Omg is it that time of year already? [Year in Review, Part 1]
How on earth has another year zoomed by already? It felt as though I’d only just recovered from banging my head against my keyboard over last year’s year-end reviews when I had to start banging my head against my keyboard for this year’s batch. And okay, perhaps banging isn’t expressly necessary—but trust me, it’s become a standard part of the process.
Every year I love and dread doing these reviews; they are a blast to have written, but a bear to actually write. On one hand, while our regular recap format is pretty awesome for detailed reviewing on a micro level, it’s a fun exercise to step back and take a look back at the year as a whole, assessing dramas as part of the landscape. Because no drama exists in a vacuum, and as much as we love to focus on content, we can’t forget entirely about context.
On the other hand, omg so many dramas. I watched a ridiculous amount of television this year—even more than usual, which is saying a lot—and in an effort to keep these reviews manageable, we’re once again limiting our discussion to shows we’ve completed. First, that feels fair, and second, these posts would go on foreeeeever if we opened it up to series that were partially watched. But don’t worry—as in past years, we here at Dramabeans have done our best to cover as much ground as possible between all of us, and if I haven’t gotten to a title, chances are good that another reviewer will. We’ve got the panda eyes to prove it.
SONG OF THE DAY
Krystal – “울컥” from the She’s So Lovable OST [ Download ]
While Miss Korea technically premiered last year (and feels ages ago), it makes this year’s list for airing more of its run in 2014, and also because I left it out of last year’s reviews and surely it deserves mention somewhere. There’s a tendency for dramas that air very early in a year to be largely forgotten by year’s end (curse our short memories!), which is too bad when a drama such as Miss Korea drops off the radar after turning in a surprisingly thoughtful showing.
Understated and sweet, Miss Korea contained a lot more depth than you’d expected from its frivolous-sounding pageant premise. On the surface, the drama sounded lightweight: A young woman aims to become Miss Korea to find direction in her aimless life, and a young CEO backs her, hoping to save his failing cosmetics company. The stakes were low and the plot took its time, focusing on smaller challenges—say, preparing for pageant competition, or marketing lipstick. Does it sound like the most riveting concept? Well, no. And yet, the drama tapped into an emotional current beneath its surface, engaging our affections with its heartfelt characters and their underdog struggles.
Adding an interesting moodiness was the tinge of nostalgia lent by the drama’s setting—the late nineties, during a time of widespread societal and economic uncertainty, an unease that was reflected in the characters’ plights. As a result, Miss Korea was an example of a show that worked not because of a clever premise but because of its overall mood (feel-good, woven through with a thread of grimness) and execution (a bit gritty).
The cast provided the other X factor, bolstered by a earnest, adorable lead couple: Lee Seon-kyun can always be relied upon to deliver a charismatic performance, but it was really Lee Yeon-hee who broke through. Not particularly known for her acting skills, she changed some minds with her short stint in last year’s Gu Family Book, and built on that transformation to embody this lead role and give her character a sweet spirit and a backbone. A winning combination.
You From Another Star
There are hits, and then there are phenoms, of which You From Another Star is a prime example, becoming such a success that it’s actually hard to overstate just how popular it was worldwide. It made a huge splash both domestically and internationally, set trends left and right, and was dramaland’s biggest success story of the past year (more, even).
All of that makes it tricky to look back on You From Another Star now without being swayed, one way or another, by the outside knowledge we have about it. Inevitably, wild hype creates expectations that are different than those that existed at the time of the original run, and this kind of baggage has a way of altering people’s memories and inviting added scrutiny, because the drama becomes such a large target.
Be that as it may, I have nothing but fond memories of the show, which was a blast to recap. The story incorporated a number of romantic-comedy conventions, but its skill was in weaving them together to feel fresh and current; we’d seen shows with similar elements before, but not quite this exact show. There’s a built-in formula inherent in the romantic comedy format (boy meets girl, complications ensue, happily ever after) that can hamstring the genre when employed clumsily; I’d argue that it can be much more difficult to make a rom-com fresh than most other formats because of this. So when one comes along and hooks me with fantastic romantic and comedic chemistry, I’m absolutely going to watch the hell out of it and remind myself to savor the experience, considering how many times I’ve struggled to like something and been let down.
The drama certainly had its weaknesses, with a cartoonish villain (who was at least of the deliciously campy sort; Shin Sung-rok dove into the role with gusto) and weak second leads who were nice and all, but sort of just hanging around while the two leads got to sparkle. But I will never complain about the sparkle, which gave us Jeon Ji-hyun in a career-defining turn (in a long career that’s already had a defining moment (that would be My Sassy Girl)) and one of the more memorable characters of the year. Sure, galaxy-hopping alien genius Do Manager was drily hilarious, but it was Chun Song-yi—hilarious and poignant, ridiculous and genuine—whose star shone brightest.
When Wonderful Season premiered, I was encouraged by its low-key, naturalistic approach to the weekend family drama, a format frequently plagued with histrionics and makjang excess. It was refreshing to have a series that employed all the same character types and story tropes that we’ve come to expect of these dramas, yet utilized them in different ways. Instead of dragging out angst-ridden scenarios for weeks on end, Wonderful Season consciously avoided the standard rhythms in favor of a gentler ebb-and-flow of conflict. I appreciated the different approach and was eager to see it play out, since the success of non-makjang dramas might encourage a shift away from those tired hysterics.
