[2020 Year in Review] Editors’ Picks
We’ve finally reached the end of a very unusual year both in dramaland and around the world. I always love seeing how the voting shakes out, and which shows left the deepest impressions. Some years, one vote was difference enough to crown a winner, but this time around there were very clear favorites among the staff in nearly every category. And now, onto the winners of the 2020 Editors’ Picks.
2020 Editors’ Picks
Forest of Secrets 2
quirkycase: Given the acclaim of its first season, Forest of Secrets 2 had a lot to live up to–it didn’t disappoint. Once again, we got a tightly written, thoughtful, unconventional crime drama exploring corruption in a way that was complex without being convoluted or pretentious. Both the creative and technical elements of this drama were top-notch. Strong writing, acting, and directing led to a suspenseful and thought-provoking story about where the line between justice and injustice lies. Rather than focusing on a single case, we had multiple cases that seemed disparate at the start but came together masterfully by the drama’s end. This season had a wider scope than the first and took on systemic corruption in the justice system through the lens of the recent real-life fight between the police and prosecution over investigative authority. Alongside the return of fantastic characters like Shi-mok, Yeo-jin, and Dong-jae, we were introduced to several interesting and layered new characters on both sides of the fight. Despite all the corruption and power struggles, this drama strikes a hopeful tone. It reminds us that the exhausting fight for justice is worth it, even if the gains sometimes seem small.
Crash Landing on You
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
SailorJumun: A drama can just be a drama, but every now and then, a drama can be an art piece. The story of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was already rich and engaging, but in the hands of director Park Shin-woo, the story was able to reach its highest potential. I was reeled in by the drama’s introduction, a stunningly dark stop-motion animation, and from then on, I was completely captured. The Grimm fairy tale style followed into the live-action, melding well with Park’s signature whimsy. Whether it was a classic fairy tale or one of Go Moon-young’s books, there was always a story that perfectly reflected the lives of our characters. There’s one scene that will forever stay with me, and that’s Kim Soo-hyun reading Zombie Kid and breaking down crying. The magic in fairy tales is not, in fact, the literal magic but the parallels to everyday life–and those parallels were always felt and appreciated.
Forest of Secrets 2
chickachunga: The distinction of best writing should come as no surprise to anyone who was knocked breathless by the first season of Forest of Secrets, the inaugural work by brilliant scribe Lee Soo-yeon. Her filmography isn’t lengthy, she has only three major TV credits to her name, but Forest of Secrets 2 was yet another showcase of her major writing chops. With Korea’s currently ongoing police vs. prosecution clash serving as the backdrop—and forefront, really—of season two, Lee weaved multiple intricate storylines, all completely engrossing, that interconnected in unexpected and satisfying ways. As viewers, the frustration of watching police officers and prosecutors in a sterile conference room, refusing to shift their ideologies even a smidge for the sake of amending relations and the larger justice system, was visceral. We felt the futility of government as we witnessed abject corruption nonchalantly perpetuated by the very people entrusted to maintain law and order. The despair we felt from the sorry state of humanity was too real, but so was our joy, anytime Shi-mok and Yeo-jin had a moment to themselves where they could simply just be without the line in the sand. Forest of Secrets 2 felt decidedly different from the first season, more of a simmering slow burn perhaps, but the writing remained whip-smart, bold, and as timely as ever.
My Unfamiliar Family
selena: Are we even surprised that the latest production from the Answer Me series’ writer-producer duo brought as much laughter as it did tears? The heartwarming first season (there’s at least one more season currently in the works) follows five busy friends as they balance their personal lives with their professional ones. Naturally, we are introduced to those who work with them and grow attached to everyone from interns to the top of the chain. The highly emotional aspects are balanced out with humorous moments peppered in throughout each episode. Ik-joon especially was a riot to watch–Jo Jung-seok has so much natural charm and his comedic timing is just immaculate. The nature of his character is such a goofy one that you can tell he’s having a blast playing him. In contrast, Jung Kyung-ho’s Joon-wan is not meant to be outwardly funny, but his petty actions and subtle quips had me rolling on the floor. Magic happens when actors are able to comfortably throw in ad-libs, and Hospital Playlist was magical indeed.
