Drama Reactions & Reviews
Dramaland: The gift that keeps on giving [Year In Review, Part 5]
by | December 24, 2012 | 141 Comments

If there’s anything that Santa has taught me over the years (other than a musical mnemonic about single-malt scotches), it’s that Christmas is a time of giving. Dramaland gives us so much throughout the year, that I thought it was finally time for me to stop being a grinch and give back, out of the goodness of my heart. *waits for credit*

So this year I’ve made a Christmas list, and every drama I’ve watched this year is on it. Because everyone deserves presents. Yes, even you, Show.

 
SONG OF THE DAY

The King 2 Hearts OST – “Hang-ah’s Dream” [ Download ]

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The Moon That Embraces the Sun

My gift to you: A treadmill. So you can work out all your, um, frustrations.

There was perhaps no prettier drama in 2012 than The Moon That Embraces the Sun. Even twelve months later the visual appeal of its world still leaves a very distinct mark—one with rich, vibrant colors, costumes that made you want to twirl vicariously, and every single thing framed artfully for maximum purty factor. (Why yes, that is a technical term.) It was a version of Joseon told through the eyes of an art director. The politics might’ve gone to hell, but damnit, we were going to color-coordinate!

It was, in a word, beautiful. I’m about to tell you a bunch of things it also wasn’t, but I wanted to give it credit for that, because Moon/Sun was the kind of beautiful that made you take notice.

What it wasn’t: a complete story. This show did what a lot of dramas did this year in setting up a really great premise, and then letting it hang there like a limp rag. Or perhaps a vision more befitting this drama: What magic there was, made its grand entrance, and then flitted away like butterflies. It started out with a sense of grandeur and a touch of mysticism, promising a complex tale of how love, politics, and planetary alignment would change the course of a kingdom. What we got instead was a king who was hung up on his first love and a metaphor milked so dry it became a running joke.

One of the most common complaints about this series is that the child actors were better than the adults; I’d argue that the problem is not with the actors at all, but with the writing. The actors transitioned from teens to adults, but the characters remained exactly the same—stunted, immature, and therefore stuck. Things that were cute from the child set—the dedication to first love, the raw pain from that first scar—suddenly seemed weirdly obsessive, emotionally stunted, and just plain sad from the adults. And that sense of puerility informed everything in the drama, until our main characters became foolish people who had only one dimension, and would throw away a kingdom, or sacrifice themselves in turn so many times that you forgot who was being tried for what and why… all in the name of love. Sometimes all-consuming love can be romantic and grand, and other times it can seem harmfully persistent; the onus is on the writing to make it one over the other, and sadly this drama never managed to get there.

And while it was new, I suppose, to hinge an entire plot on a king’s inability to consummate his marriage (because One Twu Wuv will do that to a libido if you’re not careful), I really would’ve rather he’d gotten laid and moved the hell on, for his own sake. And okay, a little for mine.

 

Shut Up: Flower Boy Band

My gift to you: Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

If there was ever a show that could perfectly capture the quiet loneliness of adolescence or the universal feeling of being adrift in a big world, this is it. I have a feeling School 2013 will do the same in the new year, but for 2012, it was Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, which took the opposite approach from many dramas this year and told a very small story. But what a story, and told with such fire and raw emotion.

On the surface this is just a drama about a group of boys bound by music and their status as outsiders. But it’s in the telling of the story that this drama becomes a different beast entirely—it had a dark, realistic tone that felt like the expression of someone who has keenly felt the angst portrayed onscreen. Its world was stripped of that shiny drama polish, and there were no miracle cure-alls for those who didn’t fit, whose purposelessness defined them. It sounds rather bleak, but it wasn’t, really. Just… honest, or for lack of a less-cheesy word—real—about what it feels like to be young and a little lost.

But if it were just a gritty portrayal of teenage angst, it wouldn’t have done anything more than make me sad. What Shut Up did was turn angst into fuel for seeking out friendships, fighting against the world’s expectations, and for artistic expression. Music became a lifeline and the band became family, for boys who had no one but each other. There’s something about found families that will never fail to move me, and this drama had the best of them, hands down.

That doesn’t mean the show didn’t have its failings, like the rich high school setup with the competing rich boy band that was all a little too pat, or the record label conflicts that I ultimately never cared about. And even some of the main conflicts between the boys were misunderstandings that could’ve easily been avoided. But some shows burst onto the scene with such energy and force that they leave an aftershock and those things tend to fade away. Now, almost a year later, what I remember is the music, and the emotion behind it. This show did what I wished all dramas would do: it put feeling behind every beat and every line of its songs, so much that you really felt your heart go thud when Ji-hyuk pounded on his chest as he belted out that chorus. It’s not something big, but it is something amazing.

 

Twelve Men in a Year

My gift to you: 12 stuffed stockings.

