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[2019 Year in Review] The year the potted plant died


Graceful Family

By ChinguMode

There’s some debate on the quality of 2019 as a drama year but, from my perspective, this year was a great drama year.

Why?

Because with some rare exceptions, this year was almost potted plant free. The promise we saw in last year’s dramas – with its emerging set of female leads who had agency and used it – was brought to fruition in 2019 with drama after drama sporting amazing women, not just in lead roles but also as the supporting cast and even villains.

It’s true that 2019 had a somewhat inauspicious start with the Memories of the Alhambra, which subjected us to a female lead who was both a nonplayer character (NPC) and a slightly wetter NPC. And yet, when you cast your mind back over 2019 you’re going to find it difficult to name another potted plant. Not only was there a noticeable uptick in the number and variety of women with personality and agency this year, there was a decline in Candies generally.


Search Query: WWW

2019 was a good year for…whatever the opposite of potted plants are. Which is to say, women just being women in all their forms. In fact there were so many that I guarantee by the end of this piece you’ll have several more to name that I haven’t mentioned. And they’re not just romantic leads and love interests. They’re professionals, they’re supporting and supportive second leads, they’re flawed, they’re rude, and they’re even villains. They’re everything we are.

If anything, this year is notable for giving us the first male potted plant: Best Chicken’s Park Choi-go. Played by Park Sun-ho, this character was pretty, pleasant, resilient, loyal, and cheerful from beginning to end. He started the show with a chicken restaurant and ended it…with a chicken restaurant. Oh, and a girlfriend, which was the entire point of his narrative arc. Best Chicken is not going to win any awards, (most people probably forgot it existed) but with the female lead getting all the character growth and conflict while the male lead sat there being stoically cheerful, it has one thing that will go down in the history books.

I guess I should start calling a male potted plant a chicken. Let’s see if that one takes off.

Basically, from the awesome Veronica Park and the vigilante secretaries in The Secret Life of My Secretary to the amazing, complex, flawed women in SKY Castle, and the unprecedented female-oriented drama Search Query: WWW, 2019 was the Year of the Women. Hear them roar.

My Strange Hero


My Strange Hero

The new year may have opened with tail end of the Memories of the Alhambra, but we also got my abrasive, tsundere darling, Sohn Soo-jung. Flawed and defensive with a warm heart waiting to be melted by her Candy ex-boyfriend Bok- soo, Sohn Soo-jung would have been a male character in literally any other drama before this year. But then along comes this joyful flower-strewn show about a man named revenge trying to get revenge despite being utterly incapable of getting revenge. Bok-soo may have been adorable, and watching this show may have been like drowning in marshmallow, but Soo-jung was allowed both to be a heroic female lead and unlikeable, inflexible, bad-tempered, and capable of making mistakes. It was a gender subversion that made the show a delightful little gem and it made way for more dramas about emotionally intelligent men being the heart while their girlfriends get the narrative arc.

Graceful Family


Graceful Family

If I had to pick another name for 2019, it would be Makjangtastic as we saw not one, but two crazed makjangs that seemed to take the genre to new heights of crazy. These steroid-boosted makjangs had one thing that older versions of the genre did not – female leads with true agency who were given permission to win through their wits and hard work. Graceful Family’s Mo Seok-hee is a badass chaebol heiress who returns to Korea after a period of exile in the United States. Her goal is to solve her mother’s murder and get revenge on her dysfunctional family with the help of a genuine, sweet, and down-to-earth lawyer, Heo Yoon-do. The female lead is clever, entitled, bitchy, manipulative, but warm-hearted and the male lead is delightfully beta. And, oh yeah, Seok-hee doesn’t just defeat the bad guys. She annihilates them. And she does it by just being smarter, more motivated, and never backing down.

