[2020 Year in Review] Highlights in dark times
In dramaland and out if it, 2020 has been a year of extremes and paradoxes. We glimpsed the apocalypse, and watched those around us rise to breathtaking heights of heroism, or sink to previously unimagined depths of selfishness. We locked down our cities; we marched on the streets. In a world both literally on fire and as eerily quiet as death, many of us had so much downtime in quarantine that we might have seen all the dramas.
I don’t think I’m alone, though, in not having had the mental or emotional space to watch everything I could (I spent far too many sleepless nights doomscrolling). But the dramas I did see this year fell along those same extremes—emphatically satisfying, or incredibly disappointing, with little in between. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own emotional state: I spent the first quarter of the year finishing my master’s thesis, and handed in my first draft the day my state went under shelter-in-place orders. It was nice to be able to experience vicariously the “real” life that was so aggressively on hold for me all year. When I did have the brain space for dramas, I wanted to watch things that made me feel deeply.
And feel deeply I did. I could talk about the shocking racism of Backstreet Rookie, the baffling and enraging ending of Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol, or the hard slow-motion bellyflop of Record of Youth (which I still can’t believe Ahn Gil-ho gave up Forest of Secrets 2 for). I’m still lowkey mad about the way I’ll Find You on a Beautiful Day did Eun-seob dirty. But honestly, I’d rather focus on the highs than the lows, because by this point I’m pretty sure we’ve lamented 2020 in song, verse, television, art, and interpretive dance. (And bread. Lots of bread.)
So here are some of the gifts the past year gave me instead—a few of the reasons 2020 won’t be a total write-off.
Crash Landing on You
I almost can’t think of this show as just a drama. Yes, it’s a beautifully made, well-written, entertaining fish-out-of-water romance about two people who fall in love against impossible odds. But it’s also so much more than that—it’s about the pain of history and the lasting wounds of partition; the ruthless logic of borders and wars, which has so little to do with humanity, love or justice. It’s about community between people who have everything and nothing in common, and a hope for the future that, amazingly, transcended the drama’s purpose of entertainment due to the production team’s commitment to representation and realism.
That’s why Crash Landing on You was such a special drama for me this year. I found myself gasping sometimes at the visceral truths uttered by characters, verbalizing how the DMZ’s menacing presence swallows up even their small domestic happinesses. It was a pivotal part of my master’s thesis on post-partition nationalism in Asian pop culture. I don’t think it’s an accident, either, that it became a huge gateway drama for new K-drama fans—or a one-off watch for many non-K-drama fans—during the first months of the pandemic. It certainly has the magical mix of comedy and tragedy, sadness and hope that I’m sure many of us were reaching for then. Unforgettable.
Never have I been so pleasantly surprised by a drama with such bafflingly low-effort promos. Who knew, watching teasers that were literally nature documentary footage of hyenas ripping each other’s throats out, that this would be one of the best dramas of the year? The dialogue. The costuming. The set design. The meet-cute which turned out to be anything but. THAT CHEMISTRY.
No matter what their genre, all of the shows in this review are sharply funny, and had me laughing out loud. But none are as consistently, gut-bustingly hilarious as Hyena, which manages to combine explosive humor with deeply grounded emotions, solid stakes, and crackling chemistry between its main characters. (Seriously, I’ve never felt like such an embarrassed voyeur watching a drama—Geum-ja and Hee-jae staring at each other in a supply closet seemed like a private moment no one else should see.) Kim Hye-soo and Joo Ji-hoon are electric together, and they make what would have been a good legal comedy into transcendental television. I fell for both of them at least once an episode.
I don’t know if I can even call this a romance, because it goes beyond that—these two characters go on a seismic collision course that turns them inside out and sets their lives on a whole new trajectory as they bicker, snarl, laugh, bare their souls, and make googly eyes at each other in rapid succession. I think I binged the first eight episodes in a couple of sittings, breathless the whole time from the sheer exhilaration of the experience. It’s the perfect escapist drama, but it’s not just crack. It’s well-made, high-quality crack, and it’s just what the doctor prescribed for 2020.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
What a beautiful show this is, in every way. The dark fairy tale aesthetic, the gorgeous framing of every shot, the colors and costumes all left an incredible impression. Not to mention those creepily delightful picture books. But on a deeper level, at heart this drama is about acknowledging mental illness as a part of life, not something to stigmatize or shy away from addressing. We’re all a little not-okay at times in our lives. What I found so moving about It’s Okay was its unwillingness to separate characters into the ill and the healthy, doctors and patients. No one is immune from the effects of brain chemistry and trauma, and I’ve never seen that shown so organically and empathetically in a K-drama.
