[2019 Year in Review] Editors’ Picks
One of my favorite parts of the year in review is seeing which dramas would find champions among the Dramabeans’ staff. This year’s voting was tight, with some victors winning by the tightest of margins (think one-vote differences). Here are the dramas that edged out the competition to top the 2019 Editors’ Picks.
2019 Editors’ Picks
When the Camellia Blooms
tipsymocha: Out of the year’s dramaland offerings, I would never have expected When the Camellia Blooms to have been the success story it was. A story about a young, single mother running an old-fashioned bar is not exactly a buzz-drawing plot, but this show surprised us all with its abundant supply of heart and comedy, endearing us to the nosy but ultimately well-meaning community of Ongsan. And though I adored the central romance involving an endlessly earnest Kang Haneul and the lovely Gong Hyo-jin, the relationships that moved me the most were among the women of this small town. There were some notable friendships forged, acceptance won, and redemption earned for our female characters, who were alternately hilarious, reliable, maddening, and lovable. Specifically, this show was a textbook of the many ways in which mothers fight for, nurture, and protect their children, whether it be against serial killers, social stigma, poverty, or even from their own past mistakes. And that’s what will stay with me long after I stop re-watching clips of Kang Haneul doing his gosh-darn best to court the lady of his dreams.
Search Query: WWW
The Light in Your Eyes
tipsymocha: In a dramascape where attention spans grow ever shorter and an immediate impact is a prerequisite to ratings success, The Light in Your Eyes was an unexpected, daring experiment in delayed gratification, pulled off in large part due to director Kim Seok-yoon’s patient, steady hand.
The director showed us then that he had been holding back all series-long, jam-packing his final hours with the tragedy that life has to offer, sometimes in the words left unsaid, the actions left unacknowledged, or the lives left unlived (in more ways than mere death). But, in the end, director Kim reminds us that even the smallest doses of love and friendship can outweigh the bitterness to make life beautiful, and even possibly, dazzling.
Hotel Del Luna
Search Query: WWW
Laica: If there’s one show that represents the slow revolution in drama writing that’s taken place over the last few years, it’s Search. This show gave us three female characters in all their multifaceted glory and unapologetically centered them in the narrative. It allowed each woman to be an individual while having complex, dynamic relationships with each other, their work colleagues, and their respective romantic interests. Throughout the drama’s run, the pacing and dialogue were perfect with every episode having a distinct theme; yet they all fit into the overarching narrative. We knew these characters and they acted like real people, without ever becoming boring or predictable. What impressed me most about the writing was how it managed to be uniquely, subtly meta. We’ve all enjoyed dramaland’s winking subversions of classic drama tropes, but Search did something smarter: it built these reversals into the narrative, completely rewiring its audience’s expectations. So we saw a central love triangle between friends rather than enemies, and a female lead telling her boyfriend to stop tempting her with his low-cut shirts; we watched the logical fallout of a marriage of convenience between very compatible people. All played brilliantly, refreshingly straight–and it gave us the heroines we deserved all along.
One Spring Night
My Fellow Citizens
Saya: You know it’s going to be fun when Choi Siwon signs up! When conman Yang Jung-gook falls in love with sweet, fierce Lee Yoo-young, only to find out that she’s a police officer, like, a minute after they tie the knot, it sets up the driving conflict of the show: keeping his secret or keeping his love. But it gets REALLY good when he accidentally becomes a national hero, which thrusts him into the public eye, and the crosshairs of neighborhood gangster boss-lady, Park Hoo-ja (Kim Min-jung), who forces him to run for assembly. Jung-gook is a consummate showman and an accomplished liar, and the show takes a satirical bent as it interrogates what little really separates the two professions. After all, what is a politician but a professional conman? It grabs the question by the throat and runs, and Jung-gook’s journey from slick fraudster to sincere politician is as funny and heartfelt as it gets.
