What’s Up: Series Review

(I hesitate to call this a review because there’s really not much plot summary, and I have no drama credentials. But this is a free country, damn it.)

For all intents and purposes, I should have loved What’s Up. I should have been chomping at the bit for each installment, completely in love with each and every one of the characters, and squealing with excitement for each new musical number like a stuck pig. But I wasn’t. For whatever reason, I was never really invested in the characters.

The Set Up

Ragtag group of college students in the musical theatre program battle their own personal demons while making complicated connections with those around them. Though it’s a musical drama, it’s not really about hopes and dreams or fame and fortune; instead, What’s Up is a story about growing up and finding peace within yourself.

My Gripes

I’m not quite sure what to think about the missing chunks of episodes that were sliced away for the cable time slot. It’s weird because I don’t really want more of the drama, but with the twenty minute cuts, a lot of the storytelling got really muddled. The transitions were clunky, bordering on awkward and abrupt, and there were entire episodes where a main character never made an appearance. I need more, but I don’t really want more.

I wish What’s Up had been written with cable in mind, because I love the pacing of a forty-five minute episode, but since it was originally meant to be an hour long, it really detracted from the storyline and character development. I mean, I enjoyed it well enough, but it was just a bit unsettling knowing that there were entire scenes that, while not crucial to the plot, ought to have been there for the quieter moments of connection building, and musical learning, and whatnot.

The first episode was all sorts of crazy, jumping from a gritty chase scene to the backstage of an idol’s dressing room – all seemingly without any sort of correlation. And you know, I don’t think this show ever really found a focus. I get that it’s a pack of misfits whose lives intertwine as they grow closer through the power of the College Experience, but they never shared a common goal. There was no climax to build up to because everyone was off in their own world being the star of their own drama – which is all well and good for character development, but not exactly cohesive as a narrative. We got a lot of rich story threads, but they were never woven together in a way that each one complimented the other.

The show ended on such a weird – dare I say discordant – note. I liked the idea of the dancing at the funeral, and I understood that we had to have that scene to complete the frame story, but watching them perform made me wonder: so what? This was the grand culmination of all of their personal stories? (And it was hardly a musical. The performance was more of a glorified medley. Grumble, grumble.)

I have no problem with the open ending, but rather than feeling as if the immediate questions had been answered, I felt like there were loose plot lines left forgotten. I mean, Do Sung and Chae Young go into business together – and then what? Does his mother disown him? Are they successful? Was being famous really one of Do Sung’s dreams in the first place? I never really knew what to want for these characters, which makes this finale even more confusing. How am I supposed to feel closure when I don’t know if these characters ever realized what they wanted for themselves.

Maybe I had difficulty connecting to the drama because I wanted to beat some of the characters over the head with a frying pan. Jae Hun, why the hell would you spend a shit ton of money going to college if you hardly want to study musicals? Does that make any sense? And then once you’ve spent the money on that education you don’t really want, you jerk around in class and threaten every other episode to leave that very expensive daycare. But whatever. It’s your money. Well, really, it’s your mom’s.

And Tae Hee? Oi. She was so sweet, and so innocent, and so perfect that I wanted to scream at the writer to give her a unibrow or something to make her a bit less cliche. I actually think this drama would have been much more interesting if Tae Hee was the antagonist and Chae Young, the layered, jaded star took the lead as the antihero. I would have watched that drama.

I need someone to explain to me what the hell the red ghost was supposed to be. A metaphor? Comic relief? A good luck charm? A freaking K pendant a la Dream High? I never understood the purpose of the tracksuit man, except maybe as a copout from more grounded character development. We’ll just use this throw away character that we made up while drunk for big character revelations and call it a day – memo from the writers’ desk.

Drama’s Saving Graces

I’ve been harping on like an oppressed housewife, but I actually enjoyed What’s Up. I loved the all too rare moments when the kids just sat around being kids, goofing off during class or practicing for the musical. I freaking loved Sun Man and Professor Yang. Their character trajectories were carried out at exactly the right pacing and with the perfect dash of pathos that I completely melted at their last scene in the hospital. I loved the slick, cinematic production values.

It took a while, but all of the characters were endearing in their own little ways. I didn’t consider the writing to be anything particularly special, but the care that was taken in making each of the characters layered was done very well. Of course, you’ve got your chorus rounded out with stock characters and stereotypes, but the main roster was definitely complex. I especially loved Byung Gun’s his cockiness even before he could sing without stage fright, and I loved Doo Ri’s feisty facade hiding her vulnerability.

Final Thoughts

I should be so in love with this drama. It had everything: youthful energy, steady writing, slick production, and powerful acting (the musical numbers were the icing on the cake), but I never really connected with the heart of the show. I think a combination of unfortunate editing and scattered plot threads made the drama very, er, superficial. Like some of its musical numbers, it was all flash and smoke without substance. But just because I couldn’t connect emotionally doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the same for everyone. I’m probably the minority – bound to be burned at the stake for feeling rather meh about a series that had all the makings of a drama gem. Ah well. Better luck next time.

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