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[2018 Year in Review] Turn up the drama

“This stuff doesn’t happen in real life! That’s why we love it — that’s why it’s called drama!” Over a decade later I can still hear one of my Literature professors pontificating about how we crave drama and stories, and sometimes, the crazier the better. Believe it or not, he wasn’t talking about Korean dramas in this lecture — he was talking about classical Greek plays. High-stakes drama has been a part of our storytelling traditions throughout the ages, and the argument is the same, no matter the century or cultural tradition: we enjoy these stories because we get to experience something outside of the realm of our everyday lives.

Well, my year in K-dramas was all about the drama. Without realizing it, a lot of the dramas I was drawn to were about characters enduring and healing from traumatic experiences. I wanted to watch some light and happy shows, but when I did, they felt too flimsy and couldn’t hold my interest. The dark, crazy melodramas called my name. You know, the dramas that feature people facing off with their serial killer father, coping with terminal illness diagnoses, thinking they’re in love with their sister, and playing with the pet turtle that reminds them of their happy childhood. High-stakes drama gives writers the opportunity to do huge things, up the ante, and if not create greater catharsis for the audience, at least give them a reason to chuckle. (Deadly nose bleed, I’m looking at you!)

I’m generally pretty forgiving of my dramas. I know to expect some plot slippage, recycled tropes, and the total lack of ability to cross a four-lane highway with the appropriate level of common sense. But is there a hero or heroine I can grab onto and believe in? If the answer is yes, I will forgive a lot. Whether the stories range from being mildly unrealistic, to requiring a hefty suspension of disbelief, to verging on the ridiculous — they’re all fun in their own way. Getting lost in a story is one of my favorite things, whether I’m watching, reading, or writing.

Many moons ago when I started watching K-dramas they became a kind of medicine for me, like cuddling in bed with a cup of tea and a cat curled on your lap. When I went through hardships at work, or health crises in my family, K-dramas were a place I could rest my head for a little bit. Taking a journey with a character is a wonderful experience, and though K-dramas aren’t always perfect, they are cohesive, contained, and character-driven stories. It’s hard not to love them.

During my drama years, sometimes I needed the fluffiest of dramas where nothing worse than breaking a nail happened, but sometimes (this year in particular), I needed the wild ride I got from the shows below. After all, watching heroes and heroines full of gumption fighting the good fight is the stuff K-drama medicine is made from.

Here are some of my most enjoyed dramatic dramas of 2018, and why I loved them. I also created my own rating system for their level of melo, because why not?

 
Title: Just Between Lovers
Level of drama: Mount Fuji

I started my drama year with Just Between Lovers. Some dramas you have to warm up to using the four-episode rule. Some dramas are instant love from the moment they begin, and Just Between Lovers was that kind of a drama for me. It wasn’t without its plot slippage, silly moments, or token love triangle (no second lead syndrome here, for a change!) — but it was a moving portrayal of the grieving and healing process. The drama’s heroine and her younger sister had been in a commercial building when it collapsed, and though her sister passed, she survived — along with Junho’s character. The drama is mostly about these two characters connecting with each other, their past, and learning how to move on.

Just Between Lovers was also a bit darker and heavier than I originally expected, but as the plot unfolded, it was the perfect fit for the storytelling. The tone was very controlled, the colors were muted, and the emotions were quite strong. For instance, you could feel the emotional climate in the heroine’s house during every scene that took place there. Newbie Won Jin-ah was awesome as the petite heroine holding her broken family together and trying to move on with her life — she had such a mature screen presence for a new actress (and she’s like a mini Soo Ae, which only made me like her more). The leads were fantastic together, and Junho plays the best scrappy, rude, limping, tofu-hearted hero ever.

Just Between Lovers gets the Mount Fuji-level drama rating for being a deeply tragic story, but also quiet and beautiful.

 
Title: Come Here and Hug Me
Level of drama: Everest

If you thought getting crushed in a building collapse and losing your little sister was dramatic, it is nothing compared to what happened to the leads in Come Here and Hug Me. The drama was about as twisted and murderous and traumatic as you can get. Our leads (Jang Ki-yong and Jin Ki-joo) first met as young, innocent teenagers. (Like Just Between Lovers, this drama had fresh faces in the lead which I found delightful in both cases.)

