Backstreet Rookie struggled to impress in its first half as it dealt with problematic humor and slow pacing. The latter half of the drama picks up its pace and is an overall improvement from before. Though the second half is hindered by disappointing character development and consistency, the drama ends on. a high note as the highlights of the drama come from unexpected characters.

This review contains spoilers.

Episodes nine to sixteen of Backstreet Rookie are an upgrade from the first half of the drama as the story progresses forward at a faster pace, with the finale even achieving the highest viewer ratings for the drama. However, the drama is hindered by disappointing character development, especially for Jung Saet-byul (Kim Yoo-jung) and Yoo Yeon-joo (Han Sun-hwa), and inconsistencies regarding Dae-hyun and Saet-byul’s relationship. The best parts of the drama are its subplots, especially Saet-byul’s sister Jung Eun-byul’s (Ahn Sol-bin) and the touching relationship between Dae-hyun’s mother Kong Boon-hee (Kim Sun-young) and Saet-byul.

One of the main factors that hindered the drama, especially during the latter half, was character development. Choi Dae-hyun (Ji Chang-wook) and Saet-byul — their romance aside — are essentially both people who believe in justice and in doing good for the world in their own small ways. Throughout the drama the two learn from each other, such as how to overcome prejudice and what entails being a brave, kind person. Though being caring is a great trait, both Dae-hyun and Saet-byul are kind and selfless at the expense of themselves, which does not change even when the drama concludes.

Dae-hyun is an incredibly kind person who believes in standing up for those who need it. However, his belief does not extend to himself. In the drama’s latter half, it is revealed that he did not leave his old job voluntarily. Rather, it was because he was asked to take blame for a project that Yeon-joo originally would have been blamed for.

He never tells anybody this fact himself, and he does not need to; fortunately for him, leaving his old job has opened up an avenue for him to pursue his actual dreams. Through his convenience store, Dae-hyun has a small sphere of influence where he can be of help to people in his neighborhood. He could have confronted those who did him wrong, but he has no desire to stand up to them and he does not have to because he has already found his own happiness. Eventually the truth is revealed, and he is redeemed without need of him ever having to defend himself.

Saet-byul’s pursuit of her own dreams, on the other hand, is sacrificed for the sake of the overall plot. Her longtime dream of becoming a florist is changed to becoming a convenience store owner because Dae-hyun has inspired her, but again the dream is abandoned when she leaves Seoul because she believes she is getting in the way of Dae-hyun’s career. Her plans and actions fluctuate based on Dae-hyun. Her lack of resilience when it comes to her own dreams seems contradictory to her spunky character that is always eager to help her friends and family.

Disappointing character development extends to Yeon-joo as well. In the latter half of the drama, Yeon-joo’s focus is on winning Dae-hyun back his job and as a boyfriend as well. She ultimately fails both, and decides to relocate to the USA for a different job. This conclusion eliminates her as a future obstruction for Dae-hyun and Saet-byul; however, it is out of character for someone who was established as a capable, determined worker eager to prove that she worked her way up the corporate ladder on her merit alone. Like Saet-byul, Yeon-joo’s fate seems Dae-hyun centric which is unfortunate considering their establishment and strong, straightforward characters.      

Another obstacle the drama faces is consistency. Earlier episodes alluded to an important first meeting between Dae-hyun and Saet-byul, even prior to her asking him to buy cigarettes when she was a high school student. This first meeting is clearly important as it marks the beginning of Saet-byul’s crush on Dae-hyun. However, the mysterious first encounter is rarely referenced, and the reveal of the chance meeting between them, when Dae-hyun saved Saet-byul from a falling sandbag, is lacklustre. More regular references to the chance encounter and its significance could have resulted in a more impactful and touching flashback.

Another minor, but fun, effect the latter half of the drama largely forgot about was Saet-byul’s habit of asking her opponents the meaning of a flower before she fought them. This prelude to her kicking their butts was accompanied by fun animation illustrating the flower and its name and meaning. Once the fight was over, Saet-byul would answer her own question — the meaning of the flower was often relevant to the lesson her opponents should have learned. The animations added to the humor and satisfaction resulting from Saet-byul taking down her opponents and should have been used for the other action scenes.

Despite the flaws, some of the subplots, namely Eun-byul’s story and Boon-hee and Saet-byul’s relationship, help the latter half of the drama end on a high note. Eun-byul, who was a bratty headache of a younger sister for Saet-byul in the earlier part of the drama, finally gets to debut in a K-pop girl group, though a compromising picture that makes her look like a school bully poses a threat.

In comparison to the main plot, Eun-byul’s story is well-paced and features great foreshadowing from the beginning of the drama. Indeed, the audience gets to empathize with Eun-byul as her arc proves that despite her earlier annoying actions she genuinely cares about Saet-byul and wishes to repay her for everything she did for Eun-byul. Eventually, the truth comes to light and Eun-byul gets to live out her dream, much to the satisfaction of herself as well as her sister.

Another surprising highlight was the chemistry between Boon-hee and Saet-byul. Saet-byul, who has never had a maternal figure in her life, finds one in Boon-hee. Boon-hee becomes a source of reassurance and comfort for Saet-byul when she needs it the most, and in turn Boon-hee’s softer side that is usually hidden behind her gruff demeanor presents her as a much more likeable character. Saet-byul has found someone who will take her side against the odds, and the two actresses together deliver some of the more heartwarming scenes in the drama.

The conclusion of Backstreet Rookie is a happy one, with Saet-byul and Dae-hyun getting their long-awaited happy ending, and the success of their friends and family in their own ways. Though the drama and its characters are far from perfect, Backstreet Rookie does well in reminding its audience of the small, seemingly insignificant ways in which we can all do good in the world.

(Celuv, Images via SBS)