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[2020 Year in Review] Manifesting my 2020 sentiments

What a year, folks. 2020 has felt like a relentless storm drenching us in misfortune, and all of my sentiments feel jumbled to the point where words can barely capture the simultaneous multitude of emotions I’ve felt, observed, and shared. It’s been a year of turbulent emotions — loss, hope, grief, and gratitude to name a few — and I’ve coped by watching more dramas and eating more ice cream. The dramas on my “watched” list include shows that fit my usual criteria: shows that I genuinely love or love to hate. But in this extraordinary year, the shows that resonated with me the most were the ones that aligned with my simplified sentiments about this volatile year. The trajectory of my 2020 sentiments go something like this: This is the plague. It’s going to be fine. I’m not fine. We’re doomed. I miss my family. At least there’s ice cream. Not very uplifting, I know, but I hope they’re relatable sentiments at the very least.

For the review, I chose shows that aligned with each simplified sentence summarizing my sentiments (say that five times fast). Some shows eerily reminded me of the rainy miserable world outside, others offered escapes from reality, but all of them were welcome respites in their own ways. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I’m glad to be stretching my year in review muscles again. Off we go!

 

Kingdom 2
This is the plague

Kingdom returned with its second season as the COVID-19 epidemic grew into a pandemic, and in retrospect, the unsettling timing of the show’s release seems understated. The themes of power, sacrifice, suffering, and healing have become much more prominent in the pandemic world, and Kingdom was nearly prophetic about a world plagued by a lethal infection and dire inequities. The unintentional overlap between fiction and reality strengthened the social commentary on class divide and the unsung heroes who bear the relentless burden of protecting their communities. Kim Eun-hee’s writing felt like an intentional homage to sacrifice and resilience.

As with the first season, Kingdom was immaculately produced and absolutely terrifying, kicking the gore and edginess up a notch. Building on the previous season, the action-packed second season shifted focus to the political strife, which added more stakes to the bloody fights. The political bloodline battle added an interesting layer to the story and answered a lot of the why behind this zombie war. Ryu Seung-yong and Kim Hye-joon’s chilling performance as the sinister royal father-daughter pair attested to the cast’s great synergy and intensity, and they were my favorite antagonists this year. They — along with Heo Jun-ho, who carried the best scene of the show as cheek-ripping zombie Lord Ahn Hyeon — left strong last impressions and left me satisfied with their characters’ ends.

Though we bid farewell to many great characters in Season 2, most of the favorites are returning in the next season, which awaits an early 2021 release. I’m excited to see Joo Ji-hoon and Bae Doo-na come back together after mainly fighting the plague on separate parallel journeys in the second season, and I’m curious to see what comes of the nation for which the Prince sacrificed his power. Of course, I can’t forget the addition of Jeon Ji-hyun in the cliffhanger ending. My expectations are through the roof for Season 3, and I can’t be convinced otherwise.

 

Hospital Playlist
It’s going to be fine

Settling into the required isolation of this year, I think I repeated this phrase (“It’s going to be fine.”) the most. Of course, I used this phrase most often when I meant exactly the opposite, but I occasionally experienced moments of relief that reflected the true sentiment of comfort underlying this phrase. Hospital Playlist offered many moments of solace and assurance, and I relied on the show to comfort and provide hope, especially in unpredictable times. The camaraderie of the ’99 friends, the generous comfort to and from patients, and a healthy dose of Woo-joo’s cuteness would brighten up my week and elicit reflections of gratitude.

After enjoying everything from this writer-director duo, Lee Woo-jung and Shin Won-ho, who have mastered their brand of slice of life and ensemble-casted shows, I had to watch this drama. This cast didn’t track to previous shows in that most of the leads were well-known in dramaland and casted in previous productions by this duo, but Jeon Mi-do was definitely The Find. I really enjoyed how effortlessly she played Song-hwa and found it amusing that her character was tone deaf, despite Jeon Mi-do being a renowned performer in the musical industry. There was also a mundane comfort about Song-hwa and the rest of the doctor friends, and I credit that sense of comfort to the lead cast members, who made the friendship feel natural through tough times, petty arguments, and banal chatter. Their dynamic as well as the stellar supporting cast, full of newbies or dramaland “unknowns,” in all the medical departments made the show feel whole.