That said, this drama needed some drama. Color me surprised when I found myself thinking, deep into its 50-episode run, Man, I could really use some makjang right about now. It turns out there can be such a thing as too little angst; what initially felt languorous soon became plodding, and the series was so placid that even the conflicts felt conflictless. On an intellectual level I appreciate that despite plot points like birth secrets, unfaithful spouses, shady business dealings, possible murder, first loves, and unrequited loves, the drama was really about a fractured family coming together and healing years of repressed hurt. Yet its approach went too far the other way and sapped the proceedings of any sense of urgency.
As a result, I watched with no commitment—why get worked up, when the show wasn’t going to? Slice-of-life works better when the drama is buoyed by humor or cuteness, but Wonderful Season wasn’t going for comedy. Thoughtful and moody was the intent—it’s just that it undermined its own melodramatic pillars. Every time the drama built up to a climactic peak, the conflict defused before it hit that point.
So maybe we don’t try to solve the makjang problem by doing away with tension entirely. Maybe all or nothing doesn’t have to be the game plan. Maybe nobody wants to watch a six-month-long anticlimax.
Sly and Single Again
My main takeaway from Sly and Single Again is that Joo Sang-wook should only do romantic comedies, forever and always—a belief that solidified further with Birth of a Beauty a few months later (mentioned further down on this page).
He is what made Sly work for me, taking what seemed on paper like yet another chiseled CEO prince type and turning expectation on its head; I adored his dorky, sheepish beta male lead who wore his heart on his sleeve. It’s true that an actor is more likely to draw critical acclaim through dramatic outings (as Joo did in Giant, the role that provided his acting breakthrough), but in my eyes he is much more of a standout in the comedy field. (At least when he’s the lead; he put in his time playing the standard, boring cardboard-cutout second leads in rom-coms earlier in his career and was entirely dull as such.)
Lee Min-jung was fine as the heroine, though I’ll file her away in the “acceptable” category (I’ll confess to being disappointed in her recent roles, having expected more development from her after memorable early performances). Still, I’ll give her credit for being part of one of the few (only?) separated-couples-who-reunite that I actually wanted to reunite this year (wasn’t that a tricky trend?). Their separation felt understandable and reparable—not an easy balance to strike. I could leave Sly feeling hopeful that they’d learned from their mistakes and would work hard not to screw up their second chance, which isn’t something I could say of some other unfortunate reunited exes.
Performances aside, Sly and Single Again was a competent, good-natured rom-com that hit all the bullet points of the genre and neither soared above the pack nor failed spectacularly. It was a comfortable watch, if broad and sweet fit your bill.
God’s Gift – 14 Days
I almost skipped writing this review because God’s Gift — 14 Days, I’m still mad at you! But then I figured the best way to work out repressed anger is to let it out rather than trying to pretend things never happened, sooooo… let’s let it all out.
Unlike other dramas that failed to live up to their hype (and there were plenty of those), God’s Gift offered a different kind of crushing disappointment. It wasn’t a show I was hoping would be good that ended up being dumb; it was a show that was utterly gripping, and then betrayed us with that stinker of an ending. That’s worse than just not getting a good show; it’s showing you exactly what kind of awesomeness we could have had… and then yanking it away. Neener neener.
Let’s start with what it did right: A compelling murder mystery, an intriguing jump in time to prevent said murder, an endless parade of suspects. Charged acting from Lee Bo-young and a winsome one from Jo Seung-woo. Red herrings and conspirators dotted the landscape, and while there were probably too many serial killers in the mix, at least the story did a solid job of keeping us guessing and injecting constant threats that kept us on edge. I felt an ever-present danger for our characters, which is something every thriller requires but doesn’t always provide. The risks must be real for us to care, and I cared.
Admittedly, I started to find the constant twists and turns tiring—there is a thing as overly convoluted—but I was willing to hang in there to get our ending. It didn’t need to be happy, but I had full faith that it would be satisfying. *Pause to mourn misplaced hope*
Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that the reason I have such hatred for it is not because it wasn’t what I wanted, but because I believe it actively undermined what the show was working toward all along—the very definition of a “Gotcha!” moment. When we give a show our faith, we accept that there are clues we don’t yet know but enjoy the mental exercise of speculating and playing along with the mystery—we don’t see the full picture but are on tenterhooks waiting for the show to provide it. So when the show eventually produces a big picture that doesn’t work, we realize with a sinking feeling that our faith was misplaced—and then every bit of excitement we’d felt along the way is retroactively diminished.
It’s why the last taste has more power than one in the middle—the sourness lingers long after the actual bite is gone. God’s gift my ass. God owes me a refund, is what.
Golden Cross was an interesting case for me: I approached with caution, unsure whether it would hold my interest, was pleasantly surprised when it did, and months later remember so little of it. I chalk it up to the drama being a competent entry into its category—a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired revenge story set in the financial world—but missing that spark to take it beyond that baseline.
