[2018 Year in Review] I, who didn’t expect poetry
Looking back on 2018, at first it was hard for me to see any unifying theme, until I realized that consistently this year, nothing was as I’d expected. It’s been nearly a decade since I started watching K-dramas, and I’m no longer the bleary-eyed serial marathoner who binge-watched dramas as if morning would never come, although I do occasionally get sucked in by an exceptional show. Nowadays I’m more likely to take my time, often watching things as they air; dropping dramas without (too much) guilt when they lose me.
Although I’ve learned to temper my expectations, I couldn’t help but eye some promising projects this past year. But the dramas I really fell in love with surprised me, while those I was excited for often fell short of their potential, or pulled a bait-and-switch, or made me angry–sometimes all three.
Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food started so squee-worthy, and ended so miserable and misogynistic; Fox Bride Star gave us an awful heroine, retconned her, and then made me forget even that with its jaw-droppingly ableist message at the end. What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim was catnip for twelve episodes, until it copped out on giving Park Min-young the independence we’d been promised in the beginning. And Handsome Guy and Jung-eum was a formulaic and mediocre waste of Namgoong Min and Hwang Jung-eum, who I was dying to see back together after their bittersweet ending in Can You Hear My Heart.
Instead, I’m left with an unexpected list of shows that gave me joy and healing this year. I’ll start with the one that surprised me most during its run, and which inspired the title and format of this year-end review.
You Who Forgot Poetry
so much heart
in such an unassuming package.
watching Bo-young grow up
beats any OTP–
and yet we also got
the way that Je-wook loves her
the way that Nam-woo loves his alligator
the way we all get through our days:
The first couple of episodes of this drama didn’t impress me. Lee Yubi was very good as a trainee physical therapist, but every other character was so terrible, and they all had these cringeworthy, repetitive catchphrases–I nearly dropped it. But I went back to it after hearing how much everyone was enjoying it, and I’m so glad I did. This show has such a human and warm way of portraying the main cast, warts and all. It also accomplishes the rare feat of making even the patients-of-the-week feel real and sympathetic rather than just plot devices to advance the leads’ development, with beautiful, moving poetry that dovetails perfectly with the theme of every episode. Lee Yubi’s character coming into her own was a joy to witness, and her romance with stiffly earnest, secretly dorky Lee Joon-hyuk made me want to roll around in my blanket with awkward feels.
Just Between Lovers
a boy, a girl, a building.
now they stumble through the world,
is a disaster,
breaking open their fragile hearts;
is a gift,
lighting their way
out of the dark rubble.
This drama grabbed me immediately; it was dark and sad and beautiful in a way that marks only the best melodramas. The leads, played by Junho and Won Jin-ah, are clearly the walking wounded when we first meet them, frozen in a moment of trauma from their teenage years that they’ve never truly processed. Na Moon-hee is also incredible in her role as Jun Ho’s substitute grandmother in his itinerant post-accident life. These are singularly, almost uncomfortably well-done depictions of PTSD: Junho’s intense, paralyzing flashbacks, and Won Jin Ah’s fragile stillness that suddenly explodes when she reaches her breaking point. It’s so true-to-life that I felt like a voyeur at times.
Yet the show never makes a spectacle of their pain or emotionally manipulates the audience, despite the almost makjang setup of the childhood tragedy that ties all of the main characters together, the ghosts of which have risen to explosive effect in the present. Both the leads give incredibly powerful performances as they fight, heal, and fall in love with each other. As I watched them find the courage to let each other in, they took my whole heart. My favorite drama of the year.
I’m Not a Robot
not a robot
but a real girl
when that was
the last thing he needed
the only thing he needed.
How can I sum up the utter joy that was my experience of watching this show? I rewarded myself with this after I completed the arduous process of applying to grad school (during which I’d banned myself from dramas), and it lived up to all the hype and more. Yoo Seung-ho and Chae Soo-bin are just perfect in their roles, separately and together, and the writing carries through on nearly every promise it makes, giving us a delightful sci-fi rom-com with emotional intelligence, a great ensemble cast, and wonderful arcs for both its leads. How did a show whose hero is literally allergic to intimacy and whose heroine who pretends to be a robot end up being this good?
Plus, best man-roomba bromance ever (or at least of the year).
a sense of duty:
it’s the small moments
not the grand heroics
it’s doing it even if you’re afraid
it’s being honest about your mistakes
to let your teammates help you.
I am so glad that Lee Kwang-soo seems to have joined Noh Hee-kyung’s roster of favorite actors, because I’ve been wanting to see him as a dramatic lead since his supporting appearance in Nice Guy. I initially gave this one a pass because I haven’t exactly been in the mood for stories about cops being hard-done-by, but I should have trusted this writer to deliver this slice-of-life fare with her trademark heart and integrity. She depicted the thankless and grueling nature of the job without ignoring issues of corruption and police brutality.