Kim Min-jung is the dark horse of the show and an absolute runaway delight. She wants to be bad so bad, but she’s pretty bad at it–all huff with no puff in the most endearing way possible. The best thing about My Fellow Citizens is that it’s never a one-man (or indeed, one-woman) show, even though it could have been. It’s full of dry, sly humour, running jokes and unsubtle gags, but it’s brimming with feeling and that’s what makes these characters really stay with you.
Special Labor Inspector Jo
Her Private Life
BEST ACTION/THRILLER DRAMA
abirdword: Cinematic, mysterious, and gory, the genre mashup Kingdom gave us viewers everything we could want and then some. It managed to thread the extended metaphor of hunger through its plot seamlessly, from the politicians to the masses and the walking dead, all while featuring compelling characters we wanted to see survive. The stellar cast and great writing did not disappoint and Joo Ji-hoon’s portrayal of the beleaguered, morally upright prince fighting for survival gave the audience a relatable hero to root for.
In just six episodes, the show produced so many unforgettable moments that were both visually stunning and horrifying: The soup! The doomed boat ride! The queen’s secret! I knew that I would love historical horror, and I’ve been waiting not-so-patiently for season 2. Cliffhangers and seasons are still a rare occurrence in dramas, and I’m not sure we were prepared for Kingdom’s season finale and all the time we’d have to speculate on what’s next. With twists that turned up in the eleventh hour, we have so many new, unanswered questions, weakening loyalties, and a big battle awaiting. I’m excited for the zombies, but I’m also eager to get more of the court intrigue and class struggles that the first season did so well. Can’t help but give it two enthusiastic severed thumbs up (just not in the soup, please).
Hell Is Other People
BEST HISTORICAL DRAMA
quirkycase: Out of the several historical dramas that aired this year, Nokdu Flower was a clear standout. In fact, I’d say it’s a standout within the genre as a whole. This phenomenal drama centered around the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 which, prior to this drama, I knew nothing about. At its core, this was an epic, moving tale of powerless people fighting for their right to exist and be treated humanely. Everything from the writing, directing, acting, OST and impactful historical backdrop came together to make this a truly unforgettable drama. By no means an easy watch–some of the battle scenes and acts of war were horrific and haunting–it is definitely a worthwhile one. The strong cast of interesting characters (on both sides of the fight) brought this impressive historical movement to life. I was riveted by their stories, both tragic and inspiring, and they’ve stayed with me long after the drama ended. If you’re looking for a well-made historical drama that focuses on something other than the typical Joseon period politics, Nokdu Flower is hard to beat.
The Crowned Clown
My Country: The New Age
Yeo Jin-gu (The Crowned Clown)
SailorJumun: For the first time, the best actor category came to a tie–Yeo Jin-gu and the twin brother I didn’t know he had. Way to go, you two! In all seriousness, stepping into dual roles for a drama is a Herculean task, one requiring intense emotion and versatility. And if you’ve been following Yeo Jin-gu since his child acting days (which, honestly, doesn’t feel that long ago), you know that he gives his all for his characters. He certainly did with The Crowned Clown hero Ha Sun and anti-hero Yi Heon. Yeo Jin-gu molded these doppelgangers into two very different yet similarly powerful kings. He made each one their own person, even with a slight flicker of the eye, and it was at turns quite haunting and moving. Even though I knew that they were both him, I was so into his performance that I was half-convinced otherwise. This unstable, almost monstrous King Yi Heon must have been some look-a-like the casting director just happened to find. To do that then switch back to the sweet, lovable Ha Sun, it seemed impossible for one actor to manage such a duality. But the best acting can trample the impossible.
