If I Could Turn Back Time [Year in Review, Part 4]
My first year-end review!
I was so excited for this opportunity that I decided to watch as many dramas as I could in preparation this year, and all but forced myself to doggedly stick with obvious train wrecks because I figured, “Hey, at least it’ll give me something to write about.”
If I learned anything, it was that I should never do that again. That’s a life lesson every drama viewer should learn early in their infancy, so I’ll just chalk it up to some late blooming on my part. Ergo, take some of these review choices with a grain of salt and (hopefully) not as a pure representation of taste.
This was the year for time traveling heroes, questionably nice guys, single-minded kings, guardian angels, reapers, rockers, brothers, heroes, and hanbok-wearing chickens. Not every year has a bandwagon, but 2012 sure did; there was more time traveling than you could shake a stick at. And for most of those offerings, you’d be shaking that stick pretty angrily.
Since hindsight is 20/20, I’m riding out this year’s trend by posing this question to each drama: If I could turn back time, what would I do differently?
SONG OF THE DAY
Gaksital OST – Melody Day – “That One Word” [ Download ]
Padam Padam… The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats
jTBC, one of the four fledgling cable networks to rear their heads into the drama world this year, started off with a bang when it aired its flagship production, Padam Padam. Helmed by PD Kim Kyu-tae (A Love to Kill, The World That They Live In) and written by Noh Hee-kyung (also of The World That They Live In), this was a fantasy melodrama for the record books, and one which has stayed at the top of the 2012 list despite being one of the first to air.
On a purely technical level, we had superb and poignant writing that focused on a misunderstood hero struggling to understand and cope with the burden life has given him, only to be given a sort of Groundhog Day-esque chance to change the past and future. I liked that we confronted the idea of whether second chances should be given because they’re deserved, and whether there exists a point of suffering that, once we’ve passed it, deems us worthy to receive some sort of karmic reward.
As Kang-chil, Jung Woo-sung put in a commanding performance, embodying all that it meant to be a man falsely accused and given another chance at life, only to be faced with the mantra: Life just isn’t fair. His journey broke my heart, his urgency to live in the moment when he couldn’t be assured of the next was always palpable, his change over the course of the series poetic. I couldn’t imagine a better actor for this role, as we saw every emotion played out in such stunning, close-up detail, allowing us a deeper and even more intimate peek into a simple man’s very personal, slightly fantastical, and incredibly moving story.
Too often in the scope of the big broadcasters do we get shows that start off strong only to fizzle out by the end, whether due to exhaustion and/or time constraints. So far I’m enjoying cable’s propensity to see a show through, with Padam starting off strong and finishing even stronger, with an ending that was well-conceived and inspiring. In a year where I had gripes with many a drama’s ending, this one stays strong in my memory as a perfect and whimsical bookend to a fantastic and thoroughly engrossing tale.
If I Could: I’d watch it again.
History of the Salaryman
What a delight. Though it started to lag in the second act, History of the Salaryman was the type of drama that gave me hope for the future of dramas and for the medium itself, because it defied all normalcy. It was wacky, bizarre, hilarious, and heartfelt. There was a sense of assuredness in the production that rang of a close-knit team (the director, writer, and even a number of the actors came from 2010’s Giant), making the fun the cast was having with their roles infectious.
Something not immediately evident – which added an extra layer to the proceedings – was the story’s basis in the real-life, historical tale of the Chu-Han Contention, giving us adaptations of Liu Bang (Yoo Bang), Xiang Yu (Hang-woo), and others. The fact that the creators managed to modernize the tale by inserting it into the world of corporate politics (while also renaming their main character after the word “breasts”) was just icing on the cake. You could have gone the whole show without realizing the historical connection, but if you did notice, it was like a whole new world had opened. This is one of those shows that felt thought-out and conceptualized from the ground up, and it showed in all levels of the production.
I was both surprised and pleased that Salaryman performed so solidly in the ratings simply because it was so unconventional. There was a universality we could all take from the characters, whether it was Bang’s struggle to make something of himself when he lacked the intellect or Yeo-chi’s struggle to understand the plight of the poor, to hilarious effect.
Jung Ryeo-won’s propensity to curse like a sailor while managing to inject such heart into her character made Yeo-chi the definitive female role of the year for me – the one to beat – especially when we consider and compare her to all the milquetoast heroines of 2012. Her pairing with the always-wonderful Lee Beom-soo and the rest of the truly talented ensemble made this show something great.
