Premise: The adventures of a pair of best friends, Jia Ern and Ren Wei, who move to the big city of Taipei to attend university.
A wonderful treat of a coming-of-age story, In A Good Way is a quiet and gentle triumph of a drama. It’s sweetness and idealism may seem mundane or too cloying for those who prefer edgier fare, but IAGW’s warmth and it’s utterly adorable cast will win over even the most jaded of souls. It may take a while for it to sink it’s claws into you, but once it does IAGW burrows deep into your heart.
Set in a Taipei campus in the mid-90s, the show brings together a group of characters who become a close-knit group of friends as they journey through university together. The story coalesces around our heroine Jia Ern (Kirsten Ren), a wide-eyed innocent and her best friend Ren Wei, and their friendships and romantic entanglements with Bai Xue and Liu Chuan, the campus queen and king respectively.
Jia Ern is the drama’s heart and soul, and the show traces her journey as she grows from naive and rather aimless country bumpkin to older and wiser young woman. She arrives on campus as a rather blank slate, a tag-along to Ren Wei, uncertain about what exactly the future holds, but open to the possibilities that lie ahead. When Ren Wei finds camaraderie with his ‘Men of Steel’ crew (more like the Three Stooges), she’s forced to strike out on her own and falls in with three gals at the university dorm–Bai Xue, the sassy Tracy and the meek Xiao Wei.
Meanwhile, there’s our hero Liu Chuan (Lego Lee), decent and sturdy, lurking in the wings. Their blossoming romance is an utter slowburning delight. It’s a picture perfect study of how to wring the most tension out of the slightest of moments–longing looks across the room, stolen glances, the help-I’m-melting-stop-standing-so-close-to-me thing that Lego Lee does with quiet and convincing ease.
Since this kind of thing is my kryptonite and their courtship is full of these swoony instances, I fell hook line and sinker for these two cutie pies.
Lego Lee gives a terrific performance and pulls off upstanding virtue and effortless over-achieving without coming across as insufferably bland as so often is the case with these sorts of characters. It’s no wonder this is his breakthrough role, and I fully approve of how the show makes full use of his soulful eyes and bashful gazing.
The central romance is all the more sweet because these two are pretty awesome as a couple as well as separate people. Their relationship unfolds across the entire length of the drama and morphs and shifts as our protagonists themselves evolve and change.
Here’s where the drama’s considerable length (26 episodes, with a one hour-plus run time each) is a boon–the drama teases out the many facets and nuances of their developing relationship over time in a way that not only feels natural and organic, but stays true to the show’s context and its larger thematic concerns.
It’s this kind of narrative cohesion that makes In A Good Way meatier than one would expect. The drama’s official English title doesn’t say much, but in Mandarin it translates as “Our Era of Freedom” or “Our Freedom Years”. The drama explores what freedom means for these characters all of whom are on the cusp of adulthood as they face having to make some hard decisions, whether it’s in the spheres of love, family or education.
This isn’t a drama that hinges on dramatic spectacle or plot twists. If you’re the type that prefers compulsive, addictive viewing, it’s best to walk away. This is a slice-of life take focussed on the minutiae of everyday life in university. While that doesn’t sound all that exciting, the drama makes the studying, the sports, the activities and the dances seem endlessly entertaining, mostly by staying light and funny, and assembling a loveable cast of characters in whom you can’t help but fall in love with.
Apart from the cutie pie OTP, I adored its gals and the delightful female friendships on display. This drama is remarkably girl-centred; all the girls have a distinct personality and get story arcs of their own. They have different world views and approaches to life which not only makes for some awesome character-driven conflict within the narrative, but feels true to life–after all, great friends will challenge and cheerlead for you in equal measure.
I gushed in more detail about this elsewhere so I won’t expand on it here. Except… Ok fine I lie! I can’t resist mentioning one of my favourite arcs, one that explored the relationship between Bai Xue and Jia Ern as girls who respect and admire each other as mentor and trusted confidante respectively, and yet find their budding friendship tested in the face of–what else?–a boy.
