[2018 Year in Review] Thrill me, heal me
“What is a healing drama?” Someone asked me this a while ago, and it wasn’t difficult to give the obvious, glib answer: A healing drama is a drama that makes you feel healed. “They’re like gentle hugs,” I added. But I’ve come to feel that at the heart of that question is a deeper inquiry of what dramas set out to do, and what we want to feel when watching them.
Every drama watched is an investment—of time, of emotion, even of money—and investments demand return. But for the first time in my drama-watching career, I found it a year of slim pickings, and too many dramas I watched left me feeling unfulfilled. Few were actively bad, but blustering mediocrity coupled with one particularly bad element sometimes made a show feel more offensive than perhaps it really was.
Maybe that’s why I finally learned how to drop the ones that were rubbish. It’s the bitter bite of dramaland’s medicine that I first had to learn to recognize my own feelings, and realize that pushing through an unrewarding drama (*cough*Radio Romance*cough*) was not some kind of worthy exercise in personal development—ironic for a person who has a chronically hard time finishing all the things she starts. It’s weird how hard it was to understand that that heavy feeling and the accompanying anger (“Why isn’t this show getting better?”) were symptoms of the obvious: boredom.
To be honest, the end of last year found me in something of a drama-existential crisis: Having become a thriller-junkie some years ago, was I capable of enjoying anything else? Could I enjoy a romance if it didn’t involve murder and/or mystery? Or at the very least, some rapacious, rascally revenge? Was there something… wrong with me? (Don’t answer that.)
Happily, the crisis was brought to an end of sorts with last year’s Temperature of Love (which no one loved but me, lols)—a romance, wholly romance, and nothing but a romance. The fizzing high it gave me grew into a springboard to wean myself off thrillers and reintroduce myself to gentler genres.
My year began with I’m Not a Robot, and it’s remained my incomparable runaway favorite show of 2018 without any competition (I should’ve given it ALL my beans). In the drama, a reclusive and lonely chaebol who suffers from an allergy to humans (Yoo Seung-ho) strikes up an unlikely relationship with a super-advanced humanoid AI robot (Chae Soo-bin), who is in fact a human pretending to be a robot.
It’s a brilliant work on so many levels, setting up as a modern fairytale, with all its attendant symbolism, finely-tuned visual metaphors, and social commentary. Yoo Seung-ho is both Beast and Prince, living in a house of cards destined to come tumbling down. When she’s not a robot, Chae Soo-bin is an entrepreneur with a dreamer’s heart. She’s resourceful and ambitious, and works hard to negotiate her own space, and her right to exist in a world with little room for her unusual ideas.
The show’s stratospheric highs were purchased with dashing lows and some truly exquisite angst—and I hate angst! Yoo Seung-ho came to us an already-broken hero but the show wasn’t afraid of breaking him again, and that’s some fierce dedication to healing: It has to get worse before it gets better, right? Robot joyfully inverts familiar tropes, resulting in a self-determining heroine who saves her prince, a hero who learns how to be a human from a
robot fauxbot, and a rich world full of people you care about, all while being deliciously funny, touching and painful.
We know Yoo Seung-ho so well as a dramatic actor, but I just love that through this show, he revealed a heretofore-unknown gift for comedy, particularly at his own expense, and I sincerely hope it’s all we’ll see from him for the next few years. Do you hear me, dramaland?
Broken heroes are no rarity in dramaland. If anything, they’re our favorite type. Best of all, we know the story will resolve around their remaking. But broken heroines? That’s a much scarcer breed, and nobody did it better this year than Shin Hye-sun in Thirty But Seventeen.
On waking up from a thirteen-year coma, her character Woo Seo-ri has to confront not just a changed world, but her own lost time, and the loss of everyone she ever knew. Isn’t that the cruellest form of time travel? She ends up latching onto Yang Se-jong, the man she finds living in her old house.
Before the show aired, I worried about how a romance between a 30-year-old man and a seventeen-year-old-girl-in-a-30-year-old-woman’s body would be packaged, and could it even be done without being… creepy?
The answer is yes. The show finds both protagonists in urgent need of healing and maturing, and it navigates its potential problems with surprising sensitivity. Yang Se-jong presents as a barely functional adult, locked in a state of arrested emotional development. He has true connections to only a very small handful of people and acutely fears having more, which makes what grows between him and Seo-ri such a lovely, tender thing, as each finds helps and healing from the other.
