It’s that time of year, for Show to trade in all its good deeds and gold stars for a spot on Santa’s list. Have you been naughty, nice, or something in between? If there’s any constant in dramaland, it’s that you can never underestimate the sneak-attack of a naughty finale, or the surprise resilience of a drama that lingers in your heart long after the dust has settled. It’s why Santa makes his list at the end of the year, because there’s nothing like time (and a little eggnog) to bring things into focus. So here’s my list of this year’s dramas, for better or worse, till 2014 do we part.
Time to polish off those shining character breakthroughs and brush the gaping plot holes under the rug. Final inspection, coming on through!
SONG OF THE DAY
Busker Busker – “잘할 걸 (I Should’ve Been Good)” [ Download ]
Naughty or Nice: Not nearly naughty enough for an impish wizard.
Jeon Woo-chi has me torn, in that it ultimately proved to be a silly but lighthearted, entertaining version of the famous wizard’s tale, and yet part of me loves the character enough to be sad that a mediocre telling of it even exists. Despite loving Cha Tae-hyun, I can’t help but feel that his casting limited the character and kept him firmly in after-school cartoon territory. The show was as funny as it wanted to be, but it was also unintentionally funny when it tried to be serious. Thank goodness it was aiming to be funny more often than not, because the reverse would’ve been a disaster.
As a hero’s tale it had a fun Clark Kent/Superman dynamic for the main character, who got to be two very different people in public and private spheres. That was probably my favorite thing about the show, and a case where Cha Tae-hyun was worth his salt in comic chops alone. Secret identity hijinks are never not fun.
Sadly the drama does very little to make its world believable, and in the case of a fantasy sageuk with a super-powered wizard as your hero, you can’t skimp on creating a believable canvas for your audience to invest in. I’ll go to whatever fantasyland you create, but you have to pave the road and color in the trees and throw in some music video wind. You gotta help me along here. The writing failed to set up a world of magic and whimsy, and instead just assumed it was fine to take Jeon Woo-chi’s fame for granted, and threw us into the action with zero setup. I don’t know why beginning in the beginning is a difficult concept, but there you have it. It didn’t help that the directing fell short on a basic visual level, committing to effects it couldn’t actually produce onscreen. The end result was seeing the slapdash coloring job with the outlines showing underneath—I see what you were going for, but also all the shortcuts you took to get there.
An argument could be made for the CG budget (or lack thereof) to be the show’s crippling affliction, but honestly I believe that a good writer and a good director should know how to change its story and scale to match its limitations. I could’ve easily handed in big effects for some quiet episodes that focused on character development over plot, or gave the heroine a chance to live up to her badass potential, which she never fully got to do. At the end of the day I’d still call it an enjoyable comedy and a feel-good hero story, but there is a decided lack of magic in this magical tale.
Naughty or Nice: Nice. Sometimes bad boys make the best nice boys, once they do a little growing up.
It always says something to me when I come around to do the year-end review and I can hardly remember dramas that ended just a month or two ago, or in this case the reverse—when a drama has enough staying power to be memorable a year later. School 2013 marked the revival of the ’90s franchise that focused on the contemporary day-to-day problems of high school students and launched dozens of acting careers for some of film and television’s most wanted. The reboot was a bit of an experiment, but I think overall a successful one. And while the we’re-going-to-shed-a-light-on-the-real-problems aspect of the show often veered into didactic territory, still it managed to stay true to form as an engaging, realistic portrayal of teen angst.
The heart of the show was the bromance between Lee Jong-seok and Kim Woo-bin, who made the reconciliation between two ex-best-friend gangsters the reason to tune into the drama. They infused a childhood friendship with as much heartache and longing as any first love, and emotionally anchored what would’ve otherwise been a solid but forgettable episodic drama. It’s kind of funny if you step back from it—their falling out was given the dramatic weight of two mob bosses who had spent twenty years apart—but the emotional intensity worked for them because it was played as the pure teen angst of two friends who had little else to hold onto in life except each other.
In some sense School can only be called a competent drama, since it did nothing special visually and had a lot of excess in the writing that needed to be trimmed back. But it wore its earnestness on its sleeve, and for that I can forgive a lot. In retrospect the drama stands out because it didn’t have the usual lovelines, nobody had quick fixes for all of life’s woes, and Fate never had a hand in any of the proceedings. It was just a simple story about growing up, making it through your day, and maybe changing the course of your life just one small choice at a time. It wasn’t a happy drama, in that these kids’ problems were often bleak, but it remained a hopeful one that always balanced the sobering realism with a dash of optimism. Maybe one person really can make a difference; maybe you can’t change the past but you can build a future; oh, and ramyun is best shared.
