[2018 Year in Review] Editors’ Picks
As the Dramabeans team was voting on this year’s Editors’ Picks, I was eager to see which shows and actors would emerge victorious. There are as many opinions as there are shows in dramaland and it’s always a pleasant surprise to see which dramas emerge as favorites. Here are the dramas, actors, and characters that won the hearts of the Dramabeans staff this year.
2018 Editors’ Picks
girlfriday: I can’t exactly describe watching My Ajusshi as a pleasurable experience, because it was so much more complex than that—an emotionally cathartic, deeply raw, sometimes painful journey through the darkest and loneliest moments of everyday life. It was a story about how tenuous human connection can be, and yet how a seemingly tenuous connection can alter the course of your life in profound ways. The simmering emotions underneath the carefully restrained performances were the highlight of the series, and in particular a surprise from IU, who kept me on her side despite playing a deeply troubled young woman who lashed out at others and herself at every turn. The whole time I was struck by how characters acted like real people—in all their embarrassing, unsexy, mundane glory—and the most important things were left unsaid, just like real life. Nothing about My Ajusshi was neat or satisfying in the way that dramas usually solve all problems and let us move on, but the beauty of the unspoken connection and bittersweet longing will linger with us that much longer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hundred Million Stars From the Sky
odilettante: Kim Won-seok is no stranger to our end-of-year Editors’ Picks, we voted him Best Director in 2014 for Misaeng and again in 2016 for Signal. So it should be no surprise to see his name once more, this time for My Ajusshi. His unique skill as a director is stripping bare the mundane, yet at the same time elevating the boringly brutal (or brutally boring) everyday life. Characters embrace the silence—their subtle reactions to the world they inhabit is more than enough to reveal their true selves. Sometimes their world is bleak and full of despair, like Ji-an mutely trudging up a hill in the middle of the night, pushing her grandmother in a shopping cart. And sometimes their world is filled with small moments of wonder and joy, such as running just fast enough to catch the last subway train. Kim Won-seok expertly interweaves a mild sense of absurdity with harsh reality, causing the viewer to persistently search the shadows for the flicker of light and ray of hope, reassured that these are just fictional characters on a screen and not the manifestation of one’s own daily struggle to exist.
Just Between Lovers
laica: I generally steer clear of melodramas, partly because real life is stressful enough, and a melo wouldn’t be a melo without conflict, angst, and sorrow. But there was something about Just Between Lovers that piqued my interest and I’m glad I gave the drama a chance. Writer Yoo Bo-ra upgraded the raw and riveting pathos we saw she was capable of in Secret to a nuanced, moving, painfully honest portrayal of the wages of trauma, the persistence of grief, and the difficulty of learning how to live again after a tragedy too earth-shattering to ever completely move on from. The writing balanced on an edge; it allowed leads Kang-doo and Moon-soo to express the entire range of complicated emotions that came from their crushing dual burdens of grief and survivor’s guilt, without feeling exploitative or overwrought. Yoo never milked a situation for dramatics at the expense of believability, or made her characters act contrary to their established natures. She did a brilliant job of showing us the baby steps, the setbacks, and the major breakthroughs that came along the way to recovery and love—making both the journey and the destination all the more poignant.
I’m Not a Robot
Helcat: I knew there was going to be something special about I’m Not a Robot from the moment our leads came winking onto our screens with their cheeky promos that promised a heightened, sparkling world of sci-fi romance. And the show definitely delivered oodles of comedy, from its ridiculous premise to its unabashed love for our cast of eccentric scientists and minor characters, with lashings of gag humor, screwball antics, and wit thrown on top. Our main duo sparked off each other, and Chae Soo-bin was wonderfully hilarious in all three of her personas, especially making me giggle every time Aji-3 slipped into “friend mode.” But what a revelation Yoo Seung-ho was, with Min-kyu’s aching vulnerability perfectly undercut by his naivety and goofiness. This show made me laugh every week, but it was a comedy that was used to balance against a deeply poignant story of connection and loneliness. The skilled hands behind the show made sure the jokes landed, because it was the perfect balm against the touches of melancholy pervading the character’s lives. The best comedy comes from a real place, though—and the smile never left my face as I was watching.