Lee and Jung Yumi are wonderful as rookie officers who took the police exam after running out of options in a tough job market, but who ended up finding their vocations, and even love–though theirs wasn’t my favorite romance. The last-chance reconciliation of estranged veteran cops Bae Jung-ok and Bae Seung-woo made me laugh, cry, and root for them as a couple and a family, despite their painful history. Bae Seung-woo is the standout in this cast of heavy-hitters and the heart of the show, as Lee Kwang-soo’s flawed mentor who has to learn that good intentions aren’t always enough, and unchecked idealism can cause its own type of injustice. His bromance with Lee was my favorite of the year; not only was it a journey from enemies to partners, but was a relationship that caused them both to grow as people–and as two members of a team that I’ll never forget.
Thirty But Seventeen
made a home together:
a girl frozen in time
a boy who couldn’t grow up
a teenager learning what it feels like
to break his heart
who mothered them all–
When I first heard the premise of this show–a girl who went into a coma at age 17 wakes up at 30, and falls for the boy who was involved in the same accident as her, who is also 30… All I could think of was that this was a way to do underage romance without actually using a minor, and using a cliched setup to boot. I love Shin Hye-sun, though, so I gave it a shot, and I’m so glad I did. Her slow-burn romance with Yang Se-jong is not icky in the least, and the show gives its heroine enough time to heal and grow up and find herself so that I felt as though I was watching her mature in real time. All the kudos to Shin for a nuanced performance that at every moment shows us exactly how old she feels, and how far along she is on her journey to regain her lost time.
The show can be super corny at times, and I was frustrated with the endless fake-outs when there’s more than enough conflict in the premise to allow secrets to be revealed organically. But on the whole, it’s the very definition of a healing drama and it left me with a lasting impression of warmth. Plus, Ahn Hyo-seop is a joy as innocent-but-wise Chan, who falls in the most heartbreakingly adorable unrequited love I’ve ever seen. Come to Noona, Chan-ah!
There were other shows I watched this year that I really enjoyed, even if they won’t make it to my list of all-time favorites. Familiar Wife is a well-written and original twist on the second-chance romance, because Ji Sung’s time travel means that only he remembers that they were in love, while Han Ji-min has only the faintest deja vu. It devotes the first half of the story to his development from a pretty awful husband into a man who realizes what he’s lost, and why, and then makes the rest of the story about the heroine in a really interesting way. Han is excellent in this, alive with charisma in a way I’ve never seen her. The show gives us a romance with stakes, a satisfying ending, and a truly lovable ensemble cast. Plus, my favorite soundtrack of the year.
Your House Helper was another drama about healing and moving on (I’m sensing another theme here), this time about how decluttering your life can also be a way to make space in your heart for new friends, new love and a fresh start in life–surprisingly profound for a drama about a hot housekeeper. I especially loved the group of girlfriends in this show, who feel like real besties that fight, make up, and will always have each other’s backs.
Then there are the shows that just made me laugh out loud with their good-natured silliness. My Secret Terrius never took itself too seriously, and knew its strengths lay in the relationships that slowly developed between its no-nonsense mama bear heroine, unemployed spy hero, and the neighborhood intelligence network that manages to outdo both the villains and the NIS every time. More So Ji-sub in suits, please–but especially more So Ji-sub babysitting adorable children.
Top Star Yoo Baek is just pure, hilarious fun, and the cast is clearly having the time of their lives. Kim Ji-suk is perfectly greasy and absurd at the fish-out-of-water “Mr. Top Star,” and Jeon So-min is refreshingly unselfconscious in her role as an innocent but not naive island girl that gives him as good as she gets, and more. He is so out of touch with the way regular people operate due to the way the idol industry has shaped him, and it’s a joy to watch him be stymied at every turn by the practical, hardworking island people who have no time for his fancy airs–and no clue that he’s falling hard for the girl they’ve collectively adopted as their own. I’m loving it so far.
The shows that touched my heart this year were all about the human connections between people that ultimately make up real life, rather than grand gestures or epic battles between good and evil. The dramas I reached for and stuck with probably speak most to my mood in 2018, seeking comfort and healing as I geared up for some major life steps, both personal and professional. I’m grateful, as I am at the end of every year, that I was able to find what I needed in this dramaland that continues to become more varied in its offerings. Most of all, I feel blessed to have found such unexpected beauty, friendship and laughter here in the Dramabeans community.
it was a year of robot friends
of alligators lost and found
of creepy priests galore
of finding our way back
from the dark tunnels of the past
of cleaning out our closets
and our hearts
of friends falling in love
and love between friends–