My Fellow Citizens


My Fellow Citizens

From kickass cops to con artists to loan sharks, this brilliant mid-year romp had so many female characters and all of them different, well-developed and as equally capable of being heroes, villains, flawed protagonists and beloved anti-heroes. Like a lot of similar shows, the love interest of our hero was kept in ignorance too long in the service of plot, but it hardly mattered when the drama had so many other female characters waiting in the wings. And what characters, Kim Min-jung stole the show with her brilliant, impatient, and entitled loan shark: Park Hoo-ja. By the end, you’re not just hoping that Jung-gook wins, you’re hoping Hoo-ja does as well. Her battle against her oldest sister mirrors Jung-gook’s battle against political corruption to the extent that you’re almost sad that she has to lose in order for him to win. My Fellow Citizens never discounts any of its female characters and will have you cheering on the antagonists as much as the leads.

In my 2018’s year-end piece about potted plants, I wrote that in 2018 there were a significantly larger number of women with purpose and agency, and who were genuinely the hero of their own stories. I noted that this boded well for 2019’s dramatic fare.

As we end this year and head into 2020, I can only say that my expectations have been exceeded. This truly was the year the potted plant died. Long may it continue.


The Secret Life of My Secretary

 
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This is a wonderful write-up, @leetennant!

2019 is indeed the year of WWW: women Women WOMEN!

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Yes, looking back we had such great female characters throughout the whole year. It was really noticeable and I hope we get the same in 2020 - or even better.

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@leetennant
OMG. I so hope 2020 is better. Because for me this was like a sugar hit. A big change (shock to the system) but not overly substantive.

I also hope next year you get to continue this theme of posts (last years and this one). Because where are we going when SKDramas with its predominance of female audience and significant female writer fraternity to only now start getting this version of female characters - FINALLY.

I think there is very dark moment of reflection somewhere in that - but I suspect not many will want to look too closely.

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*nodding in agreement*
great post !

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Thanks and thanks for commenting.

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Yes. Love this. Such a good year. It's why I love Catch the Ghost so much.

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I have been reading your comments on Catch the Ghost and its female lead. I haven't been watching many dramas lately but have loved how passionate you get about this character and this show.

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Congratulations LT!!! All hail women in all their forms.

My favourite of 2019 is Jaehee in Perfume. She was never a pot plant from the get-go, her husband cheated on her and she immediately told him in his face what a jerk of a human being he is. Unfortunately depression got to her and she spiralled into a point of no return at the beginning. She was centered and kind. She tries hard but as she said society is not as accepting as she wants them to be, looks and physique unfortunately does comes first to some, wether we admit it or not. So for her to realize the main point is to love herself and see herself in a warmer light, take the time to think and build her own world with herself as the center was amazing. Her growth and how she blossomed throughout the series was one of the highlights of my dramaland in 2019.

To more leading ladies in 2020! And most importantly: to more diverse roles for actresses who does not fit the normal kdrama beauty standard!!ย 

Ps: I hope Ha Jae Suk will get bigger roles. I believe Jaehee was her meatiest role to date and she was amazing. She really glowed and shined in the series, I wanted more ๐Ÿ˜†.

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Ah, yes, Ha Jae Suk! She's so good in everything she does, I want her to have more roles too. I didn't see Perfume this year but am definitely on board with great actors who don't fit insane beauty standards getting more parts.

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Yes, yes, yes to more Ha Jae-suk. I would love her to do a drama that utilizes her diving skills. I think that could fantastic.

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Yay it's published @leetennant
Congrats ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰
I'll start reading it now

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LOL, have you read it yet?

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I just finished ๐Ÿ˜…
It's great I love it , congrats again ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰

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@leetennant This was incredible! Iโ€™m so glad you mentioned Sky Castle ๐Ÿ™Œ

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Yes I loved the female characters in Sky Castle. Even though romances are the ones that usually have the problem. I think Sky Castle was also of note due to the sheer volume of female characters and how different they all were.

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SOOJEONG SOOJEONG SOOJEONG!!!