This was a cute, light rom-com among the many cable offerings this year, and though it did hit all the right genre notes and was a really breezy watch, it was ultimately forgettable. It featured a good episodic premise—a woman dates a different guy for each astrological sign of the year, so she can write a featured column about it at her magazine.

It sounds great in a one-line description, but I think it would’ve worked out much better if the heroine had been a little more gung-ho about her own mission. For a drama titled Twelve Men in a Year, the heroine was rather unenthused about having to date a bunch of hot guys, which made me want to shove her aside and say, I’ll take the job. It’s just that we’ve seen this character in better incarnations before, and let’s just say, Carrie Bradshaw wouldn’t have let the opportunity slide.

There was a cute friendship at the core, and once the heroine was onboard there were some dating hijinks (and mishaps, oy) and she even ended up with the guy I wanted her to choose. So all in all good and happy and all that. But I couldn’t tell you anything memorable about it, a scene or a line that stood out, or one thing that made me laugh out loud. It was sort of a paint-by-numbers rom-com that did what it was supposed to, but not much more than that.

I’d rather have waited longer for her to go through more Mr. Wrongs before finding Mr. Right (She didn’t even date all twelve guys!), but the drama seemed content to have her dip her toe into the experiment rather than go whole hog, either fearing that she might’ve dated too many and sullied her image (Boooooo), or that we might’ve gotten tired of the parade of hot guys (Whaaaaat). It was perhaps a case of false advertising: if you hadn’t told me in your title that there would be a dirty dozen, I would’ve dialed my expectations down to a saucy six-pack.

 

Rooftop Prince

My gift to you: Ugly Christmas sweater. Werk it.

Rooftop Prince had the problem of being both too silly and too serious—there was about 50% of that drama that didn’t feel like it fit into the rest, and the tone suffered a great deal because of it. I basically loved the cute, light comedy, the fun chemistry between the leads, and the hallmark time-traveling hijinks that you’d tune in for in the first place. I mean, there’s just never a day that newness to the inner workings of a toilet isn’t funny.

The other half was this fairly convoluted family drama with a corporate takeover and a birth secret that sapped all the fun out of the comedic half. If it were done well, and made to be dramatically gripping and tense, heck believable even, I would’ve been along for the ride. But I just didn’t care about that family in the least, and any screen time spent away from our time-traveling prince and his minions made me less and less invested.

That’s not to say that the funny didn’t do its job in getting me to keep watching—Yoochun’s whiny displaced haughty prince is basically my favorite character of his, despite the fact that you’d have to sit through the rest of this drama to see it. The comedic gems are just that—gems—but there’s a whole lot of dirt you have to dig through to come out with a few precious stones.

It’s a drama that had about four good episodes’ worth of material, and decided to fill the rest with a stable of rotating drama clichés. And even then, I would’ve forgiven a lot of that if the endgame had left me with a resolution that capped off our initial premise with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Instead I just wanted to throw things, because I may not know all the truths of the universe, but this I know: MY DOPPELGÄNGER IS NOT ME.

 

The King 2 Hearts

My gift to you: A shiny toy bot. *sniff*

The King 2 Hearts… was a weird drama. In the end it may have left a stronger impression as a romance or even a fantasy-political-action hybrid, but that’s not at all what hooked me on the show. In fact, it was its weirdness that made me watch in the first place. It was just strange—the farcical North-South war rooms, the fisheye faces talking into the camera, the absurd humor of a war breaking out over girl group fandom… It was basically juuuuuust off-kilter enough to make me curious, and then before I knew it, I was the lunatic going: What is this strange new crack and can I have some more?

I’m still hard-pressed to pick a genre for this show, because I don’t know what it is. Is it a love story? A political thriller? A comedy? A melodrama? Is it the unholy lovechild of Dr. Strangelove, Shiri, and The Princess Bride? Or maybe it was none of those things, and it was just your basic Romeo who fell in love with Juliet the Communist Capulet. I don’t know. But whatever strange alchemy it was, made it addictive like none other. It wasn’t the best drama of the year, or the most sensical, but I laughed out loud, cursed at the screen, and bawled my eyes out watching this show more than any other this year. That might make me a crazy person, but that’s just the bus I’m on.

What this show did right were two crucial parts of the story that really carried everything else—the character development of a weak, whiny, pessimistic prince into a king worthy of his best soldiers, and a love story between two strong-willed equals who represented each part of the North-South political divide. Without either of those things, this drama would’ve fallen apart under the weight of all the plotular political warring. But when you have each side of your war represented by the two leads in your love story, it gives narrative meaning to every standoff. Badass fight: cool. Badass fight where our couple’s future hangs in the balance: gripping.

I guess none of that would’ve mattered if the couple weren’t one that we were rooting for, but they were my favorite couple of the year, hands down. At times petty and immature, other times dangerous (Some couples fight with words; others fight with guns and atomic needles.), they were the most contentious pair of people to meet in dramaland this year, but also the two who would overcome the most together, as a team.