Unfortunately, despite an extension of only two episodes, the ending conflict seemed to stop short of all that we were promised from the source material. While the second act was executed as well as it could have been, it still felt as if we were missing a third act, something to really tie it all back in and complete the story. Sometimes you can’t win ’em all.
If I Could: I’d give them a longer extension (gasp!) if it meant they could include a third act, and then rewind/replay.
The Moon That Embraces The Sun
As someone who loves sageuk, I’ve never taken issue with the fusion-ification of the genre, if only because every genre must evolve in order to survive. The fact that The Moon That Embraces The Sun was able to bring in such a sizeable audience (40%! Higher than Chuno’s groundbreaking numbers in 2010) is something to be commended, right?
Technically, yes. Mentally? No. When first hearing about the premise of a fantasy sageuk, one not based in real history, I thought, “Yeah! That’ll free it from the constraints of eagle-eyed history buffs and allow them to tell any story they want!” Which was partly true, except the story they told was not one that was new, or fresh, or even all that interesting. Really it didn’t even require the historical setting it was based in – the King acted more like a lovesick puppy than a King, the politics were all ham-handed and, in the end, most of it was pretty irrelevant to the love story.
I’m probably the very epitome of an anti-fan when it comes to long childhood backstories, but Moon/Sun was a case where the story was just plain more interesting and better played in the childhood stages, leaving us attached to characters that all but disappeared into their adult forms. Kim Soo-hyun came out strong considering the one-mindedness of his character, but Han Ga-in’s portrayal of the amnesiac Wol/Yeon-woo didn’t ring any meaningful bells for me. Shutting her away in a back room didn’t help much, either.
The conflict wrap-up at the end was simple and lazy, and went to prove that the writers had no plan for any of the satellite characters, or satellite stories, or the main story, even. Too much was sacrificed at the altar of the One True Pairing. But there’s one thing this show never sacrificed, and that was Symbolism. I think I speak for everyone when I say: Yes, thank you, we got it the first twelve times.
If I Could: I’d throw the king a bachelor party and just get it over with.
Operation Proposal was one of those dramas where I think I knew it wasn’t very good, but enjoyed it despite myself. No drama was more repetitive this year, with the same “Renovatio!” sequence played about once every episode, as our hero tried to win back his first love by fixing every, and I mean EVERY, misstep of his from their past.
Where this drama failed was in properly conveying whether this true love was worth 98273 chances. Each change produced its own rippling effect, yet the outcome was always the same: It wasn’t enough. Our hero could give his girl a uniform button, a first kiss, and an amazing rendition of “Nobody” by the Wonder Girls, yet the hand of fate never seemed willing to move the odds back in his favor. In retrospect, it would have been fresher of the drama for him to realize that his first love might just be better off without him.
But when the plot got convoluted and the feelings misplaced, the ensemble cast was there to ground us. The friendship and camaraderie warmed my heart enough to look past all the glittery gold vials, because time was spent developing their stories even as they fell victim to parallel universes and the butterfly effect. The time travel mechanics didn’t always make sense – okay, never really made sense – but these were the kind of things that’d cause nothing but headaches if you thought on them too long. So I didn’t.
Overall we got a complete story out of this drama, with some wonderful acting by Yoo Seung-ho and company. I don’t know if that’s all we should ask for, but it did its job, for the most part. It was fluffy, light, repetitive, yet somehow endearing despite all that. I wouldn’t recommend it to the serious drama connoisseur – but at the time, it was just fine.
If I Could: I probably would have stopped Baek-ho after the 933rd Renovatio. But then I’d have to grapple with seeing less of him, which is a tall order.
Oh, Fashion King. If I had one word to say to you now, it would be “No.” If I had a longer word, it’d be “Nooooooo.”
If we set aside the severe lack of tone, the weird crab fishing/country-hopping interludes, a villain and her offspring out of Devil Wears Prada: If This Movie Really Sucked, the absence of fashion sense (I know!) or likable characters (Iiii know), the undercurrent of racism (people will treat you terribly and commit violent acts against you because this is America), and the suits which made Lee Je-hoon look like he got into a fight with an electric fence – or worse, the suits which made Yoo Ah-in look like he stole them off a schoolboy – Fashion King still gets my vote for worst drama of the year. Yes, even worse than Dr. Jin, and I’d reason that’s based on the fact that at least Jin tried to tell a story, even if it failed miserably. I don’t think the same can be said of Fashion King.