Flower Boy Next Door
Naughty or Nice: Spying on your neighbors isn’t naughty. Nope. Not one bit.
I was keen on Flower Boy Next Door for giving us a quirky match-up between a shut-in heroine who experiences the world by proxy and her ebullient hero with boundary issues. You certainly couldn’t call it the average dramaland pairing, and I especially liked the idea of a wallflower as a central character.
I love that the drama was drawn with the texture of urban isolation, with a cast of characters who all lived a door, a hall, or a street down from one another, giving them access to peer in on each other’s daily routines and invent narratives in their heads, while in reality keeping themselves firmly isolated, always alone. Change requires the arrival of a strange, bouncy, talkative boy who lacks the cultural cues to take a hint, and he sort of blows through the building like a tornado of friendliness. Cute, but destructive. The main couple turned out to be a really sweet one that not only made for funny neighbor antics, but also some poignant character development. When you get two characters changing each other for the better in a constant push-and-pull, the development feels much more organic and earned, and I enjoyed their personal growth immensely.
I only wish that the story had remained more focused, because it did a lot of senseless stalling and then invented really lame reasons for the couple to run away from each other and push each other away, basically hoisting very inorganic stakes on a relationship that didn’t even require that kind of dramatic conflict to be interesting. In fact it took away what was interesting about them in the first place, and turned a unique couple into a hackneyed drama formula. The supporting cast of oddball neighbors does a lot to infuse laughter and heart into the show, especially when they start to form their own de facto family, but it wasn’t quite enough to mend the fact that the central story had strayed to uninspired territory. The characters and the world remain memorable but the story evaporates, in the end dulling the overall picture.
Level 7 Civil Servant
Naughty or Nice: Naughty. Or I’m lying to you and you’re going to get ALL of the presents this Christmas. No you’re not. I was lying just then.
Illustration by ziggystardust
I was trying to fill up my swiss-cheese memory of Level 7 Civil Servant to write a review, but then I came across this awesome drawing, and realized I could never sum up the show better.
Sometimes I actually do forget the contents of this drama, not even because I’d choose to if I could, but because it morphed into a meta blog thing, and the drama itself has faded away from my memory, replaced with stick figures and this one really awesome drawing of a medium-speed bunny slope chase that still makes me giggle. By and large the drama itself shouldn’t have been such a disaster, especially given that it was based on a zippy, successful movie that provided a handy blueprint. How hard could it be? we thought. Famous last words.
I wasn’t sold on the casting, but there was no reason that Joo-won and Choi Kang-hee couldn’t prove me wrong and fire up the romance with their chemistry. No? Okay, then at least give me a story to get invested in. But I’m not sure the show was all that interested in telling a logical story, as if it were optional. It stuck solely to comical setups and kooky laughs, but without anything relatable, thoughtful, or emotionally engaging to anchor them, the drama eventually just devolved into a pageant of buffoonery. But bygones—I got all these pretty illustrations out of the deal, and incidentally forgot most of your plot in the process. It’s okay. I’m pretty sure you didn’t have one to begin with.
Gu Family Book
Naughty or Nice: Nice, with underlying anger management issues.
Oh, Gu Family Book. You’re kind of like the runt of the 2013 litter—not quite right, a little dumb, but cute and pitiful, and probably all the cuter because of how pitiful you are. To its credit, there’s a lot about this show that keeps it a light, charming watch and I had fun with it. As a fantasy sageuk it takes care to create a visually interesting world full of magic, mythical creatures, and legends. It was the origin story of a hero (you know how I love those) and it was funny, at times romantic, and sometimes it even succeeded in going to an epic place once in a while. Where its troubles begin is in its everything-but-the-kitchen sink method of trying to do it all but not quite getting there with any one thing. You know what they say about the jack of all trades.
The story opened with a segment on the backstory of the hero’s parents, which was beautifully tragic and romantic. On the upside, it was just the thing to suck us into the world. On the downside, once we got to the main story that didn’t live up to its prologue, we were left wishing we could go back. Part of the drama’s woes is a problem with pacing, some of it due to casting, and some of it is just the fact that the story’s most interesting questions and characters just got sidelined and then forgotten, victims to the live-shoot one and all. And then of course there’s the ending, which, BAH.