What that meant was that while I was actively watching the show, I was engaged in the week-to-week developments—I liked the story, I felt for the wronged hero’s plight and wanted him to come back strong against the privileged elites and take them all down. I was drawn to the conflict of a righteous prosecutor determined to help the hero and nail the criminal, not knowing said criminal was her adoring dear dad. And I appreciated that the bad guys were, for a change, not genius masterminds who always knew how to skirt the law; they were scared, panicky, and very human. Completely corrupt, to be sure, but this wasn’t villainy for villainy’s sake, but weak men acting desperately out of self-preservation.
On the other hand, Golden Cross felt rather cold, perhaps a bit connect-the-dots. I appreciated that the plot was well-thought-out, but it was mostly an intellectual appreciation that left the heartstrings untugged. That’s not entirely to be blamed on the lack of chemistry between the leads, though that certainly didn’t help—Kim Kang-woo and Lee Shi-young felt more like buddies than romantic interests, and their storyline never quite rang true, and therefore lacked memorability. Wait, what was I talking about again?
Here’s an honest question: How do you make a show about multiple serial killers boring?
I found enough in Gap-dong to make it worth the watch, but it’s another title I’m filing under my list of disappointments. I suppose I can’t blame a drama just because it didn’t end up being what I wanted it to be, but the show bears some responsibility for skewed expectations given how it touted Gap-dong: a dark and twisted thriller based on real-life serial killings that also inspired the lauded film Memories of Murder.
So I was expecting something macabre and edgy, something along the lines of Silence of the Lambs with its eerie suspense. Yet once the show settled in and the copycat murders got going, curiously the show became less of a crime mystery and more of a psychological case study. Interesting? Maybe intellectually. Exciting? Not even a little.
I lay the fault at the writer’s door for actively getting in the drama’s own way; every time the mystery built up a modicum of suspense, the writing spoiled the payoff by telling us what happened up front, rather than taking us along for the ride of discovery. It’s akin to a comic giving his punchline first, then lecturing us on why the joke is funny, instead of telling the joke in proper order. Thus we saw the copycat killing a bunch of people while the good guys ran around mystified, which had the double-whammy effect of boring us and making them seem stupid for not seeing what we knew.
The acting was the saving grace of the show—there wasn’t a weak link among the bunch—with particularly strong performances by Yoon Sang-hyun as the dogged cop and Lee Joon as the emotionless psychopath. Their work elevated the material, honestly, because while the interplay between the good guys and the bad guys was narratively unsurprising, at least we could sit back and enjoy what the cast was doing with the emotions of the scenes. Interestingly, this made for a drama where the process of watching was more fulfilling than getting to the ending, which I guess you could take as a grand metaphor for life or something. Just beware the serial killers roaming around.
Shin Sung-rok – “펄펄 끓어요” from the Trot Lovers OST [ Download ]
Trot Lovers could have turned out a better show than it did—okay, that’s true of any show, but it feels extra true of this show because the basic framework of the story was perfectly workable. Tried-and-true, even, given the universality of underdog stories, the raw-talent-versus-elitism divide, and opposites-attract romances. Plus, it provided a prime opportunity for cheeky K-pop meta commentary while also taking on the idol industry from a fresher, sideways approach with trot music.
Sadly, Trot was a failure of execution, and suffered from a mishmash of tone—you had your standard light rom-com moments, your feel-good musical performances, and silly side characters, but then you also had amnesia, murderous antagonists, and cover-ups. And for once, it wasn’t Shin Sung-rok pulling those strings! (On a side note, how odd was it to see Shin Sung-rok playing a quirky goofball, sandwiched between two murderous, evil genius roles? He clearly had a blast being the mastermind, to such an extent that I was half-expecting him to show his true colors and start killing in Trot Lovers.)
Trot never tried to be highbrow, but it never quite embraced its slapstick, lowbrow charm either, which would have been one way to salvage the halfhearted attempt. The show was never aggressively bad (as with shows that inspire a much stronger negative reaction in me); it was just limp and lackluster. The supporting cast did what they could to make the most of their comic-relief bits, and the fact that they became more watchable than the main characters tells you something about the blandness of the central story. Thank goodness, at least, for Jung Eun-ji’s impassioned singing—and the show did incorporate her performances into the plot effectively—without which there would’ve been no reason to stick around. Even with her, it’s hard to justify sitting around through that increasingly messy latter stretch; maybe just stick to the Youtube video excerpts?
Joseon Gunman was one of my bigger disappointments of the year, which feels almost unfair to say given that I did in fact enjoy it and would give it a pretty high mark. It’s just that I was so ready for it to grab me completely—I was willing it to do that all series long—and it never quite got there.
It had all the makings: revenge tale, new identity, guns in Joseon, gorgeous cinematography, Lee Jun-ki! From a production standpoint, it looked top-shelf, and the story was rich with potential. Its key failing, as I see it, was that it was too afraid to leave the harbors of convention and take risks. The hero could take up a gun and embark on vigilante justice missions, but he wasn’t allowed to actually dance with the dark side—his goodness of character was always reinforced, lest we think badly of him. (And he only ever shot people in the arm! How’s that for unintended comedy?)
