Rating:
Average user rating 4.3
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Answer Me 1994: Episode 1

Here we go with our second trip back in time to the nineties, courtesy of the team that brought us last year’s cable sleeper hit Answer Me 1997. This time our story takes place in 1994 Seoul, with a cast of transplants all from different small towns across the country, here to make it in the big city. That gives it a distinct feel from its 1997 predecessor, and it begins with a low-key vibe that focuses on what it feels like to be displaced, accompanied by the pop-culture references, wit, and heart we’ve already come to be familiar with.

There are overlaps though, so we’ll have to wait and see if 1994 can make a name for itself on its own two feet. So far I like the first episode and the family at the core, and I’m eager to see more. The first episode recorded 2.6% ratings on cable network tvN, which means it’s off to a good start.

 
SONG OF THE DAY

Lee Chang-kwon – “다시 시작해 (Let’s Begin Again)” from the Last Match OST
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EPISODE 1: “Seoul Person”

We open in Seoul 2013, as our heroine SUNG NA-JUNG (Go Ara) unpacks a few last things in her brand new apartment to prepare for a housewarming party. Her best friend JO YOON-JIN (Dohee) rifles through her stuff, amazed that she still has her old basketball paraphernalia from ye olden days.

Na-jung digs through one box in particular, and then shouts with glee that she’s found it—her wedding video, which she’s never technically watched (for fear of shriveling up in mortification). As she dusts off the old VCR, a teenage boy makes his greetings and runs out the door. Is that… your son? You can’t have a son that old, right? For now we’re left to assume it’s her son, though who knows.

Hubby calls and she gives him traffic-conscious directions like a proper Seoulite, complete with a city-girl coffee order, and Yoon-jin marvels that she isn’t a country girl anymore. Na-jung points out that she’s been living in Seoul for nineteen years now, which ought to count for something.

Yoon-jin plays the wedding video (which she shot) and Na-jung gasps audibly: “What is that… THING on my head?” We see that it’s 2002, and on the tape Yoon-jin teases her about her future husband’s promises that she could continue to chase her basketball idol around. Yoon-jin: “And you believed him? What wouldn’t he say before the wedding?”

The groom arrives behind her, and Yoon-jin fumbles with the camera as she turns around… to get a shot of his feet. OHMYGOD, you’re gonna make us wait twenty episodes, aren’t you? WHY. I should’ve known.

She finally gets the camera swinging up towards his face… as we fade out to a familiar computer screen with our title card. That fades into a TV blaring the intro credits to—you guessed it—Last Match. Oppaaaa! Excuse me while I sing along.

Na-jung sits on the couch between Dad (Sung Dong-il) and older brother, who goes by the unfortunate nickname GARBAGE (Jung Woo). The three of them sway along to the theme song with synchronized gusto. It’s awesome, and so true to life that it makes me instantly love them.

Dad scowls that Jang Dong-gun’s slam-dunk defies realism, while Na-jung argues that a drama is a drama. Oppa takes Dad’s side, and the argument devolves into fisticuffs. Ew, did you just pinch her cheeks with your foot-fondling hands?

Dad yells at them to cut it out, and then Mom (Lee Il-hwa) comes in with the biggest mound of noodles I’ve ever seen. Is that just for the four of them? So basically, the parents are exactly the same as their Answer Me 1997 selves, down to Mom’s proclivity to cook for an army when she’s feeding four.

Na-jung is obsessed with basketball star Lee Sang-min, who might as well be god, while oppa nitpicks at her choice of idol. They really do talk like siblings: Yes he is. No he isn’t. Yeah-huh. Nu-uh. Is too. Is not. Wanna bet? Once they start pulling each other’s hair, Mom and Dad just sigh and look away.

It turns out Mom actually has a reason to cook for an army this time, as other kids start trickling into the boardinghouse they run. First home is HAE-TAE (Sohn Ho-joon), or Haitai in case he’s named after the food company. Mom tells him that he’ll be getting a new roommate tomorrow, and he greets Na-jung as a classmate.

Na-jung says they’re both in the computer science department, and Mom and Dad get a little too excited that she might have a prospective man-friend. Next home is Yoon-jin, who doesn’t speak and walks around with her hair in her face like Cousin It.

