Five by five in 2015 [Year in Review, Part 3]
So it turns out that the only thing worse than being frazzled to capacity to write twenty reviews at year’s end is forcing a drama addict to choose ONLY FIVE shows to talk about. I’m pretty sure we knew this going in, and I even have vague recollections of saying things like, “Yes! The angst of choosing just five will be the whole point!” I blame the holiday cocktails. I don’t know what we were thinking.
Choosing five shows to represent my drama-watching year was just a new kind of pain. There were clear favorites, of course, but then there were so many that were in that enjoyable-but-not-beanworthy category. And we didn’t want to assign dramas just to avoid redundancy (because writing about what speaks to you is kind of the point), but then I found myself choosing not to write about Healer, for instance, because I knew it would get plenty of love. But that’s no indication of how I felt about the show, because I really did love Healer while it was on, and it remains one of the more memorable dramas of the year for me. I just didn’t think you guys needed to read eight reviews on it. And here I thought The Bean Count was hard.
I waffled a lot on shows like Oh My Ghostess too, which didn’t make the cut because it was neither too aggravating nor too satisfying. It was cuter than cute, but when I look back on that show now, I think: The story left a lot to be desired, and I didn’t really walk away with anything other than Park Bo-young’s performance and a niggling feeling that we never quite answered the who-did-he-really-love question.
In the end, I chose the five shows that spoke to my heart and stuck with me, for better or worse. (Trust me, it can be a bad thing.) In most cases it was my own personal level of addiction that was my barometer: Was I clamoring to find out what happened next? Did it make an embarrassing, blubbering mess out of me? Did I think about it long after it was over, and did it make me remember a bygone first love, or call my mother, or cause me to tweet about my denial over the ending? If it did, then it’s on this list. And because I had to choose five, I decided to describe each drama in exactly five words. Because I like symmetry, and the idea that I don’t have to find a unifying theme among my five dramas other than just wanting to write about ’em.
So here’s my five of 2015 in five. Give or take a few hundred.
SONG OF THE DAY
Oh Hyuk – “소녀” (Girl) [ Download ]
Answer Me 1988 in 5: Mi casa es su casa
This series is still airing, but I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Answer Me 1988 is already my favorite show of the year. But it was a surprise for me at the start, because as the third outing in a well-established franchise, it had a lot going against it. For one, Answer Me 1997 is one of my favorite shows of all time, and there’s something to be said for being the first that makes it irreplaceable. Because there’s a decided lack of originality in taking an idea (a hit idea, to be sure) and recycling it year after year with slightly different characters in the same old who’s-the-husband game. And it’s inevitable that the pace will lag when your episodes are fifty percent longer than the norm. I get it—you want to capitalize on ad revenue and increase your ratings share while your potato is piping hot—it’s not like I don’t want you to succeed. You should have all of the monies. But there’s a narrative price you pay for that, and I’ll always prefer short, zippy episodes that leave me wanting more.
That said, the marked improvement of this installment is that the writer adjusted to the format after Answer Me 1994, and is actually writing to the hour-and-a-half length. And as an upside, we get extended storylines for each member of the four families at the center of the story and a chance to develop them as characters, which is what I’ve come to love most about this series. More than any previous installment of this franchise, 1988 is truly an ensemble piece that focuses on family first. The episodes are primarily about the love between parent and child, siblings, or neighbors. This shift in focus makes the series the most different from Answer Me 1997, which was all about hot-blooded youth and coming of age at a specific time (also, my time, which probably explains my extra love for it). 1988, in contrast, is about the warmth of a community that shares its burdens and its joys with one another, and how they come to form one large family. (And of course 1994 is a mix of both, by bringing a group of outsiders together under one roof as they transition into adulthood.)
