It’s been an interesting year for the world of dramas, hasn’t it? Usually any given year will at least give us that one epic drama we can all rally around like a big ol’ communal campfire, allowing us to share s’mores of our feels filled with chocolate (abs) and, okay, maybe this analogy is getting away from me.
The point is, we’d ideally have that one actor/character/romance we could maybe almost all agree upon—and if we didn’t, at least we had the opportunity to begrudgingly accept the majority who did while snubbing our noses ironically. It’s not that 2013 was a more divisive year in general, it’s just that we were all spread further across an ever-growing map.
So if this year didn’t give us that one drama whose blanketing warmth we could all snuggle under in the spirit of community, then it gave us more than enough bad ones to use as kindling for our own campfire. Whatever brings us closer together, right?
But don’t worry, the compliment sandwiches are on me. Like my mom never said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sandwich it between two compliments and say it anyway.”
SONG OF THE DAY
Heartless City OST – Bohemian – “Wound” [ Download ]
TOP 5 DRAMAS IN ORDER OF AWESOMENESS
End of the World
There are certain shows I can watch and appreciate while recognizing that sometimes I’m just not the intended audience that specific production is appealing to. What was so striking about End of the World then, just on the basis of premise alone, was that I was exactly the audience for this kind of show. It could not have appealed to me more if it tried.
End of the World was one of two dramas this year about an apocalyptic pandemic (the concept wouldn’t become the bandwagon time travel was, that’s for sure) and the scientists poised on the front line of an invisible and deadly war as humanity’s last hope for survival. Chilling, isn’t it? What higher stakes can there be when it comes to facing our own collective mortality?
Though normally relegated to villain roles, Yoon Je-moon has shown his strength as an actor time and time again, and received his just reward this time in the form of a leading role. (Finally!) As Kang Joo-hun—the Sherlock Holmes of the CDC’s epidemiological investigative team—Yoon’s compelling portrayal of a man locked in a struggle greater than himself, greater than everyone, was hands-down the performance of the year. No character felt more vulnerable, more capable, more fallible, and more human than Kang Joo-hun. In a year populated with plot devices parading around in the skin of human beings, that’s saying a lot.
What made the virus in this drama so frighteningly memorable was how it became a character of its own as it killed, morphed, and developed a truly unsettling survival instinct. The idea of infected people attacking those who are uninfected isn’t new to anyone who enjoys a good zombie apocalypse or two, so imagine instead that the infected don’t morph into ghouls—they still look just like us, only their sense of morality has begins to degenerate. They don’t know any better because their minds have become capable of a twisted kind of internal logic, one which can compel a man to help a fellow patient hang herself with all the emotional attachment he would use to help her change a lightbulb.
It was the coldness of those infected, the pure apathy, the total lack of understanding that what they were doing was so abhorrent and wrong that was at once completely fascinating and eerily disturbing to watch. It’s the kind of show that digs deep into our human nature and festers there—in short, a masterpiece.
And while it’s true that low interest cost End of the World an eight episode cut, I would challenge any wary viewer to watch the series in its entirety and definitively point out where a dip in quality or storytelling integrity occurred. I couldn’t, and for that reason and many more my hat goes off to the cast and crew behind my favorite show of 2013.
Compliment Sandwich: I loved you. You frightened me. I loved you more because you frightened me.
I honestly had almost a non-reaction to the first episode of Heartless City. I went into it completely blind, having read little news about it and having even lesser faith that any show with Nam Gyuri as its central heroine would win me over. I remember thinking that the first episode was nicely filmed with a dark, atmospheric vibe reminiscent of old school noir crime thrillers. I was ready to write it off as Cool, But Not My Thing… until I watched the second episode. And the third. And maybe didn’t sleep for a while after that (I came into the show late).
In short, Heartless City was the crack drama of the year for yours truly. I loved it. I loved the romance between lord of the underworld Jung Kyung-ho and good-girl-turned-undercover-prostitute Nam Gyuri. I loved that this drama treated sex like it exists instead of perpetuating the myth that all children are conceived through a firm handshake. I loved the endearing bromance between a drug courier and his underling (played by relative newbie Yoon Hyun-min in what could only be called a breakout role), and how their bond of brotherhood lasted through multiple close shaves (not to mention villains draping their necks with necklaces of cocaine—because yes, that happens).