I have my quibbles about the way the plot resolves at the end, but these relationships grabbed me by the heart and never let go. Every friendship is unique, slightly wacky, and full of heart; Moon-young, Kang-tae and Sang-tae eventually form the most heartwarming and wacky found family of the year (Oh Jung-se especially deserves every acting award). These three bond and create a new life together, but the drama never falls into toxic tropes that imply love is a cure for mental illness, or that trauma can be magically erased by a warm hug or a well-timed kiss. Your family can’t always save you, but they can be beside you in the hardest times, or wait for you at the other end of that dark tunnel. They can accompany you on the camping car of life.
My Unfamiliar Family
Even if I had the entire space of this year-end review to devote to this one drama, it wouldn’t be enough. I’m wary of using the word “perfect” as a descriptor, but nothing else applies to this gorgeously written, ruthlessly insightful family drama. Somehow this writer packed all the goodness of a 50-hour weekend saga into sixteen flawless episodes that don’t waste a single minute. A true ensemble, it gives every character a full, nuanced exploration that cuts to the heart of what it means to be part of a family, the things we reveal and hide from each other, and why those we love most can hurt us with such brutal efficiency.
Every cast member brought their A game, so it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Han Ye-ri anchors this story, giving an incredible performance as the conflict-avoidant peacemaker Eun-hee, who hides her insecurities under a disarmingly sunny manner. Her friendship and eventual romance with her best friend was the swooniest OTP I saw all year. Not only did I get butterflies at their every interaction, but I have total confidence that these two will be together forever. My favorite performance from Kim Ji-suk, hands down. And who can forget prickly, strong, fiercely loyal unni Eun-joo (Choo Ja-hyun), whose relationship with Eun-hee is so realistic that anyone with a sister was probably cringing, laughing and crying as hard as I was?
But what truly makes this drama a gem is that it’s not just the story of women in their thirties struggling with work and romance and family, as much as I love and viscerally relate to all of that. My Unfamiliar Family has the audacity to give the parents the central storyline. For once in a family drama, Mom and Dad aren’t the scolding patriarchs trying to reform their wayward offspring, or the burdensome cause of all their kids’ problems. Their bittersweet love story, with its misunderstandings and regret along the decades, is the root of everything in this show. Their decision to split up is the domino that causes the family’s facade of normality to collapse, and makes them all reevaluate exactly what they mean to each other. No other show this year hit me so hard, or took so many of my tears. I could have watched another sixteen episodes.
Forest of Secrets 2
What can I say about Season 2 that I haven’t already said extensively about Season 1? Forest of Secrets remains the most incisive examination of the nature of corruption that I’ve ever seen. This show pulls off the incredibly rare feat of a second season that equals the first, without simply recycling the same story points. Genius writer Lee Soo-yeon takes the themes she raised three years ago to a more macro level: Where Season 1 was about internal corruption among prosecutors, Season 2 looks at the balance of power between police and prosecutors, public officials that are meant to keep each other in check, but ironically often reinforce the very injustices they claim to correct.
Jo Seung-woo and Bae Doona are still perfect together, even if they’re technically on opposite sides of the police-prosecution power struggle. Their screentime together is limited, but that only heightens the pleasure of the moments they do spend collaborating, confiding, even silently sharing space, because it’s only with each other they can truly relax and breathe. That comfort is so smartly juxtaposed with the constant tension they’re in with their actual colleagues. Shi-mok and Yeo-jin exemplify the kind of functional and ethical partnership that should exist between police and prosecutors, the twisted shadow of which lies at the root of the show’s main conflict.
Where Shi-mok had to grapple with a corrupted sunbae last time, this go-around it’s Yeo-jin who faces a senior in Choi Bit—a wonderful performance by Jeon Hye-jin—who may not be the honorable mentor Yeo-jin wishes for. And it’s complicated by their camaraderie as two ambitious, capable women in a hostile male-dominated work environment. I loved everything about Yeo-jin’s journey this season. And of course, Weasel Dong-jae takes us on a thrill ride even more entertaining than the smarmy villainy of Season 1. If I weren’t already all in for Lee Joon-hyuk, I would be now.
Ultimately, Forest of Secrets 2 was the perfect show for my state of mind in 2020. It argues for the worthiness of continuing to fight for justice, even—maybe especially—when that fight seems futile and endless. Shi-mok and Yeo-jin exemplify the everyday, unglamorous heroism that’s accessible to us all. The late Lee Chang-joon’s voiceover bookends this season perfectly: “Doggedly chasing the truth and marching towards what’s right is a never-ending process… In the belief that a handful of hope is better than immeasurable despair, we move forward with unwavering determination, once again.” Words to live by, and as timely now as they were three years ago.
These aren’t all the shows I enjoyed this year. Mystic Pop-Up Bar was hugely enjoyable from start to finish; I’m adoring screwball rom-com The Spies Who Loved Me almost as much as I love Eric and Yoo Inna individually. Eighteen Again was a warm hug that lasted eight glorious weeks. I regret not finishing Memorials in time, because five episodes in I’ve fallen hard. But these are the shows that made the year bearable, that had me using superlatives when everything else was so extremely bad. And for giving me that gift, they’re one part of this impossible-to-forget year that I’ll always treasure.