Kang Haneul, When the Camellia Blooms
IU (Hotel Del Luna)
dramallama: In the enchanted universe of Hotel del Luna, IU delivered a poignant performance as Jang Man-wol, who masked her deep sorrow behind her frivolous and capricious facade. Behind her obsession for extravagance was a history of scarcity; behind her cold erratic punishments was a sense of justice, and IU delicately layered in Man-wol’s mournful history throughout her performance. Despite Man-wol’s unsympathetic nature, IU evoked sympathy for her immortal character by embedding a loneliness and guilt for her past. If My Ajusshi confirmed IU’s penetrating depth of emotion, Hotel del Luna showcased her deep and wide emotional range, which became the centerpiece of the show. And she did it in style, with an eye-catching wardrobe that was incorporated seamlessly with her mood (and food) of the day. I was rooting for her redemption and forgiveness, her next iconic look, and her ability to love herself again.
Lee Na-young, Romance is a Bonus Book
Jang Nara, VIP
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jang Hyuk (My Country: The New Age)
quirkycase: Jang Hyuk’s Yi Bang-won is an example of a great character elevated by a fantastic performance and he stole the scene every time he was on screen. His interpretation of this fascinating historical figure captured perfectly the weight Yi Bang-won carried as he fought to build a new country. His portrayal of the intense king-to-be showed his strength and vulnerability in equal measure, emphasizing his humanity. For the sake of his father, he served as a weapon during the regime change only to be discarded and hated for the brutal acts he committed on the new king’s behalf. His controversial decisions often left him reviled and feared, but it was a price he was willing to pay to usher in a new era. Bang-won’s loneliness and longing for someone, especially his father, to offer even the slightest bit of understanding or acknowledgment of his sacrifices was palpable. I particularly loved his layered conversations with his father and found them more intense than many a battle scene. I know I won’t be forgetting the image of Jang Hyuk’s elegantly ruthless Yi Bang-won with his iconic fan anytime soon.
Lee Dong-wook, Hell Is Other People
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lee Jung-eun (When the Camellia Blooms)
selena: At the heart of When the Camellia Blooms was the tale of a mother who loved her daughter dearly. Lee Jung-eun took us on an emotional rollercoaster as the fierce mama bear of our female protagonist Dong-baek. When we first met Lee Jung-eun’s character, we believed what Dong-baek believed, that Jung-sook was a terrible mother in the throes of dementia. But something always seemed a bit off, and Jung-sook was something of an unknown quantity for a large chunk of Camellia’s run. We were wary of her when her actions didn’t seem to match her words, but our hearts ached when her history and sacrifices were revealed. To be able to evoke such opposite emotions from viewers is not an easy task, but Lee Jung-eun pulled it off effortlessly. Somehow, she could convey a menacing darkness but also a maternal warmth within the span of a few minutes, and in ways that didn’t feel incongruous. Every glance and movement made seemed meaningful–I found myself watching her carefully even if she wasn’t the main focus of a scene. Lee Jung-eun kept us on our toes all the way up until Jung-sook’s full story and true nature was revealed.
Kim Min-jung, My Fellow Citizens
Jeon Hye-jin, Search Query: WWW
When the Camellia Blooms
TeriYaki: One of the marks of a well-crafted drama is a strong ensemble cast, and When the Camellia Blooms spared no effort in creating a cast full of characters who were three-dimensional. The drama starts with single mother who opens a bar in a small village called Ongsan. On the surface, it seemed like a sleepy little place, but just a peek underneath showed that the town was populated with a very colorful bunch of characters. From the lovely lead couple Dong-baek and Yong-shik, to the precocious Pil-gu, and the bright and bold ajumma squad, no character was too minor for the writer’s attention. Ongsan teemed with characters, each as interesting as the next, who felt like they could be people you knew.
It wasn’t just that each character was charming, the strength of this ensemble also came from the interplay and relationships between characters. Dong-baek had a difficult relationship with most of Ongsan’s ajummas, but as Dong-baek went from outsider to one of the crew, we saw her relationship with the ajumma squad change as well. As the drama’s story developed, we came to see the people of Ongsan epitomize the idea of community and the different shapes that community could take on. Every character was well-defined and superbly portrayed, making it impossible to ignore the depth and color they added to the story.
