Expectations were high coming from the Prison Playbook writer upon confirmation of this drama. Prison Playbook as an inaugural drama for a junior writer is a pretty admirable feat, which could also translate to pressure for a subsequent project. There was a long history of sorts during the planning phase for Racket Boys – even Shin Won-ho PD was initially offered to direct the series. But the direction, later on, went under the helm of Jo Young-gwang PD, a network PD from SBS. And since Prison Playbook is one of the best produced and well-written Korean dramas to date, everyone looked forward to how Writer Jung Bo-hoon approached this new challenge without the ShinLee power duo looking after him.
🏸 Grumpy tidbit: Writer Lee Woo-jung was credited as the creator of Prison Playbook under the Egg is Coming Productions, and Writer Jung Bo-hoon used to be her hoobae for the Reply Series. Talk about a dream team, right?
Speaking of the dream team, as a subtle Prison Playbook reference, the main characters of Racket Boys are all countryside mischiefs with strong character sketches. The badminton team consists of young underdogs full of potential mentored by two coaches who are complete opposites. Honestly, I can still see remnants of ShinLee in Racket Boys, and as a fan of all their projects, one could definitely tell how Writer Jung infused all the learnings from his seniors and created a drama universe of his own. #proud
There’s also something about this drama that brings out the nostalgia. It’s for all of us who grew up in the rural towns – too young, too naïve about the adult world. The only worries we have revolved around school, friends, and hobbies. We met our main lead Yoon Hae-kang (Tang Jun-sang) as the middle school star player of a baseball team in Seoul. He has the potential and determination to become a major league player someday if only financial considerations are out of the equation. But sadly, Hae-kang’s family is just making ends meet, and his father, badminton coach Yoon Hyeon-jong (Kim Sang-kyung) loaned his money to a friend who ran away. We open our story as Hae-kang’s family moves to the countryside – in the wonderful Ttangkkeut Village, Haenam county – and his baseball dreams are put to a halt.
What I liked about the drama is the way they depicted badminton as an unpopular sport. They didn’t romanticize the sport and just showed us why we should also pay attention to it. The players all train as hard as the other popular sports, and even though they don’t have full arena audiences, they are still fun to watch. There’s also science in the strategy and the coaches and players take the training seriously.
Hae-kang’s dad Hyeon-jong has been offered to coach the Haenam Seo Middle School’s Badminton Club. He’s not a star coach – and he’s not asked to be one. Head Coach Bae (Shin Jung-keun) recruited him to train the boys and make them compete in minor competitions to get funding. The Badminton Club, which used to be a star team in the entire country, has been stagnant for over 10 years. With the help of the young phenom Kang Tae-seon (Kang Seung-yoon) and the tenacious coach nicknamed White Wolf, Haenam Seo Middle School won consecutive national championships every year. The school lost its glory due to an unfortunate incident that caused White Wolf to quit. And even though the school really didn’t expect much from Coach Yoon to revamp the school’s image in the badminton scene, he promised Coach Bae and the principal that he’ll do his best to train the boys and recruit more players to let them qualify in competitions.
The Players – Racket Sonyeondan
“Win Together, Lose Together”
We met the current members of Haenam Seo Middle School Badminton Club – Bang Yoon-dam (Son Sang-yeon), the captain, and a social media junkie. He is the ace of the team and an admirable senior to his teammates. He works harder for his family, being the eldest of the siblings. The relationship between Yoon-dam and White Wolf is more special than we realize. Yoon-dam is the most senior team member and the captain at that. He has the longest working relationship with Head Coach Bae. They have a deeper connection than everyone because Coach Bae trained Yoon-dam into the star player that he is. They dreamed of winning a championship together.
Next is Na Woo-chan (Choi Hyun-wook), the rap god of Haenam Seo and one of the best defensive players in the region. Woo-chan is viewed as a weaker player compared to his teammates and even asked to sit out of competitions (or sometimes served as a bench/reserve player). This caused him to have low self-esteem. I admit that I sometimes hate how the drama treats Woo-chan’s character but his redemption in the second half of the series really paid off. Just because he is best in defense doesn’t mean he’s a weak player. We all have our strengths and in sports, one must know how to take advantage of this strength. Good thing, Coach Yoon was able to spot this and trained Woo-chan as a complementary player to his offensive players. Woo-chan may be “weak” in the Singles category, but once you put paired him with an attacker, he can be your best asset in the Doubles competition.
Lee Yong-tae (Kim Kang-hoon), the group’s maknae and a fan of Korean badminton superstar Lee Yong-dae. He copies everything about Lee Yong-dae – his style of play and his fashion sense. Yong-tae’s family background is also one-of-a-kind. His father lives a carefree life in the woods, but Yong-tae didn’t grow up insecure or inferior. He even drinks the weird-tasting concoctions that his father makes! (with very violent objections from his teammates lol)
Now for the “central” character – the one and only, Yoon Hae-kang. I hope to give equal attention to all the Racket Sonyeondan, but Hae-kang is still arguably leading the pact here. Aside from being the coach and the landlord’s son, he is also recruited to play badminton again for the team to qualify in a local competition. The prize at stake? A wifi router. LOL. Hae-kang was convinced to join the team (and win a game) in exchange for a wifi router, which of course, is a necessity to these middle school brats. Little did he realize, this decision would eventually bring back his love for the sport.