This show had a really wide pendulum: it ranged from wacky to sweepingly romantic, from action-packed to tear-jerking, and from beautifully-shot (and perfectly-lit) to inducing cries of WTF, bad guys, no really, WTF. But it was ambitious, and idealistic, and it told a complete story from beginning to end, of turning a prince into a person before he could become a king who was his people. And it turns out, when your people are badasses, you can become a pretty awesome king.

 

Queen In-hyun’s Man

My gift to you: A landline and a cigarette.

You know, despite romance being the central conflict of almost every drama out there, few are actually romantic. Queen Inhyun’s Man was going to be, by all accounts, just another time-traveling drama in a sea of time-traveling dramas. And an unnoticed underdog on a cable network at that. But it did something smart—it used that time/space conundrum as a device to fuel a romance, instead of the other way around.

That meant it was laser-focused on one thing and one thing alone: how can these two people be together when they are separated by time and space? Nothing else mattered and any secondary conflict that was there still came back around to that fundamental question. Narratively, it’s genius-simple: you separate two lovers by the biggest divide imaginable, and watch them fight their way back to each other.

And the romance isn’t in the chemistry (though obviously, there was enough of that to power a whole city) but in the grandness of that scale, and what distance they’re willing to travel to be together, and most importantly the conscious choices made at every turn. In a dramaland that is so often filled with characters who react to the whims of Fate, it was so nice to watch two people who insisted on being free agents, and called a horse a horse, and a physical attraction a physical attraction. The second the heroine grabbed our hero for a kiss in the elevator and lied that it was how people said hello and goodbye, I knew I loved her. And even with the fantastical premise, it was the characters’ ordinariness that stood out. It wasn’t that they were chosen or more special than anyone else; they were simply people who grabbed what chance gave them and chose love over everything else.

The drama stuck to its guns too, and carried that idea to its end—that love, and the human will, can overcome any divide and traverse any distance. I wish the magical mechanism—the how of it all—didn’t come from left field in the final hour, because the message behind it is one I can totally get behind. It’s the stuff of fantasies, the most romantic notion of them all: that love conquers all.

 

A Gentleman’s Dignity

My gift to you: Season pass to laser tag.

This show takes the cake this year for the drama with the least drama. And though you might think that doesn’t sound half bad, you’d be mistaken, or worse—bored. A Gentleman’s Dignity was a drama that put all its beans into a casting coup, and then stopped working. Because what else do you need when you have Jang Dong-gun headlining your drama?

Turns out a story with a conflict might be nice, but this show shied away from the conventional setups and chose instead to tell a loose series of vignettes, like taking a glimpse into the lives four forty-something best friends. It did make for a nice, easy viewing experience, in which you didn’t need to be fully invested to be a part of the world. In fact it was sort of like watching Saturday morning cartoons when you were little—even if you missed an episode it wouldn’t have mattered, because every episode sets back to zero and none of the characters change over the course of the show.

This show wasn’t quite so episodic or loose, but it certainly took a different approach in that conflict did not drive this train. Part of the reason is because the characters are fully-grown adults, and none of the problems they face are actually all that… problematic. At some point you just find yourself saying, “Well, you make your choices and you live with them. So… make a choice.”

What I did enjoy about the drama was the focus on men of a certain age, and all the attendant worries and insecurities. When the show was about the friendship, it delivered what we were promised—a frank and funny look at the everyday problems of the modern manchild. And that was fun. It was witty and charming, and the actors were willing to look ridiculous for the part. It just would’ve been great if they had been given a story worth their salt to go with.

 

The Chaser

My gift to you: #1 Dad mug.

Oddly enough, in a sea of fantasies, fusion sageuks, and melodramas in 2012, it’s actually a drama like The Chaser that stands out from the pack for being different. It’s best characterized as both a law drama and a political thriller, even though really, it’s just the story of a father trying to get justice for his daughter’s murder, and having to go up against the entire system to do it. It’s one man against The Man, and it turned out some of the most stirring ideas and quiet performances of the year.

The Chaser was a writer’s drama through and through, and I mean that both in positive and negative ways. Its star is the writing, with pages and pages of monologues and moving speeches, taut suspense and sharp dialogue, and the best character motivation I’ve seen all year, in any drama. Seriously, I’m pretty sure nobody picked up a spoon to eat a meal without proper underlying character motivation in this drama. But on the flipside, it was very lacking in production value in the other arenas (save for the actors, but I’ll get to them). It may have been budget, a limited director, or likely both, but the drama consisted mainly of talking heads. There were a handful of sets, the usual two or three camera angles, and the same people talked at each other in slightly varying configurations. All the time. It wasn’t a looker, this show. And what action there was, was quickly and cheaply done. To the show’s credit, it was written in a way that you could actually get away with it, but I would love to see this writer get paired with a massive budget next time around.

