KBS’s new family drama King’s Family, or the more literal translation Wang Family, was a hit right out of the gates when it premiered over the weekend and has drawn enough positive reactions for its endearing characters and funny plotlines to get me tuning in out of curiosity. One might think that after spending the past six months hoping in vain for a floundering show to live up to its potential, I’d be wary of jumping onboard another long weekend series. Especially when it’s the show following in the actual footsteps of You’re the Best, Lee Soon-shin. Well, one might be a smarter person than I am, because despite my misgivings I came into King’s Family with more hope that maybe this time, it would be realized in a heartwarming and unaggravating weekend show. Because there seem to be two prominent categories in weekend family dramas: infuriating or amusing. That’s a fifty-fifty shot. That’s how math works, right?
And wouldn’t you know, King’s Family is cute. It’s funny. It’s breezy and appealing, with a central couple that has a good chance of rocking my socks. Maybe. I hope. Don’t jinx it, ‘beans!
Sometimes with these longer shows I’ll hold off on making judgments until the show finds its footing (and in retrospect, the fact that I did that for Soon-shin could have been a sign, which I ignored, thanks Jo Jung-seok), but I can see why King’s Family connected with viewers right off the bat. The first episode logged a comfortable 19.7% rating, then jumped up for Episode 2 with 23.8%.
(For comparison purposes, its preceding show, You’re the Best, Lee Soon-shin, had first episode numbers of 22.2% and ended on a 30.1% the weekend before. Over on the other stations for Sunday broadcasts, MBC’s I Summon You Gold brought in 21.2% while Scandal recorded a 15.9%; SBS’s Goddess of Marriage and Wonderful Mama brought in 9.7% and 7.6% ratings, respectively.)
Note: I’m pretty sure I won’t/can’t recap this show, though I’ll be watching more. I figure it merited an intro, though, after which we can all decide whether we’re ready to
do this to ourselves again dive into another 50-episoder.
SONG OF THE DAY
Sesame and Cotton Candy – “Kiss Me” [ Download ]
CHARACTERS AND SETUP
Meet the sprawling Wang family. There’s a Mom and a Dad and a Grandma, four daughters, a son, and an uncle. Often it feels like there are six “kids” in the younger generation, because uncle is much younger than the other adults, being of an age with the sisters. But for narrative purposes it’s really the elder three sisters who’ll be carrying the big storylines with their husbands and boyfriends and careers.
You’ll recognize some familiar character types, like the sometimes-adorable, sometimes-aggravating matriarch who rules the roost with her big personality. To be honest, if this woman were played by anybody other than Korea’s Mom Kim Hae-sook, I’m thinking we might have problems. However, the actress manages to find endearing moments amidst the trying ones, and here’s where casting and acting come into play, because she and grandma Na Mun-hee give their characters warmth in their portrayals. It’s something I did not find in the mom-granny duo of Soon-shin, for instance, so I’m grateful to have it here.
Mom’s greatest failing is probably her obvious favoritism of her eldest daughter, Wang Soo-bak (Oh Hyun-kyung). Side note: This drama uses some hilariously oddball names, which makes you wonder what the heck Mom was smoking when she called her girls Watermelon and Pumpkin and her son Jackpot (Dae-bak). Not that grandma’s any better, for naming the uncle character Don (money). There’s even an honest-to-goodness Gu Mi-ho in the mix. Hee.
Soo-bak is, to put it simply, a trophy wife. She’s a Real Housewife, which is to say not a housewife at all, who spends all her time shopping and getting plastic surgery and having Mom sing her praises for once having competed in the Miss Korea pageant. Soo-bak’s greatest achievement was marrying well, and Mom is as proud of that as she would be had Soo-bak earned her wealth the hard way. Maybe more, since this way she’s managed to gain riches and prestige without having so much as lifted a finger, except maybe to slide her wedding ring on it. Literally, the woman has never washed a dish in her life—and again, this is probably Mom’s fault for babying her. You know how people look at a rude person and say, “Her momma didn’t raise her right”? Well, they’d be right in this case.
Soo-bak has the great fortune of being married to a good man (Jo Sung-ha), who is not only successful and handsome but gentle and kind and fair to boot. She has not, however, the great fortune of realizing what a good man he is and snipes at him when her credit card gets cut off—even when he explains that his business is struggling. She’s self-absorbed and maybe a few bulbs short, since that doesn’t raise any red flags with her; she just complains, “But what about my shopping date tomorrow?”
He’s trying to find a way to break the news to her, but she’s a drama queen who says she’d just diiiiiiie if she had to downgrade her life like those loser people who just lost everything. Since he’s got creditors threatening bodily harm and smashing his office to pieces, he pulls up the ol’ bootstraps to solve this on his own. He lets the maid go and sells his car (but not the wife’s), then turns what’s left of his company into a quick-delivery service. You know he’s a good boss when he tells his staff he’ll do the hardest deliveries, then runs around Seoul working his ass off.