BEST ACTION/THRILLER DRAMA
chickachunga: I love checking out dramas by new, up-and-coming voices, and for that very reason, I was very excited to watch Extracurricular, the first drama written by Jin Han-sae. And I’m thrilled to say that I was thoroughly impressed by this dark and violent debut work. A thriller about a broke high school kid who anonymously mans a sex trafficking ring?! It sounds like nothing you’ve seen in dramaland before because it hadn’t been done before. The creative risks certainly paid off and there was no shortage of exhilarating chase scenes, bloody life-threatening altercations, high stakes drama, and expletive-hurling high-schoolers. Extracurricular was a wild adrenaline rush from start to finish with stellar performances, especially from Park Joo-hyun who played Gyu-ri with such aplomb. This was not your typical high school drama, and it really felt fresh with no holds barred. From the new writer, to the fresh-faced cast, and the sinister subject matter, Extracurricular really pushed the envelope and made for a nail-biting, riveting watch.
A Couple’s World
Forest of Secrets 2
BEST FANTASY DRAMA
Hi Bye, Mama!
selena: Out of all the fantasy shows that populated dramaland this year, Hi Bye, Mama! was the most memorable for me. It told a tale of motherly love that transcends the physical limitations of the world. Leading lady Cha Yuri spends years watching her daughter grow up from the outside–as a ghost. She celebrates every milestone alone until one day, she’s granted a special opportunity to become human again for just 49 days. Yuri gets to bond with her daughter and reconnect with the people from her past. The relationships she re-builds are so strong that you can’t help but hope that somehow, a loophole can be found to allow Yuri more time on Earth. The world-building was done well, providing the story a great foundation to build off of. The rules pertaining to Yuri’s miracle were very clear from the get-go and the fantastical elements were kept simple, never overshadowing what the show was really about–processing grief. It was a beautiful show filled with emotionally mature characters. A lot of time was spent crying and laughing with Yuri and her loved ones, and my heart feels full knowing that she got a well-deserved second chance.
Mystic Pop-up Bar
The School Nurse Files
Park Seo-joon (Itaewon Class)
Sunny: Itaewon Class may have fizzled out into one of the more disappointing dramas of the year, but it was through no fault of leading man Park Seo-joon. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for underdog tales, but without the heartfelt portrayal of Park Sae-ro-yi grounding an otherwise over-the-top plot, I doubt the show would’ve been half as watchable. The unwavering moral compass and steadfast attachment to his first love could have easily made for an irritating character but Park Seo-joon managed to emphasize the quirky charm to Sae-ro-yi’s determination and drew the character in an endearing rather than foolhardy light. In a year when many of us needed a bright spot, Park Seo-joon was all that and more and while I could easily wax poetic about his talents for paragraphs more, your time would be better spent watching something starring Park Seo-joon.
Kim Soo-hyun It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
Jo Seung-woo Forest of Secrets 2
Seo Ye-ji (It’s Okay to Not Be Okay)
SailorJumun: The character of Go Moon-young could have so easily been unlikeable, had she been portrayed by just any actress. Because, on paper, she was unlikeable–selfish, standoffish, and sometimes downright cruel. But with Seo Ye-ji in Moon-young’s bright red shoes, the character was unlikeable in the most fascinating way. You could see the “monster” that the people around her saw, while Seo Ye-ji’s portrayal promised something deeper. A hint of emotion in her eyes or a slight dip in her smile was enough to let us feel her pain. Enough to feel a history of misunderstanding and a desire for compassion. And she shouldered this heavy baggage, along with her big attitude and even bigger wardrobe, with such ease. I knew Seo Ye-ji was good, but after It’s Okay, I’m confident she could kill any role.
Kim Hye-soo Hyena
Kim Seo-hyung Nobody Knows
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Oh Jung-se (It’s Okay to Not Be Okay)
Laica: I can’t think of a single character that made me cry more this year than Oh Jung-se as Moon Sang-tae. He doesn’t seem to be acting—he simply embodies Sang-tae’s ability to be at times cruelly honest, at times breathtakingly funny, and occasionally, heartbreakingly vulnerable. He manages to play an autistic character with realism, empathy and humor, never letting Sang-tae feel like a token or a stereotype—or worse, a caricature. Sang-tae is a brilliant, complex person with dreams and regrets, who feels deeply, even if he shows his emotions differently from others, and Oh Jung-se’s portrayal brings all those facets to vivid life. Kim Soo-hyun and Seo Ye-ji may be the leads of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, but Oh Jung-se is the heart of the story. Without his tour de force performance, the central relationships between Sang-tae and Kang-tae, the two of them with Moon-young (and Mang-tae) wouldn’t have been nearly as moving. Give him all the awards.