Likewise, the heroine was a paragon of virtue, as was her stalwart admirer, and the good guys had a frustrating tendency to be noble folks limited by external forces. Anytime your drama relies on external conflict at the expense of internal ones means that you’re shutting out an entire dimension of human emotion, and keeping conflict on a simplistic level. All of which meant that the most interesting characters ended up being the villains, because they were allowed complexity and shape, where the heroes were given only the one side.
Which isn’t to say that Joseon Gunman was a failure, since I definitely had fun watching it. The core story was well-drawn, even if nuance was dulled by the lack of dimension, and the hero and villain’s escalating dance of attack and counterattack kept the plot in motion. The action scenes were top-notch; Lee Jun-ki sort of spoils you for action scenes forevermore, because you can’t beat an actor who performs stunts completely on his own, negating the need for distracting edits or obscured shots. And the production poured loving care into the filming, scoring, and editing of the show, which is evident in the richness of the visuals—it looks like a winner of a show. It’s just, well, I wanted to give the drama my heart, and it just wouldn’t take it.
Marriage Not Dating
I almost bypassed Marriage Not Dating at first, which sounded cute on paper—bachelor attempts to outsmart pushy parents by presenting an unmarriageable fake girlfriend (and falls for her, naturally)—but in a been-there-done-that sort of way. The show launched rather under the radar with two lesser-known leads, but almost immediately picked up solid word-of-mouth, and for good reason: It was sharply written with witty dialogue, and cleverly edited to play with chronology, which resulted in a show that sounded like it should be familiar yet managed to keep springing surprises on us.
One of my favorite things about cable stations is their willingness to cast smaller names, because here’s a case where the leads just wouldn’t have worked as well without this particular pair. Both Han Groo and Yeon Woo-jin were probably a few years away from scoring lead roles in broadcast television, but as Marriage Not Dating proved, they were absolutely up to the task. I’d known Han Groo was a budding talent when she debuted in the stylish cable mini-drama Girl K as a teenage assassin, but she positively sparkled in this drama, proving that a cheerful everygirl with a trusting nature can be a winsome character, given that the right actress bring her to life. She left you with the impression that had anybody else been cast, well, the character would’ve been all wrong.
Marriage Not Dating was for the most part a conventional romantic comedy, but I credit the writing and directing with keeping the story fresh, and preventing it from falling into that late-stage slow-down that plagues so many shows. Time-skipping and playing with chronology drive me a little batty when they’re used as lazy shortcuts, but when employed thoughtfully, as in Marriage Not Dating, they’re effective storytelling devices, leading to some truly hilarious moments that I won’t spoil for you here. Let’s just say that the sharp direction was instrumental in keeping the pace moving, allowing the characters to shine as they bickered and flirted their way to their happily ever afters.
High School: Love On
Oh my gahhh, how is this drama still airing? When High School: Love On first hit the air, I was skeptical of its format—once a week, Friday nights, for twenty episodes—because it felt like a last resort that nobody was really happy with. (It was initially planned to be a standard prime-time drama, then got shuffled around, even considering daytime slots, before KBS created the Friday slot.)
I could complain that this format killed interest in the show before it even had a chance—and how the constant pre-emptions torpedoed any momentum that might be building despite it—but to be honest, my indignation has a limit because the show itself lacks oomph. I really, really wanted this drama to do well, for several reasons: to overcome its scheduling obstacle and prove that quality could win out; because Kim Sae-ron is an adorable and talented budding star; because it would set a precedent for “younger” shows getting bigger budgets and serious production attention, rather than being relegated to low-budget affairs; and because, most of all, the idea is great, creating an interesting paranormal world with an intricate set of rules.
Ultimately, however, it’s a show that’s better in concept than execution. It’s been an easy watch despite the many flaws, but because the world is so interesting, I’m constantly plagued by disappointment over what could have been. The acting is the most visible weak link, and even having Kim Sae-ron in the cast isn’t a guaranteed win; while she is by far the best actor of the bunch, she’s actually surprised me by being simpler and less nuanced than I’d expected, given her dramatic chops. She plays her fallen-reaper-turned-high-schooler heroine with a cheerful radiance, but her newness to human ways sometimes plays off as dimwittedness rather than quirkiness. The idol leads—Woo-hyun and Seung-yeol, both of Infinite—are a bigger gaping hole, and their stilted performances keep this drama in Saved By the Bell territory rather than Monstar, which gives us an example of a high school drama that didn’t feel juvenile and whose fresh-faced cast held their own.
The acting isn’t the only problem, however, since the drama suffers from a tonal clash between dramatic extremes—sometimes it’s adorable and sweet, and at other times the characters react with makjang levels of emotion to simple conflicts. It’s jarring and clumsy, made all the more noticeable because the look of the drama is so polished and smooth, while the content remains rough around the edges. It’s frustrating, because I remain intrigued in the question at the center of the show—will she turn human or have to return to being an eternal reaper?—and the steady evolution of the rules in the reapers’ circle hints at a well-thought-out mythology… but the expression of those ideas has been clunky, to say the least. Maybe this is what they invented fanfic for.