Had the drama taken its own mythology more seriously and spent some of its plentiful (some might even call excessive) 24 episodes to take our hero from hot-blooded rebel with gumiho identity issues into a real hero of the people, it could’ve been enough for me to overlook everything else. Instead we spent entire chunks of story time on schemes that ultimately didn’t matter, and the hero’s central conflict got reduced to mommy and daddy issues. To be fair, they were seriously messed up mommy and daddy issues, but we spent all this time waiting for him to grow up and go on his quest, only to literally spend the whole drama waiting.
Suzy is adorably sweet and likable, but this role really showed her limitations as a leading actress. I was just grateful that the heroine was written on the page to be spunky and defiant, which in the very least gave her some dimension by default. I found myself more emotionally invested in Lee Yubi’s character, not only because she was so much more capable of emotional vulnerability and range, but because her story was actually more gripping. It was a terrible waste to throw her storyline aside as an afterthought, and even more so for her brother, Yoo Yeon-seok. They delivered heartfelt performances for characters that ultimately fell by the wayside, which was the biggest tragedy of all. But hey, points for reinventing gumiho lore, for giving us Gumiho Daddy Choi Jin-hyuk and Gumiho Baby Lee Seung-gi, and for being copacetic enough not to take yourself too seriously.
Naughty or Nice: Bad to the bone~ B-b-b-b-bad~
Monstar was a pleasant, often sweet, sometimes even moving watch. I mean, high school romance and song—what’s not to love? But it never quite gelled for me, namely because I didn’t buy into the stakes. Musical face-offs can have plenty of narrative heft if we’re made to believe that they’re game-changers, but very little in this high school musical drama was story-driven, and I often felt like we were setting up scenes for the witty song remakes with no thought to the larger picture. Were we rebellious misfits taking a stand for the little guy? Were we just sticking it to the cool kids? (Who, by the way, were the lamest cool kids in the history of time. The orchestra? Really?) I never quite understood the motivation or the significance behind events that the show kept insisting were Totally Important, Okay, which was only compounded by the latter half of the story being even more tangential than the first.
The quirky heroine was delightful and easy to root for, and I liked her odd-couple pairing with the haughty idol. But there was little fire for a teenage romance, and I didn’t know if I should blame the acting, the writing, or both. I wanted heady adorable first love, musical interludes and all, and it seemed like a wasted opportunity to me that they had the excuse to have an angsty teen love square where it’s totally acceptable to sing about your feelings and pile on the cheese, only to leave it underdeveloped. Perhaps it wanted to subvert expectations just to be different (something I can see this drama actively choosing to do) and got lost on the follow-through. The problem is that you have to move the story along to back up the emotion behind the music, otherwise then it’s just a concert, not a drama.
The supporting cast of misfits was great and often garnered more empathy than the main characters. For their sake I really wanted the efforts of their band to amount to something, but sadly there wasn’t a whole lot of resolution in store for them, or for anyone for that matter. Granted, the songs were appealing on their own merits, and in early episodes even provided some truly poignant moments. Much of the show was feel-good featherweight stuff that you could watch with very little emotional investment. But I’d rather care any day of the week, win or lose.
Naughty or Nice: Too fishy to be nice, too watered-down to be naughty.
I’m pretty sure Shark put me off of revenge melos for a good long while. Sometimes one revenge thwarted is enough to make you swear them off forever, or okay, at least until the next one entices me with its promises of dark thrills and outsmartypants anti-heroes. It’s just nothing short of deflating when you go into a drama expecting a mastermind to keep you on your toes and get served a cold fish instead.
I wanted him to be so dark as to make me question right and wrong, to leave me impressed but shuddering, to make me wonder if his ends really justified the means. But the drama was more interested in making its lead a tragic character, and instead of making me feel murky for rooting for him, it muddied his characterization so that he was neither good nor bad. He was just plain vanilla. And I have zero feelings about vanilla.
The drama itself had a great ambiance and even made me care about its backstory. In fact the opening episodes are probably the best part of the show, which is sad since that’s like saying the free bread is the best part of the meal. But it was an engaging teenage romance against a tragic background, and I watched the adult characters’ reunion with bated breath because of them.
