Backstreet Rookie, starring Kim Yoo-jung and Ji Chang-wook, started airing mid-June and has so far struggled with controversy and low ratings. At its halfway point, the drama has been a slow-moving story with problematic humour and has yet to kick-off the romance between the lead characters. So far, Backstreet Rookie is missing the mark on both romance and comedy.

This review contains spoilers.

Backstreet Rookie is a romantic comedy that follows the story of Jung Saet-byul (Kim Yoo-jung), who gets a job working part-time at Choi Dae-hyun’s (Ji Chang-wook) convenience store. The main cast also includes Yoo Yeon-joo (Han Sun-hwa) as Dae-hyun’s girlfriend, and Saet-byul’s coworker at the head office that owns the convenience stores, Jo Seung-joon (Do Sang-woo). Seung-joon is also Seat-byul’s longtime friend who has been pursuing her.

From the very first episode, the drama was flagged for having supposedly sexually suggestive scenes, but the biggest problem was the kiss between an underage Saet-byul and Dae-hyun. The drama is currently under review by the Korea Communications Standards Commission, but the kiss is just one of the many problems that the drama has presented so far.

Backstreet Rookie has a number of issues in the scenarios and characters it relies on for comedic relief. One source of comedic relief is the back-and-forth between Dae-hyun’s parents, Kong Boon-hee (Kim Sun-young) and Choi Yong-pil (Lee Byung-joon). Both work part-time at their son’s store, but Boon-hee also sells insurance while Yong-pil does not have another job. This situation causes Boon-hee to often complain that her husband is useless, but the real problem lies in how she sometimes hits him and it is treated as a source of humour.

In one scene, Yong-pil comes home and goes on a drunken ramble, leading to Boon-hee smacking him. The next morning, he wakes up with no recollection of what he did and said, and is confused why he has a bloodied face. It would be safe to say that if the roles were reversed, there would be more outcry; instead, the drama treats this scene as nothing more than a filler scene to provide laughter. The drama does not acknowledge that what has happened is domestic violence, and therefore there is no understanding as to why the situation should not be funny.

The treatment of domestic violence as humour is wrong, but another problematic source for comedic relief is Dae-hyun’s friend, Han Dal-shik (Eum Moon-suk). Dal-shik is a reggae fan and the author of an erotic webtoon.  The fact that he has dreadlocks, in itself, demands a whole conversation on why this is inappropriate. However, Dal-shik being dirty is also a running gag; he is frequently presented with flies flying around his hair, and in another sense of the word dirty, he also has a special ability to turn any conversation into an R-rated one. He is also often barefoot, for no apparent reason.

The connection forged between Dal-shik being a dreadlock sporting reggae fanatic and him being unclean is demeaning and has dangerous implications. Dal-shik’s cultural appropriation automatically takes away the humour in every scene he is in, which is unfortunate as his enemies-to-lovers storyline with Saet-byul’s friend Hwang Geum-bi (Seo Ye-hwa) has potential.

Even without the problematic points of humour, the plot so far has been slow and without progress. Though the drama is now halfway done, the plot thus far has consisted of a formula of Yeon-joo being jealous of or misunderstanding Dae-hyun and Saet-byul, and Dae-hyun trying to make it up to her. For example, Yeon-joo catches Dae-hyun giving Saet-byul a piggy-back ride, and is rightfully unhappy as she knows Saet-byul likes her boyfriend. However, the cycle of Dae-hyun trying to explain himself and the situation to Yeon-joo while setting boundaries with Saet-byul drags on. It feels this way especially because Dae-hyun piggy-backs Saet-byul again, and a similar cycle ensues. In episode eight, the latest episode to air, Saet-byul ends up staying with Dae-hyun and his family and it seems to be a perfect set-up for yet another misunderstanding.

So far, this ongoing cycle has hindered the romance between Dae-hyun and Saet-byul. Dae-hyun, especially, is frustrating as he has yet to act on the fact that Yeon-joo has lied to him and treated him unfairly at times. He swallows his pride and faults himself all the time. With Dae-hyun being so hung up on Yeon-joo, the pace of the progression between him and Saet-byul has been frustratingly slow. Even without Yeon-joo, however, Dae-hyun does not seem to harbour any romantic feelings for Saet-byul yet. Though Dae-hyun does go out of his way to help Saet-byul, their moments together are always missing a spark.

Saet-byul is also not exempt from this frustration. Her crush on Dae-hyun, though intimidatingly strong at first, has fizzled and has taken a back seat to the problems in her personal life. Fortunately, her story has not been as repetitive as Dae-hyun’s. The first half of the drama has established that her first impression as a cigarette-smoking violent bully is to be forgotten. She is actually just a young hard-working woman who has been wronged by the world time and time again. She is often occupied by the antics of her selfish younger sister and is even scammed out of her apartment, which did lead to some bonding moments between her and Dae-hyun.

However, the scenes between the two leads are often the most lacklustre; even if there is supposed to be a gradual build-up of feelings, there should have been some progress by now. The latest episodes seem to have laid the groundwork for Dae-hyun to finally lose his patience with Yeon-joo, and hopefully it indicates that the relationship between Dae-hyun and Saet-byul will start to pick up its pace.

Backstreet Rookie, halfway through its run, has issues with its humour and is bland in romance. Though the problematic comedic reliefs probably will not change, there is some hope that the romance will pick up and make the latter half of the drama a better watch than before.

(Naver. Images via SBS)