[2018 Year in Review] Sifting through mediocrity
It’s hard for me to look back at the year 2018 in dramaland with anything other than an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Whether it was plain revenge plots with a bizarre romance that came out of absolutely nowhere in Lawless Attorney, or just a complete train wreck of a show in Cross, it seemed like everything I watched this year managed to be a massive letdown.
Sure, you could argue this probably stems from my genre of preference generally being darker revenge thrillers, but even when I decided to dip my toes in the romance pool this year I managed to pick a decidedly mediocre Are You Human Too. Perhaps I was just cursed when it came to drama choices this year, and hopefully a new year means I won’t spend the majority of my drama-watching time questioning my life choices again.
But rather than stew on the negatives of the past year, why don’t we instead focus on the stuff dramas got right this year? Because even in what was a down year for me, there was still a fair amount of enjoyment to be had in between all the middling revenge plots. Let it be known that there will definitely be spoilers below.
I’m going to start with a drama that as whole, still kind of disappointed me in the end, but had flashes of brilliance in there which elevated it to another level. The main crime-solving team in Sketch was pretty poorly written; with some baffling decisions being made throughout the show’s run. Given the fact that this team was ostensibly who we’re meant to be following and rooting for, it kind of made the overarching plot of the show fall flat. But it’s everything surrounding the main team that made this drama shine.
The villainous trio was the most compelling set of bad guys on television this year. Jung Jin-young absolutely slayed as Jang Tae-joon, the enigmatic apparent-mastermind (more on that later) guiding his mercenary through all sorts of nefarious deeds all in the name of some higher power. His presence commanded respect, and his nebulous ability to see the future provided him with an almost-god-like aura on screen. All I’m saying is that if Jang Tae-joon were a cult leader, I would probably join him.
And let’s be honest, it basically was a cult he was running. It’s not really surprising that an elite soldier whose wife was just brutally murdered would be swept up in it like Lee Dong-gun’s Kim Do-jin was. For his part, Do-jin was exactly the instrument Jang Tae-joon needed to carry out his mission — he was a loyal soldier who was unlikely to question the reason he was killing people. With the promise of being able to get revenge for his wife’s murder, Do-jin was willing to go to extreme lengths when he was given something to live for again.
But it obviously wasn’t long before Do-jin came to realize that the guy who can apparently see the future probably would have been able to see that Do-jin’s wife was going to be murdered. Of course this was not only the case, but Jang Tae-joon specifically chose not to intervene so Do-jin would be so bent on revenge that he would be willing to become a mercenary without question.
This really was the heart of what made their story so compelling. All this time, Do-jin killed people in the name of saving others from being killed — and that is essentially what Jang Tae-joon did to him too. He knew that by letting Do-jin’s wife die, he could then use Do-jin to save even more lives by killing others. The moral conflict of whether killing one person to save others was justifiable, and how to judge the value and worthiness of a life drove the two of them into one of the most gripping arcs of the year.
That’s not to mention the man who was actually pulling the strings of Jang Tae-joon all along. We found out fairly early that there was someone else behind the scenes, but he was shrouded in mystery for the longest time. Imagine my surprise when that man turned out to be Lee Seung-joo as Yoo Shi-joon, the brother of our sketch-drawing protagonist, with a much more refined ability to see the future than his sister.
Prior to the reveal, there was really no reason to suspect the prosecutor, who was effectively an extra member of the main team at that point. And yet, when his true nature was revealed, it all made sense. You could look back at every interaction he had over the previous episodes with a whole new perspective. It’s refreshing when a show can pull a twist off in such a way that you not only can’t see it coming, but upon reflection make you wonder how you didn’t realize it sooner.
All of this highlighted how much better the villains were written versus the main team. Give me a drama that just follows the three of them on their crusade for the greater good, instead of what I would describe as a borderline incompetent main team. The villains stole the show for me, and it’s sort of a shame that they got caught by a slip-up. If we’re being honest, the slip-up was absolutely not enough to make Rain’s character suspicious of Shi-joon. Alas, even well told stories sometimes get tripped up on the ending.
Speaking of blowing the ending, it’s time to talk about Misty! I’m mostly kidding, as I didn’t have as negative a reaction to the Misty finale as everyone else apparently did. Sure, it could probably be tidier, or they could have executed their idea a little bit better, but I think it’s still mostly fine as a cap to the story. Lost in the reaction to the ending, though, was the fact that the first 15-and-three-quarters episodes were absolutely fantastic.
It would be a travesty to start with anything other than Kim Nam-joo’s performance, because this entire show revolves around her, and she absolutely brought the house down. Her portrayal of Go Hye-ran, ruthless anchorwoman fighting not only to keep her position as the host of her network’s prime-time news show, but also to absolve herself from the allegations of murder thrown her way, is phenomenal.
Hye-ran was willing to go to any length to defend herself. This is why it was impossible to tell for sure whether or Hye-ran really did kill Kevin Lee. She was cold and calculated, but at the same time showed a relentless fire for bringing the truth to the people through the news. She even turned her would-be enemies into unexpected allies who were just as willing to fight for Hye-ran’s name.