It’s probably because the drama aired on cable network jTBC that it was allowed to deal with more mature subject matter we’re not used to seeing on the big broadcast networks, like the underground drug trade and organized crime. There is still a limit though, in that you can’t escape the censors when it comes to knives (an unavoidable annoyance when nearly every episode features a knife fight), and, weirdly enough, also tattoos. Though I still don’t understand the concept behind blurring just the knives when the violence, blood, and body counts resulting from the [censored] could still be shown in full detail, I guess it comes down to whatever helps nervous parents sleep at night.
The plot maintained its penchant for twists and turns to an almost detrimental degree, since by the end of the show nearly every character had undergone some dramatic identity reveal or fifty. Some cases were more like, “He’s a villain!” “Wait, he’s really an undercover cop!” “No! He’s really an undercover cop gone bad!” “Just kidding! He’s really an undercover cop gone bad who was really good this whole time!” It was literally the world of cops and robbers as seen through an Instagram filter, just sprinkled with a bit more shadows and maybe a smidgen of the blood of the vanquished.
Which all goes to say that Heartless City was a rollicking good time worthy of the emotional hangover it left behind. Perfectly imperfect, [censored] and all.
Compliment Sandwich: I ♥ you. You broke my ♥. Even so, I still ♥ you.
Empire of Gold
We’re no strangers to seeing chaebols in our dramas, but a drama completely about chaebols is usually harder (read: almost impossible) to find. Likely because you’d need very strong, intelligent writing and an equally capable cast to keep things interesting, something which corporate thriller Empire of Gold had in spades.
It was the thinking man’s drama, unflinching in its portrayal of the depravity and hedonism of those who prostrate themselves at the altar of human greed. Though it used a wide array of fully-realized characters to give a rich and nuanced account of a chaebol family struggling through the various economic crises of the 1990s, the main focus was on Go Soo and his portrayal of Jang Tae-joo—a man born into poverty who possesses the ruthlessness and cunning needed to overtake an empire.
In order to achieve his dreams, Tae-joo enters into a platonic marriage with the company’s heiress Lee Yo-won (in a decent but slightly milquetoast performance), while the woman he truly loves serves prison time for a crime he committed. I watched, riveted, as Tae-joo went head-to-head with his own wife and perennial nemesis Sohn Hyun-joo in a never-ending battle of wits, where each victory was hard-won but never, ever the last.
What gave Tae-joo’s conflict that added layer of complexity was the fact that he was challenging the status quo with his very existence, and he knew it just as much as everyone else did. There’s a moment where he asks his entitled wife just what exactly makes her more worthy of her father’s throne than he when all she had to do was walk from her living room to get there. If he came all the way from the slums to stand at the same threshold as her, what is it that really makes one human worth more than another? Is it birthright, effort, willpower, or something even more intangible?
If Empire of Gold accomplished nothing else, it at least gave us questions to which there are no easy answers, and had something to say about the injustice of the class divide while proving to be one of the most compelling and unyielding character dramas of the year.
Compliment Sandwich: You put the business back in business time. As long as we’re being honest though, the ending could’ve used a little extra polishing. Still, Tae-joo-yaaaaaa!
Cruel Palace: War of the Flowers
Cruel Palace was a marvel of a sageuk which aired on jTBC earlier this year, helmed by the writer and at least one of the directors responsible for last year’s popular cable hit Queen Insoo. Though its span was epic in covering the life and times of King Injo and his family after his infamous submission to the Qing Dynasty after the second Manchu invasion of 1636, what propelled the story from week to week was its focus on character as the driving force.
Aside from Queen Insoo, writer Jung Ha-yeon is also responsible for the 2010 makjangapalooza Flames of Ambition, which I bring up here only to point out how unique his three most recent works have been in their focus on ambitious and inherently unlikable lead women. It speaks to a certain talent in order to make Kim Hyun-joo’s portrayal of Yam-jeon—one of Injo’s concubines and a formidable political foe—as a not necessarily sympathetic or even an easily understood character, but a believable one nonetheless.
I could appreciate the novelty of having such a ruthless character at the center of a tumultuous reign, and the show made a very compelling case as to the type of person one had to be to survive life in the palace: insane. The tragedy inherent in Crown Prince Sohyeon’s story is precisely that he couldn’t be like his father, his brother, or even his fearless wife (portrayed captivatingly by Song Sun-mi), and was damned for it simply because people like Yam-jeon existed. When you’re the kind of person who’d rather use words and rationale against a woman who would kill her own child if it meant power (and do it again)… well, no wonder everyone in this drama was at her mercy, or lack of it.
Compliment Sandwich: You were awesome. But maybe, just maybe, if you’re going to bring a character back from the dead (twice!) you might let him show up more than once every twenty episodes. I’m sorry I said anything, please don’t let Yam-jeon kill me in my sleep.