Mom guesses she was out stalking Seo Taiji as usual, and Dad sighs with a what-is-the-world-coming-to speech about wasting his money on educating a daughter when all she does is chase celebrities around.

Na-jung realizes he’s talking about her, and insists she’s got potential. Dad: “Potential for what?” Na-jung: ” To marry Sang-min oppa.” Pffft. She’s dead serious too.

To drive the comparison home, we fade in from Shim Eun-ha in Last Match to Na-jung screaming in the stands for Sang-min oppa during a practice game. She’s overzealous even among the other fangirls, who try to quiet her down.

At home Mom gets a call from a concerned mother, who’s sending her son up to Seoul today from Samcheonpo. Mom assures her that she’ll treat him like her own, and we learn that it’s only been a month since the family moved up from Masan and started the boardinghouse.

(Dude, that piano phone! What was it about the ’90s and phones shaped like other things?) His mother says he looks just like Leslie Cheung, and of course the cut to his face is a gag in and of itself.

The new student in question will be going by his hometown as his nickname: SAMCHEONPO (Kim Sung-kyun), which also happens to mean “tangent.” He arrives outside Seoul Station and calls Mom for directions to the house, insisting he can find his way there. But judging from the trouble he has crossing the street, I think this is going to be a long day for Samcheonpo.

Na-jung waits outside the gym for the Yonsei University basketball team to make their grand exit (cameos from real players Moon Kyung-eun, Woo Ji-won, and Kim Hoon), and succeeds in handing Sang-min oppa a handkerchief to use to wipe his sweat. She practically dies a happy fangirl right then and there, and then rushes off with the other girls to beat the bus to the oppas’ house.

At home, Garbage downs a carton of week-old milk (“Oh, I thought there was something chewy in there”), while Mom sighs that this is why people call him Garbage. He drops off laundry in Na-jung’s room and has a staring contest with Lee Sang-min’s poster, wondering what’s so great about him anyway. Are you jealous that your sister thinks someone’s cooler than you?

Samcheonpo’s eyes start to glaze over trying to figure out the subway system, and when he asks the ajusshi next to him when the train is supposed to come, he puts SO MUCH effort into hiding his country accent that I think he might pop something.

Meanwhile Garbage and Dad get down with some Kim Gun-mo in the middle of the afternoon, complete with sideways baseball cap and hands in the air. Screencaps don’t do Sung Dong-il’s comedy justice. Mom warns that they live in Seoul now and the neighbors will complain, which of course they do.

She wants to fit in around here, but all it takes is a box of tiny tangerines (she cries that even fruit is sizeist against country folk up here, ha) for her to cry that she wants to go back home. It seems that life in Seoul is an adjustment for everyone.

Na-jung camps out by the basketball team’s house with the other fangirls, and when Sang-min oppa comes out of the van, she runs up to ask for her handkerchief back, fake-crying that it was the last thing her grandmother gave her. He gives it back, and she drinks in the smell of oppa’s sweat. Well that’s just gross.

Mom keeps getting calls from Samcheonpo’s worried mother, and assures her that her twenty-year-old son will find his way here. I’m not so sure, as we watch him get shoved along by the crowd of commuters and sweat through the subway transfer. All the while he’s determined to hide his accent, but try as he might, even the token guy at the subway asks if he came up from the country.

There’s this side-splitting sequence where he fiiiinally gets to his stop, but can’t cross the giant city intersection to get to the right corner, and has to go underground, above ground, underground, and back up, over and over, each time farther from his destination, which he can SEE but can’t touch. It’s hilarious.

And then it’s followed by a pang of homesickness as he sighs aloud in defeat: “Mom, should I just go home?”

At home, Dad and Garbage watch an episode of Moon of Seoul, the characters’ smooth arrival in the big city feeling like such a stark contrast to Samcheonpo’s weary day.

He finally gets in a taxi and hands the driver the address, and literally gets taken for a ride, as the cabbie takes advantage of the country bumpkin to drive all over town and hike up the cab fare. By the time they pass Seoul Station—where he started his day—he knows he’s been fleeced, but can’t do anything about it. Poor new guy.