If I squint really hard in order to try to guess what the story was about – via magical powers and telepathy – I still come up empty. Was it about our heroine’s (and I use that term loosely) road to independence? Probably not, since she kept getting pulled around by the two fair gentlemen in her life and knew only the words “Mmm…” and “…No.” Maybe it was about the heroine’s(?) progressive case of Spine-Shrinking Meekness as she became the focus of a love triangle from hell – in which case, we might have something. (Except it wasn’t. At least on purpose, anyway.)
Was it about our second lead working through his daddy issues to become a real, independent business owner? Not really. Was it about our hero’s (again, using that term very loosely) quest to become an acceptable human being? Nope. Was it really about the world of fashion after all? Not really. I can’t even see what the main throughline would be, other than a chance to watch terrible people do terrible things as slowly as possible.
If there was only one character to root for it was the second male lead, which is both a testament to the actor and to the fact that he was the only one who seemed to be trying. (That goes for both Lee Je-hoon as an actor, and his character.) Even though, as far as character traits go, he was also a terrible person. But then when you look at all the characters in this show that didn’t do their actors any favors, a little bit of effort goes a long way.
This was also one of those instances where a ending filled with WTFery did nothing to negate the total effect of the show. Sure, it didn’t make sense and was obviously planned from the beginning, but really, was that one moment worse than all nineteen episodes that came before it?
If I Could: I’d put on a garish fur coat, soak in a rooftop swimming pool, and wait for the inevitable.
The King 2 Hearts
There’s a saying that a hero is only as good as his villain, or as Bruce Willis put it in Die Hard, “Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy.” I think that holds true for a lot of dramas that are hero-centric. While The King 2 Hearts served as a love story amidst the tumultuous North/South divide, it also personified the evils our king had to face in the form of Bong-gu, an international weapons dealer/billionaire played by seasoned actor Yoon Je-moon.
Yoon Je-moon put in a villain performance for the record books in last year’s Tree With Deep Roots, where he was completely cerebral and able to go toe-to-toe with King Sejong the Great. So he’s capable of some amazing stuff, yet he ended up being more of a caricature here than anything, right along with the international politics. (Those outside of Korea, anyway.)
I realize that part of that problem is due to King’s incredibly vast scope in presenting multi-cultural conflicts that spanned from here to the end of the world. I commend the show for attempting such a large-scale endeavor, and when it stayed closer to home, it succeeded. The love story between leads Lee Seung-gi and Ha Ji-won was palpable and something to root for. Earnest Bot’s contribution to the show also goes without saying, even though I’m saying it, because he brought a whole new level of heart to the drama that was unexpected but certainly not unwelcome in a show that had a great deal of heart. (2 of them, actually.)
But it was the very frequent and consistently awful use of foreign day players to act as representatives of their respective countries which sucked me out of the story, time and time again. I wanted to believe the events that were happening, but frankly, it was close to impossible when the man with access to The Red Button (from any English-speaking country, really) sounded like a confused tourist told to read off a post-it note. I understand why we couldn’t get seasoned English-speaking actors in there, but a part of me wondered if the show was in a little over its head in the international politicking department. The heart was all there, that’s for sure. And the camerawork was excellent, too – but the execution of believable international conflicts left a bit to be desired.
Because when faced with a choice of any state in the U.S. to bomb in order to cause an international snafu, our villain – in his infinite wisdom – chose to bomb Michigan. Michigan.
If I could: I’d ask why the king had to have not two, but 2 hearts. (Seriously, I still don’t know why.)
Equator Man had a lot of things going for it: A great cast, a truly traumatic childhood impetus-for-revenge, and jaw-dropping cinematography. Aside from the severely-misguided use of music in the first few episodes, the directing was probably my favorite thing about the show.
I remember thinking that the initial synopsis for this show was doing it a disservice: “A typical melo story about two men with boiling passion.” As if they were trying to assure the audience that a good ol’ garden variety melo story would be thrown in there. In the end, that’s what it felt like – that in the midst of this fascinating tale of revenge and redemption, there was a little bit of melo tacked on there. (I’m using the King of Dramas definition of melo, as something used to pander to the audience. Like an unnecessary love line.)
So, we got a love line with Lee Bo-young, which never did anything meaningful for the story. And every foray into that aspect of the show was like hitting the snooze button on an otherwise intense and very vengeful alarm.
Uhm Tae-woong and Lee Joon-hyuk were stellar, as was most of the veteran ensemble. My heart broke watching these brothers-by-bond experience that one horrible moment you never want in a friendship – you know, the one where your friend tries to bludgeon you to death. The grander plot movements were all there, and the sheer intensity that filled every frame kept me going. But the smaller story movements? Not so much.