1988 is less about growing up in the eighties and more about growing up on one street, though the nostalgia is in the fact that communities like that just don’t exist anymore (if they do where you live, lucky you). At the center of that is the truly enviable friendship between three ajummas, who trust each other with their hardships and share what little they have. And in a dramaland where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet anyone in the middle class, it’s always refreshing to get a slice of the normal pie. I love how true to life and homey the depiction of everyday life is on this street: The moms share food as an extension of their love, and their warmth quite literally gets passed down to the next generation. Proximity is all it takes, but that’s often all it really takes for lifelong friendships to form in real life. I don’t love that we always return to the requisite love triangle crutch (because husband-hunting is apparently the cross this franchise has chosen to die on), but I do appreciate that the community as a whole is what this drama is really about.
And because of that, it’s the most heartwarming of all the Answer Me series, drawing genuine emotion and frequent tears, not from tragedy or melodrama, but from simple, down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness good people who show their love in tiny gestures that mean the world. In fact, it’s the least funny of all the Answer Me shows, and the least developed romantically. But in light of 1994’s hyper-focus on the love triangle and husband mystery to excess, it’s a welcome change in my book. It’s a show that’s familiar, but is no less impressive for what it achieves. It moves me week to week with its small but relatable stories, makes me grateful for what I have, and appreciative of the things my parents’ generation sacrificed. I’m pretty sure Show’s getting a Christmas card from my mother this year.
Awl in 5: And the fight goes on…
I really wish Awl had come around at a different time of year, because I would’ve enjoyed recapping it if it didn’t have to contend with Answer Me 1988 for my time. Because I ended up really loving the webtoon adaptation, about workers at a supermarket who mobilize a labor union and fight for their rights as employees. The premise sounds dry, but the execution is really what makes it stand out. It’s rather brilliantly directed to look like a comic book come to life, and for a drama where the setting is so everyday, it’s fascinating how the visuals can be so dynamic, with sharp, exaggerated angles, tension created wholly through the way a conversation is shot and edited, down to animated sequences to illustrate metaphors. It’s quirky and unexpected, but there’s a beauty to the direction in Awl that makes the whole drama feel assured and the visuals an active part of the storytelling.
It’s a short series at 12 episodes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy watch. The topic is heavy, and the realism is so real you almost want to run away for a while and watch a rom-com, just to feel better about the state of the world. You tell yourself that surely there aren’t companies this terrible in the real world who treat their employees this badly, even though you know this to be true (I mean, it’s actually based on real events). But it’s the kind of story you feel needs to be told, and for that it’s a breath of fresh air in a drama landscape filled with rags-to-riches fantasy tales.
There are things holding it back from being really amazing though, and that’s namely in the writing. The world is filled with really rich characters and a conflict that you can easily get behind (who’s not going to root for the little guy to fight The Man?), but those are benefits of the original source material. The episodic writing didn’t quite match the same quality, because the pace was bogged down by long-winded sequences and an overarching story that moved like molasses in the dead of winter. It builds, and builds, and builds, and builds, and I just wanted to get to the freaking strike already instead of talking about it all the time.
But honestly I stayed because the characterization was so engaging. At every step of the way, everyone got relatable backstories that informed who they were, bolstered by some fantastic acting by Ji Hyun-woo and Ahn Nae-sang and a great ensemble of supporting players. Even the villainous middle manager is made human. My favorite aspect of the show was actually the humor, which sounds a little out of place in an earnest story about workers fighting for their jobs, but the show had this wry, deadpan humor that was pitch-perfect against Ji Hyun-woo’s humorless hero, who only ever says what he means and means what he says, and has never encountered sarcasm before.
Ji Hyun-woo and Ahn Nae-sang played two of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in a long time, each so differently idealistic and noble, and beautifully flawed. The show paints these men as people who can’t help but fight the system, like it’s an affliction that they can’t escape. You start to see how it truly wears them down to carry this burden and fight for others, but also how they’re just not built to be any other way. Awl depicts their story as only one battle among many that workers will face time and again, but it makes you feel just a little bit better knowing that people like them are out there, carrying on and fighting the good fight for all of us.
