Dramabeans Top 10: Korean dramas whose endings are better left unwatched (trust us)
javabeans: Sooooo, we’ve been wanting to bring back the “If You Like…” series of reviews, where we take a theme or motif and recommend other shows like it. We really liked the idea when we first brought it out…
girlfriday: But then we got tired. Mostly, it was just daunting because we wanted so much to be all-encompassing, and never leave out a drama.
javabeans: And as many shows as we’ve seen, there’s just no way we would be able to write about every single workplace romance drama, or makjang tearfest drama, or drama about heroes with good eyeliner.
girlfriday: Wait, I might still want to do the one about eyeliner.
javabeans: But then it occurred to us that we could cap our lists, instead of trying to name every single applicable title ever made.
girlfriday: Hence, the birth of Dramabeans Top 10. Because ten is a number we can handle.
javabeans: Plus, it sparked a wave of fun future list ideas to tackle, so we’ll roll those out in due course. We promise! I’m pretty sure we said that about If You Like, but we mean it this time! I feel good about this. Because Top 10 means Not Top 100.
girlfriday: For our first Top 10, we decided to start at the end—or more specifically, with endings.
javabeans: And for better or for worse (mostly just worse), drama endings have lacked a little something recently. I still haven’t seen the finale of Yong-pal, for instance. I know all about it, and I just can’t bring myself to sit through that.
girlfriday: I think you’re better off skipping it.
javabeans: But I have to finish it! I invested 17 whole hours already, and even loved 6 of them! I can’t NOT see the last one!
girlfriday: … And therein lies the perpetual problem that we face, time and again. To finish, or not to finish… that is the question.
javabeans: Would you rather preserve a pleasant memory despite harboring a gaping hole about the ending, or would you rather tarnish the whole experience so as to save your curiosity from expiring?
girlfriday: We’re here to help out! If you choose the gaping hole, feel free to stop reading here.
javabeans: However, if you choose the red pill, we’ve got a whole list for you below, so you can read up on the ending but not waste your hour.
girlfriday: Oh, and SPOILER ALERT, because of the obvious.
javabeans: These are in no particular order, if only because how do you measure the weight of one heartbreak against another? *sob*
1. 49 Days (2011)
javabeans: The ending for 49 Days may be more polarizing than universally decried. But it gets added to this list because for those to whom the ending felt wrong, it felt really, really wrong. The crux was this: You gave your heroine a second chance at life, she earned it, and then you killed her anyway! What in the WHAT.
Dying wasn’t the problem, since this whole drama was built around finding new meaning in life via death. After the heroine was killed before her fated time, she was given the chance to win back her life if she could find three people who truly loved her. If she were to fail, we all knew she was taking that big elevator up to the sky, so we were always aware of the threat hanging over her head. The problem was in giving her all these narrative plot hoops to jump through, awarding her the victory, and then declaring that she had been fated to die soon afterward anyway, claiming her life for a wholly unrelated reason. That’s not just withholding a cookie from you; that’s giving you a piping hot cookie, describing all the ways in which it is delicious and gooey and mouthwatering, then snatching it away before you can eat it. And throwing it on the ground. And crushing it under a dirty, heartless boot. Stomp, stomp.
2. Who Are You—School 2015 (2015)
girlfriday: I swear, my resentment for this show’s ending isn’t all about being on the other romance ship—it’s also about not giving our twin heroines a proper resolution as sisters. On the one hand, this show’s ending isn’t actually offensive premise-destroying anti-matter like some of the others on this list. But the ending still took all the wind out of my sails when I really enjoyed the ride up until the finale.
Who Are You—School 2015 put a fantastically tense twist on the usual high school drama, with Kim So-hyun playing two diametrically opposed twin sisters who swap fates. It repurposed melodrama tropes—amnesia, hidden identities—to intensify high school drama, which made for some crack viewing through its run. But in the end one sister basically took over the other’s life, becoming her stand-in rather than gaining a relationship with a sister. Where was the sisterly bonding, the character growth for unni? And don’t even get me started on the romance, where we watched the hero pine over one sister all series long and then suddenly love the other one, reinforcing that whole replacement motif (which I find worse in principle because they’re identical twins). Or set up the second lead to pull all of our heartstrings to the bitter end, only to kick his heart to the curb. Ugh, I take it back. I’M STILL MAD AT YOU.
3. God’s Gift—14 Days (2014)
girlfriday: This one actually pains me. Because this show was so good. SO GOOD. I actually wish I could tell people to watch only 15 episodes and imagine the rest, because the ending you picture in your head will invariably be better than the one the show delivers. But the problem is, you can’t not find out what happens at the end of a mystery thriller where lives are at stake… so then you’ll just have to watch and join the rest of us who carry the rage in our hearts.