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BOKSOO BOKSOO BOKSOO

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I love your single minded commitment.

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Great piece @leetennant.

It makes me so happy that there are quite a few characters that I could add to your list!

My own favourite tsundere heroine was Shin Hye-sun's kick-ass ballerina in Angel's Last Mission. And yes, I also loved Hoo-ja in MFC. She made that drama.

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Shin Hye-sun was fabulous indeed,

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I think Shin Hye-sun's character on Angel's Last Mission was amazing and her transcendent performance was a big part of that. It's a shame it was in a drama that people weren't happy with. I think she should get all the gongs. Or at least a good chunk of them.

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Shin Hye-sun's performance was worthy of a Daesang- which she will not get because the show was fundamentally flawed. I am not just saying that because she is my favorite actress.

ANGEL'S LAST MISSION was one of my favorite dramas this year DESPITE its serious flaw- the writer's attempt to mesh together two fundamentally different world views: A Judeo-Christian (and explicitly Roman Catholic) one and the Traditional Religion/Buddhist one that was so very well shown in GOBLIN, THE GREAT AND LONELY GOD. This was such a fundamental error that it rendered much of the plot unintelligible.

What made the drama work was the extraordinary if not absolutely luminous performance of Shin Hye-sun and the astonishingly, surprisingly good performance by M. Angel Dan was also a strong character - a strong male character but strong in a different way than most K-drama strong male characters. He has a valiant heart- one of the themes of the whole show was Dan's absolute refusal to be a male "potted plant" or 'Chicken': he is willing to even defy God on this, because it was, after all, God's decree that he be a potted plant. Meanwhile, the second male lead, played by Lee Dong-gun, was a strong but morally weak male character who fit more into the more standard K-drama strong man image.

It was significant to me that this K-drama celebrated a male character who was a strong heart rather than strong in other ways. Dan had as much courage as any other K-drama male lead. Actually more: it takes an absolute level of courage to defy God Himself for the sake of your love. This story was not just some male-lead-overcomes-childhood trauma to find True Love story. It was about having the courage to love- and that is why Dan was the title character.

So, after giving this essay and your comment some real thought here is what I hope for in 2020 (besides another great comedy like PEGASUS MARKET): I do not want a return to Strong male leads and potted plant female leads. Nor do I want Strong female leads and 'chicken' male characters, however nice they may be. What I want is strong female characters and strong male characters as well. However flawed the plot was (and this was the writer's fault) that was what we got in ANGEL'S LAST MISSION. Imagine what we could have had were it not for the writer's mistake. I hope that some K-drama writer or writer's will give us that in the coming year. Strong Male/Strong Female leads could give us some truly memorable stories.

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I am in the portion that thought this year was a little lackluster compared to last year, but you're right, it was certainly better in regards to the women problem. I had four favourites this year (one being Bok-soo) and they all had wonderful female characters. Spring Night had three sisters fighting against the oppression of a controlling Patriarch. Be Melodramatic is about three (no, four) working women with big beautiful personalities; they are already friends, but the drama sees their working lives overlap too as they all become involved in one project. And of course, Haru Found by Chance had my heroine of the year Eun Dan-oh, characterised first and foremost by the fact that she spits in the face of the weak feminine fiancรฉ stereotype that her character is supposed to be. She is agency incarnate! (Well, at least until the drama derailed and had her tossed around like a ragdoll, but I'm trying to forget that.)

Up until this year - and it's a horrifying statement - I could not think of a SINGLE drama where I liked the heroine more than the hero. I'm really glad that's changed.

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It was the same for me. I feel so good that it's not true anymore.

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The sisters in Spring Night were awesome.

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The sisters and the mother. They were amazing.

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Be Melo is obviously getting all the love from this year so I will definitely watch it at some point. That's good to know about Spring Night.

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Yes yes yes yes, please! I remember how you'd decided not to watch it, and I was sad because I thought you would enjoy it.