Twenty Again in 5: Dimples dimples dimples dimples dimples
Er, was that not what the drama was about? I dunno, I kind of think it was. Okay, so Twenty Again was probably more than the sum of Lee Sang-yoon’s dimples. Probably. It’s actually a show that isn’t a standout for any one thing, and yet because it was consistently satisfying and delivered just exactly what it promised, it was one of the most entertaining and solid feel-good shows of my drama-watching year.
I think that’s mostly due to the fact that it had a great friends-to-lovers romance, the kind that wasn’t aggravating due to someone holding out on their feelings for decades. The obstacles for this couple were very real and practical—she’s married, and he has no idea about her impending divorce—giving us a nice setup for comical miscommunication and a chance for feelings to develop very naturally out of a platonic friendship. The romance was a bit juvenile, but then, so were the characters, and that was the fun of it. I had such a good time watching these two characters get all their wires crossed in hilarious ways, and thought how rare it was for misunderstandings not to drive me absolutely batty in a drama. But when they’re written for the sake of heartwarming comedy and not as an easy narrative crutch to drive angst, the result can be so pleasantly entertaining.
In some respects, I found the heroine frustrating for not having taken charge of her life before, but there’s a very real satisfaction in watching her grow—bolder, confident, and self-sufficient, where she was once meek and submissive. I don’t know if it was all Choi Ji-woo (playing to her naturally cute rom-com strengths for once), but I came to be very protective of her character and desperately needed her to live a happy, fulfilling life filled with friends and love and dancing.
I do lament that the story took some missteps (in an attempt to be realistic, I think, which confuses me since the whole drama is total wish-fulfillment) in having the heroine give up her original dreams of dance and college. I wanted that youthful idealism to carry through to the end, screw practicality, and was disappointed that she didn’t follow through on those early goals. I often got angry at the hero too, for assuming that he always knew best, but I found it difficult to stay mad at him for any length of time when he was so selfless about the way he showed his love, and was always the one reminding her of just how awesome she was at eighteen, and could be now.
Overall they’re minor complaints in a show that carried a great balance of comedy and drama, had a well-written female character at its core, and made me envious that I hadn’t run into a cranky manchild who may have secretly been in love with me for twenty years and was just too dorky to show it… yet.
Angry Mom in 5: Mom brings home a puppy
I can really only describe Angry Mom as a lovable mess. It was at times riotously funny and other times frighteningly dark, and was somehow a mistaken identity farce, a conspiracy plot, a youth drama, and a mystery thriller all at once, and none of those things quite perfectly at that. But Kim Hee-sun’s titular angry mom is my favorite heroine of 2015, so I couldn’t leave this show off the list. Sadly it was another drama year where complex and interesting male characters outnumbered the female ones, but Angry Mom stood out as a show with more than one(!) strong, heroic woman driving the action and the story. She was nothing short of badass, as the ajumma who dons a high school uniform to save her daughter and ends up saving everyone.
It was also the drama that satisfied the fish-out-of-water hijinks that a show like Twenty Again never fully achieved (maybe the conflict is just inherently better in high school than in college), and the secret identity aspect provided both comic fodder and bigger dramatic stakes. It didn’t even matter how unrealistic it was for people to think that Kim Hee-sun could pass for a high school student (she’s inhumanly beautiful, but she doesn’t look eighteen), because that was part of the comedy too. I loved everything about how charismatic and strong her character was, and how people naturally followed her lead in any situation and came to love and respect her, school bullies and angry teenage daughters alike.
Besides featuring my favorite heroine of the year, Angry Mom also had my favorite unrequited puppy love, in a litter full of strong contenders. Rookie actor Ji-soo had quite the breakout year in 2015, and he owes it to this character—a bad boy straight out of a teen romance comic, who becomes a pile of mushy goo when he falls for the ajumma-in-disguise. It’s a nice change of pace to get a drama where there’s no central romantic loveline—the mother-daughter love takes the place of that—but we still get a sweet second lead anyway, who ends up with all of the fan love. And as we’ve seen time and again in dramaland, not getting the girl in the end can be the best thing ever for a budding career. It says a lot that in a show that wasn’t about romance, his one-sided love for the awesome ajumma is what stays with me and still puts a smile on my face.