The drama featured two parallel trajectories: Dad (Sohn Hyun-joo), a detective who loses his daughter (and later his wife) as a result of a horrible homicide, and a presidential candidate (Kim Sang-joong), who is responsible for the crime. One discovers that the system he dedicated his life to protect and serve crumbles under the corruption of money and power, while the other uses that corrupt power to rise to the highest seat in the country.

It’s fantastic, and they’re both amazing in their roles—Dad of course is just the most upright stalwart hero and you love him right away, but even the villain is magnetic, and you catch yourself nodding along as he says stuff, forgetting that he’s eeeeevil. And one of my favorite performances in the drama was from the villain’s villain (everyone’s got a bigger foe, even the bad guy), played by veteran Park Geun-hyung. He’s usually the nasty chairman in every drama, but here he had this lilting accent and sweet country demeanor, and he’d smile at you, tell you your life was over, and then offer you dessert all in one breath. It was a thing of beauty.

But the standout was what the drama wanted to say. A man puts his trust in the justice system, and you watch as it fails him with one crushing blow after another, until he finally takes the law into his own hands. That much we’ve seen in every revenge film out there. But here he spends the drama finding a way to uncover the truth to the world, not because of revenge, but to make sure that no one else is fooled by this corrupt man’s power. And what he does is really moving—he gets the truth out there on election day, and the fate of the villain (and the country) is left in the people’s hands. There’s this sequence of people closing up shop and going out in droves to vote that really leaves a lasting impression. This show was dark in its characterization of human nature and greed, but it was also hopeful that the country would find a way to recover in a failed system. There’s a lot more to the hero and villain’s journeys that go beyond election day, but the fact that this man comes back and chooses to put his faith in the system again says it all.

 
Gaksital OST – “Gaksital” [ Download ]

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Gaksital

My gift to you: Steel underpants. Sumthin’s gotta holster those balls o’ steel.

That theme song just triggers such a visceral reaction in me: I suddenly feel like a masked crusader will leap down from a tall building and fly across my path, on his way to avenge the wrongs of my fellow man. All is right with the world because for every evil empire that springs up, so does a hero who protects the people. That’s the power of a comic book superhero—it’s the archetype and the belief that is more powerful than any one man or woman can ever be. And that, in a nutshell, is what Gaksital proved so compellingly as a drama, a character, and an idea.

As a show it wasn’t without problems; the writing fell short more times than I care to recall in its longish 28-episode run. There were huge character points that were left underdeveloped for long stretches of time, key hero moments for major characters that were totally wasted, covert ops that were hilariously simple. But then there were moments of absolute perfection too. It was a drama with peaks and valleys, where the peaks were so damn high that you got your head stuck in the clouds and forgot to look down. It was hands-down a director’s drama, and the best of the year in that regard. There is no other show that comes close to the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, explosive visual energy of Gaksital, that could move you to chills or tears with action, movement, and music alone.

This drama dared to go to some really deep, dark pits of dank, dank darkness with its characters. I still feel a shudder when I think about our hero before he became Gaksital, or the long and harrowed road to hell that we watched our villain take one step at a time. Even if the Occupation/Independence backdrop hadn’t existed for their world, theirs would’ve been one helluva story.

What Gakistal managed to do with a fictional hero was imbue a painful part of history with the reminder that there were actual heroes—brave individuals who fought for their country against insurmountable odds, not because they thought they could win, but because they had to fight. Some dramas disappear from your memory like vapor the second you’re not watching anymore, while others leave a range of aftertastes that may be pleasant or terribly bitter. And some dramas cut you so deep you’re left standing by the side of the road, clutching your bleeding heart, and wondering when you’ll ever recover. Maybe never.

But maybe, that’s the way it should be.

 

I Do, I Do

My gift to you: A chance to raid each other’s shoe closets. This in no way benefits me alone.

I’ve never loved your run-of-the-mill workplace dramas, and will usually only watch them if they have a particularly great couple who makes the bulk of the corporate plot go by faster. I watched I Do, I Do expecting that with the oops-pregnancy storyline and the noona romance, the work stuff would really take a backseat. Sadly, I was mistaken and I had to sit through a lot of really boring shoe design and characters’ fates hanging in the balance over shoes, which I honestly couldn’t be paid to care about.

The other problem I ran into with this show is that I never liked Kim Sun-ah’s heroine. She was admirable, whip-smart, and she was a ball-buster for sure, but she was so cold that I watched the drama feeling a lot like our hero: berated, yelled-at, made to feel sorry without knowing why. It made me wonder why we couldn’t get a heroine who was successful without being so bristly. I loved the gender power reversal, but it seemed like they felt the need to compensate for that with such extreme characterization that it kept her from having more dimensions. In the end I appreciated her struggle with wanting to be a mom without losing the life she had built, but we were made to wait far too long before ever reaching that conflict.