God’s Gift was a brilliant show that wove together two mysteries—a dead girl and a killer on death row—and put a heart-stopping, sweat-inducing ticking clock on the story by sending its two lead characters back in time 14 days so they could stop their loved ones from dying. It unfurled in tense, gripping action and suspense as a mother stopped at nothing to save her daughter. The problem, of course, came in the final episode when our hero discovered the role he played in the girl’s death the first time. He could have just not killed her the second time, but no, he decided he had to sacrifice himself to Fate (that bitch) to save the girl who was already saved. Sadly, Captain Awesome was not also Captain Smartypants. Worst. Gift. Ever.
4. Surplus Princess (2014)
javabeans: I can almost excuse Surplus Princess for its off-the-rails ending in light of the meta knowledge that the show was being suddenly cut down by two episodes, with barely any time to adjust for the new timetable. But knowing why a show flipped everyone the narrative middle finger doesn’t magically make sense of the narrative chaos, so the show earns its spot on this list.
Surplus Princess had a quirky and zany charm that may not have resulted in a ratings bonanza, but entertained its cult audience with its wacky comedy and silly plot about a mermaid princess who became human to win the man she’s crushing on, which required her to score a job at his company. Thus the show entwined the familiar Little Mermaid premise with the topical theme of the younger generation struggling to find gainful employment in today’s fiercely competitive market.
Did she win her man? Yes. Did she win the right to keep her legs and remain on land? Ish. She disappeared into tears and mist, only to make a literally last-minute reappearance after the obligatory finale time-jump, marked by the deliberately provoking caption “I’ll be back.” The show dropped a tantalizing plot twist, and then dropped the curtain, as though to punish us for the cable station’s misdeeds. What did we ever do to you, Show, but love you and watch you faithfully?
5. Vampire Idol (2011-12)
girlfriday: I can’t be entirely mad at Vampire Idol for not delivering a satisfying conclusion when the network cut its episode count down from 120 to 79. And in some ways, I admire the ballsy approach to write a big F–you ending for being robbed of a third of its intended run. I could imagine doing the same in the heat of the moment, with a bottle of bourbon at my side. But it still sucks to be on the other end as a viewer who invested time in these characters over 79 episodes, to be left wondering, basically, WTF.
Vampire Idol was a wacky show to begin with—a sitcom that brought alien vampires down to Earth and found comedy in acclimating them to human life. It was low-rent, low-tech, and filled with acting newbies (many of whom would go on to superstardom). But it was also hilarious and witty and totally out there, and found ways to embrace its own limitations with inventive jokes and storylines. We even started to care about this crazy family of vampires, idol trainees, and assorted guardians. So imagine what a punch to the face it was to get to the last episode where instead of a resolution, we got a series of cryptic glimpses into the future that left a zillion more questions and everyone hanging in the balance. I mean, it literally closed on: And then that happened… *surprise face* THE END.
I can’t imagine a single person who watched that ending and didn’t throw something at their screen. And if you didn’t, you are a better person than I am.
6. Hong Gil Dong (2008)
javabeans: Admittedly, I did write in defense of the ending in the finale recap, and I still think there’s some merit that can be mined out of the ending. Or maybe that was my heartache talking at the time, trying to glean purpose from a finale that yanked the rug out from under our collective feet. Sure, the drama had been growing increasingly dark, and yes, war is a harsh mistress… but for the type of show Hong Gil Dong was—a rambunctious romp that portrayed a legendary fictional hero in a slapstick rom-com light—it was rather a slap in the face to kill off all our good guys in the final hour in a futile burst of bravery. It wasn’t the death itself that hurt, but the clash between our expectations of a boisterous happy-ever-after and the bitterness of the closing massacre (however beautifully filmed) giving us a sacrifice that amounted to nothing. If Hong Gil Dong had been presented in a more nuanced, complex, or dark light from the get-go, perhaps the ending wouldn’t have felt such a betrayal of rom-com trust. Instead it left us like the drama—the ground razed and barren, smoking in the aftermath, just like our spirits.
7. Rooftop Prince (2012)
javabeans: Structurally, Rooftop Prince was a bit of an oddity, sandwiching an uproarious fish-out-of-water comedy in between a romantic mystery-melodrama. For most of the drama, we focused on the Joseon prince and his three sidekicks who time-jumped into present-day Seoul, where one plucky everygirl took them under her wing like very adorable, color-coded ducklings who relied on her to acclimate them to modern marvels like toilets, public transportation, and evil chaebols. Hilarity, much of it side-splitting, ensued. On either end, we were given a heartfelt romance and mystery set in Joseon times, where the prince struggled to uncover how his beloved wife came to die.
