This has been an eventful year for Team Dramabeans, as we’ve steadily grown in numbers from years past. Now that we’ve got so many staffers aboard, we’re playing with the format a little to bring you the same reviews you’ve come to know and love—just in a more digestible format.
For the purposes of our Year-End Review Extravaganza, we’ve separated our minion army into Sunbae Minions and Hoobae Minions, and up first are our sunbae minions, who have been hard at work helping Santa (and us) all year. We asked them to pick just a favorite handful to write about, which of course caused them a whole lot of angst.
Enjoy their reviews, and look out for the Hoobae Minions coming up, and Editors’ Picks too! –HeadsNo2
Another year has come and almost gone, and our incredibly patient and dedicated overlords have become multi-tasking goddesses in this whole year-end review process. A big thank you to them and a shoutout to the whole Dramabeans community for sharing the laughs and frustrations of this dramaland dimension. It’s been a good year in dramaland, and despite the few bad apples (let’s not dwell too much in our disappointments), I’m generally satisfied with the quality and diversity of dramas this year. Maybe the drama gods heard my prayers and graciously granted us some highly enjoyable shows.
I believe in the drama gods like I believe in Santa, and in some bizarre way, dramaland is like a religion. An unorthodox polytheism that exists like a weekend family drama — reliably there, no matter how good or bad things are. We hum along to the OST hymns, worship our favorite gods — writers, directors, actors, Gong Yoo — and often have blind faith in rarely fulfilled promises. We believe strongly in our respective gods and stay loyal to our practices, which include late-night marathoning, making a bowl of ramyun along with the shows’ characters, and hoping that the rookie idol is more than a pretty face.
Once in a while, a miracle drama appears, and our faith is renewed with fresh optimism. A couple of dramas this year have renewed my faith in dramaland by defying all expectations, while also teaching some lessons about virtue. Without further ado, here are the dramas that convinced me that dramaland is still virtuous, that dramaland is still good, and that dramaland still loves us. Amen.
Police Unit 38
Or maybe more like vigilante justice and karmic revenge against rich corrupt vermin.
With the writer and director of Bad Guys at the helm, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of show Police Unit 38 was going to be. A slick and badass story of a con squad? In a way, that was what we got, except from a light comical frame that took full advantage of Ma Dong-seok and all the possible twists a story could handle. At the end of almost every episode, I watched with my mouth agape, in awe of the clever storytelling that left me strangely satisfied. The holes in the plot were intended, not overlooked, which gave me a new appreciation for the deft writing of the show. In depicting how the scams unfolded, the writers never revealed the whole plan, but they embedded morality and built enough trust in the execution that we, the audience, stopped doubting the show and simply waited for our minds to be blown.
Of course, this strength quickly turned into a double-edged sword, because the expectations amped up with each episode. Inevitably, my heightened expectations fed into my disappointment in the lackluster final scam. Another consequence of the heavy focus on the exhilarating twists was the underdevelopment of the whole cast. By the end, we were watching the Seo In-gook and Ma Dong-seok show, but I’m not complaining too much, because these two were great — if you need a refresher, just watch their petty playground fight. Meek and cowardly Ma Dong-seok with his charming chameleon buddy Seo In-gook were the ultimate buddy cop duo, ready to avenge tax fraud from a corrupt politician near you.
Oh Hae-young Again
Facing your death and chasing love requires some of that.
Oh Hae-young Again was a delightfully mortifying watch, and I say this with endearment. Nothing calls for a pity party like a character who gets dumped in the first scene, but Hae-young magically evoked empathy instead of pity. Much of the magic came from Seo Hyun-jin, who embraced her character and breathed life into all parts of Hae-young, even making her flaws seem relatable and real. Hae-young felt her emotions fully — in pain, in joy, and of course, in embarrassment. I often felt overly mortified on Hae-young’s behalf while simultaneously feeling envious of her ability to feel and express her emotions so honestly.
