One of the highest-rated shows of 2011 was actually one that we couldn’t include in the year-end reviews because of its length and that whole space-time continuum thing: the weekend family drama Ojakkyo Brothers, on KBS. I don’t normally pick up family dramas because I find it daunting to start a longer-running show. (I know, I have commitment issues.) But this weekend drama has been far ahead of the pack in the ratings game, and has gotten some rave reviews in Korea. So I decided to check it out, and see for myself if it was hype or well-deserved praise.
I’m ten episodes in, which isn’t very far considering the show’s been extended to 58 episodes. But so far it’s got a good premise, a great cast of characters, and lots of potential for both comedy and heart. Basically I’m just going to introduce the series and give you my first impressions, because while ten episodes might be most of a miniseries, here it’s just the beginning.
This comedy-drama revolves around a family that lives on Ojakkyo Farm, just a quick drive away from Seoul. It’s a bustling household with four grown sons, and though the setup is a familiar one for family dramas (Think: Sons of Sol Pharmacy), this cast of characters is kind of awesome. We’ve got:
Snarky GRANNY (Kim Yong-lim, Life Is Beautiful) who packs a mean bite when she’s feeling saucy, but is as loving as a grams can be. She still likes to give her daughter-in-law a hard time about the little things, but now that both are older, she’s loosened up and they’re kind of like old war buddies now.
DAD (Baek Il-sub, Flames of Desire) is an overgrown silly manchild, but a sweet and well-meaning guy. It’s clear he never really grew up, because he still kind of acts like a bumbling son rather than the head of the household. Dad is stern with his sons, but adorably sweet to his wife, and defers to her without hesitation. He’s basically a grumpy teddy bear.
He’s made countless mistakes in life with one failed venture after another, and his biggest mistake of all comes to the surface at the start of the drama. What he never told his family is that the farm they’ve toiled over for most of their lives isn’t really theirs. Ten years ago, the farm’s true owner left it in Dad’s care, rather than handing it over to his own irresponsible son. But according to the contract that they signed, in ten years’ time, it goes back to that original family. Thus begins the avalanche of trouble on Ojakkyo Farm.
MOM is played by the always adorable Kim Ja-ok (High Kick Through the Roof) — the heart of the family, and the true head of the household. She talks about the farm like it’s a fifth son, raised up from nothing with her two hands. It’s mostly a pear farm, but she grows all sorts of things, and lately has poured her heart into raising ducks, which is a great source of comedy, but also a nice little metaphor for her family – the baby ducks in line behind the mother.
She’s a fantastic character, full of warmth and lively spunk, and is the emotional center of the show. It’s her love for every tree she’s planted that pulls you into the central conflict, because you can actually see how much it rips her heart out when she finds out that the farm she raised from a mound of dirt was never hers to begin with.
First son HWANG TAE-SHIK (Jung Woong-in, SNL Korea, Coffee House) is the hapless eldest son, and the hilarious sad sack. Nearing 40 and still looking for The One, he goes on blind date after blind date, rejecting every woman he meets because she isn’t his Fate. He is most like his father, having a lifetime of failed ventures and mistakes in his life, and feels extremely burdened by the fact that he’s the eldest, but the family’s financial support has come from his younger siblings two and three.
It’s a fact that Dad doesn’t let him forget either, and he is especially hard on the eldest son, for being so wishy-washy and not accomplishing much with his life. Tae-shik is extremely sensitive and meek, always teased by his younger brothers for being pissy (He even takes issue with their word choice of calling him “pissy” rather than “angry,” ha.) and is a careful worrywart while his younger brothers are decisive and dependable.
I like the choice to make the eldest the non-traditional kind, who is neither a leader nor the family’s crowning jewel. Not every family follows the mold, and I love Tae-shik’s conflict of having the expectations of First Son hang over his head like a cloud, while stumbling through life. He’s a hilarious character – a fuddy-duddy with the emotional range of a twelve-year old.