The early stages of Seo-ri’s recovery also give rise to some of the most tragicomic scenes of the entire show, which you laugh through only because the alternative is to cry. It’s as painful as it is desperately funny, and doubly moving because Seo-ri’s unwavering optimism at times can trick you into forgetting how hurt she is beneath it, and how hard she’s working to catch up to the 30-year-old self she wants to be. She ends up fashioning not just a family around her, but a fandom—of people who love her and would go to hell and back for her.
Though they share some similarities, this show felt quieter and more introspective than Robot, focusing on the small, everyday aspects of ordinary people finding their way, and learning to recover from trauma. It’s a quality that makes their journeys, especially Seo-ri’s, feel so intensely relatable, personal and ultimately cleansing, for them and for us. This show was not without its flaws, but it offered healing of the purest sort: the affirmation that life is worth living. It told us that it’s alright to spend some time in the space in between while you find your direction again; the intermission is also part of the show.
The only other heroine who can hold a candle to the rosy flame of Woo Seo-ri is You Who Forgot Poetry’s Woo Bo-young (Lee Yubi), maybe the most lovable woman in all dramaland this year, and the face that launched a thousand shippers (not to mention 1x Motorcycle of Humiliation). But whether you were a Ye-liner or otherwise, we all agreed that those were just ways to root for our ultimate ship, which was Bo-young herself.
Bright without being trite, she won me over again and again with her endearing transparency, emotional honesty, and an unfailing talent for endlessly embarrassing herself. Best of all, our poetry-loving heroine didn’t fall prey to the trope-machine, and the show took genuinely unexpected forks in the service of her agency and the choices she made for herself. It’s interesting from a storytelling point of view, and some might argue it didn’t quite work, but I love how committed it was to centering her, and that outweighs any other uncertainties for me.
Poetry never set out to be a medical drama, and it came in with the same low-key note as Thirty But Seventeen but from a reversed perspective, putting the focus on the staff of a hospital physiotherapy department—a team you can imagine might have been the very ones rehabilitating Seo-ri. (Shh, this is the reality I’ve decided on… oooh, maybe the Woo girls are long-lost sisters with a birth-secret… dramaland is a small place, anything is possible!)
From hospital to airport, Fox Bride Star was another drama which set out to tell a healing story, but ended up not quite landing for me (har), though I really loved it at points. It suffered from inconsistent writing and couldn’t fix on what kind of story it wanted to tell, ultimately not delivering on any of them. Lee Je-hoon’s hero spends the majority of the drama refusing to confront his deteriorating condition and makes a slew of self-destructive choices which I felt were never really adequately explored.
Acceptance is so vital to healing, but the show never really took his character there, which is a shameful waste of an opportunity for a drama that was so nearly on the verge of doing something meaningful, if they had just allowed their hero to exist in his real condition, without augmentation devices—not to prefer death to being disabled, nor to come back magically cured. Instead, a stubborn ableism underscores the trajectory of his character and struggles, leaving us with a dismaying set of real-world problems in its representation of disability, and a brutal parting message that heroes can’t come in wheelchairs.
That’s what makes I’m Not a Robot even more precious for not “curing” its hero, but teaching him how to live with his condition “like a lifelong friend.” It offers a philosophy of illness that is comforting and rounds it off by making sure we know that being disabled is no sin, and that a cure has components that go beyond the pharmaceutical to things like having a rock-solid support system and friends who won’t let you fall. (You were in the wrong Chae Soo-bin dramaverse, Lee Je-hoon!)
We can’t talk about healing without talking about hurting, and I have not been so burned by a drama this year as I was by Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food. The show lures you in with what turns out to be a false promise, turning the perfection of the early episodes into a poisoned chalice. We were treated at first to a nuanced examination of sexism, sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo zeitgeist. We watched adult children claiming back their autonomy from their parents; of taking risks with changing cherished long-time relationships. All of it was drawing together towards an inexorable, rightful conclusion… until it suddenly wasn’t. Pretty Noona comprehensively and cynically violates the creator-viewer contract, reneging on itself so thoroughly that I find it nothing short of viciously insulting. It was a viewing experience so crippling that this many months later, I’m still unbelievably angry about it.