Queen’s Classroom was an incredibly moving and intimate little drama with the cutest cast of characters in, I don’t know, the history of television. I might be more willing to accept that as an overstatement once this drama fades from my immediate memory, since recalling it just for the purposes of this review brings back all the warm fuzzies and salty tears I shed during its short-yet-sweet run.
Starring Go Hyun-jung as a teacher all her sixth grade students refer to none-too-kindly as “The Witch,” Queen’s Classroom proved unique in its focus on a group of kids who struggle with life, learning, and the rigors of an educational system which all but requires that parents start grooming their children for college at birth. One would think the last thing they’d need is a remorseless teacher who employs emotional manipulation, blackmail, and other seemingly cruel methods to force her students to face reality, but the beauty of this show is watching these unlikely personalities grow and change, and always for the better.
This was nothing if not a character-centric drama which relied on smaller character beats working together to create a relatable whole rather than any big, overarching plot. It’s what made Queen’s Classroom feel extra cozy in its slice-of-life setup, and why I’d like to think we could find the lessons the children learned so universal. So much of what they experienced were things we’ve all had to face at one point or another, and even more still that we have yet to face. The world’s a scary place.
So while I’m not sure I would have ever wanted Teacher Ma looking a miniature me straight in the windows of my soul, I really enjoyed seeing her employ her x-ray vision on a tiny cast that I’m still loathe to say goodbye to. But if kids like these are dramaland’s future, then I think we’re in pretty good hands.
Compliment Sandwich: Bravo to a wonderful cast, even to the rare white elk that was Ricky Kim. I was sniffling like a baby for weeks because of you! You can keep my tears, though—you were worth it.
THE REST, IN PUNY CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER
Hundred Year Inheritance
Hundred Year Inheritance OST – Jo Hyun-ah – “Living Is Not Living” [ Download ]
Hundred Year Inheritance was the
worst best makjang of the year, eliciting feelings of rage delight within its surprisingly large viewer base, the growth of which seemed directly proportional to the amount of certifiable characters on screen at any given time. We, the thinking public, continue to propagate the system of the weekend makjang, whereby craziness and nonsensicality are rewarded with our undivided attention—the conceit being, of course, that we are entertained.
I’ll give credit where credit is due in that the drama began in medias res, with the helplessly oblivious heroine Eugene getting a rude wake-up call from her hateful mother-in-law who heaps torture and pain on her son’s wife as though it’s her god-given duty. But even that would be too much reasoning for her existence, so we had to take it on faith that all chaebol mothers-in-law are evil, despicable human beings without a shred of conscience. In that sense, Hundred Year Inheritance only reinforced all the life lessons weekend makjangs have taught us, such as: people are awful, second lead females are either homicidal or suicidal, the rule of law doesn’t apply to the uber-rich, cars are higher on the food chain because they kill so many of us, and the amount of babies bought or stolen in any given drama constitutes a human trafficking crisis.
It’s only after being thrown into a mental hospital by said mother-in-law and surviving three years of marriage to a man with all the mental faculties of an 8-year-old bubble boy that our heroine starts her new life as a divorcée, and the crack factor comes in the form of her romance with Lee Jung-jin, the dogged, handsome, and (mostly) sane chaebol in love with her. But of course there’s only one way to sustain a romance for such a long period of time, and that’s to show as little of it as possible in order to keep the audience wanting more. I hate how that tactic inevitably works on suckers like me (and 30% of Korea).
So, how do you then fill fifty episodes where your leads must stay apart in order to keep viewers hooked despite the certainty that there will be no happiness until the very end? Don’t ever look to this drama for the answer to that question, because even for the low bar set by the weekend genre, the writing was the wooorst. I’m almost sure that the writer must’ve thought that (1) typing with her toes was fun, and (2) that as long as a blood relation existed between different story threads, that was enough to make them relevant. Not so.
In the end, Hundred Year Inheritance was hugely mis-marketed as a “warm family drama” dealing with love and food in a noodle house owned by the heroine’s family for generations (hence the title), when all of that business felt more like an afterthought—especially when the heroine played almost no part in it. But when you’ve got a choice between squabbling family members and Lee Jung-jin, who can blame a girl for forsaking noodles?
Compliment Sandwich: Your lead couple was aces. Everything and everyone else was insane. Thanks for making Lee Jung-jin sacrifice his artistic integrity for our enjoyment.