Love triangles are a dime a dozen in dramaland, but here’s one where no one is scorned and turns conniving or manipulative as a result. Instead, it’s used as these tropes should be–for character growth, not for empty histrionics or petty rivalries.
Bai Xue struggles with her conflicted feelings, and she comes out the other side with a sense that a little heartbreak can be good for the soul, assured that the heart might be fractured but rest of you doesn’t have to break. It’s one of the many bittersweet lessons learnt throughout the series.
Needless to say, I adored Bai Xue, and she’s wonderfully acted by Smile Weng. It would’ve been easy to throw her character under the bus and turn her into the entitled princess that her name implies (Bai Xue means Snow White) but In A Good Way is so generous in spirit that lets its secondary characters take the spotlight for all the right reasons.
Take Ren Wei as another example. As Jia Ern’s best friend, Ren Wei is rather exasperating at first. He selfishly takes Jia Ern for granted, and in his dogged pursuit of Bai Xue and his exploits with the Men of Steel, he veers towards immature blowhard. But thanks to Jay Shih’s inherent good-natured charm and thoughtful writing yet again, Ren Wei transforms from juvenile wannabe to loyal friend and the mature young man he was so desperate to be.
There are a few drawbacks, however. The last third of the series loses some of it’s zest when it starts to devote itself increasingly to the off-campus life of one or two main characters when the main draw of the show in my eyes was always the exploits of the whole group. The plot starts to meander and chunks of episodes feel like filler. Though it’s filler that’s mostly amusing, filler is still filler.
The series then takes a heavier turn down the homestretch and focusses almost exclusively on Liu Chuan’s fraught relationship with his father. While the show had built up to this steadily so it doesn’t come out of leftfield, the effect of back-loading with this arc means that the resolution of the series as a whole feels rushed and lacking.
Which brings me to the show’s ending itself. The show was a huge hit in Taiwan, spawning a cottage industry of sorts that included a novel and a movie scheduled to be released this year. While the fear that the show would suffer an open-ending to drum up interest in the movie doesn’t entirely materialise, the show does miss the bar by tying things up in a way that doesn’t do justice to the gang as whole.
[mild spoiler ahead!]
Those who have very fixed ideas about what constitutes a happy ending will baulk. As for me, I’m with those who feel the ending stays true to the show, and I came away from it with a sense that all them, especially the awesome foursome of Liu Chuan, Jia Ern, Ren Wei and Bai Xue, had come a very long way. I was satisfied that the show told the story it wanted to tell and whatever disappointments I have with its underdeveloped finish aren’t enough to overshadow the show’s many strengths.
The show also has a lovely soundtrack as music plays a key role in the series, and those who are familiar with Wu Bai and other Taiwanese legends will no doubt be thrilled to hear their music throughout the series.
There are other contemporary treats and this MV of a song by Adrian Fu used in the show’s title sequence captures much of the show’s spirit.
And this one also by Adrian Fu shows some choice (and somewhat spoilery) OTP moments and gives you a taste of what’s in store should you watch the show. (I watch this and my shippy heart overflows, even though it’s been months since the show ended!)
In a nutshell, this show wormed its way into my heart. And I wasn’t aware of how much until I started writing this and felt a surge of goodwill towards it still that made me take note of its subtle staying-power.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for a sweet, well-told story!
In A Good Way (我的自由年代)
Starring: Lego Lee, Kirsten Jen, Jay Shih, Smile Wen, Sun Qi Jun, Yao Yao Chun, Lu Zhen Xi
Overall rating: 4.25/5
Recommended: Yes, when you need a break from makjang madness, or are in the mood for down-to-earth good-natured fare.
Director: Wu Meng En
Screenwriter: Xu Yun Qi, Wu Pei Zhen, Wu Jin Rong, Lin Yu Chen, Feng Bo Di