“Thirty, Nine” confidently introduces a grounded new drama and three compelling core characters.
This recap of Thirty-Nine season 1, episode 1, “Thirty, Nine”, contains spoilers.
Netflix’s new slice-of-life k-drama Thirty-Nine is about three women on the cusp of 40, not one of whom looks a day over 25, which is as compelling an argument for the impeccable genetics of the Korean people as you’re ever going to see. Nevertheless, that isn’t the point – instead, what we seem to have here is a grounded reflection on friendship, relationships, aging, and mortality as the promise – or perhaps threat – of a major milestone prompts three very different but deeply connected women to reconsider their own lives and choices.
Thirty-Nine season 1, episode 1 recap
Mi-Jo, Chan-Young, and Joo-Hee are best friends and have been for what seems like forever. But now, as adults, they realize almost simultaneously that their lives aren’t all that different from when they were teenagers. This is part happenstance and part deliberate decision since by their own admission they avoid baby showers and weddings. They claim it’s because they’re too old for such things, but it’s likelier that such things are more a reminder of where they are — or where they aren’t. Funerals, though, are another story, and to give the season a nice hook, it’s strongly implied that one of these three women will die before the end.
The focus in this opening episode is a little lopsided in favor of Mi-jo, a doctor who hooks her friends up with free botox much to the consternation of her older sister, Mi-hyeon. Mi-jo was adopted as a kid, which far from being a secret is referenced and explored quite heavily. She helps out the kids at the Onnuri Child Care Centre, which she once called home, and has a tentative conversation with one of the young children there, Hoon, about how she’s leaving for a year to go on a sabbatical in Palm Springs. Mi-jo relates to Hoon because she was him, once, and this aspect of her character is never far from the surface.
There’s also a budding romance between Mi-jo and the orphanage’s new English teacher, Kim Sun-woo, which is rarely a good idea when one half of the pairing is about to fly halfway across the world. Nevertheless, fate conspires to bring the two together again later, when Mi-jo is very drunk, and they hit it off. I like how tentative Thirty-Nine is with this romance here, letting it build for a good while before it actually goes anywhere, which ends up being straight to bed. This will necessarily complicate the episode’s closing stinger when Sun-woo turns up at Mi-jo’s place of work in an official capacity. We’re certainly not looking at a clean break here.
Speaking of clean breaks, the other major subplot of the episode is Chan-Young’s affair with the married Jin-seok, with whom she has been carrying on extramarital dalliances forever, even since before he met and impregnated his current wife. She has clearly held out the hope for a romance with this man for far too long, and it causes friction between her and her friends. Throughout the course of “Thirty, Nine”, a clear correlation is made between Chan-young’s smoking and her fixation on Jin-seok – two bad habits she needs to kick. And, by the episode’s end, it seems she has. When Jin-seok can’t commit to divorcing his wife at any point, it becomes clear that Chan-young is wasting her time.
This opening chapter is 78-minutes long, which isn’t rare for k-drama but nonetheless feels like too much meat on the bones of what is obviously a scene-setting chapter built around introducing core characters and dynamics. Despite that, though, the grounded tone, solid performances, effective humor, and often charming sense of romance all give strong first impressions. After the somewhat wishy-washy romance of Our Beloved Summer, Thirty-Nine might offer a dose of more grown-up drama, though it remains early days just yet.