If you’re one of the millions who watched Twenty-Five, Twenty-One, you must have known some time by the second or third episode that there was something special about it. Although it was marketed as a romance, the writer established early on that even the characters understood that there were more important things in life than dating—dreams, ambitions, family, identity, and friendship to name a few.
What’s beautiful about the writing of Twenty-Five, Twenty-One is that it sheds light on the often overlooked relationships that people have in real life. K-drama rarely represents a good platonic relationship between members of the opposite sex that does not end in romance. It also doesn’t often portray the awkwardness of making virtual friends real. And furthermore, it doesn’t always show romantic couples actually laughing together and enjoying each other’s company.
For all these reasons and more, Twenty-Five, Twenty-One will be on our list of favorite k-dramas of all time.
So we couldn’t say goodbye to this wonderful drama without talking about what makes the Taeyang squad—composed of Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri), Ko Yu-rim (WJSN's Bona), Moon Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook) and Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung)—so lovable.
1 Their friendship doesn’t bloom overnight.
A lot of k-drams gloss over how hardwon friendships can be. But we all know this doesn’t happen in real life. In fact, a study attempted to determine how many hours it takes for a friendship to develop. According to the results, it takes about 50 hours spent together to move from mere acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours to move from that stage to simple “friend” status, and more than 200 hours before you can consider someone your close friend.
As Twenty-Five, Twenty-One shows, those 200 hours are spread out between tearful, fearful, joyful, and even boring experiences. To nurture a friendship is to invest not just feelings but also time.
The long and difficult road of friendship between Yu-rim and Hee-do is beautifully captured. Their hostile beginning, their awkward transition, and their mutual respect culminated in that emotional hug at the end of the match in Madrid. Even the progression among the three other members of the squad was believable and organic: Ji-woong’s adorable admiration for Yi-jin and Yi-jin’s concern for Seung-wan, despite her outward show of self-possession.
2 They actually have healthy platonic heterosexual friendships.
Can men and women really be only friends? It’s a topic that’s been debated in many circles, and while the conclusion is usually a dismissive “no,” this show begs to differ. The lack of male-female friendships on TV that do not lead to romance or just become an awkward setup for a “friendzone” situation is pathetic and abysmal, so it is to writer Kwon Do-eun's credit that she actually managed to put together one of the most convincing and healthiest examples of a solid heterosexual friendship that remained exactly just as it was from start to finish.
The cool friendship between Seung-wan and her best bud Ji-woong is a prime example of how a friendship between men and woman CAN flourish and grow, without being forced to fit a romantic angle. Despite their academic differences, both maintained a healthy respect for one another and the paths they pursued, with Seung-wan supporting Ji-woong in his pursuit of Yu-rim, while Ji-woong took Seung-wan out of her bookish world and into a life that was much more fun and flexible. Even Yi-jin had a healthy senior-junior dynamic with Seung-wan, as well as a trusting friendship with Yu-rim that was tested when he had to report about her controversial decision.
They all look after each other’s best interests, without any creepy agenda or repressed wayward feelings, so they are able to hang out, truly enjoy each other’s company, and unapologetically be themselves. Nothing could be cooler.
3 They support each other’s dreams. (Even if it sometimes leads them apart from each other.)
Coincidentally, a study claims that the average age at which someone starts losing friends is by the age of 25. A lot of factors contribute to this: people start dating exclusively or get married, people’s social circles diminish after university, or adults can find it difficult to be more open to friends. This explains how most people do not make as many meaningful adult friendships as they do in their childhood.
The five members of the Taeyang squad meet each other at a time in their life when they’re able to spend more time together. They’re not only in the same school, they’re also in the same sport, the same club, and the same neighborhood. All their similarities are a recipe for a good friendship. However, because they’ve met each other before “settling down,” they are also more likely to pursue different interests.
But what is remarkable about this group is how they give their unwavering support for each other. Seung-wan is never made to feel bad for deciding to quit school; Yu-rim isn’t asked to justify her reasons for leaving the country; Hee-do and Yu-rim’s rivalry is never played up; Hee-do and Yi-jin support each other’s career.
Audiences are given the satisfaction not just of seeing Hee-do come of age but of everyone around her. Parents have always warned that the mark of a good friendship is its influence on the person. Surely, they would agree that these five friends are all keepers.