Lastly, Jung In-sol (Kim Min-ki), the newest member of the team. He is the team’s brain – the one who diligently watches videos of his members and their opponents to plan the perfect play for the upcoming games. In-sol’s character development is also one of the most touching in the series. We met him as a snob class president who always lives by the rules. He has an influential father, making other people – even the school administration – walk on eggshells around him. Unbeknownst to everyone, he is just a simple boy who also dreams of becoming a badminton player. And Coach Yoon saw that potential in him. I know we saw less of In-sol in the court, but I trust that in his part of the dramaverse, he is now playing the sport he loves most as an ace of his own.
Han Se-yoon (Lee Jae-in) and Lee Han-sol (Lee Ji-won) of the Haenam Jeil Girls’ Middle School Badminton Club are also my favorite characters of the drama. We met Se-yoon as the next big thing in Korean badminton – a disciplined, talented middle schooler who can win almost all international competitions. She is the “mini-me” of Hae-kang’s mom Ra Yeong-ja (Oh Na-ra) or Coach Ranos (a wordplay of “Thanos” lol).
But beyond the glamor of being the ace at such young age, Se-yoon is still a simple country girl. Her friendship with Han-sol is so precious as well. Han-sol may be a no-nonsense type of girl, but she’s equally hardworking. She may not get the same amount of attention that Se-yoon has, but she proved that she can win championships on her own and not as Se-yoon’s shadow.
The boys’ journey to their very first championship together is no easy. They’ve more downs than ups. Most of their competitions ended up as either an early exit or a forfeit due to injuries and mishaps. They got used to losing games that even one win seems unachievable – but this just made their triumph even sweeter. The teamwork also improved since the first competition. They worked on their chemistry on the court, their weaknesses, and their strengths. Through the help of Coach Yoon and the guidance of Coach Bae, they were able to clinch the gold that they truly deserve.
Of course, the boys’ rise to the top isn’t complete without their competitors-turned-friends. In sports, the players always get to know each other even outside the court, and friendships form between teams. My favorite player outside the Haenam bubble would be Park Chan (Yoon Hyun-soo), the Seoulite who ranks top in middle school badminton. He’s not just Hae-kang’s rival in court, but also in love – as they both liked Se-yoon. Of course, this is all to spice up their “rivalry” but we all know all is good between Chan and Hae-kang. Honestly, as much as I love the Racket boys, I wouldn’t mind if Se-yoon ended up with Chan, ㅋㅋㅋ. He makes an effort for the girl he likes. He is straightforward/honest about his feelings (ehem), and most of all, he is not conceited. He knows his place and doesn’t take advantage of his opponents’ disability. I know you may argue about Chan and Hae-kang’s championship game, but that’s part of the strategy. What I’m talking about was when Hae-kang lost to Chan during the first part of the series, but Chan disregarded it because Hae-kang wasn’t at his best that day. He wanted to win against Hae-kang fair and square.
Another highlight of the drama was the people of Ttangkkeut Village! Every episode featured a different story for the villagers, and they always revolved around the strong bond within their community – the way village chief Mr. Hong protects his constituents, grandma Ome (Cha Mi-kyung) takes care of everyone (and babysits Hae-in), and grumpy daughter Shin Song-hee (Baek Ji-won) love for her ailing mother (Lee Soon-bok).
My favorite among them is the suicidal city couple (Jung Min-sung and Park Hyo-joo). Their purpose of moving into the countryside is supposed to be a tragic story. But because of the warmth they felt from every single villager, they overcame their depression and started their lives with a new perspective. What a beautiful story of hope and resilience.
🏸 Sharing this gem from Tumblr on the four seasons beautifully captured by Racket Boys cinematography:
🏸 Another unique characteristic of this drama is how they always break the fourth wall. They even made fun of PPLs!
🏸 In case you miss Racket Sonyeondan, Bbangminton IG is alive and managed by SBS.
🏸 Appreciation post for uri best coaches/couple, Hyeon-jong and Yeong-ja!
🏸 Woo-chan looks a bit like Jang Ki-yong sometimes. Don’t you think?
🏸 Huhu at least in this universe, we see Looney finally ending up with his ~aein~ and they moved to the countryside. Also, the Go Baksa and Haerongie reunion we didn’t know we needed!
🏸 Ace player Kwon Yuri in the house!
🏸 Just like in Reply 1988 wherein Jinjoo always ate at the sidelines of a wide shot, Racket Boys also had Hae-in always sleeping whenever her parents are in a two-shot scene. But I’m what I’m to miss most about Hae-in is her facial expressions. ㅋㅋ
🏸 Apologies for all the Prison Playbook references but it just makes me so nostalgic to see that most supporting characters in Racket Boys are from Prison Playbook. And the cameos are immaculate! It just shows the good relationship between the production crew and the artists. Huhu I’m so soft for these thingz 😦
🏸 I will miss the Racket Sonyeondan crew so much! One of 2021’s best, definitely