It did turn out to be a great role for Lee Jang-woo, who was just adorable and perfect as the plucky Candy-hero, a character type I’d love to see more of in dramaland. The show itself didn’t live up to its potential, due in large part to the fact that it announced itself as a story about an unplanned pregnancy, and then took its sweet ass time in getting there when we already knew what was coming. I felt a little like Show had invited me to a party and I came with my party hat on, only to be told to wait eight hours till the hostess arrived. No amount of party punch will take the edge off of that.

 

Big

My gift to you: A picture of the present I got for your brother.

So Big committed a lot of drama crimes this year, and many could argue that there are worse dramas (true), more appalling fails in logic (also true), and dramas far less enjoyable in the grand scheme of things (yes, I’ll give you that). But there is something fundamentally different about a drama that negates its own premise—we end up feeling cheated, in a way that overpowers the other stuff. It isn’t quantity, but an emotional response to being told it was all for nothing.

It’s funny, but in some ways, I’m not that disappointed with Big because the series failed to ever get me in the heart. And that was confusing most of all for me, who was pretty much primed to love this show from the moment it was cast. But there is a harsh truth in dramaland that we all learn sooner or later: Nothing, not even your love of Oppa, can win over bad writing.

I know. You hold on for longer than is reasonable, hoping against hope that it’s not true. But it is. It really is. The rub of it is, I already knew this to be true, having been burned by many a drama before. What I did not expect was to have the rug pulled out from under me by the Hong sisters. They’re far from perfect and I don’t love all their dramas, but this series actually felt like they had gotten their souls swapped out of their bodies, to be replaced by writers who were sleepy and a little bored. I missed their wacky humor, their crazy metaphors, and most all, their spark.

What’s even more puzzling is the fact that the premise is one of the simplest and most straightforward narratives you could have in the genre. It’s Big, 13 Going on 30, 17 Again, 49 Days, Who Are You?, on and on and on—you put someone in someone else’s body and difficult lessons are learned about what it’s like to be someone who is the total opposite of you. You get to live a little in someone else’s shoes that you thought were fancier than your own and then you are put back, having grown as a person and appreciating your own shoes, just the way they are.

And the thing you get to walk away from that with is: the person who loves you will see you for you, no matter whose body you’re wearing. That means you have one job—to show us that this love is the same, forwards, backwards, in the body of a man, woman, talking dog, or dancing mouse. That’s it. That’s all. There’s literally nothing else you have to do. It’s the silver platter of rom-coms. You just follow the formula and the win is handed to you, because it’s tried and freaking true.

It was clear early on that this show was never going to reach the head of the pack, but the contract you have with your audience is that you will do very minimal job of following through on your own premise. It’s actually mind-boggling to me that a pair of seasoned writers could muck that up somehow. But there you have it. Silver platter, blown to smithereens. Perhaps not the gravest crime ever committed in dramaland, but damn does it ever leave a bite.

 

I Need Romance 2012

My gift to you: What you gave me last year.

This was a spin-off of last year’s winning rom-com I Need Romance that never quite clicked for me. And strangely, I never could quite pinpoint why. I think it was a combination of a lot of little things rather than one gaping flaw, because it has all the ingredients and it tells a whole story, but it never moved me or made me care.

The first red flag: I didn’t love the heroine. Jung Yumi played her well, but she was finicky, often selfish, hot and cold, and seemed to put the blame elsewhere when she didn’t know what she wanted. I never felt completely with her, even though she was an empathetic character with cute quirks. And the hero was frustratingly closed off, only to find out later that it was because he’s been a big noble idiot his whole life. Sigh.

Maybe it was the living in a duplex with your ex that weirded me out, because no amount of real estate is worth that kind of aggravation in my book, no matter how many times you might get back together and break up again. I would still pack my bags and move out, even if it were the hundredth time. Perhaps if they had made the house a point of contention, it might’ve motivated the forced proximity, and I would’ve gotten over that hurdle.

I watched with a glimmer of hope that they might choose to tell a different kind of story this year, and give the second lead a chance. It was the only relationship that seemed remotely healthy, and I at least got a cute little romance out of their arc. Alas, the series decided not to do anything new this year, so what I got was a lesser version of the show that I saw last year, because I never really took to the characters. Nothing about this drama is bad in and of itself; it’s just tepid, in a genre where everything should be fire and ice.

 

Panda and Hedgehog

My gift to you: A wormhole. Everyone else got one this year. Thought you’d feel left out.

This was a bad drama. I was seduced by the pretty pastries, I tell you, and I paid the price. There were things about it that were cute and made it easy to watch, like the main couple who were ridiculously juvenile but also kind of sweet and simple. And the hero’s relationship with his gramps was actually the reason I ever even watched past the first episode.

But the story was terribly uneven: one half was birth secrets and corporate takeovers, while the other was cute flirting over baked goods. And really, even that might’ve been tolerable had any of it been acted well. But it had the one-two combination of a bad director and a not-so-great cast… and it turns out when you combine those things, they add up to less than the sum of their parts.