In a sense, Eric’s character was the yin to Hae-young’s yang. His path was rather roundabout (read: full of noble idiocy), and his character was rather glum, but I think that’s what made his relationship with Hae-young special. Her feelings and happiness compensated for his lack of emotion, and eventually, he caught her contagion. My main complaint about the show was the imbalanced use of humor and melodrama, particularly in our couple’s relationship. While I considered Hae-young a fun and comical character, her interactions with Eric’s character ended up being more melodramatic and less enjoyable. Regretfully, the humor became exclusive for Hae-young individually, or for our comic relief side characters.
Despite these few hiccups, this show remains one of my favorites of the year, because it was really about Hae-young learning to accept and value herself. She became a stronger person for overcoming her inferiority complex and heartbreak. And she learned to fight for her happiness because she knew she deserved no less than to be loved.
Dear My Friends
The best wisdom comes from those ripe in age but young at heart.
This drama squeezed all the tears out of me. Just looking at the cast and extended cameos, I knew Dear My Friends was going to be good. But I had no idea how good it was going to be. Go Hyun-jung’s character was irritably relatable in her treatment of the old fogeys, and her relationship with her mother was so terribly broken that it was painful to watch. I had to take breaks from watching at times because I was overwhelmed. Yet there was an irresistible poignancy to this show that always brought me back for the next episode, no matter how much I feared the emotions that watching would entail.
While I did get invested in Go Hyun-jung and Jo In-sung’s relationship, that was secondary to my care for our aunties. Many of our senior avengers have moved onto less prominent acting roles, like grumpy fathers and nagging mothers-in-law, but this show gave them a platform to shine with their multi-dimensional portrayals of the characters. We saw mothers parting with mothers, best friends sharing the realities of aging, and we saw these strong calloused women behind closed doors being truly vulnerable in the presence of their trusted friends. It was incredibly moving to watch the friendship, fear, and love in the older generation, who often seem so formidable. We’re reminded and promised that the elders in our lives are imperfect and that they carry unspoken stories of their own lives. This show paid a beautiful homage to the aging, though watching it required a box of tissues and a tub of ice cream to get me to the end.
Age of Youth
Moderation is difficult when you’re young and single, young and naïve, young and lost, young and insecure, or young and poor.
I picked this show up with the expectation that it would be a cute and light coming-of-age drama about college roommates turned best friends, but Age of Youth was not quite that. It was intermittently light and eerie, giving us the impression that the girls of the Belle Epoque house were hiding their unspeakably shady pasts. It wasn’t the wrong impression — each housemate had pieces of her past that haunted her — but the tone of the show implied some murder mystery was about to unfold. Rest assured that there was no murder, just misdirected blame and guilt that characterizes young adult angst. But the mystery element was what kept me hooked after a mediocre first episode.
Perhaps the dull first episode was due to a lack of Park Eun-bin, who was the clear favorite in the bunch. Her character lit up the screen and visibly changed the quality of the show. She didn’t get as full of a character arc as the other housemates, but she was the heart of this show — with her eccentric personality and ability to understand her fellow housemates. As the show progressed, the girls became each other’s support, and we did get the sisterhood that was promised in the promos. The show became more about the housemates coming into their own as individuals and sharing their growing pains with each other, whether it was about boys, family, or staring anew. It was heartwarming to see how five very different girls grew quite fond of each other. While the show remained pretty low-key throughout its run, it managed to stand out as a unique watch — somehow managing a peculiar balance between sweet and uncanny.
Looking back on the array of dramas in 2016, I’ve realized that I’ve only gotten choosier about which shows to tune into. In past years, I would opt to watch anything and everything my eyes could consume, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to watch the ever-growing list of dramaland choices. And while I know that my heart will speak emphatically about the shows I loved to my very core, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the three shows I quietly enjoyed in the times I needed them most.
Given its many pre-production woes, I came into Beautiful Mind with a great deal of hesitance. Because when one actor after another turns down a role, you can’t help but wonder if there might be something about the production that’s keeping everyone away. But to the show’s fortune, perhaps everybody was waiting for the right actor to step into the lead role. Enter Jang Hyuk.
Even when I think about it now, I can’t imagine anyone else more suited to portray a brilliant neurosurgeon whom no one could truly understand. Unlike the many genius doctors we’ve seen in so many other medical dramas, Young-oh’s standoffish demeanor had an origin story that masterfully unfolded as each episode passed. Despite his attempts to mask the fact that he learned to analyze emotion through rote memorization, there existed an emotional distance in all of his relationships that he’d never be able to fully comprehend on his own.
Young-oh was a completely fascinating character on his own, but Jin-sung was the right bit of fresh air he needed (even if his ongoing difficulties eclipsed her aspirations to become more than just a traffic cop). I loved watching them together as they learned from one another and battled the many obstacles within the hospital. While I was mainly uninterested in the hospital politics, I did like the various medical cases Young-oh was faced with, if only to see the way his methodical mind would dissect the problems presented to him.
I can’t say everything was perfect, of course; it saddened me to see some talent being wasted, namely Yoon Hyun-min. The writing never really did figure out a way to make him a real contender for Jin-sung’s heart, and sadly, his character was swept up into the less interesting hospital bureaucracy. My heart broke at the news of the episode cutdown, but that only made me savor the small yet significant steps Young-oh would make toward human connection even more. Because nothing is quite so beautiful as watching a man discover the humanity in himself, as well as those around him.
The Good Wife
I hadn’t picked up The Good Wife until well into its run, and if I were to turn the clock back and do it all over again, I think I would’ve made the same decision. Why’s that, you ask? Because I loved the binge-watching experience; there have been many a night where I’ve stayed up so I could click the “Play Next” button to consume more episodes.
It’s funny, really, since legal procedurals aren’t always my cup of tea. But the show had so much going for it, including a stellar cast spearheaded by Jeon Do-yeon, that I felt compelled to tune in. I’m so glad that I did, because what I found was a gentle strength in Hye-kyung as she struggled with love, family, and her career in a world ready to scrutinize her every move and decision.
Although she had some helping hands in the workplace, it was evident that there were some battles she had to face on her own. But I’m grateful for the support she did get, especially in someone as clever as Kim Dan. Their collaborative relationship made for an enjoyable watch, and even when they hit a few bumps in the road later on, I still looked forward to their scenes together.
But no battle was as difficult as the one against her husband (played by Yoo Ji-tae), whose trustworthiness was always in question. There were times when I wanted to believe he was telling the truth, only to be reminded about his political ambitions once more. At which point, I just wanted Hye-kyung to be happy with Joong-won (Yoon Kye-sang), and was unbelievably ecstatic when that became a real possibility. Even now, I still think that Hye-kyung could’ve forged a different path for herself, but as long as she’s happy, I am too.
By the time Jealousy Incarnate rolled around in late summer, I was in the mood for something lighthearted that could make me laugh. Even though it took me a few weeks to get hooked, once I was, I was in deep.
From the very first mammogram, I loved the show’s spot-on comedic timing. Both physical and verbal humor were offered by practically everyone in this weirdly extended family, but the one who had me in stitches every week was Jo Jung-seok as the often irritating yet hilariously sad Hwa-shin. Even when I found him grating, I took solace in the thought that Jo Jung-seok could make me feel so many different emotions as a viewer. Who else could make me so irritated when he would clam up in front of his loved ones, make me giggle when he removed an octopus from his muddy clothes, and drive me to tears during that heart-to-heart with his mother?
I especially enjoyed the sitcom-y feel of our character relationships, where a love triangle existed in all three generations. In fact, this is where I wished Jealousy Incarnate could have (and perhaps should have) used its extensive cast to its advantage when the main loveline meandered in the third act. I would’ve loved to see more of the high school boys fighting over Pal-gang, or even more of Chef, who found himself in love with both mothers. However, I did enjoy their moments whenever they did appear, particularly Chi-yeol’s adorable protective younger brother act toward his noona’s suitors.
So for a 24-episode show where Na-ri was caught between two men who fought for her affections, I hadn’t expected such a rush to get to the end. My frustration toward Na-ri’s inability to choose was offset by a bromance that just wouldn’t quit (and I would never want it to). But I suppose the heart wants what it wants, unless it doesn’t know what it wants and we’re left with a pile of never-ending jealousy.
There was something in the water this year — actors and actresses we already knew as solid performers, who were previously known for unessential or unremarkable roles, were suddenly stepping forward and coming into their own, offering performances that surprised us and made us rethink everything we knew about them as entertainers. Not only were they turning in incredible performances, but they made us wonder how anyone else could possibly have played those roles and become their characters in a way that altered the drama for the better. It’s not easy to change people’s perceptions, but these actors (and their amazing characters) really caught my attention this year, turning shows I might have previously skipped into unforgettable masterpieces.
And I want to add a big thank you to javabeans and girlfriday, the best overlords a minion could want, for letting me be a part of Dramabeans for another wonderful year!
Oh Hae-young Again
I really liked this show as a whole — sometimes recapping a show makes me delve so deeply into a drama’s mythos that I find myself bonding strongly with it and its characters, and Oh Hae-young Again did that to me in a big way. I really dove into the characters and their motivations, digging deep to discover what made them tick. And in the process, I fell in love with Do-kyung and his siblings, as well as Hae-young and her odd little family. I loved the love story, which was a pretty simple, straightforward romance… until you added in Do-kyung’s dark visions of the future. His predictions of his own death gave his love a touch of desperation and sorrow that heightened the stakes and almost made his fear of love into a tangible character of its own.
The object of his affections was “Just” Oh Hae-young, played with reckless abandon by Seo Hyun-jin, who surprised and delighted me by turning in a performance full of intensity and commitment. Her Hae-young was so real and relatable, which wasn’t even close to the sweet and practically perfect drama heroine we’re so used to seeing. Hae-young was messy with her emotions — she was loud, bold, made missteps, and didn’t apologize for being who she was. She was the woman we all wish we could be at some point in our lives — one who’s not unafraid to throw herself at what she wants, but bound and determined to do it anyway, consequences be damned. She may not have always been likable, but she was always genuine, and she made the drama all the better for it.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
I think I’ve been most surprised by the performances turned in by Lee Sung-kyung and Nam Joo-hyuk in this sweet little coming-of-age story — both actors have long been on my radar as having potential, but I admit I gave a little side-eye when I heard they were headlining this one. I thought it was too soon in their careers for both of them to be playing leading characters, but boy, was I wrong. I don’t know what got into them, but both actors are completely killing it as Bok-ju and Joon-hyung, and they make me laugh and cry and want to give them hugs.
Both actors are playing their roles with such honest realism that you can’t help but sympathize with their pain and remember a time when you yourself felt the exact same way. Bok-ju and Joon-hyung’s friends-to-young-lovers story isn’t over yet, but it’s one that reminds its viewers of that time when your feelings overtook everything, making you forget anything but the object of your affections. Their mirrored conflicts between their personal struggles and their professional dreams speaks to something in all of us, reminding us that whether your problems are large or small, simple or Olympic-level, the most important thing in life is to love yourself for exactly who you are.
Mirror of the Witch
Paranormal romance is my favorite of all genres, and Mirror of the Witch hit all the right notes for me. It offered a fascinating magical world with a sweet central couple, a villain whose utter lack of humanity gave me nightmares, and a story with enough romance and conflict to carry it through to the end, which is a feat many dramas try and fail to accomplish. I may not have loved the way it ended (it was narratively sound, but still), but I found the drama to be a success in terms of delivering a mystical romance that left me feeling satisfied nevertheless.
My favorite character by far was the conflicted King Seonjo, played by a suddenly inspired Lee Ji-hoon, who I primarily remembered as one of the mostly forgettable classmates in School 2013. He suddenly came into his own in Mirror, giving us a king we never knew if we should trust, protect, help, or run from in fear of what he might do next. All of the other characters fit nicely into their easily predictable roles, but the king was the wild card, the one who could swing events for good or ill. He was just weak enough to be influenced to help or hinder, and his interference in events lent the central conflict a sense of precarious danger. Without Lee Ji-hoon’s insightful take on this desperate, conflicted king, the story that Mirror of the Witch told would have been missing something essential.
Sometimes you’re in the mood for a good cry, and Marriage Contract made me cry so many times for so many different reasons. This lovely story about a dying woman so desperate to provide for her small daughter that she was willing to sell her organs may sound ridiculous on paper, but it turned out to be one of the most touching love stories of the year — and I don’t even mean the romance between the terminal young woman and the man she pretended to marry. Their love was absolutely beautiful in and of itself, and grew so naturally from the contract marriage into a true partnership designed to last a lifetime, however long that may be.
But for me, the real love affair happened between grumpy-but-tenderhearted chaebol Ji-hoon and Hye-soo’s tiny firecracker of a daughter, Eun-sung, played by the precocious Shin Rin-ah. Watching this affirmed bachelor become completely undone by this sweet little girl was as funny as it was heartbreaking, since we knew that her entire future depended on whether he could love her as his own. But he never had a chance — how could he not fall for the diminutive pixie who lectures like an adult one minute, then turns around and cries over kittens the next? Ji-hoon may have fallen in love with Hye-soo, but he was utterly and completely gone when it came to Eun-sung, and for me, the love story was him becoming the best father a little girl could ever want.
It’s probably an understatement to say that it’s been an eventful year, but trust dramaland to come through in our time of need. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that come wrack or ruin, a fangirl always needs her fix, and 2016 really gave us some extraordinarily good pickings. So we’re back to the unhappy torture of having to choose a finite number of shows to write about, and since I’m a creature of habit and an incurable matchmaker, I couldn’t resist assembling a new host of literary matches for my picks. As a lover of stories in all their forms, it’s fascinating to see how those stories transcend the medium. If there’s anything that dramaland proves to us year after year, it’s how incredibly universal the personal is. I never tire of a story well told, even if I’ve seen it a thousand times already. Because in the end, it’s all about the feels, isn’t it?
11:23 PM. A hiss and a crackle of static. The radio comes to life. Breath stops. Heart pounds.
Tapping into our most visceral emotions, Signal was a show that hurt in all the right ways and consistently reduced me to wordless awe. In a case of near-perfect execution, its different elements, from writing, to directing, to acting, coalesced into a display of storytelling at its most masterful, ruled by an intuitive sense of timing and very little excess. Playing with time is always tricky, but Signal mastered it by addressing its intrinsic conundrums with logic and a robust internal consistency.
The writing and plotting was exceptionally tight, yet they still allowed the story and characters to breathe in all the right places, even occasionally undercutting its gravity with brilliantly incongruous moments of hilarity. But one of the most exciting things Signal did was forfend a capricious Fate by placing agency—and therefore outcomes—squarely in the hands of its protagonists. Fate was never the villain, but people were. The sheer unpredictability of a world without presets was both harrowing and marvelous. Every week, I died, I lived, I died again.
It’s a show of reverse-origami that unfolded layer upon layer until you reached its raw and painful center. For me, the defining current of Signal was the deep sense of loneliness between our three detectives. Separated by time and by loss, living in grief and in hope, the radio that formed such a tenuous bridge across time became our lifeline, too. The flow of emotion between dogged detective Jo Jin-woong and Lee Je-hoon, the sensitive young profiler with a cocky front, was the most intense love story I have ever watched. It was enthralling, it was exquisite, it was excruciating. It didn’t just make you feel, it made you feel everything.
Book match: I can’t decide between All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill (the past must be changed, keep trying!), or the harrowing Kindred, by Octavia Butler.
Descended From the Sun
Descended From the Sun made a genuinely valiant attempt at being a war drama, but it climbed into my heart as one of my favorite romances of the year. I found the couple so worth rooting for, and their conflict was a refreshing and surprising departure from the dramaland usual. Doctor Song Hye-gyo and elite soldier Song Joong-ki weren’t separated by timeworn conventions of wealth or class, but stumbled instead over their far more difficult ideological differences.
We were treated to a complicated, relatable negotiation of identity and values. Over the course of Very Dramatic Happenings, their attempts to find a common ground between their beliefs were driven not by accident, but by choice, and I loved that—that’s the stuff of growth, cheesy lines and all. If anything, the cheese grounded it: Relationships are awkward, never forget it! Only Song Joong-ki can say that stuff without being laughed out of town. He was actually delightful for a Kim Eun-sook hero, as opposed to being a jerk. (…The bar is so low.)
There was a thoughtful attempt at a broader plot to justify the expensive backdrop, but it didn’t quite have the right combination of suspense and danger to be really arresting. But though the warzone setting wasn’t used to its full dramatic potential, the extremeness of the circumstances was certainly effective in heightening the relationship tension. While the peril was laughably lacking in the drama, there was a twisting emotional truth in the pain our characters experienced: the shortness of time, and the finiteness of being whole and together. Ultimately, Descended didn’t show the reality of war, but of how love struggles to cross philosophical and geographical divides. And it did a really touching, compelling job of it.
Book match: A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson; an intense and lovely romance in the midst of war. Or, as my friend calls it, war sarang.
Police Unit 38
Oh show, how much did you mess with my mind, let me count the ways. Police Unit 38 (or as I like to call it, I Need Bromance) should be a lesson for fully pre-produced shows. Like Signal, it was an opus of intricacy, weaving a many-splendored plot around a squishy marshmallow heart. Despite its stark visual palette, this wasn’t a melancholy show—while on the cerebral side, it was nevertheless stylish and cheeky. Let’s face it, taxes aren’t typically scintillating, but the dynamic editing style gave it an almost comic book feel, always stretching the tension as tight as a spring.
Intelligent and detailed, the show mastered the balance of being smart without becoming impenetrable—the closer you watched it, the more it rewarded your attention. But it also didn’t punish you if you didn’t—there’s nothing like a little simmering mistrust, an enigmatic frontman, heart-bursting moments of glory, killer comedy, or an addictive bromance to keep you invested. All it lacked was more screen time for its (smart, resourceful, well-written) female characters.
The genius of the show lied with chameleon Seo In-gook, whose conman character demanded an extraordinary display of range. It still amazes me how he played it with such a biting intensity and so many layers that you never had a clue as to what he was thinking. Is he really on your side? Is one word he says true? You just never know for sure, and that’s crazy-thrilling. The unusual reverse of the younger man as teacher and mentor to Ma Dong-seok’s jaded tax collector also carried an unexpected emotional punch. Forget your Ji Chang-wook and your Lee Jun-ki, the finest fight scene of 2016 was right here. Just try and top that playground fight, dramaland. Just try.
Police Unit 38, all your feels have been paid in full.
Book match: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein for the mindscrew, or maybe Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo for the ragtag group of bromantic outlaws.