Everything was all cherry blossom petals and young love until Jang Ki-yong realized his father was a deranged hammer-wielding serial killer who also locked up dogs (as if he wasn’t already evil enough). When his father killed Jin Ki-joo’s parents, he saved her life and gave his father up to the police. The many repercussions of his actions is what the drama is all about. Yes, I know this is kind of a ridiculous set-up — and no, it didn’t stop me from enjoying it all the way through. The drama is psychologically intense and upsetting. Though at turns frustrating and horrifying, it’s all evened out with some lovely and sweet moments.

I couldn’t decide at first about Jang Ki-yong — he was so stiff and silent in most of his scenes. But I began to love this as a depiction of a scarred kid who has grown up so weighed down by the guilt of his father’s murders that he was emotionally half paralyzed. He’s especially paralyzed around the heroine, whom he not only adores, but feels an unbearable amount of guilt towards.

Without all this Everest-level drama, the ending epilogue wouldn’t have packed as much punch as it did. Never has there been an epilogue I actually enjoyed, until Come Here and Hug Me. At the end of the drama, the bad guy has been dispatched for good and our leads are together, finally able to move on from the trauma of their childhood.

In the epilogue, both of the characters are walking in a field to meet their younger selves. They gently embrace and comfort them. It reads like a Hallmark movie, but it was so much better than that, especially thematically. I loved the message that they had to be the ones to bring themselves peace. Without finding healing and forgiveness in the present, they couldn’t let go of the past. I’m not usually a drama crier, but this scene did it for me. There’s no shame in crying yourself to sleep over a K-drama, right?

Come Here and Hug Me gets the Mount Everest-level drama rating, because I don’t really know what else they could have done to make this melodrama more brutal.

 
Title: Time
Level of drama: Mount Vesuvius

This poor drama suffered a lot, and so did its cast. While I think it could have been a lot better, there was sufficient angst and really spectacular acting by Kim Jung-hyun to make it worth the watch. In another super dramatic set-up, Kim Jung-hyun’s character found out he has a brain tumor and only a few months to live. As he’s drunkenly processing his terror (who can blame him), a girl comes to his room and the next morning she’s found dead in his pool. He doesn’t know if he’s responsible or not, and he’s wracked with guilt, because the girl is the sister of our kind, long-suffering heroine played by Seohyun.

I wanted the love line to develop better between the two, but I can’t really blame Seohyun’s character for being a little over-consumed with grief and her drive for the truth, especially after she loses her mother too and realizes both deaths were cover-ups. Still, Kim Jung-hyun’s secret devotion to her is quite moving. He brings out all the nuances of a hero who’s conflicted, agonized, and slowly shedding his attachment to the world around him. Somebody give him an award! (And make sure his health is okay!)

The funniest bit in this drama was the fact that as a chaebol heir he, of course, owns and operates a fancy restaurant. This restaurant serves as a convenient place to meet, eat, argue, stalk, secretly tape conversations, and more. The fact that it’s never shown actually operating or serving food to the public doesn’t seem to matter a whit. I love stuff like this.

Time gets the Mount Vesuvius drama rating to describe the way it started off with a bang, and then became all about the latent drama and meta underneath the drama lava.

 
Title: Hundred Million Stars From the Sky
Level of drama: K2

This was a heck of a way to end my trauma drama year. Hundred Million Stars From the Sky grabbed me from the very start. It was daring and unsettling, and an interesting change of pace to have a hero that was morally ambiguous. I could not get over those taunting looks Seo In-gook would throw people’s way early on in the show.

The cast was amazing, but I think it was the strong pace and tone of this show that I enjoyed the most (go Director-nim!). It started out with intrigue and lies, and as each episode progressed the tension was ratcheted up. The story continued to dig deeper, exposing a little more of the characters and their connections. The drama was daring, yes, but not particularly new in terms of plot. At its most basic, two people fall in love and then find out they have a shared tragic past. It was the way the story was told that made it so compelling. Hundred Million Stars From the Sky was a pretty brutal story, and between the threat of incest (I didn’t believe it for a second, but I believed that Seo In-gook believed it) and the massacre ending, it was one of the K-dramas that came closest to Greek tragedy level.