Flower Boy Next Door
I still can’t get over how much it felt like the writer behind Flower Boy Next Door just threw a dart at an atlas to decide where to have her hero originate from in order to shake things up. That’s the only explanation I can give for a hero named Enrique (which is a totally respectable name, don’t get me wrong) who hails from the gaming wonderland of faraway Spain—and who is, of course, a genius game designer with celebrity status and sasaeng fans. ‘Cause why not?
There were some interesting character ideas that seemed to get lost somewhere along the way, with a hermit for a heroine, an awkward(-ly hot) webtoon artist for her neighbor, and a mostly cute cast of side characters which helped to buoy the drama’s fun side against its not-so-fun emo side—the one filled with inner monologues and classically bitchy second lead females stirring the pot for no other reason than that they can.
If Flower Boy Next Door had stayed true to form and trusted itself to use its characters to propel the story rather than throwing in external conflicts which were beyond everyone’s realm of control, then I think it would’ve left me with fonder memories. But a contemplative first half does not a believable second half make, especially when you tend to negate everything that made the premise special for the same ol’ stuff we can catch on any other channel.
Compliment Sandwich: I can’t fault you too much, because there was Kim Ji-hoon, and I’m easy like that. Even though he wasn’t a real person—but c’mon, it’s not like anyone else was either. I mean… wow, the realism!
That Winter, The Wind Blows
By all accounts this should have been the melodrama of the year. It had everything going for it—an all-star cast, the all-star team behind the amazing Padam Padam, and a story that wrote itself (seeing as it was an adaptation of Japanese drama I Don’t Need Love, Summer). If I had to name just one thing that cost this drama a chance at greatness, I wouldn’t be able to. It was a little bit of everything and nothing, though there were some moments of dialogue which were profound and reminiscent of the Noh Hee-kyung of yore. If only there had been more.
I can see why PD Kim Kyu-tae won for best directing at the 49th Baeksang Arts Awards, and were this last year I’d proudly stand behind him and say he deserved it. But if you’ve seen a few of his dramas in order, like A Love to Kill, Padam Padam, and finally That Winter, it’s hard not to notice how his cinematography has evolved (or devolved) from using creative shots that still expressed an idea to framing the action so tight on an actor’s face that they’d bump the lens if they so much as nodded. His tendency toward close-ups was evident in his previous works but was still used sparingly enough so as to have an actual effect on the viewer—after all, the close-up is a powerful way to convey the characters’ emotions to we, the people. Key word: sparingly.
If I had to invent a reason as to why we were familiar enough with each actor’s airbrushed pores to name them, it’d be this: PD Kim saw Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables a few months before his project began, thought to himself that a movie shot in handheld, shaky close-ups would only be better if it was sixteen hours long, and set out to make that show regardless of whether the style worked for the story or not. In no way does that mean that the shots weren’t beautiful, since each actor was blessed with pretty lighting and a surreal, dreamy color palette. It’s just that, surprisingly, too much of a good thing can be bad. Who knew?
The story revolving around a conman who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pose as a blind heiress’ brother was admittedly thin beer, carried mostly by a few compelling performances. Jo In-sung was commanding and, yes, somehow even sympathetic as a gambler so afraid of dying that he’d risk everything, even what little integrity he had left, for the money needed to live.
If there was only one aspect of this show executed to near perfection, it was how Soo’s better nature kept compelling him to do what little good he could to help his faux-sister, even though none of his small acts could possibly make up for the grand lie he was perpetuating. The first half of the drama actually managed to show how Song Hye-gyo’s character benefited from Soo’s presence and protection, especially from the caretakers who would take advantage of her, which went a long way toward making their characters somewhat relatable.
And that’s all aside from the fauxcest, which I recognize is a pretty massive aside. I just don’t have anything to add to the conversation of fauxcest in dramas. It’s weird. The end.
Compliment Sandwich: You were a very pretty drama. When I say “pretty,” I mean “shamelessly pre-packaged commercialist malarkey.” But hey, without pre-packaged stuff we wouldn’t have Twinkies, so, that’s something.
Nine: Nine Time Travels
I remember initially passing off the redundantly titled Nine: Nine Time Travels, if only because time travel was sooo last year—and also because time travel was so last year, in that you couldn’t shake a stick without hitting someone from the future in 2012. Hadn’t that bandwagon moved on already? Did the team behind last year’s cable hit Queen In-hyun’s Man actually have another time travel story to tell, or were they just going for a repeat of their previous success?
To its credit, Nine was very much its own show, with its own unique take on the idea of time travel. For once, Fate (or a Time Conductor, whatever) wasn’t the main player wielding the ultimate power of decision over the puny mortals at its whim. Instead, the mechanics were fairly simple—the hero has nine incense sticks, each with the power (when burning) to transport him twenty years in the past for as long as they remain lit. The past runs on a parallel timeframe to the present, which allows the wielder to coordinate his travels to an almost mathematical precision, but when they’re gone they’re gone. Sort of, anyway. It gets complicated.
