This article contains mild spoilers. There are a lot of reasons to tune into shows, but one thing that can help us stick with them is whether the characters we are supposed to root for are both good at what they do, and good at it in a way that surprises us. In Twenty-Five Twenty-One we have teenage fencer Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri) and junior reporter Back Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), who persevere in their respective fields against the odds. Na stuck with fencing despite objections from her stern TV anchor mom Shin Jae-kyung (Seo Jae-hee) and the abrupt dissolution of her team after the IMF crisis in South Korea in 1997 affected the school’s finances. She fought against the odds to enrol in the same school as her fencing idol Go Yoo-rim (Bona), but once there and face to face with her hero, all she met was open resentment. That enmity only spurs her on. She overcomes challenge after challenge, gets a shot at trying out for the national team, qualifies and soon finds herself in the ring against Go, setting up a thrilling, lump-in-the-throat showdown. Twenty-Five Twenty-One: Kim Tae-ri excels in K-drama romance Na has perseverance, natural talent and, as played charmingly by Kim, irrepressible cuteness, but in her toughest moments it’s her keen instinct that truly makes her shine. She learns from her setbacks and doesn’t let pride get in the way of her training. One morning she marches up to her senior, who has been enforcing an unfair ban on night training, but rather than give her what for, the usually plucky Na crumples to her feet in an obsequious bow and begs for forgiveness. Na’s effusive and showy apology is hilarious to behold, but what she’s actually done is identify her opponent’s weakness and in the end she gets what she wants. Eavesdropping from around the corner, coach Yang Chan-mi (Kim Hye-eun) beams with pride. Later, in the final of a major tournament, Na loses her first five points against her opponent, but she shows no sign of frustration. She merely gave up the points to size up the other player and proceeds to trounce her with her strategically acquired knowledge. At the beginning of the show, we met Na on the way up, but things were very different for Back, whose father was bankrupted by the IMF crisis and went on the run, leaving Back to fend off his father’s creditors as he fruitlessly seeks to gain employment. Life had been going very well for Back before we met him but after several failed interviews and the shame of his family gnawing away at him, he eventually disappears to take care of his brother in his mother’s hometown, where he starts to work as a fishmonger. Some months later, we catch up with Back again, who has turned it around and is now a trainee reporter for UBS Network, the same station where Na’s mother works. Since he wasn’t able to complete high school, it’s a minor miracle that he landed the position, and his new co-workers don’t let him forget it. Like any young trainee, Back’s early experience on the job is a baptism by fire. Part of his work involves phoning in with brief live reports, and in the 1990s in Seoul that means tracking down a landline – no small feat when out on the streets chasing down a story. One of his challenges is keeping the puppies in a pet store quiet for a live phone-in when his rivals snatch up all the available pay phones. Back’s first major coup at work comes when he convinces an Australian judge to make a statement after the controversial conclusion to Na and Go’s tense bout. 8 new Korean drama series to look out for in March 2022 The early stages of the match are intercut with Na’s first experiences with fencing, to which she was introduced by her father. As the match progresses, the young Na takes to the sport to the delight of her father, whose health is deteriorating. The parallel editing ends with her father’s funeral. Back in the present, Na is rallying, having made an unexpected return in the closing stages of the match and, after the pair dart forward for the final point, the light turns in Na’s favour. Her joy is short-lived when Go challenges the point and the press corps jumps to the defence of the beloved national athlete. This tale of triumph over adversity continues to soar above its peers, thanks to the magnetic performances of Nam and, particularly, Kim, as well as the show’s marriage of theme, narrative and visual techniques. The use of lighting is especially elegant, as in a nighttime scene in the dark training gym when the green light indicating a fencing hit illuminates the leads. The excitement of the rivalry between Na and Go takes an unexpected and heartwarming turn at the halfway point of the series. Following that, the show settles into a few K-drama clichés, such as a breezy beach getaway, as it prepares to launch into its final three weeks of episodes. Two years remain until Na and Back reach the ages indicated by the show’s title, but what will their obstacle be before they get there? Twenty-Five Twenty-One is streaming on Netflix.