The mention of Greek tragedies brings me back full circle, since I opened up talking about how through stories, we’re able to experience something hugely dramatic — all from the safety of our couch. There’s catharsis galore in these dramas. You can tell by the feeling that your head is spinning when the show is over, or by the gasps or tears or giggles or swoons you experienced while watching. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered: turn up the drama!

Hundred Million Stars From The Sky gets the K2 mountain rating for being not only one of the most dramatic stories around, but requiring a companion oxygen tank.

 
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@missvictrix This was 💖 Even though I had to google the meaning of 'pontificating'. ^_^ I guess melo is not my cup of tea because I haven't watched any of the dramas in your review despite them all being fantastic. Maybe I should keep my tissues and oxygen tank ready and just take the hike up all these incredibly heart-wrenching mountains!

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Can't help but think of the word catharsis! Purification of the passions through art, so here it would be dramas as a way to escape or at least distance ourself from reality for a very short time! Loved your article by the way. It's crazy how I don't watch many dramas but I watched every single drama you talked about in this article. Sometimes, watching crazy scenarios helps to feel some relief, reality is hard but not as crazy as in kdramas thankfully

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Aww, thank you for this beautiful post🙏🏻 I loved your rating system^_^ now I can use “yet” when I say (I haven’t climbed Mount Everest) and I won’t be lying!🗻
And also yes, I asked siri to tell me the meaning of “pontificating” too :))

I love this time of the year. You wake up, come back from home, or wave a guest goodbye and then when you unlock your phone BANG! There is a Year In Review post full of new points of view.
For me it’s a great opportunity to read about what “the people that when it comes to kdramas I trust their opinions the most” think of a certain number of dramas that have been categorized. It helps me to know what I am going to watch next.

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From work*

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Pontification is a whole new world 😂
And I agree with loving the whole review aspect. So many different fun-to-read viewpoints

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Yeah, those words🙄 we read, we enjoy, we learn😂

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Thanks @missvictrix for your Year in Review! I only watched 100MSFTS from the dramas you listed above which had great directing and acting but I have to say I wanted it be more daring and shocking like the original version.

Fauxcest is like the second most common trope in k-dramas so I wanted it to be different and more memorable. But I guess Koreans are too conservative for it.

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Hahaha, I remember you saying about Moo Young n Jin Kang jumping off that cliff and scaring me to my core😂
But I do agree. They deserved a better kind of ending! After going through a lot more complicated traumas being killed by a guy who opend the door like it was the door of a public bathroom and being shot for I-still-don’t-know reason is so unfair. They needed an impressive final scene.

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I really enjoyed reading this, even if I only watched the first and last drama on your list. Though tbh, I never really categorize Just Between Lovers under melodrama label, because that drama is so much more than that. It's a healing drama at its finest, and also the drama that bring revelation about Won Jin-ah and Jun-ho's acting. I can't wait to see what kind of story this writer will come up with next.

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The only one I've completed out of these is Come and Hug Me, but all the others are on my watchlist. Excellently written and really makes me want to dive into these sooner!

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Oh start with Just Between Lovers. I know you already know about it but god, it is soO good.

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Yes, I've heard so many good things about it. I've been in the mood to watch a good melodrama for months but put it off for some reason. Maybe it's because I know a bit what happens in it since so many people loved it.

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Loved your comparison with the mountains. Even though I feel HMS had the melo meter turned up way more than CAHM.

JBL was one of the most memorable dramas of this year. The way the leads found comfort from their shared sorrow and learn to be happy could have easily become boring or too much to handle, but this was done perfectly.

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"I know to expect some plot slippage, recycled tropes, and the total lack of ability to cross a four-lane highway with the appropriate level of common sense."
and
"Some dramas you have to warm up to using the four-episode rule."
This. Sometimes I wish people be more forgiving instead of dropping a drama just after watching 30 minutes of it, and then ranting about how horrible/boring/lousy a drama is.

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I mostly agree, but in the case of Mama Fairy, it was an ordeal to get through the 2nd episode. Most others it seems like the first two weeks are good, then .. not so much. Half the dramas for this and last season I went up to about 1/3 or 1/2 way, and just gave up.