Na-jung is still on her stakeout by nightfall, determined to get a photo of Sang-min oppa today because she had to beg and plead with Dad to lend her the camera. The other girls note Yoon-jin’s presence nearby, and Na-jung says she’s a Seo Taiji fangirl who lives at the boardinghouse.

A nondescript black car pulls up nearby, and both Yoon-jin and Na-jung run up to snap photos, each convinced it’s her oppa in the car. Guess they’ll have to develop the photos to find out.

Samcheonpo tries calling the boardinghouse from a payphone, but gets a busy signal (remember those?) because Mom’s busy reassuring his mother that nothing’s happened to him, despite growing worried.

Na-jung arrives home and screams bloody murder when she gets to her room and discovers oppa’s idea of “bring your sister her laundry.” Pwahaha.

She storms into his room to retaliate and he breezes that she ought to thank her brother for bringing her laundry all the way to her room.

So she insists that she needs the clothes off his back this instant to wash, and proceeds to strip the shirt, pants, and boxers right off of him. HAHAHAHA. I’m dying.

I couldn’t even tell you whose emotional trauma is worse from the incident, but I love that she quotes him with her comeback: “If your sister takes your laundry, you should thank her!”

He calls her back just to get her to shut the lights off, and she body-slams him repeatedly instead. God, they’re like actual siblings. It’s crazy.

It’s late enough that Dad gets dressed to go looking for Samcheonpo, and tells them to call his beeper if he shows up here first. The neighbor comes knocking again, and this time Dad erupts in a complainy fit about not being able to do a damned thing freely in his own house in this godforsaken city… only to have Mom sheepishly return and say the neighbor came by just to warn them that rain is coming and they should gather the laundry.

Mom rushes to the kitchen to make something for the neighbor, suddenly feeling very at home for the first time.

Samcheonpo stops at another payphone to call home, and lies to his mother that he got waylaid when he met a friend. He swears he ate and that it’s nice and warm here in Seoul, as he watches the rain fall with tears pooling in his eyes.

He hangs up the phone barely holding his tears back, when suddenly two police officers come by asking for his ID. He gets nervous and as he fumbles through his bag for his wallet, a handful of flyers fall out—activist flyers from the protester he ran into repeatedly while circling the subway exits. Uh-oh.

So then it’s at the police station that Dad comes to collect Samcheonpo. His first shock is that this is the guy who supposedly looks just like Leslie Cheung, and then the second comes when he finds out he’s only twenty. Dad brings him home, and is still using half-jondae and bowing because the kid looks so old.

Samcheonpo bows respectfully and makes his way up to his room, too worn out from the day to process anything, but then Mom shouts up that his mother sent over his things, including the nicest biggest blanket she’s ever seen. He opens his door to find it laid out, and his eyes well up with tears at the thought of his mother. Awww.

He gets into bed and closes his eyes… and then roommate Hae-tae scares the beejeezus out of him by appearing under the covers, stripped down to his boxers and muttering to ajumma that the blanket is too heavy.

As he gets back into bed, Future Samcheonpo narrates:

Samcheonpo: My first night in Seoul. I still remember the softly crunching feeling of that fluffy blanket, and the warm but chilly air. 1994 Seoul was exactly like that to me—crowded but lonely, intense but tiring, a hot but cold city. A city I couldn’t know. We had become rightful citizens of Seoul, but had yet to become Seoul people.

Downstairs, Dad pets Na-jung to sleep on his lap, complaining that he’s tired now. She says she isn’t sleepy yet and he dutifully continues, heh. She tells him about seeing Sang-min oppa today and thinks they did well by moving up to Seoul, though Dad has his reservations about how she’ll grow up here.

She says that living is the same anywhere you go, adding that she is a little worried about Samcheonpo though. Dad assures her that everyone adjusts eventually.

Na-jung: Age twenty in Seoul, when everything—city and people—was frightening. Our sole refuge that kept us from being foreigners in that strange land was our house. This place. Shinchon Boardinghouse.

Morning brings a bustling breakfast table at the boardinghouse, where Garbage greets Hae-tae by misremembering his hometown (he’s from Suncheon, Jellanamdo), and Samcheonpo continues to be stiff and awkward.