BEST ACTION/THRILLER DRAMA
Memories of the Alhambra
LollyPip: How often do action-thriller dramas manage to maintain a level of tension and edge-of-your-seat excitement consistently? Though great action-thrillers aren’t impossible to find, it’s difficult to maintain the anticipation and suspense necessary to keep the viewer’s attention. Memories of the Alhambra has not only faced this challenge, but at its halfway mark (at the time of this writing) the show still manages to crank up the excitement with each episode. Gorgeous foreign shooting locations and a high-tech game were integrated flawlessly in a novel plot that managed to bring a new angle to the action/thriller genre.
Hyun Bin has been in his element as calculating wealthy CEO turned beleaguered gamer Jin-woo, who started off as an arrogant man of privilege but has become a traumatized soldier who can never really return home. Park Shin-hye has added a human element to the plot line, both as a woman searching for her little brother and a budding love interest for Jin-woo. The drama has succeeded by making every virtual occurrence feel real—not only real for our hero caught in its trap, but also for us, the audience biting our nails hoping he’ll escape it.
BEST PERIOD DRAMA
Life on Mars
tipsymocha: In a year full of good (and some great) adaptations, Life on Mars was a standout. Guided by taut writing and a deft directorial hand that kept us wondering whether we were witnessing an extended dream of a comatose detective or whether said detective had actually been sent back in time, there was never a moment of doubt that Tae-joo was living the reality of his predicament. And part of his predicament was adjusting to the ’80s, which evoked a nostalgia for a simpler time, while also reminding me that I’m glad I didn’t live through it (oy, the casual misogyny). Although the format was a familiar one—a procedural with an overarching mystery—what remained with me beyond the series’ run was the heartwarming family that formed in this Korean town in 1988, in large part thanks to wonderful performances from the ensemble cast. This violent crimes detective unit, and the relationships that framed our main time-traveling detective’s development, was at the heart of this show, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Seo In-gook (Hundred Million Stars From the Sky)
Sunny: I’ve been an avid fan of Seo In-gook since he first stole my heart as the endearing (albeit crankypants) boy next door in Answer Me 1997. Since then, he has continued to dazzle my screen with one stunning performance after another, proving time and again how talented and versatile he truly is. He has a brilliant knack for breathing life into every character he portrays with a unique flair, and his most recent role in Hundred Million Stars From the Sky was no exception. Kim Moo-young was certainly one of the darkest roles Seo In-gook has tackled, but he rose to the challenge and made a despicable character so charming, there was no question why the heroine jumped ship from a sweet and caring puppy to a possible sociopath. Hundred Million Stars broke my heart into a hundred million pieces and the blame falls entirely on Seo In-gook’s shoulders for keeping me captivated by his poignant journey. While I’ll always love him best in his comedic roles, his portrayal as Kim Moo-young is definitely among my favorites.
Yoo Seung-ho, I’m Not a Robot
Lee Seon-kyun, My Ajusshi
Kim Tae-ri (Mr. Sunshine)
SailorJumun: Mr. Sunshine impressed with its strong women characters, in particular Kim Tae-ri’s Go Ae-shin. She was a proud noblewoman, naive and sheltered but firm in her determination to be on the front lines of the resistance. The historical epic may have been Kim Tae-ri’s first drama series, but she’d already proven herself as a more than capable actress with her breakout role in the film The Handmaiden. She brought the same elegance and grit to the small screen, embodying a character that had to transform from sophisticated noblewoman by day to sharp shooter by night. But as the people around her would come to know, her true identity was that of a freedom fighter. Powerful, headstrong and wonderfully flawed, she was a fighter in every sense of the word. And she matured in the growing love for her country, as well as the love for her man. She was willing to let go of her own happiness to fight for love, for freedom, and for change, and Kim Tae-ri’s performance only illuminated the pain that comes with all of that. This woman defined bravery, shooting down every hardship that came her way for the sake of a better future.
IU, My Ajusshi
Kim Nam-joo, Misty
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Park Sung-woong (Hundred Million Stars From the Sky)
missvictrix: A bold and daring drama like Hundred Million Stars From The Sky needs actors that can carry it, and Park Sung-woong did that for me as the heroine’s policeman older brother. At first their relationship seemed warm, playful, and devoted—only later did we learn how much more was going on under the surface. This is where Park Sung-woong really shone, his performance bringing out all the layers of a character who was weighed down by hidden guilt, accepted daily mockery as punishment for his wrongdoings, and who was hell-bent on keeping his little sister protected from the darkness in their past. While we might not agree with his methods (such as his sudden bursts of irrational violence) or fully grasp the depth of his desperation to keep the leads apart, there was no doubt about the intensity of his emotions. Park Sung-woong’s depiction of this highly intuitive man who saw his past coming full circle, and struggled to both prevent it and face it, was as human (and heartbreaking) as it gets.