Lee Jin-wook was a winner as the steadfast hero who finds himself dealing with powers beyond his control, and while he didn’t completely replace last year’s Kim Boong-do, it’s always refreshing to have a nice, normal, evolved everyman you can really get behind and root for. In fact, I think he might’ve gone the whole show without grabbing even one wrist.
And though the editing could get a little frenetic at times—especially when it came to 38928 different angles of the same phone call—what I really appreciated about Nine was how seamlessly the past and present were integrated together, making what could’ve been a completely chaotic mishmash of time periods come across much more seamlessly than I would’ve expected.
Nine wasn’t the kind of drama that got me in the gut, even if I could appreciate all the little things that helped make it a truly worthy addition to the time travel genre, or even just to dramas in general. Too many shows this year took the same conflict and merely escalated it (if we were even that lucky), while shows like Nine stood a head and shoulders above the pack for having constantly changing conflict—which, even when things got convoluted, is still preferable to watching the same thing happen in slightly different ways for twenty hours straight.
Compliment Sandwich: Way to keep things sensical by giving the hero a solid friend as a sounding board. For such a smart show, why’d you have such a dumb villain? Lee Jin-wook’s twitchy ears were an adorable sidekick.
Shark OST – BoA – “Between Heaven and Hell” [ Download ]
Shark was yet another drama made by a team who (with their powers combined!) have collaborated on some great projects in the past—most notably revenge melodramas Resurrection and Mawang/The Devil. This was to be their much-anticipated comeback, and we had no reason to expect anything less than a super-intense vengeance quest interwoven with smart character conflicts that would test the very fabric of our emotions until we no longer knew which way was up and whi-… okay, so maaaybe I expected a little too much.
To be fair, let’s say you were from the other end of the spectrum and went into this drama expecting nothing—and after twenty hours of your life, that’s exactly what you got. Feel any better? If you do, for shame! We can have joyful schoolyard-bully feelings of victory when a show that’s too big for its britches fades into oblivion, but ordeals like Shark deserve at least a little pity. (Not to be confused with a pity party, which pretty much sums up the extent of Kim Nam-gil’s characterization.)
So what went wrong? Again, this is an instance where it’s hard to pin the blame on just one thing. But if I got to pin it on two things, it’d be the character of Yi-soo—all internal angst, no external impetus—and the plodding oh-my-god-what-did-we-ever-do-to-deserve-this nature of the pacing. Yi-soo was an amorphous hero who had the potential to be engaging and gritty if only the production hadn’t been so afraid to let him be anything.
When he starts off the big clue-hunt for his first love/prosecutor/daughter of the man who killed his father, he does so with a murder. As the story wears on, he does nothing else but drop hints here and there for Sohn Ye-jin to find, and spends most of his time thinking Deep Thoughts over a shark pendant—the shark metaphor being this production’s way of testing whether repeating something enough times will make it matter to audiences. It never mattered, okay Shark? It. Never. Mattered.
Now that I think back on it though, maybe Yi-soo wouldn’t have come off as such a drag had the writing not physically isolated him for almost the entire run of the show. If he was having Deep Thoughts, it was because he had literally nothing to do in the in-between periods where he had to wait for the heroine to get a clue. Er, get his clue. I’ll just stop here.
Compliment Sandwich: Kim Nam-gil’s pornstache does become more bearable over time. I was, however, struck with boredom just recalling the events in this show. At least it ended with a bang.
Sword and Flower
Why was this the year of polar opposites? It was barely only one year ago that I declared PD Kim Yong-soo (Equator Man, White Christmas) my favorite cinematographer working in the drama industry. So why is said industry trying so hard to beat the little optimism I have left out of me? Y’know what, it’s not even about me—what did anyone do to deserve Sword and Flower?
To break down what didn’t work in Swords Over Flowers would take more space and mental energy than is readily available, so let’s instead focus on the two biggest aggressors: writing and directing. You might know them as two parts of the three needed in the Perfect Drama Trifecta. Sword does not know them at all. If the directing in That Winter was simplistic and focused to a fault, then the directing here commits a more egregious error—that of being too in love with its own aesthetics to tell a story. It’s the myth of Narcissus in drama form, and if you made it to the end you were rewarded by the sight of the drama drowning in its own smug sense of self-importance.