The drama had a sprinkle of every feel-good element: romance, family, humor, and of course, music. I was impressed by the cast’s commitment to learning their instruments for the performances, and though I was concerned that they would be a bit corny, I came to welcome the wholesome additions to episodes. I’ll be eagerly waiting the return of the new season, which will surely be a salve to looming challenges ahead.

 

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
I’m not fine

There came a time after too many hours at home that I accepted that I was not fine. Social distance was becoming the universal norm, and though this concept was familiar to my introvert nature, I was soon yearning for social connection. I could only stay isolated for so long until I feared that I would go psycho, and I needed to take care of my mental health. Promising emphases on healing and mental health, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was my companion in acceptance of not being fine.

As Kim Soo-hyun’s comeback drama, this show was at the top of my list to watch this year. While he played a large role in making this show so heartbreakingly good, the full cast captured my heart in their own ways. Seo Ye-ji’s presence in this drama was so strong, from her gorgeous wardrobe to her unapologetic attitude, and Moon-young’s freedom from Evil Mom and to love was portrayed with both a delicate touch and explosive intensity. As romantic leads, these two had sizzling chemistry, undeniably led by the unapologetically horny Moon-young. While the romance was great, it could not beat the brothers’ relationship and their painful unlearning and relearning of their dependency. Kang-tae and Sang-tae (and Mang-tae) squeezed all the tears out of me, and their effort to make space for Moon-young was beautiful. The fairy tales, in addition to being phenomenal visual additions, contributed another dimension of perspective to the story, adding poignancy and clarity to broken relationships and therapy for broken hearts.

The few disappointments, including the compromised depiction of mental health practices and the cartoonish comeback of Evil Mom, didn’t bother me enough to change my overall appreciation for the show, which radiated warmth to melt the coldest of hearts and mend the most broken relationships. We may not be okay and be a little broken, but it’s okay. It will be okay.

 

Extracurricular
We’re doomed

The sense of impending doom was a constant mood, a feeling that I had become numb to at some point. Occasionally, the impending doom felt heavier, especially when the situation only seemed to worsen, the path to back normalcy was nowhere in sight, and the broken systems repeatedly let people suffer. Extracurricular embodied these feelings of indignation, fear, and doom that resulted from broken systems and dysfunctional safety nets.

This youth drama was nothing close to anything in its genre, coming out of left field with provocative portrayals of “troubled” youth and audacious storyline decisions to test the darkness of the characters. Kim Dong-hee and Park Joo-hyun impressed me the hell out of me with their compelling performances as desperate characters digging themselves deeper into their own graves. Despite disagreeing with nearly every decision they made, I found their toxic partnership too gripping to turn away from, like watching a train wreck happening in slow motion. I sympathized with their plight and the misguided decisions rooted in loneliness as well as a desire to pursue normalcy, independence, and freedom.

With her mature acting, Jung Da-bin elevated her character as the minor engaging in sex work and as the young powerless high schooler trying to protect her protector. Choi Min-soo as The Terminator as the protector of the sex workers barely had any lines, but when he did, he’d usually be gruffly advising Jung Da-bin to take care of herself. Their relationship was the only adult-youth relationship that was based in mutual trust and care, which highlighted how little the adults understood how to protect these high schoolers. These kids needed someone to help them out of their desolate realities and give them a hug. This show was far from uplifting, but the striking criticism of broken systems and adults failing as protectors felt a like a call to action to uplift those reaching for help. Do better, everyone, and we’ll lift each other out of this doom.

 

My Unfamiliar Family
I miss my family

As isolation life continued, I had more time on my hands to think, reflect, and reassess my priorities. After spending years away from home, I felt a gap and distance from family, and as I wasted away in isolation, the void felt even larger. Returning home to stay with family was the right choice, but my family felt… unfamiliar. The short years away from each other left us out of sync, and I realized that we had to get to know each other from where we are now. Illuminating the most unappreciated and seemingly obvious relationships, My Unfamiliar Family hit all the right notes to emphasize how precious and irreplaceable familial bonds are.