Yoo Yeon-seok, Mr. Sunshine
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Kim Min-jung (Mr. Sunshine)
CandidClown: If there was ever a supporting actress who gave a performance worthy of a main lead, it would be Kim Min-jung in Mr. Sunshine. Playing the role of Hina, the owner of the Glory Hotel, she showed us the struggle of a Korean woman surviving on her own during the Japanese occupation. It was a precarious balancing act—she appeared to give up her Koreanness in order to line her pockets while serving the Japanese. But viewers came to know that Hina never forgot her roots. Strong, dignified, yet inherently flawed, Min-jung brought her character to life in a way that made us all feel every emotion as Hina struggled to balance both her patriotism and her heart, against what she was forced to do while surrounded by enemies. In an ensemble cast of epic proportions, Kim Min-jung managed to not only stand out but shine with her quiet strength and tragic love. From beginning to the end she gave an honest portrayal that revealed a whole new facet of this actress’ abilities.
Na Moon-hee, Just Between Lovers
I’m Not a Robot
abirdword: Fungus Guy, Planet of the Apes, Pi recitation, Cheap Mouth, and maknae Beetle the robot—it might not sound like the dream team at first, but the Santa Maria crew of scientists quickly became Min-kyu and Jia’s ride-or-die unit in this fauxbot love story. Baek-gyun and his team proved that a barn full of engineers isn’t a bad thing to have around on your property, especially if the upkeep of your robot vacuum is important to you. And without the Santa Maria team, I imagine that Min-kyu would still be trying to make out with the throw pillows in his living room.
Not just there to serve as comic relief (though they added plenty to those moments too), Team Santa Maria embodied Min-kyu’s greatest fear—deception—and then became the balm he needed to repair his distrustful heart by sticking it out to repair the damage they’d done. Along with Jia, they dug their roots into Min-kyu’s heart and burrowed deeply, until Min-kyu had gained four senior siblings (who kept showing up for the great cooking). Together, this ensemble all learned what it means to be human, and how impactful their interactions can be.
What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim
Just Between Lovers
chickachunga: Best Romance belongs to the two broken souls of Just Between Lovers, a melodrama that truly understood the depth of tragedy and how it weighs down on our lives in both delicate waves and excruciating surges. Won Jin-ah and Junho turned in equally compelling performances as two fated individuals who found healing through each other, slowly mending their jagged shards of trauma collectively and realizing that they’re capable of loving wholeheartedly and worthy of living fully. Their romance was sweet, touching, and tinged with a shade of melancholy that felt comforting and genuine.
One of many memorable lines from the drama include: “Just because someone cries louder doesn’t mean their pain is greater.” Kang-doo and Moon-soo lived their lives suffering in silence and solitude, but their compassionate love for each other awakened their capacity to accept the elusive joy they deserve and recognize that every step of progress is a milestone worth celebrating.
I’m Not a Robot
tccolb: Hwayugi was a love story between a monkey and a monk, but the relationship of monkey and ox, both friends and foes, was in many ways the winning odd couple of the story. Lee Seung-gi and Cha Seung-won have had sparkling chemistry in their previous works together, and Hwayugi took that dynamic and cranked it up to 11. Yes, they bickered. They were constantly trying to one-up each other through petty tricks and put a lot of effort in trying to thwart the other’s plans. This, of course, resulted in many hilarious scenes for the benefit of us viewers. Still, even though it sometimes got pushed to that last possible second, when it came down to it, each was also the first to defend the other’s life and honor. While their relationship was mostly played for comedy, it was also touching to see mutual love, respect, and trust in their complicated history together and the two are, quite literally, friends forever.