The thing that confuses me about Shark is that it chose very clearly to give its hero a singular purpose (revenge, naturally) that kept him from engaging with the rest of the world, including the woman he loved and the sister he’d die to protect. So then you’d think that in exchange for stripping him of everything else, he’d get to go on one very satisfying vengeance tear. Instead he sort of moped about it, swore that he’d never look back and only live for revenge, and then moped about it some more. I spent the whole drama eagerly waiting for the good part where the hero does bad things, but he was so tortured about it that he didn’t do much of anything at all. And when he finally did spring into action, there were no more surprises left to pull out of the hat. What’s the point in building up a mystery if all roads lead to the obvious?
Dating Agency Cyrano
Naughty or Nice: Nice. But somebody told me to say that to you.
On a basic level this is a movie adaptation that got translated to episodic format fairly well, though it’s as much a vehicle for Lee Jong-hyuk’s charisma as it is anything. The downside was that there wasn’t much romantic chemistry, so while he was appealing as the 21st-century Cupid who engineered romance for others, when it came to his romance—the one we should care about—the drama fell short in a significant way.
I actually found the lead pairing to be really cute and likable, but the story did very little to bolster their romance. They remained underdeveloped as characters, and then to top it off, the drama waited about forever and a half to get to its central conceit—that of Cyrano playing matchmaker for the woman he loves to be with another man. You need longing to set us up for that tragic irony, even if you’re going to reverse it later for the rom-com version.
But the drama staunchly decided its hero was going to be so cynical about love that he spent the whole series just denying his feelings altogether, effectively pushing the main romance to the back of the bus while the couple of the week took up all the room. They played on the Cyrano theme for the leads in a cursory way eventually, but I still wasn’t made to feel the stakes in any of it. What a waste of a classic premise.
I did thoroughly enjoy the agency aspect of the show, which was an entertaining way to bring in fun cameos and be a sounding board for each of the characters to express their thoughts on love, or pepper the matchmaking choices with bits of personal character. The show also took care to give a full range of the agency’s effects too, from the fun of watching them play Fate to stage a meet-cute, to the graver consequences of actually changing the course of someone’s life and being party to a lie. Had the show found a way to weave in its central romance effectively from the start, it would’ve made for a great one-two punch.
I Hear Your Voice
Naughty or Nice: Is a basket of puppies snuggling under a rainbow nice?
Sohn Seung-yeon – “너의 목소리가 들려 (I Hear Your Voice)” [ Download ]
Every year there’s usually at least one drama that gets me squarely in the heart, enough for me to love it unequivocally, warts and all. I Hear Your Voice was my favorite drama of the year, thanks to a bizarre marriage of serial killer thrills, courtroom drama, and noona romance. I never said the recipe was sensical, did I? Besides being addictively paced and set up for emotional payoff, it was a world filled with characters who were consistent, flawed, and lovable.
Lee Bo-young’s uppity public defender heroine was hands-down my favorite character all year. She was sassy, smart, petty, immature, full of herself in every way, but so beautifully vulnerable and hilariously outspoken. Throw in a mind-reading super-powered noona-killer played by Lee Jong-seok, and you pretty much had me at hello. I loved all the reversals in their setup. The boy with superpowers was powerless in the real world. The girl he had put on a pedestal his whole life was just about the farthest thing from the defender of justice and truth he had made her out to be. He was a kid with an old soul. She was a grown-up who had never grown up.
There was a zippiness to the pace that owed a great deal to one very simple concept: throw a serial killer on their asses and start biting your nails. It wasn’t complex, but damn if it didn’t work remarkably well. Narratively it had the brute force of an avalanche—not subtle, but you’re just going to run at breakneck speed to get out of harm’s way. The constant threat of danger did wonders to throw our couple together, heighten the tension, and give their romance life-and-death stakes. Of course, a lot of what we gain from that momentum does get bogged down by a lot of courtroom drama, as the heroine’s cases provide the episodic mini-arcs throughout the show. Most of the time they’re just setup for character development, in which case they aren’t as tedious, but the Sesame Street law is by far the show’s weakest link.
But the romance and the character development make up for it in spades, especially when the relationship manages to be everything from heartbreaking, sweet, funny, self-sacrificing, heroic, to just plain romantic. On the downside I now harbor the highly unrealistic expectation that if I grow up to be like Jang Hye-sung, the universe will reward me with a mind-reading noona-killer of my very own. This is I think not quite the take-away message the drama was going for. In the simplest terms, it’s a feel-good drama populated with winning characters that has something uplifting to say about sticking up for the underdog, doing the right thing, and fighting to protect the ones you love. I mean, how could I not love you?