Choi Min-soo Extracurricular
Kim Bum Tale of the Nine Tailed
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Choo Ja-hyun (My Unfamiliar Family)
quirkycase: Two of the most memorable aspects of this gem of a drama are the complex women at its heart and the incredible performances of its cast. Amidst all of these great characterizations, Choo Ja-hyun’s Eun-joo is a standout. Eun-joo’s cold demeanor and stoicism might’ve made her a hard character to connect to were it not for Choo Ja-hyun’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal. She took a well-written, challenging character and breathed life into her, making her sympathetic and engaging. Like all characters in this drama, Eun-joo is deeply flawed but oh so real. She started out almost claustrophobically stifled, living a life that made her unhappy yet hiding her pain and vulnerability behind a mask of perfection. You couldn’t help but root for her to open up just a little to those around her and live freely. Thanks in large part to Choo Ja-hyun, prickly Eun-joo’s journey to finding peace and happiness within herself and her family was a joy to witness.
Kim Hye-joon Kingdom 2
Kim Hye-sook Start-Up
selena: The five BFFs of Hospital Playlist stormed in and stole everyone’s hearts, including mine. In between intense surgical procedures, these doctors bicker, fight over food, find love, deal with family drama, and create beautiful music together. From a social butterfly single father who misses the nightclub to a kind-hearted heir who dreams of becoming a priest, each character is so uniquely different that it’s difficult to believe that they’re friends. But despite their differences, or maybe because of them, that their bonds felt so authentic and Jo Jung-seok, Jung Kyung-ho, Yoo Yeon-seok, Jeon Mi-do, and Kim Dae-myung had such a beautiful, natural chemistry (possibly because they reportedly grew close in real life as well).
The dynamic between the five friends is vastly different depending on who’s together in a given scene, which makes for a fun watch. I love that they’re so in tune with one another that they just know when something is off and are diligent in ensuring that everyone’s doing okay. Nobody goes through their lowest lows alone even if they try to hide it from the rest of the group. Fiercely loyal yet never afraid to tell it like it is, they’re the type of friend group that everyone needs in their life.
Crash Landing on You
My Unfamiliar Family
Crash Landing on You
missvictrix: Of all our 2020 dramas, Crash Landing on You is the one I’m most likely to recommend to drama newbies—it’s such a well-rounded drama, with something for everyone. But the main reason I like to recommend it is because of the wonderful romance. This couple had something special, and it’s not only because they’re such great (dare I say legendary?) actors. Sohn Ye-jin and Hyun Bin were able to capture something in the love story of Se-ri and Captain Ri that was as magnetic as it was heart-warming.
The story of a prickly CEO from Seoul stranded in North Korea and befriending soldiers there was great on its own, but this setup also introduced new kinds of dramatic obstacles, the likes of which dramaland hadn’t seen before. But really, this romance worked so well because what it called up in our hearts was also universal. Two people met, came to understand each other, and fell deeply in love. The relationship between Se-ri and Captain Ri was rooted in trust, loyalty, keeping one’s word, and true selflessness, and their story proved that love truly can transcend any obstacles in its way.
Do You Like Brahms
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
dramallama: Kim Soo-hyun and Oh Jung-se poured their hearts into their roles as codependent brothers learning to confront the traumatic childhood loss of their mother, which they coped with by desperately holding onto each other. Both brothers feared abandonment, and any sign of distance triggered intense emotional responses of resentment and guilt. Their desperate need for each other kept their relationship airtight, with no room or trust for anyone to stand between them. Kim Soo-hyun’s Kang-tae, a caretaker practiced in sacrifice and restraint, was initially the protector of his autistic older brother, but as he learned to let go and to love, older brother Sang-tae made space, modeled healthy distance, and filled Kang-tae’s shoes as the protector of their little family. The painful process of confronting trauma and making space for their family to grow was very emotional but so gratifying. The brothers were the heartbeat of this show, and their heartbreaking bromance kindled a hope for happiness despite sorrow and loss.
Flower of Evil
Laica: Nothing about Memorials is boring or cliched, and that’s true of Gu Se-ra and her besties, too. Like the show itself, their friendship is slightly left of center, and you can find them sniping at each other as often as the support each other. And that’s what makes their little group so relatable—no one can throw shade as expertly and brutally as friends you’ve known for a lifetime. They never back down from telling each other the truth, no matter how unpleasant but they always have each other’s backs, even in the most mortifying of situations. We can all only wish to have a bestie who would turn her bookstore into your office if you ill-advisedly ran for the local council, and by some miracle won. And never stopped pointing out your dumb mistakes. How else would Se-ra have survived the bureaucratic hell of local politics, if not for her girlfriends? These three are gold.