I think that time skips and actor-switches have never done a drama a greater disservice than they did here, simply because it’s honestly impossible to buy the fact that Lee Hyun-woo can go to sleep and wake up only a few years later as Uhm Tae-woong. Even if the character, Sun-woo, was left out in the sun during his coma, it just stretched past the realm of suspended disbelief into “What? Who’s that? HE’S WHO?” territory. What’s worse is that there actually exists a huge time skip later which could have used the actor switch more believably, though it seemed like the director was afraid of spending too much time with the younger incarnations to wait until then. (Can you blame him when he had Uhmforce waiting in the sidelines, ready to take the ratings world by storm?)
I found the greatest weakness of the show to be in the script, which tried to be so grand that it inevitably lost a sense of scale after moving from time skip to time skip to time skip. We had to traverse so many years to get our characters to a place where they could start thinking about taking action. In order to be Epic, a show need not cover the dawn of time onward, nor does it need to make an obligatory yet ultimately meaningless trip to the equator in order to make the title relevant.
Aside from that, lots of good stuff here for the viewer with a strong constitution. Or for the viewer who enjoys awesome cinematography, like yours truly.
If I Could: I’d give Lee Bo-young’s character a personality and change the order of the time skips, then I’d cuddle PD Kim Yong-soo and remind him that he’s my favorite cinematographer working in dramaland. And then I’d hope someone would bail me out if I got arrested for it.
So here’s my main issue with critiquing Love Rain: There’s nothing inherently wrong with it.
Here’s the qualifier: There’s nothing inherently wrong with it if you don’t mind a story that takes you everywhere but forward, characters who are incapable of being people because they’ve experienced a First Love (and we don’t know their paaaain because we’ve clearly never loved before and must live vicariously through them), noble idiocy, debilitating illnesses that no one tells anyone about, and every other thing you’ve seen in PD Yoon Suk-ho’s work before. If you just want moving scenery, then this is the drama for you.
That’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the acting, since I find Jang Geun-seok to be a talented young actor despite his rather colorful real-life persona. Yoona also did well in her role, which required her to go from quiet and reserved to strong and stubborn in one fell swoop. What I didn’t enjoy were any of the adult characters, especially Mom and Dad… but mostly Dad.
I think, ideally, we were supposed to think his love was grand and romantic for spanning so many years without a single word from the object of his affections, whom he believed to have died. In practice and reality, I found Dad’s love dangerous and very off-putting, because he’d let it permeate into his current family life without giving his wife and son a chance. That’s how closed off he was and how devoted he was to his first love… Because Love Trumps Personal Responsibility?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t romantic. At that point, dedication became a sickness which I couldn’t root for no matter how they demonized Dad’s new wife. Heck, I even sympathized with her; I’d be mad too if I couldn’t compete against a dead girl. The younger version of Dad, played by Jang Geun-seok, was bearable because youth and tumultuous first loves go hand in hand. Once he reached his older incarnation, I’d had enough with his obsessive selfishness and clocked out whenever the focus moved to his love story.
And while this show kind of played with that notion of mayhaps-our-love-is-harmful-to-others in the form of how the parents’ love affected their kids’ love (I know, it’s only slightly less squicky than it sounds), in the end, Dad’s form of love and devotion was still painted in rosy, romantic hues, just like the scenery. How sweet(?).
And the rest, as they say, is forgettable.
If I Could: I’d check the weather report, stay indoors, and maybe do anything else.
Queen In-hyun’s Man
Queen In-hyun’s Man took the drama world by storm this side of the ocean, and sort of surprised everyone by being… well, really, really good. It’s not that I had low expectations for the drama, but that I’d merely had no expectations – I was really about to pass it up, until the internet fervor made me stand up and take notice. I’m glad I did.
It’s strange that the reason I was ready to write this drama off (“Not another time traveler!”) ended up being one of the aspects this show handled better than its predecessors. Up until then, the time travel mechanics for each show had been shoddy at best, heavy-handed Fate interventions at worst (here’s looking at you, Rooftop Prince), but here was a drama with a refreshingly simple mechanism for time travel that seemed organic to the world that it came from. Well, refreshingly simple but for the fact that our hero had to risk his life each time to activate it.
Much of this drama’s success owes itself to fluid writing and a couple you just couldn’t help but root for. The directing worked stylistically, and tonally carried us from Joseon to the present day without skipping a beat. (Though, admittedly, the editing hand was a little heavy at times – did we really need five different angles of an everyday phone call?)