I think there were some salvageable threads, like the odd love triangle where the two boys ended up friends and kind of pulled the rug out from under the heroine by choosing bromance—that was unexpected and really funny. (It’s not like she totally gets shafted; they just beat her to the punch.) And it had a quirky collection of side characters that I thought were a nice change of pace from the usual friends you get in a rom-com.

Overall the drama was half-baked in execution, but I could see that the recipe had good intentions behind it. Too bad good intentions don’t count for beans in dramaland.

 

To The Beautiful You

My gift to you: A chance to explain yourself.

I did not understand why anyone did anything in this drama. The end.

 
 
H.O.T. – “Candy” [ Download ]

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Answer Me, 1997

My gift to you: My teenage diary, so you can feel MY embarrassing adolescent pain. It’s only fair. You did it to me.

High school dramas that are done well have this way of unifying an audience, because even though we all define ourselves differently as adults—by occupation, by nationality, by relationship status—the things we feel in adolescence are much the same. Like that terrifying first act of defiance, that all-consuming first crush, that rush of emotion at your first taste of fandom, all part and parcel of the same thing: heightened, intense, raw energy. And even though Answer Me 1997 told a very specific story about a group of kids in one town in the late 90s, it spoke to a larger audience because it captured that universality so pitch-perfectly.

For me, it was doubly so, because part of my actual adolescent memories include my first CD player, that first H.O.T. album, and watching copies of copies of dramas on VHS. But the more important thing is, if the show had just thrown a couple of jokes or references around to mark the time and moved on, it would have been set in 1997, but it wouldn’t have felt like 1997. I don’t know that it mattered much whether it was set in any one era over another; just that the sense of realism was faithfully translated, so it could transport us to a world like any other. This drama’s world felt lived-in, painstakingly and lovingly detailed by creators who had lived the moments the characters were going through, and it showed.

There are about a million things I loved about this drama, from its music, to its bright-eyed cast, to its directorial sense of humor. But if this show gets a trophy for anything, it’s the writers who get to take that sucker home. This is a show that knew what it wanted to say. And despite jumping around in time more than I could count, it never felt like there wasn’t a properly motivated, story-based reason why. They took their time to reveal things slowly, suddenly showed the B-side of a scene that changed its meaning entirely, and weren’t afraid to take storytelling risks. And of course the biggie: they created such lovable characters who were so flawed, so earnest, and so relatable in every way.

The thing that sticks with me now are the diary-esque voiceovers from the future that tinged everything with a layer of nostalgia and the tone of a bygone era (though not that bygone, *cough*). They capture in one very economical scene the gap between who you were—young, impetuous, passionate about everything—and who you are now. That to me encompasses the feeling of this show more than anything, because it’s that sense of distance and looking back on yourself that it conveyed so keenly. More than the first love, I remember the moments of insecurity, the fights with Dad, the misunderstandings between friends, and the fevered cries of fangirls that defined a generation and embodied everything amazing, overwhelming, and blindingly bright about being young.

 

Arang and the Magistrate

My gift to you: An audience with heaven. Wait… a chance to cheat death. No, no, I got it: another chance to cheat death. Uh… a gift certificate to Olive Garden?

Arang and the Magistrate was the most fun I had all year, as a recapper. Sometimes these things don’t always match up: just because a drama is amazing doesn’t actually mean it’s easy to recap, and just because a show is funny doesn’t mean that it’s fun to recap either. I don’t know what the science of it is, and if it involves math you know I’m down for the count. But whatever the reason, Arang and I had a grand ol’ time. It was just breezy, and whimsical, and mysterious in all the right ways, and writing about it was just plain fun.

That’s probably due in large part to the mythology of its world, filled with twin gods, grim reapers, ghosts, and portals to the netherworld. It was carefully planned in both an artistic and narrative way, which meant that I could delve into the world with the best feeling—one of trust, that we were going someplace that made sense based on the rules of this universe.

The thing that really drove the show was a winning couple, bursting with chemistry, and a high-stakes love challenged by the divide between life and death. There’s just nothing like knowing how doomed you are if you fall in love with someone… to make you fall in love with them. Lee Jun-ki’s magistrate had my heart in knots, and was one of the best drama heroes this year, in a year filled with some really strong competition. I’ve actually loved Shin Mina more in other roles, (It’s just frankly hard to top her gumiho.) and it would’ve helped if Arang had retained her spunk throughout the series.

But what I did love from her was the quiet journey of facing and accepting her death. I thought it such a poignant thing that Arang’s central journey was never to cheat death at all, but to find out who she was when she was alive, and to put meaning to that retroactively. I loved that she went from someone who didn’t care if she existed at all, to someone who wanted desperately to leave a mark that she was here, to be remembered and loved. It was so simple, and lovely, in the best way.