The storytelling of this show was so well done, always thoughtful in sharing just enough to make the audience privy to the family’s stories without feeling too nosy. As the show transitioned the spotlight to the different family members, we learned about their unspoken grudges, unrealized regrets, and unfulfilled promises. I loved seeing Han Ye-ri break out of stoic roles and take on a brighter role as the delightful Eun-hee, who served as the central narrator of this family story. Her lighthearted approach to dealing with mistakes was rarely avoidant behavior; rather, it was her way of slowly unraveling the complicated nature of her relationships — familial and romantic — in banal, petty, graceful, and unexpected ways, like in real life.

I was a huge fan of Eun-hee and Chan-hyuk’s friends to lovers storyline (I’m a sucker for this romance trajectory.), and I was surprised at how invested I was in the parents’ relationship. Their personal stories were buried under the need to survive, and their misunderstandings festered into heartbreaking realizations of lost time. Though their story was full of regret, their forgiveness and healing moved me in a way that simultaneously triggered tears and tickled my heart. Dare I say, this was possibly my favorite drama this year.

 

Do You Like Brahms?
At least there’s ice cream

Eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting was a pre-existing coping mechanism, but with lots to cope with this year, many pints of ice cream circulated in and out of my freezer. For me, eating ice cream is as much a coping mechanism as it is a celebratory ritual, so the sugar boost is often accompanied with welcome memories of major and minor celebrations in good company. Sweet, refreshing, and full of fond moments, Do You Like Brahms? was the reliable sugar rush I needed to get through rough weeks.

Park Eun-bin was my initial draw to the show, given her eye for selecting projects and her ability to craft layered and appealing characters. Her Song-ah was gentle yet fierce, timid but resolute, and I was rooting for her since the moment we met her on screen. The unexpectedly charming performance from Kim Min-jae caught me by surprise, especially when I caught myself swooning alongside Song-ah. A good amount of the credit goes to the piano-playing and the sweeping hair, but something did feel different with Kim Min-jae’s acting in this role. He seemed fully immersed in Joon-young but did it with his own style. It was fascinating to see Kim Min-jae in Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim 2 earlier this year because I could sense that he had grown into a more solid actor since the first season, and Brahms confirmed that observation for me.

This show felt like a love letter to classical music — honoring its peculiar ability to move people, express unspoken emotions, and transcend the institutions seeking to capture it. After learning about the writer’s extensive background in music as a violinist, I realized why this show felt so intimate and sincere. Respecting the sincerity of this story, the cast members mastered and played their instruments for their featured performances, and I was amazed by their talent and commitment.

Through Song-ah and Joon-young’s relationship, the show gracefully explored many themes and dichotomies — of talent and diligence, love and friendship, dreams and reality — that the two overcame together, subtly falling in love with each other with each progression. This drama gave me all the fluttering butterfly feels, and I have a soft spot for this show. I know I already said this, but this drama is possibly my favorite drama this year.

 

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It’s been many years since I’ve joined the Dramabeans community, and the companionship (and commiseration) over dramas never gets old. The thoughtful and cheeky comments, questions, and discussion are always appreciated, and I feel very grateful for this platform to share my thoughts and feelings. To the Beanies, editors, and fellow drama lovers, thank you! Stay safe, stay healthy, and cheers to a healthier and safer year full of good dramas! <3

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I too loved BRAHMS, even when it was at its toughest.

MY UNFAMILIAR FAMILY was wonderful and I too am looking forward to the second season of HOSPITAL PLAYLIST.

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Of all this year's comfort coming from entertainment industry, I choose Hospital Playlist as my best comfort. I watch it like everyday because I am drawn to the friendship shown on the screen.

Earlier this year, I already feel lonely. My best friend got married and she has her own busyness now. With Covid-19 around, after work I am mostly stuck at home. And weekends offer its own stress too. At work, I am also alone because people in the building mostly are men in the senior position. Other than exchanging 'hello', we do not say much. I lose count on how many time I pray (whine?) to God that I need a friend, a boyfriend or whatever.. because I feel sooo lonely.

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Hugs and cheer to you! We’re all here for you.

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This is such a lovely, insightful review, and it captures so much of what we all felt this year! Hope you and your loved ones stay safe too. Always glad to be writing alongside you, @dramallama.

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Likewise :) Grateful for writing buddies!

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Aw, nice to see you again too! As this year wraps up, I don’t even remember what I felt last year, it’s all a jumbled mess. Thank you for saying everything I would have wanted to say, if my writing was better, if my brain could form the words, about the shows that allowed me to decompress. I saw some of the ones you did, and you are so spot on. Thank you!