We had a hero we could all fall for in the form of Ji Hyun-woo, who radiated strength, magnetism, and that sexiest trait of all: Intelligence. Has braininess ever looked quite so good? He takes the cake for my favorite character of the year, due to his adaptable nature, clear-headedness, and oh yeah – his ability to fight swords with books. Boom.
If I Could: I already did. Just because you didn’t see me single-handedly hold up that cell phone tower in Joseon doesn’t mean I wasn’t there.
Because this show brought out the ironic hipster recapper in me, I think it’s only right to write this review completely ironically. So, here goes:
Dr. Jin was a triumph. In fact, it was a visually stunning tour de force with A+ directing, one which always provided the best angles and crisp, clear focus in every shot. The fusion between intent and execution was flawless as we journeyed into the complex and steadfast mind of Jin Hyuk as he pondered and overcame existential questions like, “What good can I do in history today?” (Answer: A lot!) The medical prosthesis were never too gross and were, in fact, incredibly realistic. That time Hyuk sniffed the Queen Dowager’s vomit to ascertain the nature of her illness was, to put it simply, poetry in motion.
Breast exams are a hard business, but having one done by candlelight while the dulcet tones of Jaejoong’s voice sang a lullaby in the background? So perfect, and so very respectful. No one in their right mind could find that scene in the least bit hilarious. And the fact that said cancer was cured in one day doesn’t mean the illness wasn’t serious, but more so that Hyuk was just that resourceful. I’d venture to say, and I’m just throwing this out there, that Hyuk was a genius.
This was a completely serious and totally respectable show which answered all the questions it asked at the onset. Brain fetus? Explained. Parallel universes? Explained. Brain surgery that leaves behind only one decorative ribbon across the forehead? Totally explained. What more could a viewer ask for?
Nothing, as it turns out, in a show that was perfect from start to finish. In no way was Song Seung-heon woefully miscast for this role, which he played with an assuredness and finesse befitting an actor with more than a decade of experience. On that note, everyone was well-cast and suited for their roles, which they took with all the gravitas befitting a proper sageuk. (Which, of course, they were in.) They weren’t afraid to be funny when the situation called for it, even though there were few. With such demanding political machinations going on, including a king who passed gas in front of his ministers for completely justifiable reasons, who had time to laugh? I certainly didn’t.
And, finally, the romance stole my heart away. Caught in the midst of a love triangle, Park Min-young played her character with sensitivity and restraint, clearly conveying to us, the viewers, why the past version of herself (which was also satisfyingly explained as it tied into her modern-day persona – a dream! Who would have thought of that?) would outright reject her fiancé’s advances from day one. Surely it couldn’t be because as a character, she had to remain pure for a man her future self loved but one she had no personal knowledge of, right?
Right. It all made complete sense. Along with every clown car operating room, because that many people are always necessary for surgical procedures. One last thing – thank you, PD Han, for showing us only one ab scene throughout the series. Mostly, thanks for making those abs a facsimile made from silicone, so that Jaejoong looked like he had a muscle suit on. That’s exactly the sort of thing the audience wanted to see, and boy, did you deliver.
If I Could: After a dose of Irony-B-Gone, I’d realize that this was a pretty terrible drama and would go back in time solely to unmake it. But I’d save the footage from Hyuk’s tenure in the Torture Taco for days I need a laugh.
Gaksital OST – Ulala Session – “Goodbye Day” [ Download ]
Equal parts dark and epic, Gaksital possessed a sweeping grandeur that won my heart, broke it, crammed it into a box of nails, and then lifted it high with the voice of thousands gathered to fight, however slim victory would seem, against their oppressors.
Set in the bleak world of 1930s occupied Korea, Gakistal was not without flaws, but it’s one of those cases where the sum was greater than the parts (even when most of the parts were made of epic win). It was everything I could have wanted in a hero story, and yet So. Much. More. It was an action thriller, a political thriller, a thriller thriller, and most of all, it was a story of two friends torn apart by one’s ascension into herodom and the other’s descent into madness.
I’m a huge fan of well-done, multilayered villains, if only because a good villain gets to go where the hero dare not tread, unshackled from moral boundaries or conscience. Except our villain did have a conscience in there, somewhere, which lent power and intensity to the role of Shunji Kimura that Park Ki-woong executed beautifully. Which, admittedly, shouldn’t have been a huge surprise for an actor familiar with villainous roles (Chuno, Bow, The Ultimate Weapon), but I’d say this part served as a milestone for his career, and it’s nice to know that the actor thought the same.