To be blunt, I find Soo-bak to be a worthless person who not only didn’t work for a single thing in her life, she acts as though she’s entitled to luxury because she’s a better person who won a better fate. She gives her parents lots of allowance money and thinks she’s a better daughter than the younger sisters who can’t afford to. I’m saved from actively hating her because I do believe this show is going to shake up her world something fierce and maybe do a little humbling. Fingers crossed.
Second daughter Ho-bak (Lee Tae-ran) has always been the disappointment, and Mom has never been shy about telling her this. Over and over. Every time they meet. It doesn’t matter that Ho-bak has worked her way up to a management position at her company, she still isn’t as good as unni. Her husband is an unemployed loafer, who is nothing compared to unni’s husband. She never gives Mom money, unlike unni. And on and on.
And her husband! Ugh. He’s another obviously named character, Heo Se-dal, where heo-se means puffed-up prat, or close enough. He loafs around all day playing computer games, makes no effort to find a job, and begs the wife for money; he’s the overgrown manboy found in every Judd Apatow movie.
The screenshot above is a perfect illustration of their marriage dynamics, where she’s shouldering the burden that he doesn’t even think to help carry, all while complaining because she won’t give him more money for him to spend on games while she works her full-time job.
If her own family weren’t hard enough, Ho-bak also has to deal with petty in-laws. Her mother- and sister-in-law assume that since she’s the breadwinner, she has plenty of money and is just being stingy when she won’t loan them any. Siiigh. She really can’t win.
And yet, this is a case where I have faith things will get better—they have to, right?—and that her husband will have to develop and grow, thanks to casting. Because there’s no way they cast Oh Man-seok to play a dead-end loser without a light at the end of this tunnel.
Ho-bak bears her lot pretty well, though sometimes it gets to be overwhelming. She’s the total opposite of her unni, which to their mother is her deepest flaw and to the rest of us is her saving grace. When Soo-bak loses her maid and is left to actually, you know, be a mother instead of professional shopper, she complains that it’s impossible. There are TWO of them! Do you even know how hard it is to raise TWO kids?
So, unni Soo-bak calls Ho-bak (who has two kids of her own) to fill in as maid, and suggests that Ho-bak become the permanent nanny. You know, quit that management job and work for her sister, because that’s a win-win! She says completely seriously.
At least third sister Gwang-bak (Lee Yoon-ji) is sympathetic and offers a few encouraging words. Although Gwang-bak has her hands full, too, with job (or lack thereof) and brother (annoying) and budding new romance (omg eeee).
Gwang-bak, single at 29, has quit her respectable job teaching (Dad’s a principal) to pursue her writing ambitions. Mild-mannered Dad is on her side and agrees to keep her secret, but when Mom finds out, unsurprisingly all hell breaks loose. Gwang-bak spends her days writing in cafes, and is thus thrilled to score a magazine gig on a series profiling successful careers.
Gwang-bak lives at home and is the sister with the biggest hand in disciplining their errant maknae, Dae-bak, who’s fifteen and bored and thus prone to getting into scrapes. Her mode of keeping him in line is a baseball bat and a stream of scolding. Not really all that effective, which is why Dae-bak falls in with the wrong crowd of older, bigger bullies who beat up other kids. He’s in way over his head but too nervous to back out, so it’s a lucky thing that a man spots the beating and steps in.
He’s our hero, and more on him later, but suffice to say that Dae-bak listens to him in a way he doesn’t listen to his naggy noona or his 61-year-old father. So when hero-man senses that Dae-bak is aimless and listless with life, he advises the boy to find a dream—that’ll fill his empty hours and get rid of his boredom.
Good message. But it gets a little lost in the translation in Dae-bak’s teenage brain, which interprets it as reasoning to drop out from school so he can go dream-searching. HA.
So when noona Gwang-bak hears about this, and how Dae-bak has recently made friends with a weird ajusshi, she grabs her bat and gets ready to give him a piece of her mind. Things, as you might imagine, go awry.
Despite the fact that there are a few annoying characters in the mix, King’s Family does a pretty good job with tone and balance, which was one of the big failings of Soon-shin (and many other family shows). That drama had irritating characters, yes, but it also had winsome ones and cute interactions; it just used them all wrong. So more than the composition of character types, I’m encouraged by King’s Family’s mood and sensibility, which is light and comedic with a few moments of emotional depth that hint at the conflicts to come.
Take, for instance, Uncle Don. We’re introduced to him as one-half of the Loser Odd Couple (Husband No. 2 literally calls him Loser, not that he’s one to talk), and they seem like peas in a pod, loafing around together.
But then we learn more about the family dynamics, and how Grandma had her two sons 26 years apart, and thus his hyungnim is really more like a parent than a brother. Especially since Uncle Don was born after Soo-bak and Ho-bak, and never knew his own father. We see him crying quietly over a photo of his father on memorial day, and he wonders wistfully whether his dad would recognize him in heaven.