Her Private Life
tccolb: Although Her Private Life was standard rom-com fare in many respects, what made it truly stand out was the romance and relationship between the main characters played by Kim Jae-wook and Park Min-young. The chemistry between the two actors was magnetic and there were plenty of squee-worthy moments for fans like myself, to rewind and re-watch on repeat. I like to think of it as my reward after many years of suffering from Second Lead Syndrome for Kim Jae-wook. However, perhaps more importantly, it was refreshing to see an example of a healthy adult relationship that fans could realistically aspire to. As partners, the two characters treated each other as equals, and there was a surprising amount of maturity in the way they dealt with different issues and how they communicated with one another. I really appreciated how understanding and considerate they were of each other’s perspectives, humbly showing remorse for their own mistakes, willingly apologizing, and readily demonstrating forgiveness. It’s not often that we get to see this level of openness and honesty in dramaland relationships, but hopefully this sets the bar higher for future dramas to come.
Romance is a Bonus Book
One Spring Night
My Country: The New Age
CandidClown: My Country: The New Age was meant to be a sweeping epic narrating Goryeo’s fall and the rise of the Joseon dynasty. And it was. But in truth, it was also the story of two friends, Seo Hwi and Nam Sun-ho. Played by Yang Se-jong and Woo Do-hwan, Hwi and Sun-ho gave us a bromance to beat-all, warming and shattering our poor hearts multiple times over its 16-episode run. Starting out as childhood friends, one was the true-born son of the country’s best swordsman and convicted traitor, while the other was an illegitimate son of a slave and nobleman. They lived in different worlds, and yet somehow, they fit together so perfectly that their eventual–but inevitable–falling out felt like true heartbreak.
As one of the rare dramas where the bromance outshone the romance, the plot and character arcs flowed so well because they were all shaped by this friendship. Yang Se-jong and Woo Do-hwan did an amazing job of imbibing their characters, giving some truly memorable performance. There was real magic in the chemistry between them and the relationship they brought to life. From best friends, to enemies, then reluctant allies, one could never truly abandon the other, even when it seemed like the world itself was pitting them against one another. These boys defied society, familial feuds, politics, and even betrayals from each other, remaining friends until the absolute bitterest of ends. They proved that a country is not a place, but the people who fill it. For the two of them, their country was their friendship, and they gave everything to protect it.
That Psychometric Guy
SailorJumun: The moment we dropped into the living room of Be Melodramatic, the girls and little bro deconstructing their current favorite drama, I knew we were about to experience a beautiful friendship. The girls were instant best buds in college and gradually became a family as they experienced their own good times and hard times. While the show followed three very different storylines–Jin-joo’s drama production, Eun-jung’s grieving process, and Han-joo’s solo parenting–we always returned to the comfort of that living room. And like their favorite dramas, they would talk about their day and deconstruct the heck out of everything, like crossing paths with an ex-boyfriend at work. They couldn’t be together 24/7, but those hours at home were all they needed to recharge and start anew. If someone needed advice, the girls were there; if someone needed a hug, the girls were there; if someone needed ramen at 3 a.m., hell yeah, the girls were there. Who wouldn’t want best friends/roommates like these in the spiraling days of their thirties?