4 They work on themselves, first.
Adolescence and young adulthood can be a stressful time in life. It is when young people often struggle with figuring out who they are vis-a-vis being accepted in their primary friend group. But the Taeyang gang have their own goals, dreams, and passions that have nothing to do with wanting to be accepted and everything to do with wanting a better life and becoming a better person.
Yi-jin and Yu-rim have their families to save. He also finds meaning in his role as a journalist. Hee-do is set on giving her personal best in her sport. Seung-wan is out to make her voice heard and advocate for a change. Ji-woong is out to explore his artistic style. When you have a group of friends who are working on becoming better versions of themselves, you can’t help but be inspired too.
5 They talk things out.
Friendships are sweet when everything is easy-breezy, no one is broke, and no one has problems at home. But when the proverbial difficulties arrive, it is a special kind of squad that sticks together and sees each other all the way through.
Whether they have to make allowances for their own inconveniences (such as staying up late for each other) or deciding on extremely difficult individual decisions, such as Yi-jin running the story of Yu-rim’s transfer to Russia, or Seung-wan courageously speaking out against school abuse, the Taeyang gang never impose on each other.
Hee-do found herself eventually accepting and forgiving Yijin’s difficult report, because it was his duty as a journalist to disclose such issues. And she communicated this to him. Ji-woong became an even bigger fan and friend to Seung-wan after she defended him from the abusive teacher and was brave enough to tell her how much she meant to him.
Everyone in the gang seems to operate from a hard-won sense of maturity and sensibility, and quite frankly, very adept communication skills. The don’t allow mere pettiness to form cracks in their friendship. How they implicitly trust each other to make their own decisions, while not imposing their own will or creating pointless drama, makes the Taeyang gang people you want in your corner for life.
6 They know how to have fun.
The Taeyang gang is refreshingly less dramatic than most kdrama squads, mainly because they communicate openly and have grown to accept each other wholeheartedly.
Like every “barkada,” they have fun in their little hangouts—whether it be a secret room at school or invading Yi-jin’s small space—and bond over the simplest things. They drink together, read manhwa, fool around at the beach, and talk about their dreams in their own private places.
We could chalk it all up to the era they lived in. After all, the lack of smartphones and the internet made the '90s truly a great time to grow up and bond. Nothing really came between people and good old-fashioned, honest, and funny conversation. When was the last time we spoke to friends and not checked our phones?
7 They love passionately and deeply.
When people talk about love, they very rarely include friendship. And that’s just sad because friendship is an often taken-for-granted but essential form of love. In reality, monogamous people (which is still the majority) will have one major romantic relationship in their life at a time. But they are bound to have many friends around even as those romantic relationships sometimes fall apart or change.
The Taeyang squad sees each other through many things: failures, regrets, retirement, moves to other countries, changes in careers, and even deaths. Their love and concern for each other is as tangible for them as it is for its audience. In fact, we’re all really hoping that Hee-do’s daughter Kim Min-chae gets to experience that kind of love in her life as well.
But there’s another kind of love that’s also often glossed over: the love for one’s sport. Not a lot of k-dramas shed light on the kind of grit and passion that it takes to succeed in a competitive sport, especially from a woman’s point of view. That there should be two women in this drama who showcase this is something to be celebrated. The healthy dedication shown by both Yu-rim and Hee-do for the sport that they have given their lives to, sans the toxic parents who foist their own dreams on to their children, is both refreshing and inspiring.
And finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
While some would have wanted a happy ending for both Hee-do and Yi-jin, most found the bittersweet ending perfect. In many ways, the drama really is an ode to youth and to love—and that includes friendship, filial love, passion for sport, and of course first love.
While the endgame between Yu-rim and Ji-woong was sweet and deserved, there is also something to be said for a first love that remains to be just that, a first love and not a last love. It is the kind of love that is wistful, inspiring, wholesome, and pure. It is the kind of love you are grateful to have even if you cannot keep it forever.
You cannot love that deeply and remain unchanged. It can be very possible indeed to love someone intensely, be grateful for the experience, and still choose to let go. Such are the beauty and tragedy of first loves that are meant to live only in the memory. Perhaps, we can take a page from Yi-jin’s and Hee-do’s last letters to each other that encapsulate the whole experience when they say: “Thank you.”
And we couldn’t find a more apt way to say goodbye to this show than by saying, “Thank you.”
Now please excuse us as we’re off to reread old letters, go over old photographs, scour over diaries, and bask in the nostalgia of that playlist we put together for this very mood.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other deep dives in the Gwenchanoona Saranghae Series: