[2017 Year in Review] Editors’ Picks
I’m always curious to see which dramas float to the top when putting our staff’s Editors’ Picks together, because while I know which dramas were my favorite from the past year (and have a pretty good idea of the Beanies’ favorites too), it’s always an interesting exercise to try and separate personal favorites from bests, mosts, and leasts. Not that they aren’t related in some sense, of course! But here are the dramas that made it to the top of our Picks lists through rounds of voting (and surprisingly little aggravation! The consensus was strong this year).
2017 Editors’ Picks
Forest of Secrets
awcoconuts: Although it faced stiff competition from a mythical melodrama, a mind-bendy work of science fiction, a sweeping sageuk, and a quirky, endearing rom-com, I was equal parts shocked and pleased to discover that Forest of Secrets earned the title of best drama from our editors this year. What could have been another tedious show about law enforcement and rampant corruption within the system was instead a tautly paced tale that kept viewers on the edges of their seats. The coveted trifecta was achieved: A masterfully crafted story (by a rookie!) was brought to life via a confident directorial hand and an outstanding ensemble performance. While the show may have lacked the pathos of previous best drama winners, its flawless, cinematic execution was a perfect example of pre-production done right. Forest of Secrets demonstrated that even a story centered around someone who feels nothing can succeed, when told skillfully, in evoking a fever pitch of emotions from its audience.
Because This Life Is Our First
The Lonely Shining Goblin
tipsymocha: The Lonely Shining Goblin was always going to generate a lot of hype with star writer Kim Eun-sook penning the script and big names attached (namely Gong Yoo). But while the writer deserves a lot of credit for constructing this world, it was director Lee Eung-bok (who proved he could stage gorgeous backdrops for a sweeping romance in Descended From the Sun) who brought an ambitious vision to this drama, breathing life into this alternate, fantastical reality where a 900-year-old goblin’s mood determined the weather and grim reapers served as the tea-serving gatekeepers to the afterlife. Not only was this world believable, it was also visually stunning and epic in scale, even in the smallest, personal moments between our characters, achieved in no small part by PD Lee’s sentimental and steady directorial hand. Pacing might have been Goblin’s fatal flaw to some, but goodness knows every moment, however languid, was as beautiful and shining as our favorite goblin in the throes of first love.
Forest of Secrets
Because This Life Is Our First
chocolatte: Because This Life Is Our First stands out from the year’s crop of dramas for many reasons, but chief among them is Yoon Nan-joong’s writing. More than being original, it was how the pieces of plot and character unfolded that were something else entirely—accidental cohabitation and contract marriage are standard K-drama fare, but thanks to the writer’s ability to strike a just-right balance in her storytelling, the drama felt both fresh and familiar, absurd but realistic, and breezy yet introspective, all at once.
As a romantic comedy, Because This Life certainly delivered on the heart-fluttering moments and the laughs. But what resonated with me the most was the show’s unflinching take on the lives of modern working women, and how it didn’t shy away from exploring our heroines’ full stories. By creating this trio of girlfriends who were smart, scrappy, and unapologetically themselves, the writer made it impossible for us not to root for them wholeheartedly, in support of whatever happy ending they each aspired to—love, family, thriving careers, or all of the above.
Forest of Secrets
Seven Day Queen
Strong Woman Do Bong-son
CandidClown: We all knew that Strong Woman Do Bong-soon was going to be funny. It just had to be, what with its premise of a tiny yet mighty woman beating the heck out of men that were literally twice her size. And comedy there was aplenty. From the physical humor of Bong-soon’s casually devastating punches, to Min-hyuk’s adorable pouting rants, there was something for everyone. Most of it worked, some of it really didn’t (*cough* Boss Tak *cough*), but all of it helped the show live up to its promised hilarity.
What was unexpected, however, was the depth that was shown outside of the comedic antics. I certainly never could have guessed that Strong Woman would provide not only one of my all-time favorite OTPs, but also one of the creepiest villains I have ever viewed. Between Min-hyuk’s swoon-worthy looks and a bride-napping psychopath, the comedy became a much-needed breather that tied the show together. It was the humor that brought us back from the emotional edges, signaling a return to normal and promising that our heroine—and her Prince Min Min—would undoubtedly save the day. Now if only laughter could do that in real life….
BEST ACTION OR THRILLER DRAMA
odilettante: Cliffhangers are essential for any good thriller, and Circle gave us two each episode, thanks to the split timelines between the modern-day 2017 “Beta Project” and the dystopian 2037 “Brave New World.” The main draw was in figuring out how these two timelines connected, although each timeline was filled with enough twists and turns to be a compelling story in its own right. While special effects might be lacking for a show classified as science fiction, there was a cinematic quality to the way it was filmed and edited, plus the cast—particularly Yeo Jin-gu and Kim Kang-woo—more than made up for any technical shortcomings. Instead of being predominantly action-packed, the drama leaned into the philosophical quandaries of using technology to manipulate memories for the common good, while also exploring the moral dilemma of exploiting a person’s (or an alien’s) life in order to create a happier and more peaceful world. Alien technology may have been the primary plot device, but the end result was a very relatable struggle about humanity and the importance of family—or those who feel like family, no matter where they’re from.
BEST HISTORICAL DRAMA
Seven Day Queen
chickachunga: A tragic love story of epic proportions, Seven Day Queen was the sageuk that gripped you from the first minute and never let go. Despite knowing the fate of our star-crossed lovers at the outset, the story was so expertly crafted that each week, we were taken through the emotional ringer with tragic turns that made us ache and fleeting moments of unperturbed joy that made us smile through our tears, wishing the couple could safely be in love for just a second longer. The amalgam of deft direction, poignant writing, and riveting performances from Lee Dong-gun, Yeon Woo-jin, and Park Min-young resulted in a breathtaking and gut-wrenching tale that crescendoed in intensity amidst ever-growing stakes, all the while in keeping with the central characters’ inherent traits and motivations. Chae-kyung remained a dignified and strong heroine who chose to love courageously till the bitter end, and although she was only queen for seven days, in my eyes, she had all the trappings of a king what with her ironclad resolve and inner fortitude. Heartwarming and heartrending in the best ways possible, Seven Day Queen was an underrated gem of a sageuk that’s one for the books.
Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People
Jo Seung-woo (Forest of Secrets)
murasakimi: Though Forest of Secrets is truly an outstanding ensemble drama—aided by its near-perfect directing and laser-focused storytelling—Jo Seung-woo’s portrayal of unemotional, righteous, and brilliant Hwang Shi-mok was an acting masterclass in showing the subtle and understated transformation of an emotionally bereft character slowly open up to a trusted few. While we are accustomed in dramaland to constructing an entire plot of a drama around a main character’s personality differences, and how that inhibits or facilitates their ability to relate to others and/or do their jobs, Shi-mok’s interior emotional journey happened in large part in silent moments, as the tightly plotted murder mystery continued to barrel ahead at full-force. I can’t imagine the skillful execution of Shi-mok’s grace and quiet manner in more capable hands.
Gong Yoo, The Lonely Shining Goblin
Park Eun-bin (Age of Youth 2)
dramallama: As Age of Youth’s “sparkle,” Song Ji-won (or “Ssong”) was delightfully brought to life by Park Eun-bin in both seasons, but it wasn’t until the second season that her portrayal turned thoughtful and poignant. Park Eun-bin’s commitment to Ji-won’s charmingly strange character continued, but she also sensitively transformed Ssong as a character investigating her haunting childhood, seamlessly juxtaposing her shameless and dramatic antics with a gradual recollection of her lost memories. When the traumatic memories came to light, she began to break, and Park Eun-bin was the crucial vessel in depicting this raw heartbreak, making apparent that the persona was inseparable from the actress. Park Eun-bin deepened Ssong’s layers and elevated the character, her cheer followed with tearful regret, and her pain often hidden behind a smile (and oversized sunglasses). Park Eun-bin straddled this dichotomy with a palpable fragility that made your heart break as you watched her spirit slowly fade. But just when you thought that the weight of misfortune had crushed her, she returned with a fierce conviction and vulnerable bravery that made her sparkle so beautifully that you couldn’t help but look at her with one of Sung-min’s lasting gazes, hopelessly in love with the symbiotic actress and character.
Seo Ye-ji, Rescue Me
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Lee Dong-wook (The Lonely Shining Goblin)
Helcat: I have always had a soft spot for Lee Dong-wook, because in a dramaland full of stiff—or even worse, boring—performances, I always know that he’ll bring the oddball to liven up my viewing experiences. And when a drama understands his off-kilter vibe and harnesses it, you hit magic, as we got in The Lonely Shining Goblin. Lee Dong-wook’s deadpan delivery and impeccable timing had me in stitches when the Reaper could so easily have been an irritating fool, and his amazing chemistry with every single cast member elevated any scene he was in. But what really cemented Lee’s performance was when we glimpsed the heart-wrenching backstory of the King, and the Reaper’s journey to accepting himself. When Lee Dong-wook cried, I cried.
We were spoiled with great acting throughout Goblin, but it takes talent to shine within that outstanding pack, and Lee Dong-wook pulled it off without even stealing thunder from his cast-mates. No wonder the Reaper was my favorite character (as well as the reason I stayed till the end, shhh).
Lee Dong-gun, Seven Day Queen
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Honey Lee (Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People)
girlfriday: Honey Lee’s soulful, complex take on Joseon’s infamous femme fatale Jang Nok-soo was so achingly beautiful that I still get wistful when I think about her. Easily the highlight of her career and the most inspired performance in the chock-full ensemble drama, she made Nok-soo a fully fleshed out person with pain, dignity, and a beautiful spirit that couldn’t be masked when she poured her heart out in song. I was left breathless every time she sang and danced, like she was expressing a pain no one could fathom, and was so impressed by the gravitas she gave this character. She took a classic villain role and turned her into a woman we couldn’t help but love and respect, for the way she fearlessly survived and remained loyal to those she loved. At times maternal, at times beguiling, and then other times girlish and innocent, she was enchanting from beginning to end, and I never once questioned why everyone in Joseon, man or woman, fell in love with her.
Esom, Because This Life Is Our First
Age of Youth 2
Sunny: Whenever a sequel is announced, there’s a feeling of apprehension: Will it capture the magic of the original while still presenting a fresh story? In Age of Youth 2’s case, the answer is yes and yes. The second installment of this heartfelt drama did not disappoint, and some may even argue that it was better than the first. The secret to success for this series was no doubt the characters, who were all so relatable despite their zany quirks. The girls experienced a lot of growth in the first season and it was wonderful to see how those events continued to affect them in the next. The tone may have been darker, and the story more focused as Park Eun-bin took center stage with a more somber storyline, but the charm never waned. Even as the dynamic shifted with the departure of one housemate and the arrival of another, the girls managed to forge a bond that held strong through encounters with crazed men with knives, dating drama, and heightened emotions that can only be felt in the midst of youth. These girls will forever hold a special place in our hearts.
Seven Day Queen
LollyPip: There’s a general consensus that for a romance to be good, the main couple should wind up happily in love, and most importantly together, by the end of their story. But Seven Day Queen set out to prove that two people can still share an epic, lifelong love, even if they never get to share their lives together. And it accomplished that perfectly, sweeping us up in a love story that taught us that happy endings are nice, but they aren’t required to make a story great, not when two people make the decision to be utterly committed to each other heart and soul. What made this drama so wonderful wasn’t that it gave us exactly what we wanted, but that it showed that a romance drama can break all of the “rules” and still be a gorgeous, heartwarming example of love at its finest. All of the separations, the longing, even the villain twisted by his own love never felt like constructs to play with our emotions and keep the lovers apart for drama’s sake, but in fact they were the love story, the very things that proved that the prince and his wife shared a love that was steadfast and constant until the very end.
Because This Life Is Our First
Saya: Circle is a tale of twin brothers who keep losing each other, and who give their all to find each other again. With the show split across two timelines—complicated by aliens in the present and a bleak dystopia in the future—neither time nor circumstance was ever on their side, which meant a double-dose of pain for us. We were never in doubt of how much these boys longed for each other, and every separation was as harrowing as it was heartbreaking. Kim Kang-woo’s anguish at not even knowing which twin he was in the future timeline, and the subsequent struggle to piece together his identity, cut my heart in half. But it was Yeo Jin-gu who tore it to utter shreds, and though he’s been an established actor for a long time, for me, Circle was his real coming of age.
It’s really pretty simple when you come down to it: Circle IS its bromance, and “bromance” isn’t even a strong enough word when the love these brothers had for each other filled two worlds. If love has to hurt, it should hurt like this.
Because This Life Is Our First
TeriYaki: There’s much to appreciate in Because This Life Is Our First, but near the top of that list was the friendship between Ji-ho, Su-ji, and Ho-rang. Friends since high school, the three girlfriends dealt with the disillusionment of life on the cusp of thirty, unsure of what their futures held, but always found comfort in each other. Traditional Ho-rang, rebel Su-ji, and secretly married Ji-ho shared tears and laughs while they helped each other discover who they’re meant to be and who they’re meant to share their lives with. The women weren’t competitive or jealous, there was no judgment (aside from a little nagging over bralessness), and the women simply counted on each other to provide what they couldn’t find anywhere else: unconditional acceptance. They were there to encourage one another to pursue their dreams when life’s challenges weighed them down, and that’s what made these girlfriends so memorable: They were each other’s ultimate cheerleaders in this game of life.
Age of Youth 2
Reaper (The Lonely Shining Goblin)
abirdword: Friend, lover, adversary, lost soul, and king; it’s easy to see how Goblin’s Reaper stole so many of our hearts. He could have just been there for funny roommate hijinks and that would have been enough, but he was so much more, a high-concept character tethered to earth by his aching soul. Reaper embodied the line that the entire show walked, giving us expert deadpan humor in one moment and full-blown tragedy and redemption in the next. The link between the goblin and the reaper’s pasts never felt like dramaland cliche, but instead reinforced the show’s themes of fate and second chances. Reaper’s role was one of the most interesting parts of the mythology: sentenced to staff the way station for the dead, as a result of not appreciating the value of life itself. In his stylish tearoom where he escorted the newly dead to their afterlife, he was the oblivion tea to the goblin’s eternal memory. Those mournful eyes of Lee Dong-wook made us all root for a nameless reaper who just wanted to make his way back to a certain former queen.
Goblin, The Lonely Shining Goblin
Woo Do-hwan (Rescue Me, Mad Dog)
tineybeanie: A 2017 without Woo Do-hwan would have been a drama desert with no oasis. He was one of few bright spots in my drama slump ennui. After first falling in love with him as the misunderstood rebel who became the drama’s hero in Rescue Me, I proceeded to fervently watch Mad Dog just to see him on my screen again, where sometimes his acting and his character’s plight moved me more than veteran Yoo Ji-tae’s. Admittedly, he’s still a bit green where lovelines are concerned, but I think we have a solid leading man in the making. Yang Se-jong was a close second, but the edge goes to Woo Do-hwan for his raw shining talent and powerful screen presence.
Yang Se-jong, Duel, Temperature of Love
Chae Soo-bin (Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People, Strongest Deliveryman)
Regals: What a busy year for Chae Soo-bin, who began the year stealing scenes in Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People in the extremely challenging role of Ga-ryung, plucky wife of outlaw Hong Gil-dong. Despite contending with several impressive performances from her castmates, she managed to stand out for herself as the feisty and pure young maiden who steals the heart of our hero. Her arc gave her ample opportunity to show off her range, from adorable innocent puppy to intense and fearlessly courageous heroine. Coupled with a poignant, heart-rending love story fueled by her electric chemistry with Yoon Kyun-sang, she captured the hearts of everyone with her exceptional performance. Not finished there, she then followed up with a spirited portrayal of the confrontational Dan-ah in Strongest Deliveryman. She again showed her ability to stir our hearts as the girl determined to escape the seemingly unbreakable hell of lower-class life before eventually discovering hope and breaking her biases along the way. No matter the role, she made us root for her success, and her rising stock in dramaland seems poised to continue its trajectory as she forges onward with her next role in I’m Not a Robot.
javabeans: Okay, I’ll take some of the blame here, in that clearly I did not learn my lesson after this director crushed my hopes of another (heh) Oh Hae-young Again with the limp noodle that was Introverted Boss. What was I thinking, having hopes and expectations a second time? But I can’t take the blame for Revolutionary Love’s over-the-top attempt at comedy that often came off abrasive or tone-deaf rather than anywhere near funny, or for reducing Kang So-ra to a constantly angry character or making Siwon seem stupid. After seeing what he could do with a charming character with layers of feeling (She Was Pretty), it felt like a wet rag to the face to get a one-dimensional simpleton of a hero who made it tough to root for him. I’m not sure what kind of revolution they were going for, but their Byun Hyuk was a far cry from the one I wanted.
Father Baek (Jo Sung-ha, Rescue Me)
mary: The best villains are ones that give you a sense of utter hopelessness, and Father Baek is one for the creepy books. The worst a casual observer could say about him was that he was crazy in an overzealous way. But he was not—he was perfectly rational. In fact, his logic was so sinister that he put aside outward pride and personal comforts in pursuit of his goal. Shit on him and he’d hand-wash your clothes. Call the cops and he’d open his church and make friends. Throw scalding tea in his face and he’d pour you a new cup while quoting scripture at you. Everything he did—from praying for your pretty soul to sheltering your broken family to letting you run around town crying for help—was calculated to make him more pious, and to make you the clinically insane kid who needed to be surrendered to him. No wonder our girl was hard-pressed to escape his creepy web. Because whom do you call for help when everyone thinks you’re a devil fighting God’s messenger? Father Baek was a master at blinding everyone with his fake charity, and I wouldn’t want to be the woke soul caught in his trap.
Yeonsangun (Lee Dong-gun), Seven Day Queen
BIGGEST WASTE OF TALENT
Lee Jun-ki (Criminal Minds)
Laica: After the hot mess that was Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, I think we were all anticipating Criminal Minds with tremendous optimism. It would remake a successful series with a proven formula, featuring an incredible cast and a chance to see Lee Jun-ki in the type of role he seems born for. Unfortunately, this show was bafflingly, crashingly disappointing, giving Lee Jun-ki neither a decent character arc nor any satisfying relationships with the other characters, subjecting him instead to a deplorable lack of screen time. The glimpse of initial chemistry we saw between him and Moon Chae-won deflated into a lackluster dynamic that went nowhere. Instead of giving each team member a defined role and showing us how they grew to work as a unit under Sohn Hyun-joo’s leadership, the drama focused on day players and gave the cast frustratingly little to do. I can only hope that this is the tail end of Oppa’s run of bad luck, that his next drama will finally give us the Epic Lee Jun-ki we’ve been waiting for, and that he’ll reunite with Moon Chae-won one day in a romance for the ages.
Ha Ji-won, Hospital Ship
MOST INOFFENSIVELY MEDIOCRE
SailorJumun: Reunited Worlds had everything it ever needed to be an enjoyable and charming drama. It had a tragic death, an intriguing fantasy element, and, best of all, the reunited friends/lovers trope. Yet the reunions, arguably the most important aspect of the show (it’s in the title, for god’s sake), didn’t pay off the way you wanted them to. Sure, the beginning was very warm and atmospheric, but it never developed beyond that: The hero inexplicably returned years after his death, and all the excitement and urgency that should’ve come with him wasn’t there. On the one hand, the show didn’t drag us down with an excess of aggravating twists or frustrating makjang nonsense. But on the other hand, nothing happened when we felt like something should’ve happened: The suspense did nothing, the romance did nothing. To be fair, the story may not have been cut out for a full-length drama, with far too many episodes and far too little plot, keeping the characters quite literally sitting around waiting for the big climax. But just because it wasn’t godawful doesn’t mean it was any good; it was just yet another promising setup wasted with poor execution.
- Dramabeans Podcast #39: 2017 Year in Review
- [2017 Year in Review] Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year!
- [Vlog] Our favorite K-dramas of 2017, Part 1 of 2
- [2017 Year in Review] Part 1: The Bean Count
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 7: Editors’ Picks
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 6: Hoobae minions’ first rodeo
- 2016 Year in Review, Part 5: Sunbae minions weigh in
- 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