Written by Yoo Yeong-ah
Directed by Kim Sang-ho
Air Date: February 16th, 2022 – March 31st, 2022
Do not be fooled by Thirty-Nine‘s upbeat and sunny poster featuring its three leading actresses, or the gently comedic nature of some of its early scenes. The lightheartedness and comedy, which does still reverberate throughout the rest of the series, hints at a frothy concoction and the possibility of a feel-good hit, but it hides in plain sight some cutting swathes of devastation.
Marking the return of Son Ye-jin to our television screens after the phenomenal success of Crashing Landing on You, Thirty-Nine gives the actress a chance to flex her acting muscles in ways that play into her brilliant ability to combine fine comedy timing and as well as emotional drama.
Putting her in the middle of a finely cast trio allows her and her co-stars to bounce off each other, but if you’re going into this thinking it’s going to be a romantic comedy-drama about hitting middle age and the perils that come with getting older, all played out to a narrative about the joys of friendship, you will get a some of that, but you’re going to do so through some of the most quietly devasting writing and performances at the same time.
While so much of the publicity and expectations surrounding the series have been built on Son Ye-jin, it never overshadows the work of her equally talented co-stars. Jeon Mi-do capitalises on her fantastic performance in Hospital Playlist, while the more overtly quirky performance from Kim Ju-hyun combine to create considerable and believable chemistry that really helps sell the idea that these three have been friends for most of their lives.
The opening two episodes build on that chemistry perfectly; there are moments of good humour, some gentle making fun of each other, and a very funny physical altercation with a cheated spouse that is a case of mistaken identity, but it then goes and delivers the deadliest revelation of all in episode two that hits like a knife in the heart; a flashforward to a funeral lets us know that this isn’t going to have the happiest of endings. Instead of prolonging a sense of mystery throughout the rest of the series as to whose funeral it is, the second episode reveals that it is Chan-Young, played by Jeon Mi-do, and then proceeds to work its way to that moment with an almost powerfully devastating build and sense of inevitability.
All throughout the series you might find yourself forgetting about that reveal and hope for a fairy tale ending where everything will turn out okay. Unfortunately, it will not. We’ve seen a glimpse of the future for these characters and the pain of loss is inevitable.
The age of the central trio is a component of so much of the drama, but this never turns into one where the characters complain about their age. Ageing is a big part of what is fuelling the themes and character development, but more in a way that feels gently observational as opposed to being the primary focus of the drama itself.
These are characters who have been in each other’s orbit for so long, and the writing and chemistry between the three sell their connection so potently that the idea of one of them having their life cut short due to illness feels devastatingly sad. While the three actresses do have their own storylines going on independent of each other, when they are together the series frequently frames all three of them within the same shot to connote their tender connection.
It isn’t until near the end of the series when a parental revelation is revealed and the resulting fall-out that comes with it that we finally see Son Ye-jin and Kim Ji-hyun in a shot together without Jeon Mi-do for what feels like the first time. In any other television series, you wouldn’t think twice about it, but here it comes across as a devastating visual that suggests to both the audience and the characters how their lives will have to function with one of them gone.
The series comes complete with intricate character dynamics and stories; Chan-Young is in the middle of what can be described as emotional infidelity with a married man, Jin Seok (Lee Moo-saeng) who is dealing with a broken marriage and a connection to a son who is not actually his biologically; Mi-jo finds her status as an orphan and being adopted colliding with a relationship with fellow dermatologist Seon-Woo (Yeon Woo-jin), that begins with sex but soon turns into something warm-hearted and genuine, but who also has difficult relationships of his own to contend with when it comes to his adopted sister and biological father; Joo-hee, meanwhile, must contend with a change of job and her developing feelings for restaurant owner Hyun-joon (Lee Tae-hwan).
Every plotline is given its own sense of structure and development, while never intruding too much on the others. Sometimes it feels as if Kim Ji-hyun is on the cusp of being forgotten about, but even then, the series wonderfully turns that into something beautifully observational as she remarks on her own insecurities that she thinks that her two best friends have their own separate world away from her. It’s a beautifully played moment from someone who, up to that point, is frequently given the more overtly comedic moments, but who devastates you with her respectful clarity and raw honesty.
This is a brilliant drama throughout and being only twelve episodes means that it feels compactly put together and magnificently structured when compared to shows that go that little bit longer. There is much good-natured humour and complex drama here, not least when Mi-jo discovers her birth mother and the vindictive behaviour she has inflicted on not only her adoptive parents but Joo-hee’s mother as well, a moment that leads to one of the most quietly devasting scenes in the whole series.
Similarly, when it touches on Chan-young’s illness, the series is unflinching in its portrayal of raw emotional anguish. There are sentimental moments for sure, but it never becomes manipulative or takes the easy way out. The devastation of her oncoming death and the hammer blow of sadness it takes on those around her is handled well, with many scenes acted and written to perfection.
Devastating scenes are a recurring thing here, and each episode feels as if one has to be prepared to give their tear ducts a frequent workout; the characters laugh one moment, they cry the next, while the spectre of inevitability and death hovers over so much of the duration that you wish more than anything to squat it away but find that you can’t.
Flashbacks give glimpses to the main trio’s teenage years, complete with their own hardships and moments of drama, but they are almost simple compared to what happens when those dramas collide with a world of maturity and responsibility, and where loss is also a factor that must be dealt with when we’re the least ready for it.