That made for a finale episode that felt, tonally, jarring compared to the wackiness that preceded it. But tone shift aside, what gave Rooftop Prince its disappointing ending was the conclusion of the romance, inasmuch as the lovers were split apart by 300 years: The heroine got a second chance with a reincarnated version of her prince, while the prince… died alone, forever devoted to the sweetheart he left behind in modern Seoul. Sure, future Yoochun may have gotten his girl, but past Yoochun had to live out his life without her. Well, at least he had his Power Ranger sidekicks with him to soothe the pain.
8. Gu Family Book (2013)
girlfriday: Loving your girl’s 422-years-later doppelganger is totally the same as loving her… right? WRONG. I seriously felt like Gu Family Book got dropped on its head just before the finale, because whatever possessed it to kill off our heroine and propel our hero four centuries into the future as an ending resembles no earthly logic.
I know, it was a supernatural drama to begin with, about a half-gumiho hero who learns to tame his inner beast and save Joseon. No one ever said it was realistic. Gu Family Book was certainly flawed, but it also had a fun, comic-book style and I enjoyed the hapless beginnings of a young hero-to-be. But the show had a bizarre idea of narrative payoff if it thought that killing his one true love and making him wait generations for her reincarnated doppelganger was some kind of cosmic reward for being a hero. There are some dramas where this kind of ending could work [javabeans: NO THERE AREN’T], but this one didn’t support that kind of epic scope, in story, scale, or execution.
9. Mi-rae’s Choice (2013)
javabeans: Here’s a simple, clear-cut fail for you: You designed a drama all around a character making a choice, and then? WE GOT NO CHOICE.
Okay, sure. The character did make a choice in the final episode, which we’d been building up to all series long: Which man would she pick? The one she’d initially fallen in love with but grown to bitterly resent later, or the one her future self was convinced would lead to a happier life, prompting her to time-travel back to her youth to convince herself to pick Door Number 2? (The dilemma was a tad bit more nuanced than a mere love triangle, but since the key premise was withheld from us, the drama forfeits its right to claim nuance.) And so, we’re shown that she chose… but not shown the choice. Who does that?
When you refuse to deliver on the most basic, fundamental element of your story, you’ve basically copped out of telling a proper narrative with a beginning, middle, and an end, inasmuch as we never got out of the beginning territory. You’ve essentially reneged on telling a story at all, which means this drama barely gets to be called a drama. Go away, dram.
10. Big (2012)
girlfriday: You know what’s funny—Big got its romantic happy ending, and yet it still angers me more than any of the other dramas on this list where characters met untimely deaths, ambiguous fates, or were forced into second romances with reincarnated doppelgangers. Because, go figure, this happy ending was supposed to be between the heroine and the hero of our story—aka Coma Boy—not the heroine and the body he was borrowing while she fell in love with him.
Big is really simple in premise—it’s a body-swap drama that asks us to spend an entire series believing that there’s a teenage boy inside a grown man’s body. Which is a head-twister in the romance department, because you’re not quite sure she’s falling in love with the true person on the inside and not the hot man on the outside (because, um, Gong Yoo), but you still put faith in what the story is telling you. Because you believe in such a thing as blind love. And call me crazy, but in exchange for going along with that, I wanted to see those two characters, in their own bodies, getting their happily-ever-after to prove that she really did love only Coma Boy. Is that asking for too much? Is it really? To get a happy ending with your two leading characters in their true corporeal form? I think not, Show. I think not.
+7 Honorable Mentions:
11. Oohlala Spouses: On paper, saving a troubled marriage via body-swapping hijinks sounds heartwarming and hilarious. In practice, the marriage should never have happened and wasn’t worth saving.
12. High School King of Savvy: We were with you until you married a high-schooler. Is “He’s eighteen—it’s legal!” really the message you want to be sending?
13. The King 2 Hearts: You killed the only thing that was good and true in this world when you killed off the king’s bodyguard. RIP, Earnest Bot.
14. Secret Door: You were supposed to give us a secret door into the untold truth of the infamously grisly, captivating true story of a king who forced his son to kill himself. What we got was a blander, tamer ending that told us nothing new. I could have gotten a more riveting story reading my history textbooks.
15. Prime Minister and I: It’s a romantic comedy that ends on a handshake.
16. Bad Guy: In a word: nihilistic. In more words: Our “hero” ends up destroying the thing he wanted all along (family), lets his sister shoot him, and dies alone and friendless. Nobody ever finds out he’s dead. The murdering sister blithely relaxes to a massage after killing the brother she never knew she had. Fin.
17. Nice Guy: Maru may or may not have lost his memory, and may have started a new romance or rekindled an old one. We may never know. Maru is mysterious. No one will ever know Maru.
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, 49 Days, Big, conversation post, Dramabeans Top 10, featured, God's Gift – 14 Days, Gu Family Book, Hong Gil Dong, lists, Mi-rae's Choice, Rooftop Prince, Surplus Princess, Vampire Idol, Who Are You–School 2015