Surplus Princess was a bit of an experiment for tvN—or at least, that’s how the media depicts it, although I don’t really think the mix of fantasy and humor was that unusual. It did perhaps take an aggressive approach in establishing a cheeky, glib, quirky tone, full of pop-culture and meta references. While that may have been a bit much for viewers (the show didn’t have a strong showing in the ratings and got cut two episodes short), it’s also what makes it stand out against dramaland’s other comedies, whose senses of humor hew more conventional.
Surplus feels more like a fantasy drama than many of the other titles in that category, in that there’s a surreal quality to the show, and I don’t even mean the part where a mermaid turns human. It feels like a live-action cartoon, in a positive sense; there’s a strong directorial hand in maintaining that tone throughout, so that reality doesn’t threaten to break in and ruin the effect. Instead, we get a fizzy, slightly addled tale of a bubbly mermaid who establishes camaraderie with a motley group of misfits, and learns that being human means a lot more than sprouting legs.
In addition to the usual themes of humanity being all about love and friendship, the drama throws in the additional motif of employment—and, funny enough, manages to not make a joke of it, instead tapping into the cultural zeitgeist about what it means to be employed in Korea these days. (It’s no Misaeng, but then again, Misaeng doesn’t have butt-grabbing, French-kissing heroines, does it?)
Surplus Princess does appear to be the kind of show that inspires an all-or-nothing reaction: Either you like it, or you really don’t. If you’re in the latter group, chances are good that the entire thing is a turn-off, but if you’re part of the group who likes it, I’d pinpoint two points of dissatisfaction: the timing of the main romance, and the ending. I’ll try not to spoil anything major here, but with the romance, I’d point to mishandled timing of the two lovelines that left many (most? all?) dissatisfied. On paper the choice works, but experiencing the emotional trajectory as it unfolded onscreen pointed at some kind of miscalibration; it left us feeling wanting.
The ending is perhaps the bigger offense but also the one I’m willing to cut the show more slack on, mostly because I assume that the last-minute cutdown of episodes put the drama in a tough spot. The finale felt like a defiant middle finger to the station, and I can understand feeling backed into a corner. If that’s what happened, it’s too bad that the production essentially chose an act of TV road rage over making the best of a bad situation, because it’s us fans who are left trying to cobble together sense out of a taunting finale. For me, I choose to remember Surplus more for its zany antics and not its ending, which has the added bonus of letting me reimagine the romance the way I wanted it. (Namely: more kisses!)
Hype is a double-edged sword, but 2014 sure has given us a lot more of its downsides than ups. Three Musketeers definitely suffered from an excess of it, and those expectations appear to have been its undoing. With so much attention paid to the three-season format and location shoots and high production budget, focus shifted away from whether this was a good show to whether it would live up to its price tag—two very different questions.
Regarding the latter question, tvN seems to be leaning toward no, based on its vague and noncommittal attitude toward follow-up seasons (it hasn’t confirmed cancellation of such plans, but it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to see which way the wind’s blowing). But as to the former, I’d say that yes, Three Musketeers is a show that on its own merits, independent of meta baggage, was solidly entertaining, capturing the spirit of swagger and cheekiness that we’ve come to expect of Three Musketeers-based stories. Humor was never far from the surface, and the camaraderie between the four leads made for light-hearted entertainment.
It’s also one of my top picks for adapted stories; I’m amazed at how fully it utilized the Three Musketeers story while at the same time feeling fully at home as a Joseon-era fusion sageuk. If you didn’t know it was the Three Musketeers, the story would work perfectly fine on its own as a fun interpretation on the Injo-Sohyeon period of history, and conversely, if you only knew it as an adaptation independent of its historical moorings, it feels very much in the spirit of the Dumas tale.
In hindsight, I do wish the series hadn’t spent the entire first season on the process of forming the musketeer posse, because we got so little time to enjoy them in their fully assembled state. Granted, this is the risk you run in planning something so deep into the future, but it’s also a reminder to not save your best stuff for last—in withholding your gems, you might end up not getting a chance to use them at all. In fact, all great writing should hew to that rule in general: Show us your best now, without worrying that you’re using it up too soon. Get us hooked now, and when we get to later, well—then you can think of something even better. Always aim for better.
Iron Man was my biggest surprise of the year, in that it had the biggest gap between what I’d expected and what I actually got. Well, inasmuch as I had no idea what to expect; in the lead-up to the premiere, it looked so strange and disjointed that I couldn’t begin to predict what it was trying to be. A thriller? A hard melodrama? A supernatural sci-fi piece? An action drama? A… comedy?
Once I saw the show, it turned out to be much simpler than I’d thought, plotwise. Yes, there is a man whose body sprouts knives when he gets angry, but that wasn’t so weird once you accepted the basic comic book premise; the Hulk turned green and inflated, Iron Man has anger spikes. More than the knives, I’d say that one’s response to Iron Man depends almost completely on tone: Either this deadpan, absurdist humor works for you or it doesn’t. And while all humor is subjective, the Iron Man divide seems a bit further out-there than other comedies, and certainly when we’re talking about dramaland.