Empire of Gold
Naughty or Nice: Naughty in all the right ways.
Empire of Gold wasn’t an instant hit with me despite having a pretty eventful premiere episode, but I stuck with it primarily because of my faith in The Chaser’s writer. I’m glad I did because it was certainly worth the watch, though to make the obvious comparison, it ultimately lacked the heart and the unflinching idealism in the face of darkness that gives The Chaser the edge. Empire was aiming to do a very different thing—show the true face of money, power, and greed from within the belly of the beast—and it made sense that there would be no room for a hero with a bleeding heart in this dog-eat-dog world. Still, I was a little sad about it. I like my bleeding heart heroes.
Instead, Empire’s world is populated with the devil, the devil’s cousin, and the devil who rose up out of the ninth circle to try and become the king of hell. And I’ll tell you what—it’s fascinating. The entire drama is one long extended power play among people vying for the emperor’s throne, or rather the coveted chairman’s seat at the head of the biggest chaebol conglomerate in the country. It’s a world where decisions made at the breakfast table shake the economy of an entire nation, where family order is like the mob but scarier, and where mutually assured destruction is the lifeblood of securing your seat at the table. And as an allegory for the division of haves and have-nots and how money corrupts indiscriminately, it’s downright chilling.
Go Soo brings in a commanding performance as the underdog who rises up from poverty to contend with the titans, who is convinced that if he walks into hell and takes it over, he can turn it into heaven. But we watch as he goes from bright-eyed bushy-tailed beginnings (a company he names Eden, to make the metaphor complete), and sinks further and further into the abyss until we’re not entirely sure if he’s going to win it all or just get swallowed whole. Sohn Hyun-joo is frighteningly good as the family’s black sheep and Lee Yo-won finally met a character that benefitted from her cold reserved delivery. (I can’t call her great, but it’s a case where her style fits her character, at least far better than in any other drama I’ve seen her in.) She plays the sole capable daughter who inherits the company over her greedy siblings, and has to fight to guard what was entrusted to her. She gets the classic Godfather moments, where she gets handed the keys to the kingdom because she’s favored and the power corrupts her day by day. Her character arc was my favorite, despite being less dynamic on the surface.
These three characters spend the entire drama switching alliances in an ever-shifting game of one-upmanship, and we in turn spend the whole drama rooting for one, and then the other, and then again switching sides. Move for move the drama is cold and calculating; no one is ever fully in the right, and almost everyone will surely go to hell, jail, and probably both, but you find yourself caring because it’s written with a deft hand, and the drama never strays from the singular goal—the war for that chairman’s seat—that drives our main characters.
My major gripe with the show is that it is almost entirely comprised of expository dialogue spoken from one armchair to the other. That is, nothing happens onscreen other than people discussing the consequences of what happened offscreen. Given that the story is about business dealings in the chess game of corporate takeovers, there might not be a wide array of choices for how to deliver this narrative information. On the one hand, the writer still manages it brilliantly. On the other, it might possibly be the most boring way to film a drama ever. It’s basically a stage play in 24 acts, and at some point you start to wonder exactly how many mini wars we have to fight to get to THE war, how many conversations we can have about it, and how the delivery of plot would come to a screeching halt if all the secretaries in this universe suddenly died. Still, there is something to be said for a coolly satisfying game of chess, and when each move is worth tens of billions of dollars, the temperature does start to rise.
Naughty or Nice: Newly nice. Reformed naughty is all the rage this year.
Two Weeks holds up as one of the most solid dramas of the year, though it does break my heart that it falls shy of being exceptional. The man-on-the-run action thriller really took advantage of its condensed-time premise, speeding along with promises of payback, justice, and redemption, delivering on all counts. Plus, daddy-daughter cuteness! It was a kinetic experience that was so well crafted and effectively directed that it really did feel like being taken for a ride. I gasped at the turns and my stomach lurched with every drop as if the hero’s survival was tied to my own. It was certainly tied to my blood pressure, in the very least.