Her Private Life
Eun Dan-oh (Kim Hye-yoon, Extraordinary You)
missvictrix: The best and most memorable characters are usually the ones where you can’t tell where the actor ends and the character begins–and that is exactly the quality that Kim Hye-yoon brought to the wonderful role of Eun Dan-oh in Extraordinary You. I can’t imagine another young actress that could tuck her hair behind her ears and metaphorically stamp her foot in quite the same way. Like many, I fell in love with Eun Dan-oh from the very start. From her flabbergasted outrage that she wasn’t the heroine of her manhwa world, to her dogged determination to fight against her own storyline, what’s not to love about this feisty, take-charge heroine? But it wasn’t just Dan-oh’s spunk and adorability that made this character magical, for me, it was also because of what she represented. Rather than remain stuck in a story where she was sidelined as an extra (with the rather flat character of a terminally ill high school girl pining for the bad boy), Dan-oh was on a mission to be front and center of her own story. The journey for her character, and part of what made it so compelling, was that we got to watch her learn that rather than banging into others’ storylines, becoming more and more herself was the surest way to become a true heroine. *Sagak!*
Kim Hye-ja (Han Ji-min, Kim Hye-ja), The Light in Your Eyes
Mo Seok-hee (Im Soo-hyang), Graceful Family
Seo Moon-jo (Lee Dong-wook, Hell Is Other People)
Sunny: To anyone who happened to catch Hell Is Other People this year, the image of Lee Dong-wook gleefully hacking into a horrified victim has been burned into their minds (and likely nightmares). Seo Moon-jo is a far cry from the type of characters that not only served as the foundation for Lee Dong-wook’s career, but solidified him as one of my favorite actors–but that’s what made his run in Hell Is Other People so satisfying. Lee Dong-wook is the epitome of a romantic male lead and seeing him as the antagonist, brutally attack the “good guys” of the show all while smiling complacently at the audience was so jarring that it gave me chills. The best part of which–there is never a reason given for Moon-jo psychopathy, he’s just crazy for the sake of it and Lee Dong-wook portrayed it so well that it makes you wonder…and that’s the scariest part of all.
Cho Hak-joo (Ryu Seung-ryong), Kingdom
Park Hoo-ja (Kim Min-jung), My Fellow Citizens
Melting Me Softly
missvictrix: Sometimes a drama sounds bad on paper, but is then made into something unique, interesting, and watchable. Sometimes, though, the drama is bad on paper AND in execution, and that’s exactly where Melting Me Softly landed. Winning for Biggest Disappointment is like making a drama wear the Cone of Shame, and I can’t think of a better recipient (sorry, Wookie). Normally when I’m watching a poor drama, I can find something to keep me watching, whether it’s a minor character I adore, or a scene that was staggeringly good. But Melting Me Softly didn’t even have this. As I watched week after week, I felt myself giving up hopes on it doing anything well. But it wasn’t as if the drama made some bad decisions midway and fell flat. Melting Me Softly was bad from the start, and even the first episode told us that it had chosen to tell the wrong story with the wrong tone. And then the wrongness just continued. Rather than tell a story about the emotional and psychological ramifications of being asleep for 20 years (which the cast could have done so well in a different drama), Melting Me Softly instead focused on misplaced romantic attraction, asinine corporate wiles, and core body temperature issues to create its story. The bitterest of disappointment is always about what could and should have been–and that, ladies and gents, is why we have our winner.
LollyPip: I’ve always had a particular soft spot for remakes, and I’ve had the privilege of recapping several of them for Dramabeans. Extraordinary You has turned out to be one of my all-time favorite remakes, both for the fresh way it interpreted the source material, and because it was incredibly entertaining to see all of the familiar tropes we’re used to turned on their heads. The story-within-a-story poked fun at a beloved (and itself often remade) drama in a way that was ridiculous, yet expressed great respect for the original.
The overarching tale was a unique romance between two characters who had very little agency in their lives, yet they were still determined to take advantage of what they could control. Haru and Dan-oh’s story was tragic in a way that’s never been seen in a drama before–their love repeatedly led them to one another across several worlds, and inspired them to fight for the right to be together against an enemy that was both unseen, and unsympathetic to their heartbreak. Though their tale ended in the drama, I know that the original manhwa story is still ongoing. I’m eager to see the similarities and differences in the different mediums, and I’ll be following the manhwa faithfully.
Designated Survivor: 60 Days
Tale of Nokdu
Tags: Be Melodramatic, Editors' Picks, Extraordinary You, Hell Is Other People, Her Private Life, Hotel del Luna, Kingdom, Melting Me Softly, My Country: The New Age, My Fellow Citizens, Nokdu Flower, Search Query: WWW, The Crowned Clown, The Light in Your Eyes, When the Camellia Blooms, year in review, year in review 2019