[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.
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.
- [2018 Year in Review] Take my tears
- [2018 Year in Review] Part 1: The Bean Count
- [Theme of the Month] Year in dramas 2018
- [2017 Year in Review] Editors’ Picks
- [2017 Year in Review] Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year!
- Dramabeans Podcast #39: 2017 Year in Review
- [Vlog] Our least favorite dramas of 2017
- [Theme of the Month] Tell us about your year in dramas 2017
- [2017 Year in Review] Part 1: The Bean Count