Arang had a great deal of missteps along the way, notably a scaling down in production as the live shoot caught up with them, a villain who was scary but rather one-dimensional, and a third act that palpably prolonged the conflict for no apparent reason other than it had more episodes left to go. But now that the year is over I can look back and say that Arang is among the best of the shows that 2012 had to offer—it’s not the loudest, the one that claims the most attention, or even the most memorable, but sometimes the wallflower has the most to say, if you just spend a little time with her.

 

Faith

My gift to you: Eggnog recipe from Santa. Puts hair on your chest and makes you forget the last year.

Faith is a production that suffered a great deal before ever airing one episode, languishing in development hell where it suffered its most crippling blow: the loss of a large part of its massive budget. And at the end of the day, it was a loss that it never truly recovered from. Here’s the thing though—that explains the circumstances, but isn’t a viable excuse. A creative director finds a way around any budget cut, because you film around your limitations to hide what it is you lack. This director had all the finesse of a bull in a china shop, and somehow managed to make the flaws even more glaringly apparent. And it kind of killed me.

That’s not to say that the rest of the production comes up smelling like roses either. There’s so much about Faith that interests me, on paper: the late-Goryeo-era politics, the fictional re-imagining of a real-life hero in General Choi Young, the epic love divided by time and space, the story of a weak king and his stalwart soldier, the outspoken contemporary woman thrown into a constrictive foreign society. All of it gripping, fantastic drama fodder. But… even after twenty-four episodes, I don’t think I got a full drama’s worth of any of those things. Maybe the writer should’ve given up one or two of those threads, for the sake of bringing fewer (or hell, even one) to a satisfying conclusion. Or maybe we would’ve had plenty of time for that with fewer poisonings and one less round of pass-the-doc.

What could be salvaged out of the wreckage was a sweet romance, though it never quite went to an epic place for me. I liked the humorless hero and the winning heroine, and they had an easy, cheery kind of chemistry that always put a smile on my face. But they didn’t have a magnetic force, nor was their story written to be that kind of love. It was as much about love as honor and duty to one’s promise, which I rather liked, because so often dramas pit love against those things, as if they’re naturally opposed. Though I wanted so much more from the story, it at least managed to do get that one thing right. I suppose a heroic warrior who loves, lives, and dies by his word isn’t the worst thing to walk away from a drama with.

 

Nice Guy

My gift to you: A lump of coal, you naughty boy.

Okay, I’m just gonna go ahead and say it, to get it out of my system: Dear characters of Nice Guy, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?

I feel better, don’t you?

I find the hype around Nice Guy to be really fascinating, because I watched this show calling it a guilty pleasure drama, the way you’d talk about your daytime soap addiction or that one summer you spent watching Temptation Island that you swore to never speak of. I don’t really mean it was of equal quality, but this show was sudsy, just dressed up in fancy clothes. That made it fun to watch actually, because it zoomed along with one life-altering secret exposed after another, memories gone, recovered, then gone again soon after, and the ace in the hole—exploding brain—rearing its ugly head whenever the threat of total destruction wasn’t quite up to par.

So I watched Nice Guy and enjoyed it immensely from hour to hour, but had no emotional attachment to any of the characters. Because, uh, they were all terrible people. There were certainly those who were less terrible than others, and some got much more pleasant personalities thanks to amnesia, but no amount of nice guy good intentions wrapped in a savior complex topped with lack of self-worth trumps acting like a bastard. Just sayin’.

The fun was in watching the performances, because the characters were so delightfully twisted. In fact, I would’ve rather it stopped trying to justify how Maru was really the most victimy martyr in the whole freaking universe, because I thought him far more interesting when he was leering and dubious and the One-Eyed Kissing Bandit. Not likable, mind you, but more interesting. It didn’t help that the latter half of the drama featured a corporation takeover plot that paled in comparison to leaping off bridges and moonlighting as a gigolo, which you have to admit, is as engrossing as it is nutty.

This show doesn’t leave much behind for me, because it’s the kind of drama that’s enjoyable at the time and doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste. Though I guess it does leave me with the faint association of sneaking around the parents’ liquor cabinet. Because if watching a bunch of people tear each other’s lives apart isn’t a guilty pleasure drama, I don’t know what is.

 

Vampire Prosecutor 2

My gift to you: Tickets to Muppets on Ice. I hear they’re doing Count von Count’s origin story this year.

This season of Vampire Prosecutor has me torn. On the one hand, I love, love, love Yeon Jung-hoon as this character. It’s just my favorite thing he’s ever done, and I want him to BE the vampire prosecutor in real life (okay, just the ‘tude, minus the blood-sucking). It’s the kind of character you want to see someone play for ten years and be so sick of that he refuses to talk about it in interviews afterwards because we can’t stop seeing him as that guy. And all signs point to cable network OCN wanting the same.

I was all prepared for this show to sustain that kind of longevity, which is rare in dramaland (though not unheard of). And though it’s still early in the franchise if you think about it that way, I feel like it’s that mentality that hurts the writing. Usually, when a multi-season show plans its arcs with a much longer scope (say year-to-year, rather than episode-to-episode), you get the goods. Vampire seems like it’s still feeling its way around that kind of writing, and it shows in the second season.