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Until someone pays me to watch dramas I'm going to have these Hobson's Choices unfortunately. Too few hours in the day! But I'm about to watch Be Melo and will consider watching Spring Turns to Spring as well.

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I've actually been considering Spring Turns to Spring for a while myself! I remember that @mindy quite enjoyed it.

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Spring is completely ridiculous but if you buy into its completely zany humor it's a really fun, wild ride

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Up until this year - and it's a horrifying statement - I could not think of a SINGLE drama where I liked the heroine more than the hero.

Last year in Mr. Sunshine, I loved Kim Min-jung the most over Yoo Yeon-seok, Byun Yo-han, and Lee Byung-heon.

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Kim Tae-ri was pretty awesome too!

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The women in Mr. Sunshine kicked ass including Kim Ji-won in her cameo and the character Hong-pa.

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Aw yes, I forgot how much I loved that cameo. It's a shame Descendants of the Sun glorified the heroes so much, because the heroines were pretty cool themselves.

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Great write-up, @leetennant. And may I add 2 more dramas to this list: Nokdu Flower and A Beautiful World. Both are full of complex and complicated women with agency, spanning from heroine to villain and also pragmatic human beings who was allowed to make mistakes and learned from them.

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Yes to the women in A Beautiful World (and to several men who supported them)! I didn't see Nokdu Flower because I have a very low sageuk tolerance.

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I agree with everything and would like another wonderful women ensemble VIP, all the ladies were wonderfully written and fully fleshed till the very end.

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Thanks for the rec, I hadn't picked up any dramas. It's good to know that VIP had good female characters.

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And they didn't went for typical fairytale ending too, but still very satisfying and true to character's journey.

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I agree with most of this, but I have a little bone to pick regarding BEST CHICKEN (not that anyone remembers it probably, haha). The male lead not a passive guy with no character arc. He left a life of privilege and a comfy desk job to follow his dream of opening a chicken restaurant. Usually weโ€™d cheer at such a display of independence. The drama portrayed his struggles, and how with a whole lot of luck and his sweetness he finally won over the girl who tried to ruin his business again and again. The ending of the drama fell completely flat- it was terribly weak. But overall I thought it was refreshing to see a nice hard-working guy as the lead, who also served as a good foil for the brash female lead. The usual roles were inverted, as you pointed out.

Bok-Soo did this too, and much better. Maybe we could say it was also the year of the Beta Male Lead.

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One scene really stuck with me from Best Chicken (the rest is a blur). In a lot of these dramas, the writer at some point just doesn't know what to do with the female character so she puts her to bed. The male lead tucks her in and then she sleeps while he goes out and does plot. In Best Chicken, it was the other way around - the male lead got tucked into bed and the female lead went out to Do Plot. The whole drama was like that. I agree I kind of liked having a male lead who just wanted to own a chicken restaurant. But everything else - including him reforming and ending up with the bad-tempered lead who was trying to destroy his business - was a role-reversal. By the end, the show's whole thing was him cheerfully enduring while she did things. So I do think he was a pot plant. I'm not saying it was a bad thing though.

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I think that it was a bad thing that he was a potted plant.

I too watched the entirety of BEST CHICKEN - and also found the ending very flat. The male lead should have been portrayed as a stronger character- and if he had then the romance would have been far better. A much stronger plot would have been possible. When I finished BEST CHICKEN I was left wondering why I wanted to watch it. So I hope that male 'chicken' characters do not become a thing- it makes the story weaker.

Could I point out that often in the good rom-coms where the female is portrayed as a potted plant she really is not- and part of the drama hinges on the strong male character coming to appreciate her actual strengths. Or she starts out as a potted plant but becomes a very strong woman at the end (see FATED TO LOVE YOU for a classic story where this is the central theme of the drama).

Potted plants that simply stay potted plants, male or females, are simply not that interesting. If anything, in BEST CHICKEN we had even worse- our originally adventurous male lead starts strong but is transformed into a male potted plant at the end. No wonder it seemed flat.