Park Ki-woong’s villain managed to elicit both pity and scorn – pity because he was so misguided on how he could return his lost innocence, scorn because he really did seem to enjoy being bad sometimes. Which begs the question: Was the quiet, smiling Shunji merely a shell for the monster hiding beneath, or did circumstance make him so?
The beautiful thing about this show is that our hero started out worse than his nemesis, especially in regards to taking joy from the suffering of others – most of which he himself caused. He held no great love for his countrymen or a sense of patriotism, but that all changed when this show proved just how dark it could go, and how deep our hero would have to fall before he could rise as a man worthy of the symbol his country needed.
The fact that Gaksital was able to make such a man into a hero still amazes me, and Lee Kang-to takes the award for the most difficult narrative arc to convey, simply because he had so much ground to cover. In the face of that daunting task, Joo Won delivered a stellar performance by firing on all cylinders, never afraid to forsake vanity for art. This being dramaland, I’ve seen a lot of men cry, but it’ll be a long time, if ever, that I forget the sheer devastation and loss we heard in Kang-to’s wretched cries – screams? – of grief.
And it’ll be a long time, if ever, before I forget how much this drama moved me.
If I Could: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’d just go hang around set and watch the awesomeness unfold firsthand.
Big had some big cojones to cheat the audience out of a follow-through for its premise. Cojones swingin’ past its knees.
Unsurprisingly, Gong Yoo was fantastic in the title role, though unfortunately his performance alone couldn’t save this drama. It’s a sad thought when we consider it’s the Hong Sisters who wrote it, but my guess is that they were in over their head with this one. Like Oohlala Spouses, the problem they presented at the outset was too great to solve. So while it made for a compelling narrative in the beginning, we soon found ourselves with nowhere to go, and we were getting there fast.
Conflicts were recycled, the body swap was conveniently one-sided, and most of the decisions our characters made had no basis in reality. Who was Gil Da-ran, really? Who was Seo Yoon-jae? What started off as a mystery we’d thought would slowly unfold turned into something best solved over an off-screen time skip. If there’s one thing I wish would just disappear from dramaland forever, it’d be the Time Skip Cure-All. Never has it seemed like more of a cop-out. (But the same can be said for all the offscreen moments in the drama, of which there were too damn many.) It just felt like the writers had given up on making sense and went for solutions that neither felt earned or deserved.
Last but not least, what did the institution of parenting ever do to the Hong Sisters, for parents to be portrayed as soulless mercenaries who bear children solely to harvest their organs for that other, better child they inexplicably love more? Is there just not enough love in the world to spare for more than one child?
If I Could: I’d take everyone back to the drawing board. This one needs a do-over.
Arang and the Magistrate
Out of all the dramas that purported themselves to be “fantasies,” no one got that moniker down quite as well as Arang and the Magistrate.
I was hooked from moment one by not only the bizarre quotient of the story – a ghostly amnesiac heroine elicits help from a local magistrate – but by the look and feel of it all. We didn’t just get a little spooky fog added to a Joseon set, but a fully-realized world in which the Jade Emperor and Hades played baduk in heaven while ghostly reapers teleported to the mortal realm to capture the souls of the dead.
This was also a show which paid an incredible amount of attention to detail, one which you didn’t necessarily have to be looking for to enjoy. Lots of little things just caught my fancy, like the detail in the ghostly tattoos or the fact that a reaper could just poof from one spot and materialize at his destination with the ease of a creature who’s just been doin’ his thing for centuries.
Arang and the Magistrate was also refreshing in that it focused the scale of its earthly story down to one town virtually free of grand political machinations (for once, a sageuk not all about a monarch!), and one which truly needed a magistrate. Colorful characters peppered every corner of this drama, adding life and whimsy to a wonderfully focused series.
Among the cast, Lee Jun-ki was a standout as the unenthused new magistrate faced with three quibbling ajusshis and a town full of corruption. He and Shin Mina shared great rapport and lit up the screen with their bantering and budding partnership in a relationship that was surprisingly frank for a fusion sageuk. Then again, when you’ve taken the trouble to construct your own mystical world with set mystical rules, you can pretty much do whatever you want in it.
And the fact that they did just that sails Arang right to the top of 2012 for me. With a refreshing sense of dry humor and a good mystery to match, this is just one of those dramas that’s unique enough to have staying power, yet relatable enough for everyone to find a bit of enjoyment. Or a lot of it, in my case.