While there were some truly horrifying musical choices in last year’s Equator Man, there is not a candle in the world that can be held to the off-putting score which marred most of Sword’s first half, where the dulcet tones of a death-metal-western-electro-dubstep-drum-circle serenaded us as characters defied gravity for no other reason than that someone must’ve wanted them to. And though I was so ready and willing to support this drama for daring to be different in a sea of sameness, it would’ve needed to succeed even a little at what it was attempting to achieve. You can’t be the “You’ll see! You’ll all see!” show when you can’t even bother to wake Choi Min-soo up before his scenes.
But lest we hang PD Kim out to dry for misguidedly sacrificing his wide array of cinematic talents at the altar of spectacle, it’s worth noting that the writing didn’t help by being almost non-existent and grossly simplistic, with grand ideas that might’ve been fun had they been executed with any level of competence. (Spoiler alert: they weren’t!)
Compliment Sandwich: I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you?! Learn from this!
Who Are You
Who Are You didn’t aspire to be the thinking man’s drama, but it was a fluffy and theoretically spooky piece of escapist entertainment which stayed consistent from beginning to end—probably because it aired on cable network TVN, and cable seems to be just a few steps ahead of the live-shoot game. Needless to say I enjoyed it, though I don’t know if that’s saying much since I’d never seen a ghost-seeing-police-procedural-romance before this one.
The premise was intriguing and certainly different in its approach to the generic love triangle by having the heroine’s fiancé die and then reappear to her as a ghost, the tragedy being not only that he’s on a different plane of existence, but that he can’t speak. And that was an honest tragedy if I’ve ever seen one, because if Kim Jae-wook could get so much nuance across with pure silence and the power of expression, think of how amazing it would have been to have him in the whole drama with those sad puppy eyes and WORDS! Words that would come right out of his mouth, maybe even to form SENTENCES! I’m still lamenting what could have been.
While it was certainly ballsy to keep Ghost Kim Jae-wook around without using his full potential, the show gave us a more immediate love story with hotshot hero Taecyeon being demoted to the police’s lost-and-found department, which is subsequently where heroine So Yi-hyun finds a job after her very long hiatus. (Don’t you love drama comas where people wake up like they just took a long nap and not like their muscles have turned to jelly and their bedsores have bedsores?) How she gained her ghost-seeing ability seems to be the common thread in ghost-seeing dramas as of late, in that her bump on the head and coma was the source—though the exact reasoning gets a little murkier later on, much to my chagrin. It can never be overstated how important rules are in a fantasy universe. Never ever.
I did find it a little odd that the show opted for a more serialized approach to its storytelling when it didn’t have a serialized amount of time, like, say, multiple seasons as opposed to sixteen episodes. Most of the episodic content from week to week was spent solving ghost-related cases, which left little bits of room here and there for character development. I didn’t find the gap between the main story and the case-of-the-week format to be all that jarring, mostly because the teamwork between our two underdog cops could be a hoot, with So Yi-hyun (in her first semi-likable role) playing the straight man to all of Taecyeon’s well-meaning blustering. I could watch those two solve cases for multiple seasons, although I’m glad dramaland won’t give me the opportunity to hate myself for thinking that later.
Compliment Sandwich: Congratulations, you won the ghost-seeing drama race and were first to air before Master’s Sun. Shame on you for wasting Kim Jae-wook’s precious talent. Really though, thanks for bringing him back to our attention.
I think we were all a little relieved when Master’s Sun proved that it was NOT going to be the next Big (phew!), but neither was it a complete return to form for the Hong Sisters. I found it mostly innocuous and enjoyable, with a wonderfully charming performance by the usually stone-faced So Ji-sub, who really did end up stealing the show. And okay, also our hearts—who are we kidding?
The writers are notorious for creating endearing heroes while the heroines and second leads can be a little hit-or-miss (and mostly dependent on the charisma of their actors). Though the idea of tacking on a disability to a hero to make him relatable is old hat at this point, it’s hard to knock something when it works. And while Gong Hyo-jin’s skill as an actress isn’t up for contest, I wasn’t as taken by the role of Taeyang as I’d hoped to be. We can excuse most of her extreme behavior as stemming from her unwanted ghost-seeing ability, but there’s only so many times I can listen to the scriptwriters hanging a lantern on her professing that she’s like-a-Candy-but-not-ha-ha before I start realizing that self-referential meta jokes don’t magically make a Candy into, well, not one.
Seo In-guk made a fine showing but was ultimately stuck with the pining second lead role, and part of my issue with the long march toward the show’s conclusion was that the true climax of the show had already taken place, which I won’t mention here for spoiler purposes. Anything after that came off as the usual well-worn tropes used to keep the lead pairing apart—amnesia, third party interlopers, not-so-binding contracts, overseas travel (otherwise known as forced separation), and time skips.