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"Trauma drama year" is a brilliant summation! Thank you @missvictrix

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I wish this year was not my year in slump so I could appreciate all these dramas more. Except for Time I started watching all of these infact befitting the series is My Ajusshi too. But even though I knew it was good stuff I couldn't finish properly any of them. Whenever I would think of melo kdramas I would think about shows like Secret or sth entirely makjang but this year changed it. These dramas at least made me realize that if melo done right can be great and healing. JBL started it all. I haven't come across a peaceful yet calming show ever. Plus color me surprised by the amazing acting of each and every individual and enthralling tragedy that opened new doors of thought to me. Come and Hug me is what I saw the most of and yes that was smart direction and acting but extremely good characters too. This year had well developed characters that you would like to root for and you would think they are individuals in our world and not dramaland because they were all relatable. Same goes for My Ajusshi. This year majority popular (as in DB popular) shows were the relatable bunch and the word "healing" done right. I just need to tryy to get back on these wonderful shows someday with rl not interrupting.

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Firstly, YAYS to Come Here & Hug Me for header photo! HEHEHE.

I've watched the first three dramas mentioned, & just started on Hundred Million Stars From the Sky too. I guess I can no longer say romcoms are my favorite because I'm really more into melodramas nowadays. Even my ultimate favorite kdrama is a melo (On the Way to the Airport ❤️).

Yes, I know this is kind of a ridiculous set-up — and no, it didn’t stop me from enjoying it all the way through.

Hell yeah! Like seriously, you get hammered in the head but no major injuries sustained?! Yep, I don't care anymore. Come Here & Hug Me was my crack of the year & I fell utterly in love with Jang Kiyong.

I really can't help to look forward to more melodramas in 2019! Here's to more mountains to climb & overcome! 🥂

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It’s so exciting to see all these Beabies who have always thought they are rom-coms and 2018 proved them wrong! I am one of them. I have always tried to watch rom-coms and my fav ones were under this category but now I feel attracted to melodramas more. But being too emotional and watching dark stories with sad endings is not a good idea. 😫🤧 2019, please help me save my sanity🙏🏻

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The problem with rom-coms is that most of them are pretty much just cliche and formula festivals. Head slapping and neck grabbing is not comedy, it's just stupid. There is no mystery or suspense involved - from the first episode you pretty much know who will end where and with who.

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I agree about the Trauma drama, whoof, I might even add My Ahjusshi, that drama hurt so beautifully and tragically before it got better. I do agree about 100MSFS, the ending was painful. My friend and I are watching Last Empress to recover.

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Wow @missvictrix I honestly have never read an article as intently as I read yours! I watched 3 out of the 4 dramas you mentioned and 2 are in my most favourite list for various reasons! Needless to say I will be checking out the 4th! You write exceptionally well. But you already know that 😊

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Reason #5678 why I like DB community, it makes me smarter 😉😉😉 I probably wont use that word but feeling smarter is a good feel... 🤣🤣🤣

Unfortunately I only watched and ended up dropping 2 of the dramas listed above. Time got dropped after KJH exit the show because suddennly I dunno, I feel like they wasted his exit and things became too formulaic? Like.. I know this is melo with cliche plot but after his exit it just becomes to cliche? Not sure if you get me though 😅😅😅

Come and hug me was dropped because I was not in the right mind to watch such a sad drama at that moment. I wish I continue watching with everyone else though because try to pick it up again.... probably not? which is too bad tbh.

But the 4 episodes rule is something that I'm glad I pick up from Beanie tbh. I dunno who started it but that rule makes me watch a lot of good dramas and save me from few disaster (the great seducer is a great example). Except now that they make it 30 mins episode I have to remember my cut off is now 8 episodes 🤣🤣🤣

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It's funny how I always started out watching romcoms, to run away from the world with surrealism and cuteness of it all. This year, it was the melodramas who healed me. As the characters healed themselves, I was crying and healing along with them. Sometimes over the top melodramas do the trick, but my favorite ones are the ones that are quietly sad in their own way, because they come and hit you with what you feel the most. Thank you for this wonderfully piece.