If I Could: I’d go hang out with the Jade Emperor in heaven, maybe play some baduk, maybe help him water his goat. Take that as you will.
To The Beautiful You
To The Beautiful You was definitely one of the prettiest dramas of the year. It was also one of the most vapid ones. Granted, one can describe the original Japanese version of Hanazakari no Kimitachi e as delightfully vapid, but there’s the rub – it was, at least, delightful.
I’m all for adaptations making their individual mark on the world, and think that Boys Over Flowers, despite its flaws, did that to good effect. But it’s like this drama took everything from the original at surface level only, and then had no idea what to do with it all. So even if they had already decided to focus less on the dorm shenanigans in order to make this a crude facsimile of every high school drama ever, the fact that they couldn’t even give our heroine one line of exposition besides “I gotta do dis” to explain her reasoning for doing anything was a huge drawback. Maybe I’m old school, but character motivations are usually necessary in order for us to connect.
This is one of the year’s bigger disappointments, which seems strange, because I’m not sure why I expected much from an idol vehicle produced by their parent label which, to no surprise, had zero drama-production experience. (Some lessons just have to be learned painfully, I guess.) I had faith that it’d at least keep the spirit of the original, that sense of zany fun and cast chemistry. And even if it didn’t, I had faith that it would, at the very least, tell me a story.
Instead, there was unnecessary angst all over the place without real reasons as to the why of it all. Villains were put in place without motivation. The dorm leaders were treated like well-worn characters we knew and loved with the ease in which they popped in and out of the story, except we didn’t know them at all. There was a point in the middle of the series where the dorm leaders had a “moment,” though I found myself hard-pressed to recognize who was talking.
Most of the conflict that strung each episode to the next by a coarse hair was based on the “Will they find out I’m a girl?” one-trick pony which, frankly, was the least-engaging conflict in a show about gender-bending. I just… I still can’t understand how the heroine of this tale was never given a clear motive for anything she did. Even a seasoned actress would have had trouble with the role – what’s there to play? So in the scope of admittedly poor writing and poor ratings, leads Minho and Sulli showed commitment to their roles.
If I Could: I’d tell Jae-hee that she didn’t actually have to do anything unless she gave a reason for it, and then there’d be no drama. The end.
Nice Guy OST – Junsu – “Love Is Like Snow” [ Download ]
Boasting a star-studded cast in the form of Song Joong-ki and Moon Chae-won, Nice Guy came onto the scene among fanfare and hype, which helped give a high springboard to jump off of as far as ratings went. And they only climbed higher (for a while there, I thought we’d actually break 20%).
This show had a curious taste for ambiguity, and it delighted in withholding information from the audience – which, admittedly, isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. I found it fascinating that two people could watch the same scene and come away with two completely different interpretations, and while I’m all for discourse, having so many meanings floating around seemed to make one thing clear: This show wasn’t being clear enough.
As an audience, we don’t need everything to be black and white, but as a writer, I’d think you’d want to get your point across, so your scene can convey the meaning you (ideally) would like it to. But at the point where the audience is confused about what this look meant or what that silent stare said, then maybe we’ve passed the point of deliberate, purposeful mystery and have entered the realm of… well, true mystery. One maybe as hidden from our storyteller as it was to us.
Nice Guy was one of those dramas I enjoyed from a detached perspective, since I was never really able to fully connect with our resident not-so-nice-guy. That might be due to the fact that most of the series was spent waiting for the other shoe to drop, whether it was amnesia, car crashes, or the usual bout of life-threatening illnesses and subsequent bouts of noble idiocy. (Though, admittedly, there never was a nobler and prettier eediot than Kang Maru.) But no one pointed it out better than Writer Lee herself when she had our hero(?) pick up a copy of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
To this day, I’m not quite sure what purpose that served other than serving as the writer’s acknowledgment that yes, our hero did cry wolf one too many times. And because there were so many false alarms and so many lies, by the time we were given the go-ahead that this was the real deal, I was already too wary to fully invest.
That doesn’t stop Nice Guy from being a well-directed and finely acted melodrama (Park Shi-yeon also gave a great, layered perfomance), and one with a thematic throughline that was carried through from beginning to end. That counts for a lot.
Does thematic resonance count more than story if the story wasn’t cohesive enough to get us to that thematic mecca believably, though? I’m not so sure – it’s like saying the writer’s intentions mattered more than her execution. And in the end, we tune in to be told a story, not to be shown an idea.
