Money and status – and the hunger for both – drive The Golden Spoon, a new K-drama that spins a riveting tale of class warfare. It follows Lee Seung-cheon (Yook Sung-jae), whose class at school is divided into ‘Golden Spoons’ – those born rich – and ‘Dirt Spoons’ – those without means. The former love flexing their wealth over their less privileged classmates, who can’t retaliate for fear of angering the upper echelons of society and losing their spot at a prestigious school.
Seung-cheon, himself a Dirt Spoon, is painfully aware of his social station. After losing a friend and his family to suicide due to mounting debt, he’s forced to keep his head down and complete his classmates’ assignments for money. But a mysterious street vendor offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, selling him a literal golden spoon for a paltry sum that will let him exchange lives with a Golden Spoon. He gets three chances to reverse the change: the first after a month; the second after a year; and the third after a decade.
At first, Seung-cheon dismisses this as a hoax, but after a series of events drives him into a corner, he throws caution to the wind and exchanges lives with Hwang Tae-yong (Lee Jong-won) – the biggest Golden Spoon of them all. This windfall brings more challenges, however: Not only does Seung-cheon constantly butt heads with Tae-yong’s ruthless, calculative father Hwang Hyeon-do (Choi Won-young), but he now has to deal with the paranoia of the real Tae-yong, who’s realising he now lives in Seung-cheon’s place.
Based on a 2016 webtoon of the same name, The Golden Spoon must be applauded for its writing and pacing. Some sequences draw out the tension and dread perfectly, leaving viewers guessing as to what is coming next – such as when we wait to find out whether the golden spoon actually worked for Seung-cheon. The show also impressively fleshes out a tale about seesawing between desperation and calculated decisions – as well as their consequences.
Seung-cheon’s choices don’t come out of the blue, but are the result of the acute knowledge and pressure of his social status. While things do change for him overnight, it becomes increasingly obvious that trading in his poverty for wealth might also have cost him his freedom. The impact of this turn of events on Seung-cheon’s character is doubly intriguing – now free of his usual hesitation, he’s toeing the line between confidence and arrogance.
At first, Yook Sung-jae (a member of boyband BtoB) seems too genial a choice to play a character like Lee Seung-cheon. His charming, boyish features seem more apt for the comedy in Goblin, or the drama of Mystic Pop-up Bar. But fortunately it doesn’t take long for him to break out of the meek underdog persona. He’s utterly convincing as Seung-cheon, exploiting his newfound power with expressions so straight one would think he’d always been an elite. Beneath this façade is an inner turmoil: despite getting what he wants, Seung-cheon is still attached to his old life, sometimes even missing it.
Sadly, most of The Golden Spoon’s other characters lack those shades of grey, instead hinging on unsurprising contrasts: poor, but kind; rich, but arrogant and cruel. The only exceptions so far are Lee Jong-won’s Tae-yong and Jung Chae-yeon’s Na Ju-hee. On the outside, Tae-yong is the confident chaebol heir, but is secretly terrified of his father and his abusive ways. Ju-hee craves an identity away from her family’s money and influence, in a world where she is not a mere pawn for her father’s business plans or a pretty thing on someone’s arm.
Two episodes in, The Golden Spoon is brimming with potential. It gives depth to the drama and its fantasy elements with relatable human motivations, making it easy for viewers to put themselves in characters’ shoes by posing a subtle, yet powerful question: if faced with the same choices, would would have acted any differently?
‘The Golden Spoon’ airs every Friday and Saturday at 9:50PM KST on MBC TV and is available for streaming on Disney+ in selected regions.