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds
It’s hard to explain the unbounded giddiness Moonlight Drawn By Clouds made me feel every week (I like to call this one Puppies Incarnate). I was in a state of perpetual and explosive squeeing, giggling into the wee hours as I watched it, drinking in the lush cinematography even as I made plans to turn the Bombastic teaser into a workout video (somebody please do it!). Its impish spirit made for wicked comedy, and no one is better than Park Bo-gum at cutting from playful prince to ruthless royal with no more than a blink. He and girl-in-eunuch’s-clothing Kim Yoo-jung were effervescent. Their gentle, luminous chemistry flowed with the energy of the moment, whether it was in the brightness of their laughter, the tentative unfurling of friendship, or the quietness of their grief and longing.
Moonlight unfortunately lost some momentum in its third quarter by choosing to focus on romance at the expense of plot. Chae Soo-bin was sadly underused, and while the prince’s bromance with his fellow puppies Kwak Dong-yeon and Jinyoung delivered some of the show’s most heart-thumping moments, I wanted more fullness and more development from the secondary storylines set up in the first half.
But it made a great save with a poignant and gripping final quarter, and the Crown Prince remains one of my favorite characters of the year: lonely, isolated, and besieged, he was also clever and politically adept, giving him a deliciously sharp edge that I dearly would love to have seen more of. Park Bo-gum is such a subtle actor, nailing those shifts of emotion with just the slightest movement or change in tone. I still get the shivers when his voice drops to that gravelly timbre, like he was born for sageuk. And you know what? Maybe he was.
Book match: A girl disguised as a boy befriends a lonely prince… The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas.
2016 has been a bountiful year of drama goodies for me — my drama cup runneth over, so much so that I was forever scrambling to try and keep up with all the excellent shows that were clamoring for my attention. In trying to determine why I loved so many more dramas this year than the previous year, I realized that this was also a major comeback year for some of my favorite actresses. Whether they’ve been absent from the small screen for a few years or nearly a decade, there’s no denying their return to dramaland helped raise the quality of every show they were in, which meant a win-win situation for viewers like me.
Thanks again to all the Drama Queens who made this year in dramaland such a great one, and special thanks to the overlords, fellow minions, and beanies for letting me share in that experience with everyone here. Hopefully 2017 will be filled with even more drama royalty!
Drama Queen: Kim Hye-soo
Kim Eun-hee is my favorite screenwriter. I fell in love with her work ever since her debut with the dark and quirky Harvest Villa, and henceforth vowed my utmost loyalty to any show that had her name attached to it. As a fan of the procedural style format, I adored Sign and really enjoyed Ghost. Three Days caused my devotion to flag a bit — it wasn’t terrible, but let’s just say it wasn’t quite at the level I’ve come to expect from her. So I was a little worried about her new project, but once I learned that she would be paired with esteemed director Kim Won-seok, my hope slowly began to rise. Then I found out that Kim Hye-soo signed on to play a lead, and the anticipation built even more. But would the drama live up to my eager expectations?
If only I had a magic radio from the future to tell me that all my fears were unfounded. Signal was everything I could have wanted (and more!). I suppose I could talk about the amazing acting from Kim Hye-soo, who was so brilliantly able to portray both the hard-as-nails experienced section chief as well as the rookie cop with stars in her eyes when it came to her sunbae. I could also mention Jo Jin-woong quietly stealing the show and deserving all the accolades heaped upon him. I could discuss many aspects of the show, but I’m pretty sure that nearly everyone knows precisely how excellent this drama was. When it comes right down to it, the greatest thing about Signal is the fact that it restored my faith in my favorite writer.
Ms. Temper and Nam Jung-ki
Drama Queen: Lee Yo-won
Don’t believe the rom-com lie that the promotional material tried to sell you — this was not some cute, hilarious, “opposites attract” romance. Instead, this was a thoughtful take on office politics (particularly where it pertains to institutionalized misogyny), families who aren’t picture-perfect, and the importance of learning to trust and respect the people in your life (or perhaps learn when to cut them out of it).