To soothe that burn with the consolation that it’s at least realistic (and thus all the cleverer for intentionally subverting our expectations) is a line of reasoning I find somewhat disingenuous; it lays the blame on the viewer for being naive, rather than the writer for making a dog’s dinner of it. But for all its technical storytelling problems, what’s really toxic is the insidious narrative it leaves us with.
In the real world, we don’t control the whole story; we don’t get to write better endings for ourselves. It’s so damn hard to be a woman, as the show never lost an opportunity to remind us. In that world, in that fictional world at least, give us justice. If you give us the disease, give us the cure. That’s the whole point—a point that Your Honor, at least, followed through on, with Lee Yoo-young’s trainee lawyer. She fights back, not just against a predatory and powerful senior, but a rigged system that closes ranks against her the moment she speaks up. It’s not that she isn’t punished (she is), but she’s steadfast and doesn’t fold despite her soft-spoken nature, and that’s what makes you love her.
Healing requires change. Pain and provocation provide the means for it, and growth is the result—but not, apparently, for pretty noona Yoon Jin-ah (Sohn Ye-jin). No matter how much pain she went through, she remained resolutely unchanged—such a far cry from the tenacious, hard-won progression of our other heroines. To go through the life-cycle of your character and not evolve one bit? That’s a tragedy. And that’s what Pretty Noona ultimately is—a tragedy with nothing to redeem it.
Pretty Noona is the perfect example of a profound failure of justice, and that brings me right back around to why I watch thrillers. Thrillers offer a special kind of healing: They deliver justice in a way real life doesn’t. It’s also why a good revenge melo has so much power over me. Time looked like it was going to be the new Secret (they share a writer, after all) until it lost Kim Jung-hyun, and with him, its electric spark.
My thrillers this year comprised a mix of the dark, the light and the trippy, and my favorites came in at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the darker side, Sketch was a police thriller revolving around one detective’s supernatural ability to draw crime scenes before they occurred. It proved a gripping study of what makes an anti-hero, charting the choices that lead our characters to slide into villainy, along with their attempts at redemption, and the often grim consequences of their choices.
At the lighter end, I nearly broke my face grinning through Lawless Attorney, which sees Lee Jun-ki and Seo Ye-ji team up in an equal, respectful, badass partnership that was actually better than their romance. This is Lee Jun-ki at his smirking, snake-charming, action-hero best, the likes of which we haven’t seen for years. Oppa! I hereby officially forgive you for Criminal Minds.
The story isn’t necessarily new, but it’s smart, cheeky and flamboyant, seasoned with a dash of heartwarming gangster-bromance. It delivers some great character beats, especially for its restrained, atypical arch-villain—a female judge who rules over her town with a velvet-gloved iron fist, played by Lee Hye-young, who also gave us a complex performance as family matriarch in Mother earlier in the year.
In the trippy department, I feel a little embarrassed that Life on Mars wasn’t as sticky for me as it was for everyone else. I’m convinced I’m missing something and I hope you guys can tell me what. Perhaps it’s because I never quite fully made sense of the end? Though Jung Kyung-ho plays an intense, slightly fey hero, which I ordinarily love, he remained emotionally out of reach for me, and I mourned the life he seemed to leave without living.
Heal. That’s what most dramas set out to do, one way or another. These are harsh times in the real world, and many of us go to dramas to find relief: It’s escapism at its most altruistic. But dramas also hold up a mirror to the world outside, creating a distilled version of reality through which we can interpret our own experiences, and that’s another type of healing altogether, especially when shared with all of you. I hope you guys will share below what you found thrilling and healing in 2018! ❤️
Though I spent less time recapping this year (sob), I tried lots of new things, made new drama-friends, and had fun with you all on the fanwall and in drama watch-alongs. I even figured out how to do that twitter thingy! But the cherry on my chocopie of drama-awesomeness is a tie between a K-drama sleepover with Beanies, and getting to meet the legendary @odilettante in person!
Thank you everyone for making it a great year—let’s play again next year! In the meantime, I leave you with the wise words of your favorite long-legged nephew: Don’t think, feel!