They pulled back and opened up the world, and I got excited that we would delve into the mythology of this universe’s vampires, and get some meaty backstory on how our pivotal characters are all connected. But what we got was piecemeal flashback after flashback, and a maybe-origin story in which we were never told whether or not Red Eyes was the first vampire of them all, and how (and if) and why he was made. We spent less time with our core team because of it, and if the time had yielded some mind-blowing answers, or heck, ANY answers, it would’ve been worth it.

Mostly we were left with a second season that felt like a bridge to somewhere else. And while bridges are necessary, if you don’t bring us to the other side of wherever it is you’re going by the end of it, you leave us annoyed and wondering if maybe we should just head back the way we came. The thing is, I’m not sure that the writers know where they’re going either, and if they do, they’re being so damn stingy about sharing any information that we feel left behind in the process. I want you to be better. I want to watch Yeon Jung-hoon be the sexy bastard until it is no longer believable that he is a vampire who doesn’t age. But you gotta give us more than breadcrumbs, no matter how hot, cold, or undead your hero might be.

 
AND CURRENTLY AIRING…

King of Dramas

My gift to you: Your ego in cat form. So you can stroke it yourself.

What a fun show. So many (and really, too many) dramas use dramaland itself as a backdrop because it’s easy, familiar, and best of all, cost-effective. But few ever delve into the world in any meaningful way. That’s why King of Dramas, despite doing nothing particularly new, is actually immensely refreshing. It feels new because it’s unapologetic and incisive, and yet not so self-serious that you’d roll your eyes at the drama that wants to say something about Dramas. It has the perfect amount of undercutting and self-mockery to keep it firmly planted in fun and witty territory, even if you can tell this a show that loves itself, a whole lot.

This drama is basically a funhouse of mirrors, but one that remembered to have strong characters and an underdog story at its core. Because while self-referential humor is funny, it won’t carry a narrative alone. The key is that the characters are developed well enough that we care about the drama-within-a-drama only inasmuch as it matters to them. It’s pretty ingenious to set up a plot where all the things that could possibly go wrong behind the scenes of a drama are the things that go wrong in the drama. And even though it’s slightly unbelievable that all of these problems could plague one production, we know enough of what happens in real-life showbiz that it’s not that big a stretch of the imagination.

And really, any show that produces a riotous character like Choi Siwon’s diva actor deserves to pat itself on the back. Of course the winning combination in this show is the yin and the yang of our two main characters, one world-weary veteran producer who’s seen it all and one bushy-tailed rookie writer whose dreams are finally coming true. They keep the thing from going too far in either extreme, because for every jaded snarky meta reference, it also has an idealistic bright-eyed moment, reminding us that sometimes, the people who make dramas love them as much as we do.

 

I Miss You

My gift to you: A letter telling you that even though I’m standing in front of you to tell you that I miss you, I can’t face you because it hurts too much to miss you knowing you miss me, so I can’t tell you that I miss you. Hence the letter.

This drama wants to cause me pain, and I don’t know what I ever did to it. The thing is, I don’t actually feel all that much pain when I watch. It so clearly wants my tears; I can see the artifice in the drama’s execution, pulling every one of its drama muscles, begging me to cry. The story is engaging enough to watch, but for a melodrama that’s all about the tears, it isn’t actually very moving. It’s putting the cart before the horse; you have to give me reason to cry, not show me lots of crying.

I don’t know if this makes me the worst person ever, but I don’t like the heroine. I feel terrible for what happened to her, and I certainly don’t begrudge the drama for wanting to portray the seriousness and the trauma of what she suffered. But the grown version of her is perplexing, hot and cold, and stringing along two guys. No thank you. Her boyfriend isn’t any better, given his proclivity for watching people on monitors (Creepy), or plotting the demise of us all (Evil).

The hero is great when he’s the Crazy Rabbit, doing his detective thing or being adorable with Mom, but then there’s the other half of him too, who cries A LOT and is still hung up on his first love. At least I get the why behind both characters being sort of emotionally stuck at fifteen, but we’re more than halfway through the story and there’s been so little progression.

Of the love thread, the bad daddy thread, and the murder thread, I actually think the murder is the most interesting of the three major storylines, and would rather it be more of a murder mystery all the way instead of meandering a little here and a little there. I want the drama to commit to a direction, but I have a feeling it’s already chosen one and the only thing at the end of that road is TEARS.

 

And on THAT up-note…

Thanks to javabeans for being a kickass Head Bean In Charge, our recap minions kaedejun, gummimochi, and HeadsNo2 for sharing their reviews and recaps with us throughout the year, and mostly to all of you — our faithful, nutty, one-of-a-kind readers of Dramabeans — for making 2012 a fantastic year.

Stay tuned for more year-end goodness, including Editors’ Picks, coming soon!

 
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