One of my favorite aspects of the show was seeing the stereotypical gender roles flipped around, which came off naturally, and not like a gimmick. All the characters felt very real and true to me (even the ones we were supposed to hate, because who hasn’t encountered sexist creeps in a working environment before?), and even though there was character growth, it didn’t feel like a magical fix at the end just so there could be a “happily ever after.” Perhaps the problems were solved a little too easily, but the struggle always felt real — not just from the main characters, but from everyone who orbited them, especially the rest of the staff at the Lovely Cosmetics offices.
There was also a hefty sprinkling of humor, mostly in the form of Yoon Sang-hyun’s titular character Nam Jung-ki and his hapless but adorable family. He was perfect as the male “Candy” trying to make peace with the Ice Queen (with a secret heart of gold) “Ms. Temper,” whose outbursts seemed totally justified, considering the circumstances. Even though they seemed like they couldn’t be more opposite, it was their respective idealism that eventually brought them together as they helped each other learn that perhaps it’s okay to be a little ruthless at the office or show some empathy to your coworkers while still remaining true to yourself.
Dear My Friends
Drama Queen: Go Hyun-jung
While I respect writer Noh Hee-kyung’s dramas on an intellectual level, I’ve never managed to really connect with her work emotionally. It’s always been a cerebral appreciation of what she’s accomplishing, but in the end, I don’t really care what happens to the characters. However, with Dear My Friends, I cared. A lot. Too much, probably.
In an industry that is always desperate and hungry for the next hot young thing, it was incredibly refreshing to see a cast filled with veteran actresses and actors who brought their multilayered, intriguing, and sometimes all-to-real characters to life. Like the character of Wan, I find it so easy to dismiss the older generation as not understanding my own, but I, like Wan, also grew to respect the amazing and varied stories that these aunties, uncles, and grannies told — and the stories they are still experiencing anew, up until the day they die. If only I could be guaranteed the happy ending of traveling the world with my friends, then maybe the unknown of the future wouldn’t seem so daunting.
This drama was truly a gift. Not a flashy, trendy gift that is ripped from its glossy packaging, admired, and then easily forgotten when the next shiny present appears. No, this was a labor of love, hand-crafted from experience and history. It may not be as pretty or as fun as other trinkets, but it will be the heirloom still standing years later, ready to be passed down from generation to generation.
The Good Wife
Drama Queen: Jeon Do-yeon
Of all the dramas that I anticipated this year, The Good Wife was at the top of the list. Not only was it going to be the first adaptation of a successful American TV show, it also managed to pull in the “Queen of Cannes” Jeon Do-yeon — along with the frustratingly sexy Yoo Ji-tae, who heads my list of ajusshi crushes. Add in a little Kim Seo-hyung and Yoon Kye-sang and I’m sold, no questions asked. I was prepared to be disappointed, but desperately hoped the drama would at least be decent.
Thankfully, The Good Wife turned out to be excellent. It hit all the marks I hoped it would and managed to humanize characters that I hated in the original version. Jeon Do-yeon was perfect as the housewife suddenly thrown into scandal and scrambling to find herself in a career that she thought she’d left behind, all the while dealing with relationships that were not always what they seemed. Yoo Ji-tae was the alarmingly charismatic cheating husband that I wanted to hate but just couldn’t (sigh), and Yoon Kye-sang continues to impress me with his acting skill in every new role he takes. My only real complaint was that the minor characters didn’t get enough attention or screen time, and while I was against Nana being cast originally (due to my love of her character’s American counterpart), she wins the “Best New Actress” award in my heart.
If there’s anything I could take from this drama, it would be the clothes. Literally. I want to own everything the women were wearing, but I especially want their shoes — I think I’ll forever covet those hot pink stilettos. Of all the aspects of the adaptation that would please me best, who knew it would be faithful sartorial reverence?
- 2016 Year In Review, Part 4: Embracing the modern age (HeadsNo2’s review)
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 3: A drama for every day of the year (girlfriday’s review)
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 2: The doctor is in (javabeans’ review)
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 1: The Bean Count
- 2016 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year