I wish that the execution of Angry Mom had maintained a higher level of quality, because it lacked a cohesive style or tone, and had wonky music cues that kept yanking me out of scenes. They really piled on the extreme circumstances too, where bad things just kept happening to good people, you had as many horrifying villains as any cop procedural, and got a picture of corruption that’s far darker than its premise requires. But as excessive as all that was, it also added a gravity to Mom’s fight for justice that made the conflict richer, and without that, Angry Mom wouldn’t have felt nearly as uplifting or triumphant when the ajumma brought corrupt officials to their knees. It’s a drama that’s not quite as good as you want it to be as a whole, but the characters—from princess gangsters to fraidy-cat teachers—leave an undeniable impression on you long after we’ve forgotten why Mom got angry in the first place.
Who Are You—School 2015 in 5: Young love and bad math
Of all the shows this year, Who Are You—School 2015 definitely made me the ragiest. There were certainly worse shows, or shows I didn’t care as much about; but this one got me addicted, made me care, and then it failed to deliver the closure I wanted for my characters. I was hooked right away on the melodrama-meets-youth-drama premise, about an amnesiac twin who unwittingly takes over her sister’s life. It was beautifully produced and had this crack-factor built into the mistaken identity mystery, doled out in cliffhangers that always left me twitching for the next episode.
But then the drama continued down this trajectory that really confused me. Because you had two twin sisters, a boy who loved one, and a boy who loved the other, and instead of very naturally and easily pairing them off so that everyone was happy, they made the one pairing that ensured that half of them would be alone. It was almost perverse, like the writer just couldn’t take the easy way out and simply refused to give it to us, because… I don’t know… we can’t have nice things?
I think the main problem is really Twin Unni’s lack of development as a fully formed character. She’s an easy plot device, and a great source of mystery to keep us guessing. I know I was dying to find out what she was about. But it’s sad to say that I think that’s all she was—a device meant to give her twin sister a new life—and she was never a part of the equation in a real way. It’s really too bad, because what I had been wanting all series long was for the heroine to gain a sister, not her sister’s life.
What this show really had going for it was a sizzling enemy rivalry between the heroine and a mean girl so vicious she made my blood curdle. And it was due to the gripping performances by young actresses Kim So-hyun and Jo Soo-hyang that I was always riveted, invested, and a little scared. But then the villain didn’t get the resolution I wanted either, which just adds to the growing pile of things this show started well and then just dropped the ball on. Was it just not able to handle the melodramatic stakes it set itself up for? Then why go there at all?
It’s unfortunate that it’s hard to remember the good things (Yook Sung-jae) without the bad things (Yook Sung-jae’s broken heart), or that drawing out the love triangle’s angst took the place of developing the relationship we were supposed to root for. As it was, I finished out the show seriously questioning the heroine’s judgment. Why wouldn’t you pick the guy who saw you for your true self and loved you for being you? Just… why? There are scores of heroines who make all sorts of ill-advised decisions in dramaland, but this one vexes me to this day. And I just don’t think I have it in me to let it go.
How was 2015 for you? Did you discover your new favorite of all time, uncover some underappreciated gems, or have more drama regrets than you’d care to admit? I was seriously impressed at the number of beans people had earned (are some of you secret chaebols, I wonder?) and was inspired to up my game in 2016.
We’ve got many more reviews on the way—minion keyboards are clicking away in a mad dash as we speak—so stay tuned for more year-end goodies all month long!
As always, thanks for making drama fandom the best fandom to be a part of, year after year.
- 2015 Year in Review, Part 2: Giving 2015 a hand (javabeans’ review)
- 2015 Year in Review, Part 1: The Bean Count
- 2015 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 6: Editors’ Picks
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 5: Santa turns over a new leaf
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 4: And the award goes to… (girlfriday’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 3: The art of lie detection (HeadsNo2’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 2: Stocking stuffers for the drama addict (gummimochi’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 1: Omg is it that time of year already? (javabeans’ review)
- 2014 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year