Mom points out that they’re all in computer sciences, and Hae-tae is surprised since Yoon-jin never said she was in their department. Mom tells her to stop hiding behind her hair, but she just continues her silent routine and gets up from the table abruptly.

Na-jung comes running in like the Tasmanian devil, waving her freshly developed photos in her hand. She announces that she’ll show them all pictures of her oppa, and makes a big deal of the drumroll reveal…

And the whole group comes to a grinding halt. Na-jung scowls and Mom says he looks familiar, before realizing who it is. Everyone leaves the table one by one, finally giving Yoon-jin the chance to see if maybe it’s her oppa in the pictures instead.

She picks it up… and then opens her mouth for the first time. Out comes this barrage of bleeped-out F#%*^$*er#&$%!MYOPPA!#$&SH#$&^*!! swearing from the tiny girl that silences the whole room. LOL.

And then the camera pans over to the photo, of ex-president Chun Doo-hwan, aka ex-dictator and pretty much the most hated man alive. Wah-waaaah. Definitely NOT oppa.

Na-jung: Where unimaginable things could happen. That place was Seoul, and we were twenty.

 
COMMENTS

In some ways, Answer Me 1994 can be seen as sticking to its strengths—nostalgic pop-culture references, authentic details, homegrown humor, and the looking-back-on-myself past/future narrative framework that worked so well for 1997. But the other way to look at it is that it doesn’t do anything new, at least not yet. I feel like I’m still waiting for a twist, because so far the show hasn’t shown me anything the franchise hasn’t done before, and while I realize all those are good things, it’s also the second time around. There’s something to be said for pushing to be better, even if it means daring to go outside the winning formula you set out with, and I hope we’ll see a little more experimentation as we get the story rolling.

That doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying this cast of characters, because I am, and I fully expect that we’ll get a satisfying story. I just want one that feels unique to them. I do like that this story is set in Seoul, because the treatment of small-town transplants in the big city feels really personal and grounded in that twinge of universal emotion that this team can do so well. The crowded-lonely feeling is so distinct to city life, and coupled with the theme of young adults leaving home for the first time, I think we’re going to get at some fantastic conflicts. I’m downright giddy at the fact that they’re bringing back the ’90s college campus drama as a genre—their best use of meta so far—which should give the series its own flavor (I hope), or at least make it different enough that it isn’t just high school all over again.

I already love Na-jung’s relationship with Garbage (which we went with because Trash sounded too mean), and Jung Woo just steals every scene he’s in, which is no surprise. Go Ara’s performance hasn’t shown a lot of subtlety yet, but I do find her really endearing as Na-jung right away. And Samcheonpo (played by film actor Kim Sung-kyun who’s purposely 34 playing 20) is going to run away with this show. He’s so great. It’s too bad we didn’t get to meet Yoo Yeon-seok or Baro in this episode, but I trust that we’ll get our share of cute in the next one with them.

For a premiere it didn’t fly by, but the heartfelt characterizations did make up for the slower pace to some degree. We’ll have to wait and see how Housewarming Party 2013 will pan out as a framing device, and if they’re going to go exactly the way of 1997 by giving us two potential suitors and one series-long mystery. I really hope they find even a slightly different angle, because that would be the worst of the repeat offenders if we just do the straight version again. We were all there for How I Met Your Mother in 1997. But I do see a lot of potential, especially in the setup of the Shinchon Boardinghouse with all of the kids living under one crazy roof, brought together from totally different regions but united in their outsider status. It’s like the perfect band of misfits just waiting to form, and I’m looking forward to watching their misadventures in conquering the big bad city.

 
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oh word~ i was living in Yeon Hee Dong in 1994. Used to go to Shin Chon all the time.

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Omigosh that last screenshot is a killer!!! hahahaha....I think I would be just as mad if I saw this..but in a few seconds I would then burst into laughter.

Anyway, the first episode wasn't as memorable as Answer Me 1997 was but it will probably take some time for us to warm up to the characters

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Why do they have the same parent? (1997 and 1994)

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It's not related to the stories at all! :) Just a bit of a meta-joke and also perhaps the production team liked the parent actors from 97? They're also in the third project, Reply88!

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