Lee Jun-ki began the series as a man who thought so little of himself that he wasted his life away as a sad degenerate, and my favorite thing about the drama is how dark it was willing to go with its hero at the outset. His self-loathing was palpable, and warranted, and it gave his character such dimension. We watched him go from that to framed murder suspect purely on the run for his survival, to a man fighting for his redemption and daring to hope for a second chance at life. And the gradual unfolding of his past romance with Park Ha-sun that widened the gap between past happiness and present sorrow as we went along was a really nice touch.
The danger with setting your hero up to dodge danger for two weeks straight is that you do start to put a strain on realism. For a story that had such a strong gust of momentum behind it, it didn’t need to rely on coincidence as much as it did. I wanted more effort and direct reward for our hero, not coincidence and luck. And despite being a big proponent of the hero being an everyman, there were times I just really really wanted him to get smart faster. His emotional breakdowns were compelling, but then at some point I remember thinking that I wish he’d stop crying and start outsmarting. And he did; it just would’ve been nice to get there sooner. The villains were a letdown too, mostly because we went in expecting an intricate plan o’ mischief from the baddies, but it was far too simple to be impressive. On the upside they were frightening people who killed without remorse, so the survival instinct was always rarin’ to go.
What I really love about condensed-time thrillers is the narrative enjoyment you can mine from very tiny events, like finding a power tool to saw off your handcuffs, switching disguises to move amongst people undetected, and catching a chicken with your bare hands just to eat. There’s just a minute-by-minute real-time thrill in putting us there with our hero, wheels turning as we try to figure out how to get out of this new mess. In that, the show really lived up to its potential, and the miles we came in character development by the end of the ride was such a satisfying reward for the cold sweat it induced week after week.
Naughty or Nice: Nice to the touch.
Master’s Sun is a great reminder that winning chemistry is nothing to take for granted in dramaland. Romantic comedies in particular have a clear ceiling on how good they can possibly be if that sizzle is missing, and this drama in turn showed just how well a good sizzle could cover for a show’s weaknesses in other areas. The foray into horror rom-com was a fun genre mash-up that provided some great setups (She sees ghosts except when she’s touching his body? What genius is this?) and some missteps (My dead first love stole this necklace and zzzzzzz….) but overall it was the couple that kept things afloat.
I really think the Hong Sisters hit the jackpot with Gong Hyo-jin, who has now been their leading lady in two dramas, and should just be their marquee heroine. She’s of course fantastic with the funny, but she also grounds the crazy with down-to-earth, heartfelt emotion so that no matter what zany hijinks are going on, I’m always with her. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook comedic roles, but she turned in one of my favorite performances of the year. So Ji-sub got the more interesting character who was everything from hilarious, childish, to just plain wacky, but he played the hell out of the role and made it memorable. They were so lovable together that hardly anything else mattered, which is a good thing since the plot often felt like it was stretched far too thin.
In some ways the ghost-of-the-week episodic structure worked to fill the story with new adventures and more importantly new metaphors in the process. Where would a Hong Sisters drama be without the wordplay gained from things that sound like other things? The downside for me was that I didn’t really care enough to get emotionally invested in ghosts who were just dropping by for a quickie. When the ghost’s story served as the impetus for our leads to work out some of their own romantic entanglements, it was at least clever and amusing; when it tried to carry emotional heft, it fell flat. That includes the hero’s first love ghost and attendant partners in crime, who rank pretty high up on this year’s scale of most ineffectual villains.
As is often the case with Hong Sisters dramas, the final act left a lot to be desired, especially when it became clear late in the game that the couple no longer had any real conflict keeping them apart. But apart they had to be regardless, which set us up for a few head-scratching moments of, But whyyyy? I wish Chun-hee’s character and the heroine’s coma backstory had been true contenders from the start, because I found her time spent out of body to be one of the most interesting story points. Too bad it was more of an afterthought than anything. Master’s Sun may not have done everything right by a long shot, but it got romance right, making the hugs, kisses, and electrifying touches add up to more than just the sum of its (totally swoony) parts.
Naughty or Nice: It’s hard to be nice when you’re broke.
I was looking forward to the small cable rom-com Unemployed Romance, expecting a breezy ten episodes with an underdog heroine and a classic bickering romance. In many ways it is exactly that, with an endearing lead couple in Lee Young-ah and Namgoong Min. But there was something decidedly missing from this drama, and I couldn’t help feeling that it had been paced all wrong, and was at every turn wasting the precious ten hours it had been given.