He works as a physical therapist and has two potential women in his life as the story progresses. He meets a beautiful young woman on a blind date and finally feels like he’s met his fated match. It’s mostly because she’s pretty and way out of his league. The other is the neighbor ajumma KIM MI-SOOK (Jeon Mi-sun, Poseidon, Girl K) who turns out to be a classmate from grade school. He treats her like a nuisance, though she recognizes him right away as her childhood crush. He only has eyes for the pretty younger woman, but I’m thinking she’ll be the bad relationship that makes him wake up and smell the Fate right under his nose.
Second son HWANG TAE-BUM (Ryu Soo-young, My Princess) is the family’s ace – first place throughout school, winner in all things, successful, dashing, charm oozing out of every word, wink, and smile. He knows how to charm Mom with compliments that make his brothers gag, and has supported his family through every major financial crisis. In a word, he’s perfect, and yet… not so much.
He’s a 36-year old television news reporter who’s just starting to gain some star power, and like he is with all things, he’s aggressively competitive and a little trigger-happy. He causes some major problems for his younger brother when he sneaks a peek at police records and leaks a story, which is clearly not the first time he’s done so. Tae-bum is selfish and an arrogant bastard, but he knows it and doesn’t apologize for it in any way. He’s equally refreshing and infuriating, and his journey looks to be one of the more promising character arcs, of forcing him to look beyond himself.
He’s the only one of the sons who lives on his own (in an officetel in the city), but comes home often enough to fight with his brothers. He’s got the best brother-conflicts, within the foursome – he’s a nagging know-it-all, especially to his older brother, while his hyung is just as bristly to him because he resents how much his younger brother has acted the part of eldest son in his place. But despite being a thorn in his brothers’ sides, he is extremely loyal and infuriatingly loveable.
Tae-bum has his own little newsroom screwball comedy, which serves as a mini-rom-com within the drama as a whole. He constantly butts heads with his boss CHA SOO-YOUNG (Choi Jung-yoon, Manny), and they have a classic bickering hate relationship. She’s a great character and a perfect foil for the cocky Tae-bum, because she’s the only one who can match his verbal sparring wit for wit.
Throughout the first ten episodes, they bicker, they hate, they drink… and have a one-night stand. Tae-bum takes the coward’s way out the morning after, running off and avoiding her, and Soo-young chooses to play it cool despite having secretly had a crush on him since he started working there.
But the real trouble comes soon after, when she finds out that she’s pregnant with his child. Ruh-roh…
Third son HWANG TAE-HEE (Joo Won, Baker King Kim Tak-gu) is the silent, dependable son. Where second son Tae-bum might be the kind to cut corners to get ahead, third son Tae-hee is the stalwart honest guy who will stick to his principles above all else. He’s a cop, a plain-clothes detective nicknamed Dog Tae-hee in his precinct, for his prickly demeanor and quick temper.
He’s got some anger issues and a violent streak as a cop, but then at home he’s the gentlest puppy ever. Tae-hee is especially loved by Grams – her favorite by a long shot, which she doesn’t take pains to hide. His partner watches gobsmacked as Tae-hee pulls out the aegyo for his grandma in the middle of a stakeout, noting, “Hyung, you almost seem like… a nice person.” Ha. I love what he says in response – that when Grams is happy, she’s easy on Mom, and then Mom is happy. Could a son be any better?
Tae-hee is 30, and second in line behind Tae-bum in supporting his family and succeeding in his career. Combined, they’re the one-two punch to Eldest Son Tae-shik’s pride. On top of it all, Tae-hee is Dad’s sole confidant when he’s in crisis mode, because he’s level-headed and less judgy than the other boys.
His story converges with the central conflict of the farm through an investigation, where he gets tangled up with the heroine. (Though their official first meeting involves a misunderstanding where he accidentally arrests her thinking she’s someone else. Whoops.)
Fourth son, maknae HWANG TAE-PIL (Yeon Woo-jin, All My Love), is the mama’s boy, and resident sweetie pie. He’s 29, but doesn’t do much other than odd jobs here and there, and mostly helps Mom out with the farm. He’s suave and charming like Second Son, but is hapless in the career arena, much like First Son. He’s fiercely loyal to Mom – he’ll blindly take her side no matter what, and be the first to defend her to his brothers or anyone else. It’s pretty much the cutest thing ever.