The show had its own internal logic to explain what was happening and why, so it’s not as though any of the later plot came out of the blue, nor can I fault the show for using well-worn tropes when they exist to be used. It’s just that somewhere along the way I fell out of love. I wish I knew why.
Compliment Sandwich: Sparkling chemistry between the lead couple, and an interesting use of the ghost-seeing premise. A jar of mayonnaise would’ve made for a better villain than the Evil Twin. Points for the Empire of Gold meta joke though.
Secret OST – Navi – “Incurable Disease” [ Download ]
Secret actually serves as a good example of a drama which did well within the boundaries of its genre as opposed to being hopelessly confined by them. (On the other end of the spectrum, Heirs is the mime stuck in a glass case of emotion.) It was the melodrama of melodramas this year, embodying all the things which make for a traditionally entertaining watch: revenge, forbidden love, unlikely alliances, and the I-swear-I’m-just-going-to-watch-one-more-episode addictive nature of the pacing.
What at first seemed like a garden variety melo about a Candy heroine and a chaebol quickly spiraled into a tale of murder and sacrifice, with Hwang Jung-eum playing a heroine who pulls a gender-reversed Nice Guy and goes to prison for her beloved, enduring the birth and loss of her child all while incarcerated without a shred of outside support. Her fiancé’s crime, the one she unduly paid penance for, was that of killing Ji Sung’s pregnant girlfriend, who (of course) he wasn’t allowed to be with because chaebols are very special snowflakes.
Dramatic, isn’t it? And that’s not even half of it, since the hate the hero(?) harbors for the heroine(?) morphs, astoundingly, into a strange and very disturbing love that the show tried very hard to sell, though I never quite bought it. What’s more important, I suppose, to note about Secret is that it never tried to rationalize its characters in what we’d deem as “normal” terms outside of the world they were living in—everyone was off their rockers in some way or another, which is to say, everyone was freaking crazy. This was not the sort of drama for emotional subtlety or nuance, since it operated on a level of extremes which were impossible to comprehend in sane terms, but which somehow equated to easily digestible and emotionally satisfying entertainment (on a very primitive level, with plenty of qualifiers).
I can say that all now while admitting that I had trouble connecting with most (any) of the characters, whether it was Hwang Jung-eum’s self-sacrificing naivety gone awry or Ji Sung’s worrisome tendencies toward abuse that were really just manifestations of his self-loathing and god complex when it came to protecting the memory of a woman he himself had abandoned. At least everyone got to learn a lesson or two through the course of this drama, but I’m also a firm believer in the idea that sometimes, you just can’t fix crazy.
Compliment Sandwich: I went in expecting nothing, and was pretty surprised with the result. Ji-sung’s character is a really, really bad example to be setting for romantic leads. You’re sooo lucky you had Ji Sung playing that character though.
Oh, Heirs. One of the principle differences behind my dismissal of the high ratings weekend makjangs rake in and primetime drama ratings is that the makjangs might’ve earned their lot (on some twisted level) by entertaining us in one way or another, like a circus monkey with a music box. My natural inclination is to expect a little more meatiness from primetime dramas, though I suppose if you aim low and still manage to net 25.6%, you must be doing something right.
This is one of those instances where I can say I probably wasn’t the intended audience for this show, though that never stops me from giving a drama the benefit of the doubt—or in this case, twenty. But what struck me most about Heirs from the very beginning was how much it felt like we were just going through the motions of what a high school/makjang/teen romance should be, without any effort being made to give Heirs its own sense of lived-in identity.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern drama that somehow avoids the topic of the class divide, never have I been so unable to comprehend such virulent classicism to the degree it was presented in the preposterous and often joyless world of Heirs. Not only did it feature a class divide so incomprehensibly vast that it made the first world problems of its characters hard to buy, it also had so little to say on the subject it based its entire story on. That is to say, it had nothing to say on the subject.
Most of the parents in this show were absurdly unrealistic (or just plain insane), and while it wouldn’t have been so bad if the wealthy echelon of characters just didn’t give a damn about those people who had the very nerve to be poor, their idea of bloodline purity and human worth was so malicious, so mean-spirited, that it was just really hard to take any of them seriously. Especially when their sole plot purpose was to give the main couple a hard time, which they definitely succeeded at. So much aaangst, so much paaain, so little story.
