High school is a good drama setting because (1) teenagers could be impulsive as heck and (2) irrational decisions and plot twists could be justified by number one. That doesn’t mean high school serials are overly dramatized. Most of them reflect what young people go through in real life. No matter what your generation is – X-ers, Millenials, or Z-ers, you’ll probably recognize that anxiousness of not knowing what you’ll become; or the heart-breaking realization that first love usually doesn’t last.
Those two situations were used as the main plot in the recent Korean teen dramas – Love Alarm and At Eighteen.
Typical of a high school Korean drama, the main characters for Love Alarm and At Eighteen were both teenagers with a tragic past.
Choi Joon-woo (Ong Seong-wu) was a forced transferee and was harshly judged by everyone because of this red-flag on his student record. The adults in this drama were harsher than the younger characters. The students might look at Joon-woo differently but they are more willing to know and listen to his side of the story. Of course, there’s an idealist adult in the persona of Oh Han-Kyeol (Kang Ki-young) that helped him adjust in his new environment.
On the other hand, Kim Jo-jo (Kim So-hyun) lives in a Cinderella household. Her aunt provides her shelter and food but treated her cruelly. She blamed unfortunate events in her family to So-hyun. As if the young child has anything to do with her bad fate. So-hyun’s cousin also felt entitled to treat her the way her mother does.
Both Joon-woo and Jo-jo had to be brave and face their adversaries face on. They had to learn that their misfortunes are not their fault; that they will not be doomed forever. These actors nailed their characters. They both showed how vulnerable and courageous these teenagers can be. And I truly think, casting these two in their respective dramas was the right decision for both stories.
Another similar trait of these two dramas is their strong set of characters. At Eighteen has much-experienced Kim Hyang-gi but Love Alarm has two strong male leads in the persona of Jung Ga-ram and Song Kang. Since both series’ main plot revolves around love, it was no surprise that the main characters’ love interests are equally charming and relatable. They managed to clearly show why these perfect-like creatures were suddenly drawn to these outsiders.
The storytelling is where these two dramas differ. At Eighteen followed the traditional linear structure while Love Alarm did the opposite.
At Eighteen has rehashed stories already tackled by its predecessors. It was clear from the start that it was a melodrama. It has some light moments but there’s this sad vibe all throughout the series. The atmosphere was fitting though especially in scenes where they brazenly portray the complicated relationship of parents to their children. I kinda felt that every parent in this series just wanted the best for their children. Some of their ways are too much but as one of the parents pointed out, there’s no one way of being a parent.
Meanwhile, Love Alarm’s story focuses more on first love but with a twist. The eight-episode series has a disruptive narrative where the “effect” was first shown before they reveal the “cause.” It could have been a typical story of first love if not for its digital twist in the form of an app. It was a more advanced form of a dating app. It’s like a dating app minus the swiping. One will get a “match” – in their case “alarms” – if you encounter someone who likes you in a 10m radius. It didn’t explicitly say how the app knew you like this person but these kids took it seriously. The namesake app the characters used allows them to confirm someone’s feelings for them.
At Eighteen told its audience the importance of living in the now instead of focusing too much on the future or dwelling too long in the past. Because as cliché as it might sound, everything will pass. I like how Joon-woo often reminds Yoo Soo-bin to live in the moment. “Relax, they’re just eighteen,” he once said. It was a reminder for a lot of us whom most of the time forget to just be in the present. This “palli-palli” culture created this thinking that we are getting old fast. We’re not. We equally have 24 hours a day to live. So, we should take things one day at a time.
Love Alarm might have a slightly unrealistic plot device but it also managed to convey a relatable tale. They used a fictional thing to show a very real and very human need – validation. Let’s face it. Who wouldn’t want to know if someone out there could ring our love alarm? It’s a shortcut for what could have been a life-long journey to find “the one.” Towards the ending of the series though, it raised the question of whether we should let technology take over our lives. Because clearly, the characters in Love Alarm relied too much on the app rather than banking on their feelings. And as Kim Jo-jo pondered, could we live without loving or being loved?
In the end, Love Alarm and At Eighteen are similar in some ways and different in others. But both successfully presented that uncertain yet exciting moment of being young, in love, and full of hope.