He gets along with everyone swimmingly, always the one to smooth things over between other family members. But he has a particularly combative relationship with third son Tae-hee, refusing to call him hyung, and resenting his dad-like orders to get his life together. They’re the closest in age, and theirs is the classic conflict between the perfect-son hyung and the rebellious younger brother who gets away with whatever he wants because he’s the maknae. You get the sense that Tae-hee has gotten him out of more than a few scrapes, but that Tae-pil still immaturely resents him for it.
Tae-pil gets through life on his looks. It’s an advantage that First Son doesn’t have, that Third Son blindly ignores (though how he could is unfathomable), and that Second Son uses only insofar as it supplements his other first-place traits. But Maknae skates through life being a sometimes-model, errant pretty boy, and noona-killer by trade. He runs around posing as his two successful older brothers Two and Three, while zeroing in on women dressed in expensive clothes like targets.
He doesn’t take anything in life very seriously, so he’s got a lot of growing up to do, but like all his brothers, he’s got a good heart.
Then there’s our heroine BAEK JA-EUN (UEE, Birdie Buddy) who is the only daughter of the farm’s real owner. She’s a bubbly art student who’s famous at her university for being its spokesperson, and she’s spoiled, but in a fairly normal upper-middle class, only-daughter way. Her dad’s been remarried three times, and the longest relationship is the current one, with her stepmother of five years.
Her father is on the brink of bankruptcy when the drama opens, and he comes to Ojakkyo ready to reclaim the farm as his only solvent asset. That leads to the Hwang family finding out about Dad’s unfortunate choice not to tell them about this ten-year contract, and Mom’s breakdown at the possibility of losing her farm.
At the same time, Third Son Tae-hee is investigating Ja-eun’s father in a case, when Dad travels to China in a last-ditch effort to save his company, he goes missing in a boat crash. Suddenly Ja-eun’s entire life comes crashing down around her – debt collectors take everything, and her evil stepmother abandons her, leaving her homeless and alone.
The stepmother’s abandonment is heart-wrenching, as Ja-eun tells her that she called her Mom because their five years together was the longest she’s ever had a mother. (Her birth mother died when she was a baby.) When she confesses to knowing that it was a sham but wanting her as a mom anyway, it guts me.
Left penniless and adrift, she wanders the streets with one bag and the last remnants of her father – among them a picture of her and Dad, inside which she finds the contract for Ojakkyo Farm. Seeing it as her lifeline, she arrives on the Hwang Family’s doorstep, ready to claim what’s hers. Thus begins the real drama, of Mom vs. Ja-eun, for that one very crucial piece of land.
It’s a great conflict because you can see why both women feel like the farm is theirs, and why each deserves it. Ja-eun is alone in the world and this is her means of survival, while Mom’s poured ten years of her life into making this farm what it is, and can’t bear to hand it over to some strange girl.
Even in the first ten episodes, the setup takes a few turns. Mom’s first reaction to Ja-eun’s arrival is to kick her to the curb, but then Dad feels terrible for her plight and wants to take her in as part of the family. Eventually Mom agrees, but only because she sees it as an opportunity to salvage the farm.
Ja-eun has nowhere to go and no family, so she agrees to live there until they figure out what to do, but treats Mom and Dad like an ATM machine, lording the contract over them all the while. Finally Mom snaps and in a moment of weakness, she steals the contract right out of Ja-eun’s purse, and kicks her back to the curb.
It’s Mom’s low point, but she does it out of desperation, and then kicks Ja-eun out partly because she wants to remove any threat to the farm, and partly because she can’t face the guilt of what she’s done. Ja-eun throws a fit, accusing her of stealing the contract, but Mom swears up and down to her entire family that she never laid a hand on it.
Unable to prove anything without the contract, Ja-eun ends up back on the street, spending her nights huddled on the couch at school. What I do like about her is that she’s not spoiled enough not to start working. She picks up any odd jobs that she can, waiting tables and washing dishes, and trying not to cry into her instant ramyun every night.