The series decided on an unconventional approach, splitting episode arcs into Heroine, Hero, and Reunion. So for the first third of the drama, we never even meet the hero of our story. It was the strangest choice, and I remember watching the early episodes wondering why the guy on all the posters wasn’t in the drama. Then we switched gears entirely to introduce the hero, who turned out to be an interesting character after all. We backtracked all the way to college when their romance had begun, and then eventually caught up to the present day when they meet again.
The problem is, by the time we FINALLY get to their reunion in the present, two-thirds of the show is already gone. I felt like the bulk of what I had been waiting to see was shafted for setup, backstory, rinse, repeat. And worse yet, the crux of their falling out hinged on a simple misunderstanding, which just required each being told the truth. Talk about a flimsy conflict.
I liked the very real mundane concerns over making rent when you’re between jobs, of fretting over choosing a career path to make your parents happy, the inferiority complex that develops as your friends succeed around you, and the fear that your unconventional path is no longer cute when you’re thirty and broke. The characters are grounded and likable, and the romance is fun. I just wish I could take a woodchipper to the story order, piece it back together upside-down and backwards, and leave out all the useless parts. I might only end up with four episodes, but sometimes less really is more.
Naughty or Nice: Pssh, being nice is for people too poor to own shopping malls from which to pick their own presents, bitches.
Heirs strikes me as a drama that got made solely on its one-liner premise, and no one bothered (or dared) to ask, …And then what? I’m fairly certain that an eighteen-year-old defying his parents to win their approval to date a girl is pretty much the textbook definition of …So what?, and yet here we are twenty episodes later and that’s the entirety of what happens, give or take a detour to California (but we don’t like to talk about that as a thing that really happened). Granted, not every drama needs to be pointed, and Heirs is easy to enjoy and certainly easy on the eyes. I just wish there had been more substance to help hold it up against an ounce of scrutiny.
On first glance the story seems to be rich with conflict—an illegitimate chaebol heir who is exiled from his rightful place in the kingdom, a poor hardworking Candy for him to traverse the chasm of the class divide to love, a high school filled with sharks, and a family tree laced with thorns. Hell, just being eighteen ought to be plenty. It was nothing new, but I at least expected it to deliver the most obvious version of that tale to satisfaction. But as the drama went on, it became increasingly evident that it was not built from a foundation of character and story, but backwards from a set of drama poses it wanted to strike. Backhugs, tearful separations leading to long walks, in-your-face frenemy wars—these were the things driving this train, and the other stuff like character development was a footnote. I feel like I walked away from this show with a catalogue of hugs, handholds, and fisticuffs, and no memory of what made anyone want to do any of those things.
I can’t even talk about the world’s most simplistic corporate takeover plot without laughing, but I wouldn’t have even cared if there had been a point to any of it—if there was something the drama wanted to say about the class divide other than the idea that poverty is possibly a contagious virus that people should be vaccinated for. How about the idea that the only way to beat your tyrannical father at his own sick game is to take his power and repurpose it, or refuse to inherit his throne altogether, or something other than just stand there and cry until he changes his mind?
The romance was one I wanted to root for from the start, but the drama actually managed to take away reasons they should be together, which is frustrating to say the least. I just don’t find being followed, bullied, tripped, yanked, or kissed into submission romantic. Go figure. It was enough of a turn-off to make me disengage emotionally from the show altogether; yes, stronger than even the power of Lee Min-ho and Kim Woo-bin combined. Who knew such a thing was even possible?
Naughty or Nice: Naughty… no, nice… eh, I couldn’t decide.
Me: Wait, so that’s the end? But… who’d Mi-rae end up with?
Show: It’s Mi-rae’s choice whom she wants to be with!
Me: Yup, it sure is! Who’d she choose?
Show: That’s not important! It’s up to her, see?
Me: Yes. Yes, it’s always been up to her. I see that. So who’d she choose?
Show: Stop forcing your choice on her!
Me: I wasn’t!
Show: I know you were, secretly!
Me: I am not! I will honor her choice, really.
Show: No you won’t. If I tell you, you’ll just be mad, or javabeans will.
Me: But… you said it’s Mi-rae’s choice, so what does it matter if we’re mad? Mi-rae won’t even know! She’s fictional!
Show: OH SHE’LL KNOW.
Me: But, I thought you said it’s her choice. You’re making this about you.