Hi Bye, Mama!
My Unfamiliar Family
Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Sun-ho, Start-Up)
SailorJumun: Who said the first male lead could be the only one with a great backstory? Second leads can have them too, and Start-Up’s dimpled second lead Han Ji-pyeong had one of the best. After a chance meeting with a kind-hearted grandma and a life-changing letter scheme, Ji-pyeong found himself in one complicated love triangle. Never has the phrase “Why can’t it be me?” hit this hard, as he quite literally led the hero to the girl he would come to love. Of course, Ji-pyeong wasn’t just a sad puppy of a second lead. He was a lonely kid who wanted a family to play Go-Stop with. He was a stern mentor who didn’t understand the consequences of his words. And most importantly, he was a genuinely good friend–a friend who didn’t realize how loved he really was.
Gu Se-ra (Nana), Memorials
Baek Hee-sung (Lee Jun-ki), Flower of Evil
Cho Hak-joo (Ryu Seung-ryong, Kingdom 2)
dramallama: A master strategist with an insatiable hunger for power, the ruthless Prime Minister Cho was the perfect villain to escalate the threat of the zombie outbreak. The Prince was no match for the experienced Prime Minister Cho, who knew how to politically manipulate and physically trap the Prince at every turn. Prime Minister Cho’s checkmate move forcing the Prince to kill his zombie-fied father with his own hands showcased his precise masterminding at its finest. Unfazed by the plague and the consequences of immorality, the minister leaned into his instincts for exploitation and decisively used humans as disposable zombies to pave his path to royalty. Ryu Seung-ryong played the nefarious prime minister with charisma and resolve, and his mere presence introduced a dark and dangerous energy to any scene. His sinister energy as Prime Minister Cho was matched only by Kim Hye-joon, who played his daughter
Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung), Itaewon Class
Baek Hee-sung (Kim Ji-hoon), Flower of Evil
Record of Youth
dramallama: All the pieces were there–the high-profile cast, the esteemed director, an experienced writer–but the pieces never came together. Record of Youth was very promising and primed to be a success, but it fell short of all expectations. Besides the witty banter and Park Bo-gum meta-acting in different genres, the drama did not have many highlights to save it from mass disappointment. The story felt aimless, and the muddled tone in the storytelling exposed how the synergy among the themes of the show (youth? romance? family? Instagram?) were unclear to the writer. While I love both actors independently, the chemistry between Park Bo-gum and Park So-dam was just mediocre, and the story heavily focused on Park Bo-gum instead of balancing the story across the leads. The show wasted the immense talent of Park So-dam and dumped all their eggs in the Park Bo-gum basket, effectively creating a pre-army tribute to Park Bo-gum instead of a decent drama. I’m going to rewatch Answer Me 1988 and Parasite to remind myself that this drama was just a forgettable accident for our leads.
Was it Love
Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol
BEST LOVE TRIANGLE
missvictrix: Drama love triangles are complicated stuff—do we judge their greatness based on how conflicted we are, or how conflicted we’re not? Either way, Start-Up had one for the books. The strength of its love triangle was rooted mostly in the drama’s backstory, where we met a young girl (Suzy) and the secret pen pal whom she adored. As a young adult, she learns that the real author of the letters (Kim Sun-ho), and the play-acting version (Nam Joo-hyuk), are two very different men—and which one has her heart is much of what the drama explores. While the setup sounds like a typical love triangle, to me Start-Up actually played it a bit differently. Instead of seeing our heroine’s heart tugged between two equally worthy suitors, her heart only swung one way. Instead, it was us—the audience—that was the true party in the middle of this emotional triangle. We saw both heroes’ struggles, vulnerability, and yearning. Teams were formed, ships were set sail, and dramaland was pretty divided! But whether you left the drama sad or satisfied, we certainly experienced a love triangle all our own.
Hi Bye, Mama!
The Spies Who Loved Me
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Tags: Crash Landing on You, Editors' Picks, Extracurricular, featured2, Forest of Secrets 2, Hi Bye Mama, Hospital Playlist, It's Okay to Not Be Okay, Itaewon Class, Kingdom 2, Memorials, My Unfamiliar Family, Record of Youth, Start-Up, year in review, year in review 2020