Throughout all this, she develops an antagonistic bond with Third Son Tae-hee, whom she calls Ajusshi. (She calls the other brothers First Ajusshi, Second Ajusshi, and Maknae Oppa, and when she asks what she should call Tae-hee, his gruff response is “Anything except Oppa.”)
He’s the least talkative one, the prickliest, and they get off on the wrong foot about twelve times. But she inherently trusts him because he’s a cop. It comes from a naïve understanding of the profession, like the way a little kid thinks police officers will always do the right thing. It just happens that he actually is that kind of person and always tells her the truth, albeit in the meanest possible way.
She spends a good long while being angry and lashing out against everyone, culminating in one epic drunken breakdown where she trashes the entire farm and sets the ducks free. It’s pretty damn hilarious. (And mostly harmless, since the ducks just have to be wrangled back in, though the fields she stomps through are another story.)
Mom flips out and has her hauled away by the local police. By now her outbursts are growing more and more shrill and just when I feel like they’ve gone too far with her character (because yes, I feel bad for her, but tantrums are the fastest way to make me stop caring), Tae-hee gives her the talking-to that brings her to her senses.
He yells at her for acting like a child, and simply railing against the universe in a giant pity party. He’s the one to teach her that if there’s something she wants, she has to work for it instead of being angry that life is unfair to her.
So she pulls herself together, stops feeling sorry for herself, and goes to Tae-hee for advice – if she wants the farm, what should she do? He wonders why he’s telling her this, but says, “If you want the farm, you have to move my mother’s heart.”
The next day she spends every last penny she has on camping equipment, and shows up on the family’s doorstep with a pitched tent, this time with a smile and a plan, to win Mom over.
I love where we end up by the end of Episode 10, the setup for what I think will be the best part of the story. Now that we’re past all the screaming and the yelling, Ja-eun’s sunny attitude is bound to make a dent in Mom’s heart, if not break all the way through. Her becoming a part of the family is really what I’m dying to watch, and now that she’s gone through the necessary tribulations to change her outlook, I can’t wait to watch all the family hijinks.
Often times longer family dramas feel extremely slow as far as plot goes, but Ojakkyo feels breezy without being fluffy. There’s a lot of meaty conflict, but people find things out quickly, situations get reversed, then turned over again, and everything moves along at a brisk pace. I love that we can focus on one or two brothers per episode for the main stories, while having the others in the background, so that each character gets their time to shine, in rotation.
One advantage to a longer-running drama is that I can put faith in character arcs that settle in and take their time – when Second Son Tae-bum finds out that Soo-young is pregnant and then acts like a teenager instead of a man, I’m annoyed at him in the moment, but I trust in the story to eventually bring him around. The same goes for Ja-eun, who spends a good deal of time being a spoiled brat to the point I almost give up on her, but then when push comes to shove, she grows up.
I had big question marks about some of the cast when I started this show, but the characters all feel perfectly cast, and most of the actors have surprised me. UEE does a great job being emotionally vulnerable, and commits to the funny, which I didn’t really expect from her. Ryu Soo-young plays Second Son Tae-bum pitch-perfectly as that cocky bastard that you want to kick in the shins… and then climb like a tree.
Joo Won is a standout as Third Son Tae-hee, alternating from intense action hero to sweet puppy grandson, and he has maybe the prettiest eyes of any human being ever. Though it’s early for romance, the sparks are flying between Tae-hee and Ja-eun, and they have great chemistry together, as do Tae-bum and Soo-young.
I think what clicks with me most is the tone of the show – it’s light, so that even the most dire of conflicts isn’t played for overwrought high drama. Everything is done with a touch of humor and warmth, and every character has good traits and bad.
My favorite parts are always when the brothers are gathered together, in twos or threes, and especially all four at once. They’re so fantastically layered and completely different from each other, and the way they fight and push each other’s buttons feels so realistically petty. If I have a complaint about the show, it’s that I’d rather have the brothers all together all day, every day.
I’m in it for the long haul, but there’s no time in this dimension for 58 recaps, so I’ll check in periodically, to give you my thoughts and weigh in on the Hwang Family and their newest resident plucky duck.