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Nice, this is the kind of end-of-year review I was asking for. Thank you DB staff! ☺️

I’ve only climbed Mount Fuji, and it was a beautiful, contemplative and healing climb.

Are You Human Too? wasn’t a melo but its twists and the fate of a certain Shinnamon Roll prompted a Fellowship of beanies to take on Mount Doom. 🌋

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*'I wanted to watch some light and happy shows, but when I did, they felt too flimsy and couldn’t hold my interest. The dark, crazy melodramas called my name'*

couldn't have said it better myself.

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I think "flimsy" is the key word. I think a lot of it was there was too much fan service - Heirs was one of the worst (but hardly only) examples. No real story arc to many of them and the ending is predetermined. Often filled with irrelevant side characters that add nothing. Far too many are just boy meets girl, both do some noble idiocy stuff, and then get together in the end to a happy ending.

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Omg i'm not watch any of these dramas you mention above. I wonder why.

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Maybe you are more a rom-com person like many of us but try watching at least one of these and see how melodrama attracts you. And I guess Just Between Lovers can be a good one for you because it is so damn beautiful with a happy ending.

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A happy ending, interesting. Yup that kind of ending maybe i should give a try. Thanks dear.

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^____^

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I watched all the dramas above and loved them for the same reasons! Looking forward to watching more poignantly tragic and beautiful dramas in 2019. :')

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So true - "the total lack of ability to cross a four-lane highway with the appropriate level of common sense..". And at the age of 30, they still cannot ride a bicycle.

Yet they manage to take down chaebol and criminal (which are often the same) empires with ease, despite 97% rate of police corruption. Entirely believable!!

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Time is so underrated.. it’s definitely one of my favourite dramas this year. I enjoyed every episode and the acting was so good (especially KJH). I know so many people didn’t like how they dealt with KJH’s exit but honestly I was glad they didn’t go the route of him going away for treatment.

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I love the rating system. I also love year end list and so am happy to see these post pop up. Thanks.

Once my vacation starts I'm hitting play on JBL. I want to meet this tofu boy.

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Well, how things changed here in couple years. I remember some melos being put down here for being "too tragic and crazy", yet this year they're suddenly celebrated for same exact reasons. Feel bad for those who loved themselves some melos, but couldn't find enough support.

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I think Just between Lovers was my favorite series this year, one that I could finish without interruptions. And both leads are ridiculously cute, aren't they?! I mean, Lee junho is like a teddy bear.... :)

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This has definitely been a year of trauma for kdramas, and...I think that's why I've started watching kdramas much more than before. I used to be a jdrama watcher and didn't think much of the few kdramas I saw, mostly because they were remakes of jdramas I already knew and loved (To the Beautiful You, Boys Over Flowers).

I think watching Sorry, I Love You after seeing the Japanese version is what changed everything. I felt that kdrama did trauma and angst way better, and after seeing more of their gritty dramas, they are way more in tune with what I look for in a story. I can enjoy romance, comedy and family stuff if it's done really well and written in a way that doesn't give me diabetes. But what I really enjoy are the kinds of dramas that have been coming out this year.

Children of Nobody, HMSFtS - these are the shows that are setting the bar for me. I loved AYHT as well, mostly because of the masterful Seo Kang-Joon vs Seo Kang-Joon scenes (he deserves an award). The romance was there but not overpowering - I felt AYHT was more focused on the questions surrounding AI, the psychology of an AI and the human it's imitating/looks identical to etc.

There were dramas I was disappointed by, and dramas that I dropped, and other dramas people were gushing about but I never even started because they didn't sound like my thing. There are many more (like some on your list) that I haven't seen yet but plan to. I'm very late to the party, so dramas like Time, Come and Hug Me, Just Between Lovers etc are still on my watchlist.

I think this has been a great year for dramas. And your four episode rule is extremely relevant - I noticed last week that I seem to finally 'click' with dramas only after four or five episodes, with rare exceptions that catch me right out of the gate.

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I feel like crying seeing the pic of Jang ki young in of Come and Hug me .That drama made me cry so much and i just felt so sad for Do jin/Na moo. What a beautiful drama it was.

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Just Between Lovers a again!!! <3
I didnt see the others, and TIME is going directly to my See Later List! :)

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