My Secret Terrius
chocolatte: The friendship between Se-kye and Woo-mi in The Beauty Inside was, to me, the most memorable friendship in dramaland this year. Bound together by Se-kye’s shape-shifting condition and years of carefully navigating a life for Se-kye in the public eye, Se-kye and Woo-mi were true partners in almost everything they did—in work, in play, and in dealing with the trauma and after-effects of Se-kye’s transformations. The two (plus Eun-ho, their honorary girlfriend) knew each other inside and out; as friends who were closer than family, they could gripe and yell and get mad but then drop everything to be there for one other, no questions asked. In my mind, Woo-mi and Se-kye exemplified the premise of the show—seeing, accepting and loving someone, no matter what physical body they inhabit. With their fierce loyalty, trust and unconditional love for one another, their friendship set the bar high for best girlfriends everywhere.
Your House Helper
Sohn Oh-gong (Lee Seung-gi, Hwayugi)
javabeans: Sometimes a character is noteworthy for being written as complex, layered, and interesting. Sometimes it’s because an actor breathes so much life into a role that it transcends the confines of its onscreen representation. And sometimes it’s because there is such lightning-in-a-bottle synergy between the role and the person playing it that the result is something unreproducible—unimaginable, even—with any other combination of actor and character. Hwayugi’s casting of Lee Seung-gi as the mischievous, all-powerful Monkey King felt perfect from the moment it was announced, and once the drama began I was delighted to find reality exceeding my expectations. I couldn’t fathom anyone more fitting to convey Sohn Oh-gong’s capricious nature and million different faces, from callous to charming to flippant to devil-may-care to murderous to grudgingly caring. Had the character lacked any of those crucial elements, the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well and could have very well fallen flat (…much earlier than it eventually did, I mean. That ending!). That the monkey buzzcut somehow magically made Lee Seung-gi look both perfectly simian and inexplicably sexy was just icing on the cake—I didn’t understand how that worked, but some gifts aren’t meant to be questioned.
Jo Jia/Aji-3 (Chae Soo-bin), I’m Not a Robot
Hyun Soo-ah (Jo Woo-ri, My ID is Gangnam Beauty)
tineybeanie: The primary antagonism of My ID Is Gangnam Beauty certainly came from manipulative It Girl Soo-ah, but she wasn’t a traditional villain, despite the cruel manipulations she enacted each episode that made me think she’d become the typical second lead we all love to hate. But her motivations were rooted in a deeply human characterization, and when the drama revealed how hard she strove to hide her deeply rooted insecurities and self-loathing, that broke my heart. The one person who was supposed to protect her no matter what (her mother) had left her, and she lived harboring feelings of abandonment and inferiority. The only emotional fulfillment she received came from the shallow adoration of people who didn’t know her, which fueled paranoia and jealousy when she saw our heroine, Mi-rae, as competition for that validation. In some ways her cruelty was a distorted form of protection, and I loved exploring that dimension in our “villain,” enough that I’d easily want to see her as the protagonist of a different drama.
Emperor Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung-rok), An Empress’s Dignity
BEST UNREQUITED LOVELINE
Shin Hye-sun & Ahn Hyo-seop (Thirty but Seventeen)
Saya: Every so often, a show comes along with an impossible loveline, and you find yourself… shipping the unshippable. That’s the magic of shipping of it: Wanting it is delicious, and having it is wrong. But was there a purer, lovelier love than the love Chan (Ahn Hyo-seop) had for “ajumma” Shin Hye-sun? The 17-year-old was her first friend after she woke up from her years-long coma, and he opened his whole heart to her, taking her in without a moment’s hesitation, because that’s exactly who Chan was: pure feeling. Half her healing was thanks to his sunny sincerity, and he lived up to his motto of “Don’t think! Feel!” better than anyone else. His ability to let his feelings in was what let him grow and experience his own coming of age—even when it meant watching his first love fall in love with his uncle. Both Chan and Seo-ri were like little chicks, stumbling uncertainly out of their shells, who found each other while trying to find themselves. They cared for each other with ardent sweetness, but ultimately, their destinies forked (you can’t beat fate and childhood connection in dramaland). Luckily for us, as they gained maturity, they found other ways to love, and while it broke my heart, it also filled it with a teary-eyed happiness at how far our baby chicks came. I will always ship you. ❤️
Lee Seon-kyun & IU & Jang Ki-yong, My Ajusshi
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Tags: Beauty Inside, featured2, Hundred Million Stars From the Sky, Hwayugi, I'm Not a Robot, Just Between Lovers, Life on Mars, Memories of the Alhambra, Mr. Sunshine, My Ajusshi, My ID Is Gangnam Beauty, Thirty But Seventeen, year in review, year in review 2018