If it didn’t work for you, don’t worry; pretty much all of dramaland agreed with you (Iron Man had pretty abysmal ratings, even taking into account this year’s depressed numbers across the board). It may have been a little too experimental for the average viewer, though I found it absolutely hysterical—it was witty, tongue-in-cheek, and wry, with a dreamy fantasy touch. Iron Man felt like a classic superhero comic book brought to life; the world in the show was in no way our real world, but the director maintained such a rock-solid grip on his vision that the artifice held up up. I mean, of course it’s ridiculous that the hero could sprout knives or fly—but in his universe, I believed that he could and accepted the drama’s worldbuilding vision.
Even so, even an intentionally absurd show requires emotional grounding, and Iron Man gave it to us in the two leads (I almost even liked Shin Se-kyung in this!) and the supporting characters like our awesome Secretary Go and precocious little Chang. The knives were a metaphor made literal, and the drama made sure to bring everything back to the source, at which point our manchild of a hero could begin his emotional healing. Okay, with some physical healing too; you don’t turn into Mr. Porcupine without encountering a few occupational hazards.
She’s So Lovable
Oy, this show. She’s So Lovable was one of the year’s big flops, and I certainly understand why—sluggish pacing, embarrassing dialogue, terrible acting. At the same time, I thought of it as benignly incompetent—and that’s why I was always surprised at intensity of scorn the Korean media leveled against this show, from before it even premiered through to its finale. I didn’t disagree with the assessments, but found it curious that reviews would be so scathing of a show whose biggest mistake was in being dull as dirt. (The headlines were pretty snarky and entertaining, making full use of the “She’s so [adjective]” structure to call it all sorts of things, but it did feel like picking low-hanging fruit.)
One explanation might be that the press was having fun tearing down yet another overhyped project from a big star, but I’d argue that She’s So Lovable wasn’t really one of the big buzz projects of the year, nor were the producers particularly big-name. Perhaps the likelier explanation is that there’s a bubbling dissatisfaction with idols-turned-actors in the general populace, and all that pent-up ire was just looking for a target upon which to unleash itself.
Whatever the reason, She’s So Lovable did itself no favors with its choices. One could almost forgive the production for casting Rain to play a fictionalized version of himself (or really, his producer/hyung/mentor JYP) for some meta kicks, and even though she was woefully out of her element, I can sort of see what drove them to cast Krystal in the lead. (I said sort of. If I squint real hard. And if the criteria are an idol star who’s acted before, regardless of suitability for this role.) But they had no chemistry to speak of, and she was so far in over her head that I almost preferred her scenes with L (the nadir of idol-actor castings), because at least then they were on even ground. Rain, bless his heart, did his best to act, but the contrast between what he produced and what his idol co-stars did was downright distracting, and he was best when out of their vicinity.
The story was equally flatfooted, and the dialogue was consistently noted for its ability to make you embarrassed for everybody involved in speaking it. Here’s a question: Did the acting lower the writing, or did the writing lower the acting? Or is that a moot question, because once we got into the downward spiral, all that mattered was that there was no way to save the sinking ship?
Arghhhh, Secret Door. Where did we go so wrong?
This drama had SO much to recommend it, and it kills me. Secret Door came ready-supplied with a gripping, grim, positively lurid story—one that has captured the interest and imaginations of people for centuries. The story of a king who orders his son to voluntarily step into his own gruesome death is epic and fascinating in the utmost—so how do you make a drama about that and let the tension slip right out between its fingers? How is there even a way to make the story of the tragic Crown Prince Sado prosaic?
Secret Door started out with promise—it did have a tendency to inundate us with characters and names and was pretty dense with historical data and politics, but at the core we had the tension between the king and crown prince to drive conflict. No matter how dry the politics got (and it could sometimes peel paint), the drama remained a worthwhile watch because (1) the political machinations were, if sometimes bordering on impenetrable, at least well thought-out and interesting as intellectual exercises, and (2) the emotional undercurrent tracked back to the father-son dynamic, which kept us invested.
But the longer the political chess game went on, the more it felt like the drama was purposely trying to be inaccessible, and the focus shifted away from Yeongjo. (How do you cast Han Seok-kyu and then relegate him to mere snippets of screen time?) That may have been forgivable had the shift occurred to give Sun (Sado) more narrative focus, but instead the drama jumped over to side characters and day players. I won’t even blame the actress swap as the source of problems (even though I found it jarring and unnecessary). That was, if anything, a symptom of bigger issues at play, which was a loss of focus and a drifting from the drama’s emotional center. Namely, you have amazing actors playing out a Shakespearean-level psychodrama, only to dial that down in favor of external factors. Politicking between our main characters was tolerable, but outsourcing that to eunuchs and scholars and outside political agitators? Unacceptab—zzzzzzzzzz.