I wish I could say that Heirs was a fun watch despite all the flaws, or that there was a defensible reason as to why the high school aspect was actually necessary to the plot. If there’s one thing I can be grateful for it’s still Kim Woo-bin, who managed to squeeze a charismatic performance out of a role which, on paper at least, would seem like an early-model blueprint for a future serial killer. Who needs therapy when love cures all though, right?
Compliment Sandwich: Even if you underutilized them, you had a great cast. Maybe in your next drama you can stand apes up next to your leading men so we can go, “Ohhh, so there IS a difference.” No cast member was injured during filming.
Basketball has been an extremely weird watch for me, in that I’m able to see the parts of it which should, for all intents and purposes, have made for a compelling drama. In this case the sum is not greater than the parts, especially when the parts themselves aren’t even that good—so what we’re left with is a drama where lots of stuff happens, but so little of it resonates without character propulsion.
That lack of character-centric choices is Basketball’s chief failing, something that the final two episodes aren’t likely to change. It’s depressing when you consider the dramatically rich premise of an underdog turning to basketball in the tumultuous period of the Occupation era leading up to Korea’s independence and the basketball team which made it to the quarterfinals in the 1948 Olympics—the last time Korea would compete as a unified nation before the north/south division. It’s just, c’mon, that almost writes itself.
But then, surprise! The production got cut down from its original twenty-four episode count to eighteen, citing that they realized there just wasn’t enough time to tell the full story leading up to the Olympics, so they wouldn’t. What a letdown. In retrospect, I’m not at all sorry about the cut, if only because the drama has been such a chore to sit through. The production got too bogged down in paying homage to the seriousness of its historical setting to remember that there is a story to tell.
This was also yet another example this year of an accomplished director dropping the ball, since PD Kwak Jung-hwan is responsible for two of my favorite dramas—Chuno and Conspiracy in the Court. I doubt I would’ve been quite so disappointed in Basketball had I not seen what this director could do with a green cast and a shoestring budget in the aforementioned Conspiracy in the Court, but since I have seen what he’s capable of, there’s not much of an excuse to be made. Yes, the actors in this drama were exceptionally green (and you’d have to pay me to watch another drama with Lee Elijah in it), but the story wasn’t anything to write home about either. And that’s maybe what sucks the most.
Compliment Sandwich: At least you supplemented your main cast with a strong(er) set of supporting actors. Even though watching you has been one of the greater mistakes of my life. Then again… never mind, I’ve got nuthin’.
Mi-rae’s Choice started out as cute, fun, frothy entertainment. The premise was inherently silly with a dash of intrigue, in that the titular heroine is met with her older self who’s traveled back in time just to stop her from marrying hunky anchor Lee Dong-gun with a cryptic warning: “The one you love will die because of him.”
That left plenty of room for wild speculation as the heroine’s future self saw fit to reveal all the future events she’d like, regardless of the impact they’d have on the past—except for the ones that mattered. At a certain point it began to feel like there was no rhyme or reason to what she withheld and what she didn’t, and as is custom for bad examples of time travel, there seemed to be no consequences for her meddling.
Where this drama really started to lose its sense of fun and purpose was when it started bailing on its own rules. Sure, this wasn’t a time travel drama you watched because of its deft handling of the subject matter, especially when the time travel itself was more of a gimmick than anything else. But when they threw their own rulebook out in favor of nonsensicality and opted for repetitive love triangle angst only to then negate the entire premise by the end, well, it’s disappointing. Like going to the salon for a Brazilian blowout and leaving with a poodle perm.
Compliment Sandwich: The dynamics within the broadcasting team were a treat. The dynamics within the love triangle, not so much. That being said, thanks for showing a new and improved Jung Yong-hwa.
BECAUSE NO REVIEW SHOULD END ON A POODLE PERM
Let’s face it, I didn’t choose the best of dramas to recap this year. But the love and words of encouragement you all have given me are gifts I’ll always cherish. Trust me when I say I read every comment, and y’all are not only the best community on earth, but also a pretty hilarious bunch. Thanks to you, Dramabeans readers, for making 2013 so special.
And of course, thank you always to the wonderfully supportive javabeans and girlfriday, and to my fellow minion gummimochi for always being there during those late night recap panic moments. May the good times keep coming, for one and for all!
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 2: I Watched for You
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 1: Cheers to Dramaland 2013
- 2013 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 6: 2012 Editors’ Picks
- Santa presents: 12 Days of Christmas
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 5: Dramaland: The gift that keeps on giving (girlfriday’s review)
- 2012 Year In Review, Part 4: If I Could Turn Back Time (HeadsNo2′s review)
- 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