For those of you looking to watch To. Jenny, be warned: it is a drama that sticks way too closely to cliches. The setup is an all too familiar one: a boy runs into his first love a decade after they’ve graduated from high school, and they grow closer as they struggle to achieve their dreams. Yet, the short two-episode production manages to charm its way to our hearts with its range of loveable and amusing characters, and a conventional but tightly written plot with a focus on music-related struggles. Karen and Qing come together to figure out what makes the show work so well.
Karen: The interesting thing for me while watching the show is how it managed to capture my attention despite having a predictable ending. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the awkward but talented aspiring singer-songwriter Park Jeong-min (Kim Sung-cheol) would end up with the talented but struggling female idol, Kwon Na-ra (DIA’s Chaeyeon).
But Jeong-min’s social awkwardness, especially when interacting with Na-ra, is part of his charm, of course in addition to his spectacular musical skills. The way his voice turns into a squeaky to sound like a reedpipe when he speaks to Na-ra is funny, but at the same time makes him such an adorable personality. Even though I feel bad that his friends constantly tease him for being single since birth, and also joke about his lack of followers on Instagram, these downs make a good foundation for his character growth.
I also enjoyed how the drama allowed us to better understand Jeong-min’s personality through his song-making process. Rather than have everything about him being laid out bare, the way he hums lyrics and melodies based on everyday life is a refreshing take on music-making. After all, with a music industry saturated with superficial lyrics on love and what-nots, the drama’s innovative inclusion of songs about tiramisu cakes, kimbaps, and the male lead’s own younger sister, Ok-hee (Choi Yoo-ri), makes for a darn good soundtrack.
Qing: I can’t believe Jeong-min not only made a song out of him yelling “Ok-hee-ya!”, but also set it as his morning alarm. It’s really in these little details that To. Jenny shines. It’s hard to push for originality in today’s entertainment scene, which is so saturated with all kinds of ideas that it’s impossible for them to not overlap. But as To. Jenny proves, the key is not necessarily in the premise, but the execution.
Jeong-min is a type of beta male lead that was once assigned to second lead status. But beta males seem to be establishing a stronger presence in dramaland, which is an encouraging trend. Jeong-min reminds me of my all-time favourite K-drama male lead, Kang Ho-gu in Hogu’s Love: awkward, shy, definitely not a go-getter, but incredibly earnest and caring.
Since you’ve covered what sets Jeong-min apart as a character, I’ll share what I loved about Na-ra. As the former high school belle who was scouted by countless entertainment agencies after a chance appearance on Star Golden Bell, Na-ra seems like she has a flower path laid out right at her feet.
On paper, she looks like a stereotype, but in just two episodes, To. Jenny brings her to life. She’s beautiful, and confident about her appearance, but she also has very real struggles and insecurities after she debuts in an idol group, Cocoa, that disbands not long into their career. We see the easy-going, playful side that must have contributed to her popularity in school, but we also see a more timid side to her when she bears with unfair treatment from her agency in hopes of a second debut.
Music is a major theme in To. Jenny, and it weaves many indie songs into its narrative. What did you think about the drama’s use of music?
Karen: Before I start gushing over the drama’s soundtrack, I have to say I totally agree with you about how Na-ra is an amazingly round character even just within one episode’s worth of time. Also, kudos to the writers for putting the harsh realities of idol life out there in the open. The notion of “make it or break it” becomes so hard-hitting when we see Na-ra’s song, given to her by Jeong-min, snatched away and given to a more promising and younger singer. Na-ra is given empty promises time and time again by her CEO. She ends up disillusioned, not surprisingly, but it also means a form of liberation.
This is where the drama throws in another brilliant element of showing the multiple in-roads into the music industry. The scene in South Korea is changing so rapidly, so much so that indie musicians are slowly creeping into popularity. More than just mainstream K-pop music and the successes promised by entertainment companies, aspiring musicians are showcasing their talent on social media–exactly what Ok-hee urges her brother, Jeong-min, to leverage on.
Romance is not everything in this story of chasing one’s dreams, though for Jeong-min, Na-ra does become a huge source of inspiration for his song-writing. Rather than have the love story screaming at us, I appreciated how it bubbled in the backdrop and became a motivating force for Jeong-min and Na-ra to overcome their struggles, be it stage-fright or stepping out of the supposed security of a contract.
I enjoyed the incorporation of the song-writing, which led to the songs being fleshed out for us to enjoy. Especially when the songs pop up spontaneously for Jeong-min while he goes about his life. The predominantly acoustic music style makes the soundtrack soothing, but also extremely addictive (tiramisu cake~ keeps getting stuck in my head, gosh!).
As a drama focused on music, the showcasing of these songs really adds flavour to its characters, displaying their talent, but also marking out important emotional developments for them. After all, many of the songs are dedicated to Na-ra, or in this case, Jenny, Na-ra’s stage name in Cocoa–hence, the show’s title. What do you think about the drama’s music, or its other aspects beyond the storyline?
Qing: Shout out to We Are the Night for their ridiculously catchy “Tiramisu Cake”! A few of the song items dragged on too long, such as Jeong-min’s duet of Choi Nak-ta’s “Grab Me” with his friend Dae-sung (Lee Sang-yi). But overall, the music is incorporated very organically, true to the PD’s promise that the scenes of characters bursting into song wouldn’t be cringe-inducing.