All the while, Hye-ran’s personal life (murder allegations aside) spiraled completely out of control. A lesser person would have wilted under all the pressure, but Hye-ran’s undying resolve shone through and kept her on her feet. She never gave up in her battle to survive in an increasingly cutthroat environment. Kim Nam-joo brought this incredibly rich character to life week in and week out, and for my money, it’s the best performance of any actor, male or female, of the year.
That’s not to take anything away from Ji Jin-hee, who was excellent in his role as Hye-ran’s husband Kang Tae-wook. He was the quintessential nice-guy-who-always-finishes-last, and it becomes increasingly clear throughout the drama’s run that she never actually loved him. Despite this, he continued his oft rebuffed attempts at what you’d call a normal married relationship, and watched as she attempted to hide her infidelity from him.
Of course, the other man Kevin Lee is more than happy to rub her unfaithfulness in Tae-wook’s face. As Tae-wook grappled with how to handle his crumbling personal life, we got the pleasure of watching Ji Jin-hee’s heart-wrenching portrayal of a man trying to hold it all together. Truly tugging at the hearts of everyone watching, it’s not really all that surprising that he would snap. The moment of revelation for Hye-ran when she realizes what her husband has done, and his desperate attempts to pretend it never happened, are a masterclass by both actors.
And while those two were out trying to steal the show, even the supporting cast put on some memorable performances of their own. Jin Ki-joo’s rival reporter and heir apparent to Hye-ran’s role as host could have easily been a one-note challenger to Hye-ran, but she quickly evolved into a badass protégé in her own right. Jeon Hye-jin was great as a childhood friend of Hye-ran and the wife of Kevin Lee who frustrated the viewers as an obstacle to Hye-ran. Even Lee Kyung-young’s newsroom director is more well-layered and nuanced than you would expect of a secondary character, and his relationship with Hye-ran and the news in general is an interesting thread in the fabric of the show.
Add these excellent performances together, couple them with a well-paced, smart plot, add in a magnificent soundtrack (which the sound direction team used to absolute perfection), and Misty managed to deliver an enthralling drama. If they had managed to stick the landing, we’d be talking about it for drama of the year. As it is, I’d say it’s still very much worth a watch.
Of course, Misty would be hard-pressed to actually win drama of the year, because My Ajusshi exists, and well, that’s some tough competition. I’m going to come right out and say that I am massively IU-biased. I’m also very biased toward director Kim Won-seok. Suffice to say, I came in to My Ajusshi with incredibly high expectations. Which makes the fact that the show managed to exceed them quite an accomplishment.
Let’s start with Lee Ji-an, IU’s downtrodden, possible-sociopath temp worker. What a total badass. Ji-an, obviously hardened by her troubled past, walked all over the CEO of her own company, and plotted to get managers of the company fired (much more effectively than their other enemies can manage, I might add). Even when others tried to take her down a notch, like the female coworker who tried to blackmail her over her kiss with Lee Seon-kyun, or the loan shark basically holding her life hostage, Ji-an viciously bit back at them, refusing to be run over without a fight.
But she wasn’t just a down-on-her-luck girl struggling to survive for her own sake. What made her character even more special was her devoted care of her deaf, bedridden grandmother, whom Ji-an struggled to take care of with limited funds thanks to her enormous debt. Through this, and subsequently her relationship with Lee Seon-kyun’s character, we see Ji-an’s apparently icy heart is a lot softer than it first appeared. IU, who previously faced questions about her acting skills, silenced her detractors with a brilliant performance. She was not an actress playing a character, she was Lee Ji-an.
Lee Seon-kyun, for his part, also turned in a great performance as Park Dong-hoon. While I would say the character is less interesting than Ji-an, there’s still a hefty amount to dig through. Similarly downtrodden, Dong-hoon suffered through his wife’s unfaithfulness with the man he probably hates most in the world. He is chronically stepped on by others because of his desire to be a good, upstanding person. As Ji-an said best, he was “struggling through his life sentence of earnestness.”
Of course, their tragic connection to each other through their similarly depressing lives is what brought them together in the end. Their beautiful relationship was absolutely heart-warming to watch unfold. In a way, they were able to find something great in what was an otherwise crushing existence, and they were able to brighten each others’ lives as a result.
It serves as an interesting parallel to my year in dramas. Despite the constant wave of disappointment from the shows I watched, My Ajusshi was there to show me that there still was something that could warm my heart and keep me from losing all hope in dramas this year. It should probably go without saying, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to check out My Ajusshi. Here’s hoping that the disappointment of 2018 fades, and just like for Ji-an and Dong-hoon, being on the other side of the rough patch will be all smiles.
- [2018 Year in Review] Finding myself in dramas
- [2018 Year in Review] Thrill me, heal me
- [2018 Year in Review] An intermission with a crescendo
- [2018 Year in Review] I, who didn’t expect poetry
- [2018 Year in Review] Sinkers and lifesavers
- [2018 Year in Review] Turn up the drama
- [Theme of the Month] Year in dramas 2018