If I Could: I would. If I could remember.
Out of all the shows that caused dangerous spikes in blood pressure this year, Oohlala Spouses might take my personal vote for Most Infuriating Drama of 2012. What, that’s not a category?
I gave the first episode wide berth considering its comic tone and the number of episodes it had to set things right, even as I thought: “Well, they must be making Shin Hyun-joon’s character so irredeemably terrible because they’ve got a great redemption arc for him, right?” Wrong. In fact, I negate every hope in my head and song in my heart I expressed during the premiere. I don’t know what made me so optimistic, so I’m considering it a fluke.
I should have noticed the red flags during the body swap shenanigans, or the heavy hand of Personified Fate, or the fact that Victoria was not a real person in any way, shape, or form, and did not act in accordance with the way a functioning person would act and behave. At first I thought they’d have somewhere to go with her character, like there was somehow a mystery to her Swedish past that would explain everything, or at the very least, help us to understand her. Again, I was too optimistic, because that never happened.
As the episodes wore on, husband Soo-nam was painted worse and worse, to the point where no audience member should have thought he was worth redeeming. And instead of giving him a meaningful arc, we instead got a case where he just woke up one morning all remorseful and in love with his ex-wife. Sorry, nope, nah, nay, no, that’s not gonna work. There are just some things you have to earn, and the right to be taken seriously after cheating without remorse while treating your wife like garbage is one of them.
Because when you have characters in your show asking: “Well, if THIS was the result, why did we need the body swap, or anything that’s happened until now?” then we’ve got some very serious problems. Does it count as hanging a lantern when you hang yourself in the process?
If I Could: I’d make it in time to see the wedding, so I could be that person in the back waiting to chime in: “I have an objection! In fact, I have a list of objections! A very, very long list.”
It’s like the title says. These are shows that haven’t finished airing yet, so they’ll only get brief blurbs here. And really it’s just one, but it’s worth mentioning.
Can We Get Married?
Though less buzzed about than fellow cable sleeper hits such as Queen In-hyun’s Man and Answer Me 1997, Can We Get Married? has proven itself to be one of the strongest romantic comedies of the year. Scratch that – it’s just a strong drama, through and through.
I gave the first episode a chance unabashedly just for love of Sung Joon, and was taken aback when the end of the episode hit because it seemed like it was all of five minutes long. And yes, episodes are a bit shorter on cable, but the reason why this one feels like it just zooms by is due to the tight writing and even tighter directing. It just injects a sense of energy to the show that you didn’t know you were missing. The scenes feel fresh and breezy, the dialogue is quick, the characters relatable, the pace fast.
Pacing is really what makes or breaks a romantic comedy, since too much time spent running around in circles tends to tire the audience out. Not here, where we experience a myriad of couples while our main duo, Sung Joon and Jung So-min, are introduced to us having already passed the honeymoon stage of their relationship. We meet them as they’re already considering marriage, and walk with them through the havoc reality wreaks on love.
Another standout of the show definitely falls to the depiction of a divorce, played with stark realism that other dramas tend to shy away from. I especially love that we’re not being peddled the idea that this marriage should be saved, so that we instead get to commiserate with the soon-to-be-ex-wife as she faces a horrible nightmare none of us would want to find ourselves in.
In a year so starved for romantic comedies, Can We Get Married? is an astonishing little drama filled to the brim with realism and handled with aplomb by everyone involved. Cable networks jTBC and tvN had a good year, that’s for sure. Here’s to many more.
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 3: A Variety of Flavors in 2012 (gummimochi’s review)
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 2: Life Lessons from a Mixed Bag of Dramas (kaedejun’s review)
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 1: Something for everyone? (javabeans’ review)
- 2012 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 5: Editors’ Picks
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 4: The dramaMeter: highly scientific and foolproof (girlfriday’s review)
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 3: Somewhere Over the K-Drama Rainbow (Dahee Fanel’s review)
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, and The Hmmm… of 2011 (kaedejun’s review)
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 1: Measuring 2011 on the Sticky Scale (javabeans’ review)
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Arang and the Magistrate, Big, Dr. Jin, Equator Man, Fashion King, featured, Gaksital, History of the Salaryman, Love Rain, Nice Guy, Oohlala Spouses, Operation Proposal, Padam Padam, Queen In-hyun's Man, The King 2 Hearts, The Moon That Embraces the Sun, To the Beautiful You, year in review, year in review 2012