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The drama chickened out at the end, I agree, doing both the leads (and viewers) a disservice.

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My theory is that because of low ratings, the network pulled BEST CHICKEN early so the ending was rushed to a conclusion. I thought the ensemble cast worked well together. I enjoyed the show.

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This was great. I loved all these dramas and the women in them. @leetennant, I remember your love for my strange hero. Yasss, to the end of potted plants.

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I agree, potted plants have had their day I think. Be a Candy if needs be but have some agency. I'm glad I struggled to think of one from this drama year. Usually it's the other way around and I struggle to think of female characters I could sympathise with and invest in.

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Congratulations!! This is a great write up!
I really enjoyed Bo-mi's character in Spring turns to Spring, she is so determined and unapologetic about her desire to become a news anchor. She doesn't let anyone stand in her way and ignores what her peers or society thinks about how she should behave to achieve her goals. It was so refreshing to see a female character like that on screen as this trait is usually given to the male character and no one cares about it.

I had forgotten about the great characters we got to know this year, thank you for shouting them out. I hope 2020 brings us more dramas led by complex, interesting female characters.

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Thanks, Ayaan. So many people have mentioned Springs Turns to Spring in response to this piece that I regret not live-watching it. Thanks to this piece I have quite a long list of watches to fit in between Christmas and New Year. Time for some serious drama watching.

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The female historians in Gu Hae Ryung all had agency as well. I enjoyed the change from them being taken advantage of, to being part of the solution, being resolute in their calling. But yes, we had a lot of strong females this year! Congrats on another compelling write up.

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When it came time for me to pick up dramas again in the back half of this year, I picked up Tale of Nokdu. And then I just didn't feel like watching more than one sageuk at a time so I'm afraid that Rookie Historian was one I missed. Tale of Nokdu was a drama that had a plethora of female characters, in all walks of life, shapes and sizes. It's good to hear that Rookie did too, since sageuks have traditionally had a problem with female agency and this means there were two this year that defied that.

I had my issues with Tale of Nokdu at the tail end but I still would have included it in this write up if I'd had space. The days of a single female lead surrounded by men seem to be over too.

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Agree with you @ally-le about the ladies of Rookie Historian. I was thinking about all the dramas I watched this year and I kept coming back to them.

I will even add VIP to the list of ladies with agency.

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I think what I like the most is that, as you said, we didn't just have good female lead characters, we had good female characters. Whether they were good, evil, or just plain complicated, it was gratifying to see women having full complex storylines, backstories, and relationships that didn't wholly revolve around some romantic alliance with a man. Is the delusional second female lead now a thing of the past? I hope so. Let's have more Veronicas. Let's have villainous women who aren't motivated by something to do with a man, but rather want good old fashion money and power. Like you @leetennant, my hope for 2020 is even more agency and purpose, and less pointless tears and wrist grabs.

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Also, as always, this is great.

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๐Ÿ’

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Thank you for reminding us of the awesome female centric dramas. I would like to add Secret Boutique to the list. Kim Sun Ah and Jang Mi Hee are great in this, and the main part of the story. The male leads are mostly in supporting roles and were not even there in the last episode!

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Kim Sun-ah is such a class act, isn't she? She was so amazing in Children of Nobody this year and I wanted to pick up Secret Boutique when it started but just didn't have the time. It's second on my list after Be Melo for 2019 shows I want to catch up on.

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I've loved Kim Sun Ah since MNIKSS. She never disappoints. Children of Nobody is another gem. Secret Boutique has its flaws, but it is not hers.

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LOL at that screen cap of Picasso's funeral. I loved how ridiculous that scene was. Graceful Family and Search WWW are two of my favorites from this year. Great female characters!

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Picasso's funeral was the best funeral for a fish in the whole kdramaland! (A sentence I never thought I'd write)

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Best funeral for a fish or best funeral period.