Show: Am not.
Me: Are too.
Show: Stop your trickery. I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to take away her power to choose.
Me: What? No. Mi-rae’s choice is her own.
Show: Yes, yes it is.
Me: So what did she choose?
Show: That’s up to her.
Answer Me 1994
Naughty or Nice: It starts with an N and rhymes with “potty,” but don’t assume you know what the answer is, because this sentence is like baseball and there could always be a twist you totally weren’t expecting in the ninth inni—
I really didn’t expect sweet throwback youth drama Answer Me 1994 to become the most polarizing drama of the year. The series itself is by all accounts exactly what we expected from the college follow-up to Answer Me 1997’s high school drama. It’s just that the love triangle has created some kind of vortex on the internet whereby a person’s worth is judged by what ship they’re on. Can’t we all just get along? To writer Lee Woo-jung’s credit, it’s because her shows, whether drama or variety, are all addictively good. There’s no denying that, and hell, most days I’m the leader of that fan parade. I feel like the fanwars for this show are getting to the point that everything is read with a defensive kneejerk reaction, so I’m going to preface this all by saying that I love Oppa, I love Chilbongie, and I’ve loved writer Lee Woo-jung for way longer than I ever loved either of them.
But to her detriment, I think this time around she fixated on the idea that everything, and I mean everything had to be a mystery, to near-tunnel-vision effect. The whole structure of the who’s-the-husband guessing game took precedence over all else, and in exchange for moments of narrative surprise, she sacrificed clarity and trust. Does she write fantastically nuanced characters? Yes. Is there such a thing as conflating subtlety and obfuscation for the sake of withholding for the big gotcha moment? Hell yes. The thing is, she does both, so she deserves praise for the one thing, and squarely earns her flak for the other.
The show likes to play a game of what I like to call setup-withhold-twist. Oppa was set up to be the first perfect would-be suitor who spent the opening episodes earning all our love. And then we weren’t allowed to know Oppa’s feelings, not yet, so they were withheld from us not by virtue of character, but plot necessity. Then Chilbongie enters the game, and while Oppa is sitting on his hands, Chilbongie steps up with his classic romantic hero moments designed to elicit swoons. Swoon we did. But once he served his purpose to lock and load the love triangle, he got shelved too. I’m mad that he got shipped off to Japan, but I’m equally mad that Oppa was forced to sit on his ass. It’s not a Chilbongie/Oppa thing. It’s an execution thing. It’s a structural choice to put Oppa on ice while Chilbongie gets his moment in the sun, and the same when Chilbongie gets sent abroad while Oppa springs into action, after the world’s longest unmotivated delay. Both sides end up dissatisfied to some degree because the characters are slaves to the mystery, and the mystery is king.
The problem isn’t that they’re both great guys. I mean, when has that ever been a drama’s problem? It lies in the fact that the show has chosen the gotcha over motivating our characters and letting us in, which is a shame since what makes this franchise so rich is its nuanced character development. I still love the world and the characters, but I feel like each of them (Na-jung, Binggeure, all) took turns having their development sacrificed to the god of withholding, which can’t possibly be blamed on running out of time (hour-and-thirty-minute episodes = no excuses).
The thing is, this show does so much other stuff so well that it doesn’t kill my love completely. It just has the unfortunate effect of making everything else recede to the background, even though what I like most about this franchise has always been found family, palpable warmth, and the sudden ambush of emotion that comes from an unexpectedly small, mundane moment. That stuff is still aces, and why I’ll probably be able to look back on this show with affection long after the so-called mystery is put to bed. Because once it’s done it’ll cease to matter, and then maybe we’ll be able to remember the show the way it remembers the ’90s—with earnest fondness and loving care. And a pair of rose-colored glasses couldn’t hurt.
And that’s 2013 in dramaland for me. Thanks again to our recap minions gummimochi and HeadsNo2 for working so hard to deliver entertaining and insightful recaps all year ’round, and to javabeans for letting me ride shotgun in our crazymobile.
While the dramas may come and go, it’s always nice to know that the Dramabeans family is in it together for every swoon, fistpump, and WTF twist that may come our way. Thanks for lurking, ranting, reading, and raving with us all year, and for making this giant living room couch a vibrant, inviting place for one and all.
Stay tuned for more year-end goodies with Editors’ Picks, coming soon!
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 3: A Year in Compliment Sandwiches
- 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