I don’t think it’s a reach to say that many of us were hanging in there for its ending, to see how the drama would depict the prince meeting his infamous end. Heck, the power of that one scene alone was what got us all to tune in on Day 1—and probably got the drama sold in the first place. So I stuck it out for that ending, only to literally shout at my screen, “That’s it?!” The drama’s ending told us nothing we didn’t already know, and glossed it over in the most cursory way. It’s the equivalent of being stuck in a five-hour gridlock on the highway, expecting to see signs of wreckage or carnage at the crisis point, and finding absolutely nothing but a bunch of cars driving slowly. At that point you just wanna see some blood, okay? Where’s my payoff?
All that said, Secret Door did contain stellar acting, and was in no way a disappointment from a performance standpoint. The plot may have been slow and dense, but every beat was acted with full commitment and gravitas; Park Eun-bin was particularly strong as the terse princess, and Lee Je-hoon was, as ever, commanding and wholly emotional present. Han Seok-kyu took a King Lear-ian approach in his interpretation of a well-known figure, though I might note that it did seem a wee bit studied. But is that all moot in the end? If nobody’s watching, does that mitigate its own impact? If a tree falls in the forest, is there nobody to clap for an act of thespian grandeur?
Joo-won – “Innocente” from the Cantabile Tomorrow OST [ Download ]
Aww, Cantabile Tomorrow. I will readily concede that this drama was not the show I’d hoped it would be, and that I could think of a dozen ways or more to improve it, and that the flaws aren’t even well-tucked out of sight but right there in the open. Even so, I had an overwhelmingly warm-and-fuzzy response to it, and in looking back on the show, it’s the emotionally stirring moments that come to mind, while the clumsy bits recede to the background.
It’s a shame that the beginning was as awkward as it was, because once the show found itself, it was quite sweet and punctuated with a steady stream of heart-stirring moments. The drama undoubtedly suffered from the weight of expectations, which was inevitable given the popularity of Nodame Cantabile, and took a few false steps before figuring out how to make this adaptation work. Attempting to mimic Nodame’s broad comic sensibility was a mistake that the producers thankfully adjusted away from, though it may have been too late at that point to win over people who’d already given up. You can’t blame people from being turned off; it’s always nice, of course, to be given the benefit of the doubt or a second chance, but it’s the drama’s responsibility to make the most of its one shot. So I understand why people dropped off, though it’s too bad that their only encounter with the show was at its worst.
With its easy storytelling flow and understated sensibility, this wasn’t an emotional show, per se, but nevertheless tapped into a vein of feeling. It wasn’t about wringing out sentimentality but in finding a point of resonance with the characters’ feelings; their journeys as musicians mirrored their maturation as people, and tapped into universal experiences of transitioning into adulthood. So it didn’t matter whether you understood the musical references or could relate to the specifics of playing an instrument, because the music was one way of representing a type of growth we can all connect with.
Every so often, it’s nice to get a show that reminds us that we watch dramas that move us and speak to us, regardless of their standing elsewhere. Cantabile Tomorrow was that show for me, and while I can’t quite pinpoint what about its messy alchemy speaks to me, it matters less to me why that’s so, and more just that it is.
Misaeng is the rare example of a drama that came with extremely high expectations and not only rose to meet the challenge but surpassed it. Met with universal acclaim, the drama has managed a remarkable feat and risen to pop-culture phenomenon status while successfully evading some of dramaland’s favorite conventions, like stunt-casting for star power, arranging characters into love triangles or squares or other geometric shapes, and falling back on familiar conflict setups. It is, without question, a stellar production that deserves all of its accolades.
The individual plotlines involving the company’s workings sometimes stir me to impatience at their deliberate pacing, though I don’t doubt that this is an intentional choice; the story is loosely plotted, but don’t confuse that for lacking energy or conflict. The episodes are strung taut with tension, and any appearance of meandering is illusory, disguising a sense of unease that’s always bubbling under the surface, ready to boil over in the form of the corporate crisis of the day. That’s part of its brilliance, in capturing the realities of office culture not only in appearance but also psychologically and emotionally. The directing is masterful in capturing this sensibility—sometimes in words, sometimes in images, sometimes in silence. It’s all the more impressive knowing that the director is doing this working from 2-D images of a webtoon, capturing the feel of the original Misaeng in a wholly new medium.
That doesn’t mean it has to be your favorite show; I recognize that it’s the best drama to come around all year but am not beating myself up about not feeling wildly in love with it. I find it smart and caustic and unbearably realistic at times, but it certainly isn’t a show I’m itching to rewatch—for one, it’s just so depressing. (A Korean article I read called it “the saddest drama without a single sad scene in it,” which is oddly apt.) It makes me feel bleak and a little dull inside after every episode—and is there a way to add “but in a good way” to the end of that thought? Sometimes it cuts a little too close to reality for comfort (and by sometimes I mean all the times), but that sense of discomfort may very well be part of its appeal.
Because nobody’s watching Misaeng to feel great and laugh it up, for sure. I suppose the appeal for much of the viewership is in finding snippets of oneself in Jang Geu-rae, the hapless new hire navigating the maddening politics of the corporate world, which he observes with the clarity (and horror) of an outsider. (Another Korean article cited that 44% of office workers felt they were Geu-rae—a pretty impressive number.) There’s a reason that enduring traumatic events with others elicits bonding, whether in the trenches of war or in the metaphorical minefields of office spaces. We’re all in this together, you sigh with relief to know you’re not alone.