Because I am gonna for with period.

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As this was the year of very little drama watching for me, I missed most of these.
Thank you for your well written essay, LT. I enjoy reading your comments and hope to watch a few of these shows.
ร€ funeral for a fish?!
I better start watching right away. This kind of crazy looks awesome...

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Graceful Family: watch it.

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I know this was my annual piece about agency and Seok-hee was an awesome female lead. But I honestly spent so much of that show just shipping hard. I didn't ship anything as hard this year as I shipped Kermit and Miss Piggy.

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Graceful Family and Never Twice have my favorite ships this year.

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I've been watching Never Twice since it started and I feel very lucky to have found it.
I will start Gracious Family right away. You have always given me good advice, egads...!

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Agree. This year was the year of the women taking the lead in k dramas.There were so many dramas that focused in more of depth of the female characters and their growth.
It is good that k-dramaland is increasing women centric dramas and every all these actresses shined in their portraying their respective characters.
My personal favourites are all the actresses in Sky castle, Shin hye Sun in love angels mission, Lee Na young in Romance is a bonus book, Kim Hye yoon in Extraordinary you and WWW: Search query actresses.

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I keep mentioning Shin Hye-sun because Angel's Last Mission was a really ordinary drama and so I think her performance is one that people overlook. She was extraordinary and even though she'd had good, meaty roles before (and leads too) I really think this was her breakout performance.

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Great write-up @leetennant!

After all the Candys we've seen, this year made me closely examine the female leads of the dramas I've watched. Dropped MoA when all the wetter NPC did was cry each ep (although I did ff the last 4 eps last week).

Anywaaaays >.< this was indeed a great year for women characters! Here's to hoping we will have more next year.

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Yes, after this year I have big hopes for 2020 in terms of its treatment of female characters - and not just the lead.

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Thank you for another push to watch Graceful Family @leetennant. It sounds like just what I need.

I hope you have time to watch Be Melodramatic since it's another complex women filled smorgasbord.

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I do have time over the next few days to watch some dramas and Be Melo is on that list. Also Rookie Historian and Secret Boutique. I hope you enjoy Graceful Family. It's not a perfect drama (there's one or two big missteps) but I did enjoy it a lot when it was airing. And I shipped the two leads more than any romance this year.

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DUDE I WAS ACTUALLY THINKING ABOUT WRITING SOMETHING SIMILAR. That's supporting evidence enough that this is WOMEN'S YEAR. I was reviewing my 2019 watch list and all the female leads I've met are not Candies/potted plants. They're not tied to a male lead, they have their OWN narrative. They're strong, independent, a bit rough around the edges but they NEVER bore me. The male leads this year often makes me think, "aww what a precious bean"

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When I wrote my piece last year, I could only think of three or four dramas. This year I struggled to limit myself to the word count. There were still some really bad Candy dramas this year but they were completely overwhelmed by dramas who gave ALL their female characters arcs and proper characterisation. The psycho second female lead is dead too. And good riddance to that.

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Amen to annoying second female lead. I recently watched 1% of Something (2016) and was reminded of how awful those tropes are in the 90s/early 2000.

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This is so well written!! Congratulations!!
I felt exactly the same this year about women in the dramas I watched. Not only the leads, but also de supporting roles. Of course WWW was the best of it, but I also fell in love with the Be Melo and One Spring women.
I think I wrote it somewhere else, but it is refreshing to see some real women around. Women that struggle with everyday life, relationships with their friend, their lover, their children, their colleagues.
This year we've got to know some ladies that are not there only to be the love interest of a man and whose only purpose is to be nice and pretty and make other feel better.
Most of the women I've met this year had a goal, and it was to find happiness by themselves, because that's the only way you can spread happiness and love to others.

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A bit late to comment, but I loved reading this! Iโ€™m glad you wrote about how important the women were in dramas this year!

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I didnt finish anything and now I need to practice bye

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