight years since I was last in a classroom, but part of me is still nostalgic for the rhythm of school. I loved getting new notebooks and pens and pencils, and–especially in college–there was the thrill of trying to get into the classes you wanted/needed despite the hundreds of other students trying to beat you into the few coveted spots. It was fun to see my friends every day without having to worry about to much “adult” stuff.
But I definitely don’t miss the homework, ruthless competition, backstabbing schoolmates, and death that plague these school-themed kdramas. Don’t let that scare you off, though, because all of these dramas share one important quality: hope for the future.
#1 – Shut Up: Flower Boy Band
Easily the best installment of the Flower Boy franchise to date, SUFBB was everything I wanted out of a high school drama: a coming-of-age story where friends learn that growing up can be just as much a threat to their worlds as any other poverty, bullying, and the drive to succeed. The Eye Candy boys formed one of my favorite “found families” in dramaland, and their struggles against each other and against the world were both heart-rending and heart-warming. There are few neatly tied bows in this show—SUFBB knows just how messy life can be, and it isn’t afraid to stop things with an “and they kept living” ending. Watch this for great music, great performances, and great reasons to cry.
#2 – School 2013
Though most people remember this drama for the breakout performances of its two high school leads (which was a delightfully damaged bromance), School 2013 actually has a wonderful ensemble cast. The two teachers were perfect foils for one another, and some of the best scenes in the show are when they come together to handle the administration or try to help their wayward second-year students. This drama can be unflinching in its critique of academic pressure, bullying, competition, and abusive families, but it never loses sight of the students and their futures. While I wish there had been more screen time devoted to the girls, this drama is nonetheless one of my favorites.
#3 – What’s Up?
One of the rare college-centric dramas that actually focuses on school, What’s Up? features a ragtag group of incoming musical theater freshman and some of their professors and upperclassmen. Our main trio consists of a good-for-nothing scammer who decides to make something of his life after a deadly accident, an orphaned and innocent country girl unprepared to catch the attention of a talent agency, and a masked idol and illegitimate child who hides his identity in order to protect his ambitious mother. In between the hazing and musical numbers, the characters get to shine with their (occasionally doomed) romantic relationships, family drama, talent rivalries, terminal illnesses, and fights over dorm room cleanliness. It’s funny, heartfelt, and earnest in the best ways.
#4 – Dream High
Say whatever you like about Dream High’s idol cast, the show makes up for many shortcomings with its earnest take on the cutthroat entertainment industry. Parts of it are clumsy, yes, and it is rarely subtle, but it is always satisfying watching young people chase after, struggle for, and (sometimes) achieve their dreams. In between musical numbers and confusing teenage love triangles, Dream High takes the time to tackle subjects like sexual assault, bullying, the pressure to conform to beauty standards, and going too far to get what you want. One of the most satisfying plots of the show is the broken friendship between our two lead ladies and how they both change because of it. Simple, endearing, and worth your time.
What are your favorite school-themed kdramas? Let me know in the comments!