Despite the domination of idols in the Korean music scene, idol life surprisingly isn’t explored much in K-dramas. The only other drama that comes to mind is the underrated, solidly-written The Liar and His Lover. Although To. Jenny only touches on the topic briefly, the ideas presented clearly flag up the ills of the system: how companies keep singers on contract without promoting them, how female singers become unmarketable past a certain age, or how easy it is to pinch songs from a songwriter with no name.
Plot aside, the cinematography is wonderful. It’s shot in an aspect ratio that makes it look like a film, and the colours are warm and rich. Attention is paid to composition, and the lighting is carefully planned too. Most scenes are evenly lit, but sometimes, the characters are backlit to convey emotional nuances, such as Na-ra’s CEO, and Jeong-min at the end of episode 1 when he finds out Na-ra has a boyfriend. The story has a slice-of-life feel to it, but the cinematography makes it artistic.
Karen: Yes, the drama’s cinematography is surprisingly pleasing! Their choice of colour tones probably contributed largely to it. To. Jenny has this pastel haze that lingers about each scene, which makes the episodes really pleasant and comfortable to watch. Even in its darker moments–Na-ra’s seclusion, Jeong-min finding out Na-ra is dating another idol, and so forth–the colour palette lingers on melancholic soft pastel rather than go straight into dark doom and gloom. These small choices make for less whirlwind drama, and a lightness to suit the shortness of two episodes.
Speaking of lightness, the choice to make To. Jenny a rom-com plays a large part in making Jeong-min’s journey from awkward loner to happy-ever-after so much more fun. Jeong-min’s fumbling when speaking with Na-ra is one huge element of comedy, but the drama’s side characters steal the show when it comes to funny moments.
Jeong-min’s younger sister, Ok-hee, is a fabulous and loveable addition to the drama. She is his love counselor, life counselor, and overall manager of his musical career–and she has more relationship game than he probably ever does despite being 17 years younger. Her overflowing confidence is adorable without being annoying, and her curt criticism of her older brother is only because she loves him.
Jeong-min’s mother also has such a great presence once she makes her entrance. Despite having such little screen time, her personality is well-established as a loving parent, albeit being quite nosy about her shy son’s love life. She’s supportive of her son’s passion to become a singer, and does all she can not to cause his unnecessary worry. Together with Ok-hee, they peer into Jeong-min’s room when he invites Na-ra over, making for good fun amidst the bubbling romance. As much as I love the main storyline, I can’t help but develop affection for the drama’s side characters.
Qing: I love Ok-hee! The precocious little sibling archetype is common enough, but Ok-hee is never rude or impatient with Jeong-min no matter how hapless he is. She’s brutally honest and often resigned, but she never stops devising a new course of action for him. She’s his greatest cheerleader, and he’s so appreciative of that. Also, that scene of him strumming his guitar behind her as she confidently confesses to her Nth boyfriend-to-be had me in stitches. His awkwardness at the fact that his baby sister has more dating experience than him was simply flowing out of every chord that he reluctantly played.
As with any music-related narrative, characters who wish to pursue their dream of doing music are bound to run into opposition from a family member. For Jeong-min, it’s his mother’s brother. Here’s where To. Jenny is a breath of fresh air: his uncle was not always opposed to him doing music, but rather became frustrated after years of trying to help him audition and perform, only to have him back out because of his severe stage fright. He’s also motivated by concern for Jeong-min’s widowed mother overworking herself.
Overall, the trajectory for both leads’ growth was clear from the start, and it was immensely satisfying to watch that unfold, with an ensemble of rounded side characters and great music to boot. I must confess I knew the pair were going to end up together, but the ending was a pleasant surprise I didn’t expect. What did you think of it?
Karen: The drama made Jeong-min and Na-ra’s relationship worth rooting for, even if it was obvious they were going to end up together. It was more akin to watching my good friends chase their dreams (or the girl of their dreams), and wanting it to turn out fine. After all, their talents are indisputable; they only lacked the right avenues to showcase themselves, and of course, the courage to.
Though I must say that I realised the value of having Jeong-min’s uncle appear at the final open mic instead of Na-ra. It was heartening to watch him gain the recognition of his family members before he runs off to serenade Na-ra at a PC room (of all places…). The drama ties up the story as one that focuses on well-rounded personal growth which I really appreciated. It sends an encouraging message out for youngsters that having a relationship is not the center of everything. Rather, good relationships, whether it be with family, friends, or lovers, will always help one grow to be better versions of oneself.
Honestly, we can only predict a cliched ending to a certain extent, and there is always room for surprises. To. Jenny is a good balance of feel-good predictability and innovative developments. The roads taken for Jeong-min and Na-ra to finally get together were novel in their own ways. I mean, Jeong-min’s instructions for food delivery to Na-ra’s house, saying to leave it at her door if she says she did not order the food, was a cute twist. All these small pockets of joy, together with a fair dollop of embarrassing moments, mixed in with a tinge of melancholy, made for an impressively put together two episodes. Thumbs up for cohesiveness, as well as aesthetics, and definitely no regrets spending my weekend on these two episodes.
Qing: You’ve pretty much said it all, so I’ll just add this: the very fact that we’ve spent our weekend churning out a 2000-word review for a two-hour long show is probably testament enough to its charm. To. Jenny, thank you for the smiles and laughs.
(Images via KBS. Sports DongA.)