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Beautiful write-up! It was lovely to read and reflect on how dramaland served as a safe haven for me amidst the pandemic.

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Thank you for your thoughts and stay safe too! :)

I love how My Unfamiliar Family has its little place in almost every review. It was such a gem.

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I must be sounding like a broken record by now, but I love Brahms the most out of the ones mentioned on the list. Slow burn romance, crackling chemistry between the leads, excellent music, not to mention the quiet, subdued mood—these are all the elements of my kind of drama. Hospital playlist comes next, but then again, who doesn’t love Shinlee dramas right? ☺️

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Great article Dramallama simplifying all our sentiments about this year! It was freaky how close Kingdom came to reality.

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Count me in as a massive Kingdom fan. The show has been a perfection so fingers crossed they don't drop the ball going forward. What they did so well, which other mystery shows often mess up, is that they resolved old mysteries before opening new ones. For example, they explained a lot about the zombie plague, including how to heal an infected person, but then opened a new mystery which is that the resurrection plant seems to be intentionally planted (pun intended). So next season is going to explore who and why on top of political intrigue. As a fan of zombie genre, this is a phenomenal new take and context. I loved all the military strategies they employed to fight the zombie herds. Truly Braveheart meets The Walking Dead. It's one of rare shows (at least in its first
2 seasons) that doesn't move the plot forward by having characters act stupid.
Cast is just perfect, perfect, also costume design (big props to the Queen's Darth Vader helmet-like headpiece that made the scene all the more terrifying. Stunning locations and cinematography.
I rewatched this already and plan again. I really hope they keep it simple and don't make it convoluted later.

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Thanks for this lovely review @dramallama. You reminded me to remember what I loved about Brahms, even the angst-filled parts. I'm adding Extracurricular to my list based upon your review. Too traumatized to venture into Kingdom. In the time of Covid, any classroom anywhere is way scarier than dealing with zombies.

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Hospital Playlist really was that warm place in this cold winter of a year. In times of distress it felt like a pat on my back that said "Life is good and everything will be alright" along with a complete sense of peace and being at home. And I feel that Unfamiliar family was that drama that we didn't know we needed in our life, it struck a cord with me because it hit home so bad and I think everyone who watched it saw some kind of a reflexion of his own family situation which personally made me appreciate what I have more and try to work on my family relationship since life was so busy for each one of us and we were getting farther away from each other in physical and mental distance. At the end of the road all we'll have left are our family members and the few genuine friends we made.

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Heartfelt, dramallama. You touched all the sentiments in my heart. Indeed, these shows brought comfort. I haven't finished one and starting on another. Just one more to go. In this uncertain world, there's comfort in these kdramas, in their stories and yes, even some tropes. And this DB community that is ever so familiar, caring and kind. Just what the world needs at this time.

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thank you for your warm reviews! i loved the ones you chose and watched every one except Kingdom and My Unfamiliar Family. after so many great reviews i must go back and watch MUF however, Kingdom was too much for me even as i loveeeee JJH.

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That was such a lovely review. I too watched and enjoyed each of those dramas though my particular faves were My Unfamiliar Family and Extracurricular.

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Wow, beautifully and movingly written, and I haven't even watched any of these yet. I'm browsing the end-of-year bests to line up a queue to watch, and I wan't interested in Do You Like Brahms? except you mentioned Park Eun-bin who I've only seen in her superb performance in Age of Youth 1&2, so I'll have to add it to the queue.

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Brilliant review @dramallama. You took me on a journey that nearly brought me to tears when you arrived at your unfamiliar family.

I'll always see Hospital Playlist and Prison Playbook as two of the most beautiful k-dramas ever. They both so richly depict relationships. Together they sent me on a Jung Kyung-ho retrospective that I have not anywhere near completed. Here's to the catharsis of k-drama.

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Thanks for the review @dramallama. I, too, loved "Do You Like Brahms". It's a piece of art based on a well-written script by Ryu Bo-ri that was executed excellently by a well-thought director, Jo Young-
min. Each scene felt sincere, meaningful and memorable. Kudos to Park Eun-bin & Kim Min-jae who played the characters as if Chae Song-ah and Park Joon-young were tailored made for them. The drama is a keeper that I'd rewatch wherever I need some consoling.

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