You’ve got to give a show props for knowing exactly what it is and not having an inferiority complex about it. Modern Farmer is intentionally—you could even say aggressively—lowbrow, and whether you find it charming or dumb probably depends in large part your tolerance for that kind of humor.
Admittedly Modern Farmer’s voluntarily vulgar sensibility is not my bag, but I find it harmless and silly enough to follow along. There’s a good-naturedness that I like about the show; I can enjoy that everyone’s in on the joke and working to milk it to its best effect, which helps keep things fun rather than stupid. The cast is willing to do outrageous things for comedy, and I will always admire full commitment, even if it comes at the hands of the hundredth pee joke. (Oh my god the toilet humor. This drama has the joke repertoire of a ten-year-old whose idea of wit involves a whoopie cushion.)
Whether or not you find the humor hilarious or senseless, it would be pointless if the drama didn’t also have a heart, and that’s what saves Modern Farmer from being a throwaway catalogue of sight gags. The characters may spend all day (or night) running around wearing ajumma pants, perpetrating poop gags, being victimized by local wildlife, or singing to their crops, but they’ve also cultivated surprise friendships with the locals and come together in unexpected ways. It’s developed into an ensemble of interconnected relationships, becoming an example of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Modern Farmer may not make for sophisticated television, but if SBS wants to give us more good-humored, upbeat programming in lieu of fraught makjangs, I’m all for it.
Liar Game did something I never thought I’d say: It made math interesting. Fine, I didn’t always follow the mathiness in the show, but it sure spurred me to try, and that is something years of math (and subsequent years of recurring nightmares of math) could not get me to do.
This is a drama whose adaptation merits I can’t judge, having no experience of the originals—but I can say that as a brand-new viewer, I found the show downright addicting. One of my favorite things about it was that because the base concept was so strong, the drama could step away from the usual bin of tropes and take us in directions I wasn’t used to in K-dramas—no need for birth secrets or love triangles when you’ve got so much ground to cover with the Liar Game and its shady background. Rather than trying to guess what would come next, I was content to simply enjoy what was happening without feeling a compulsion to anticipate the next development.
The games did become rather convoluted and following the explanations could be a challenge, but each game was smartly written to draw out key character moments. I assume the credit for that must go to the original creator for coming up with such elaborate games, but I do also think the director deserved credit for finding suspenseful ways of depicting the underlying tension at each stage. So despite the dry rules and complicated qualifiers, the show found a way to follow the contestants’ emotional throughlines, which was a crucial point to keeping us with the characters as they lied and strategized their way through the rounds.
Liar Game also belongs in a minority of dramas this year whose ending didn’t bring about a precipitous drop, thank goodness. As the show headed toward its conclusion, rather than fraying at the seams as so many dramas unfortunately do, it became increasingly evident that Liar Game had been planned with extra care; details that had been tossed out earlier carelessly now came together, giving us an ending that made total sense while still succeeding in surprising us.
Now, all we need is a Season 2…
Birth of a Beauty
Necessary caveat: It’s a bit premature to write a review about Birth of a Beauty since it’s still airing, but I suppose it’ll be too late to cover in next year’s batch. And I’m enjoying it too much to want to skip over it entirely; its screwball antics are a hoot, and the two leads really sell their characters with loads of charm.
The rapport between the couple is the biggest factor making this show a winner for me; Joo Sang-wook turns in another adorable turn as a rom-com hero with a vulnerable dorky side, while Han Ye-seul plays her character with a sweetness with an edge. Together they’re a bit daffy in the cutest way, at first hilariously mismatched and then growing closer the more they see each other’s hearts behind the facades.
The drama’s sense of humor is like a lot of romantic comedies—cute, bold, fast-paced—with a wacky tinge to give it an extra spin. This extra quality goes a long way toward making the show work, because the tone is what’s keeping Birth of a Beauty from sinking into a dramatic angstfest—there are definitely plot points that could be played as aggravating, but are managed by the overall screwball sensibility. It’ll be up to the show to maintain that sense of fun as it tackles its latter half, and I’ve seen too many dramas to count on anything this early. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope for the best, shall we? And if this one crashes and burns, well, someone just might have to start a petition to ensure that Joo Sang-wook comes back with another crazy rom-com. It’s for his own good!
- 2014 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- Santa presents: Things I Learned from Dramaland
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 5: 2013 Editors’ Picks
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 4: Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 3: A Year in Compliment Sandwiches
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 2: I Watched for You
- 2013 Year In Review, Part 1: Cheers to Dramaland 2013
- 2013 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Birth of a Beauty, Cantabile Tomorrow, featured, Gap-dong, God's Gift – 14 Days, Golden Cross, High School Love On, Iron Man, Joseon Gunman, Liar Game, Marriage Not Dating, Misaeng, Miss Korea, Modern Farmer, Secret Door, She's So Lovable, Sly and Single Again, Surplus Princess, Three Musketeers, Trot Lovers, Wonderful Season, year in review, year in review 2014, You From Another Star