He’s used to Mom (his sister-in-law) treating him more like a son and nagging about his lack of job and slackerly lifestyle, and most days he lets it roll off his back. But today, on Dad’s memorial day, he slips outside to be alone with his shame and wipes at his tears. He also hangs his head when he gets his monthly allowance from second sister Ho-bak, who is technically his niece but actually a year older, and promises to pay her back and more. We get the sense it’s an empty promise, but it’s filled with good intentions. It’s because there’s depth in Uncle Don that I’m hoping for similar layers in Husband No. 2, because Don’s vulnerability tugs all the right heartstrings for me—and I want to like Oh Man-seok for reasons other than his other shows.
But it’s really this guy who is poised to become this show’s breakout star, a new actor named Han Joo-wan who’s already stirring buzz, and for good reason—he has instant onscreen presence and a grasp on his character that is both hilarious and really hot. Really, really hot. He’s got an air of utter confidence that commands your attention, and an alpha personality that isn’t an asshole. See, it CAN be done! Coupled with the character’s wry sense of humor, he’s just a super-appealing hero all around.
I don’t know where this guy’s been hiding all this while—he’s had a couple film roles but this is his first drama—but I welcome you to dramaland, sir. (Trivia: His older sister is the indie singer-songwriter Han Hee-jung, formerly of the indie-folk duo Bluedawn and now solo musician. He also happens to be four days older than Lee Yoon-ji. Aw, they’re dong-gap buddies.)
His character is named Choi Sang-nam, and he runs a construction machinery company with his buffoonish but well-meaning father. There’s more in his official character description than the show has told us, but it’s fair to say Sang-nam is a self-made man: He’s clearly got money, considering his impressive house, but he is no chaebol. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of chaebol in that he built a company from the ground up and gave his father a job title, while being the one to actually run things.
Sang-nam is the kind of guy who cuts through the bullshit and gets to the heart of things, which may be why Dae-bak takes a liking to him. When Gwang-bak is ready to tear off Sang-nam’s head for leading her kid bro astray, he’s the one who points out that there are more productive approaches to dealing with Dae-bak’s issues, and that forcing him to go to school is no solution.
Thankfully, Dae-bak’s early-life crisis gets a quick resolution for now with a few wise words from Dad. After which the first thing Gwang-bak does is get on the phone to “thank” Sang-nam for his help, and by “thank” we mean “ask out.” (A heroine who makes the first move, huzzah!) She couches it as buying dinner out of gratitude, but since Sang-nam loves to fluster her (and she is easily flustered, which makes it extra fun), he says everything aloud that you’d normally keep behind polite facades and coyness. Like how she dressed up to impress him, and how she faked excuses to ask him out, and how she shouldn’t fall for a player like him. The end result: A very confused but attracted Gwang-bak.
There are mysteries in Sang-nam’s past too, and I suspect that when the story starts introducing heavier moments he’ll figure prominently in them. For now we just know that he’s trying to find somebody, and that he needs to confront the person face to face before he can move on. Sounds like classic case of mother-abandonment.
The flashes of hurt regarding his absent mother-figure are why I’m eager to see how he fits into the large Wang family. While Mom can be overbearing at times, she’s also a big-hearted matriarch with a big personality, and I get the sense that the loud, boisterous Wangs could be really good for him. That isn’t to say Sang-nam lacks family altogether (unlike, say, the orphaned UEE of Ojakkyo Brothers), because he’s got a happy little bunch at home—his silly father, meek but loving aunt, sassy cousin. But it’s a small, contained family, and possibly still damaged from the one who left.
Since we’re in early days, much of my interest in King’s Family comes from anticipating future story developments, which is always a tricky game when you’re pinning your hopes on potential rather than what’s actually in front of you. But at least what’s in front of us is solid and funny on its own; it’s just that I see certain themes being maneuvered into place, and thinking of all the great ways they can play out is part of my fun.
I enjoy how the many relationships allow varied aspects of our characters to come out; it feels detailed and thoughtful in a true-to-life way. Gwang-bak may be the errant child who quit her job for a pipe dream, but she’s also the one responsible for raising her brother. She’s bossy and loudmouthed with him, but she’s comforting to her hurt middle sister. You’re not always the same person to everyone in your life; thus certain bonds can affect and influence you in unexpected ways. Like our hero’s effect on our teenager, which is one of the cuter examples—Dae-bak even starts talking in Sang-nam’s dialect at one point, which is adorable.
Plus, it never hurts to put Lee Yoon-ji front and center, because she’s an actress who completes her characters. She brings dimension to what’s on the page, and while she’s managed a successful run of noteworthy supporting characters, it’s high time for her to star in a mainstream project. And hey, if she gets a yummy leading man and a burst of chemistry out of the deal, all the better.