[2021 Year in Review] Drama moods
I’m a mood watcher. I often choose which dramas to watch by what I’m in the mood for rather than whether it’s a drama I’d like on paper. Sometimes, this leads me to put aside some incredible dramas for years even until I’m in the headspace to really enjoy them. This means that my watched list can look pretty different from year to year or be quite eclectic. Looking through my dramas this year, although they did seem to skew more toward the darker or more serious side, there was a little bit of everything. So I decided to divide my dramas into categories based on what mood or mindset each drama satisfied for me. Without further ado, I give you my drama moods of 2021.
When you’re in the mood … to take down the system
Sometimes, you just want to watch a corrupt system or organization burn to the ground. The most memorable in this category for me is probably Vincenzo. It was a strange mashup of genres and tones, but somehow it mostly came together to create a quirky, fun (yet dark) romp. I never imagined I’d see Song Joong-ki play a Korean Italian mobster, so that was an experience. It was by no means a perfect drama, but it was fun watching Vincenzo and the family of residents band together to fight against injustice.
This year also brought us the dystopian The Devil Judge, a drama set in a world where the courtroom becomes a reality TV show and chaos ensues. It’s a dark world full of corruption and greed, one which our two lead judges respond to in very different ways. We get a dirty fight for power, some revenge, some mystery, and some bonding between Ji Sung and Jinyoung. It’s over the top and not what you’d call realistic, but that’s kind of the point. And of course, more Ji Sung and Jinyoung is never a bad thing.
If you’re into dark spy thrillers and revenge, then The Veil might be your thing. I will say this is my least favorite of the three, but Namgoong Min was great as the traumatized agent trying to piece together his past and root out corruption. There wasn’t anything that wowed me about this drama, but since I was in the mood for something dark and revenge-y sprinkled with taking down the corrupt, I was entertained.
When you’re in the mood … to be hit in the feels
While dramas are usually pretty good at tugging on your emotions, two dramas took that to the next level for me this year: Navillera and Youth of May. These two dramas stuck with me but in different ways. Navillera was the sweet story of an adorable grandpa who decided to pursue his lifelong dream of learning ballet. Watching this elderly man learn to plié with the help of his grumpy young teacher was so heartwarming. Although there were sad elements, this was an uplifting drama about pursuing passion and finding connection. I loved every minute of it.
Youth of May was a beautiful, nostalgic drama set in 1988. It starts out as a romance with a dreamy atmosphere in warm tones, making it a lovely watch. But there’s a sense of tension because you know what’s coming: the Gwangju Uprising. It was an affecting and respectful portrayal of the awful events of that year, focusing on the resilience and determination of the people. It might rip your heart out by the end, but it highlights an important piece of history and was a standout drama for me this year.
When you’re in the mood … for a little magic
Most of us like a little magic in our lives now and then, and this year, I found a few dramas that gave me the supernatural fun I was looking for. On the cute side, there’s the web drama gem The Great Ga Doo-shim fits the bill. It’s a simple story of a teenage girl coming into her own while fighting evil. Kim Sae-ron was great as the reluctant teenage shaman Doo-shim, and Nam Da-reum was the perfect supportive sidekick – they made an adorable evil-fighting pair. And I do love stories of girls embracing their own power, so this one was a win for me.
I’m a fan of camp which The Witch’s Diner gave me plenty of. It features Song Ji-hyo as the titular witch whose meals can grant her patrons’ wishes for a price. The always enjoyable Nam Ji-hyun stumbles upon the diner and begins working there alongside a sweet high school part-timer. It’s lighthearted fun for those times you’re looking for stories of healing with a smattering of cheese.
The Uncanny Counter, which aired in the latter part of 2020 and finished its run in early 2021, was a bit more on the serious side yet still fun. It’s about a group of counters, as they’re called, who capture evil spirits and protect the souls of the hosts. Oh, and as their day job, they run a noodle shop. I loved the little family the counters formed and how they took teenage Moon under their wings as he learned the ropes and earned his keep. My only real complaint is that it dragged a bit in the middle, but other than that, it hit the right notes.
When you’re in the mood … for some healing
I often enjoy a good healing story, and this year gave us a few solid ones. Move to Heaven was an underrated drama that centered on family. After the sudden death of his brother, the estranged Sang-gu moves in with his teenage nephew Geu-ru who’s autistic. (I could’ve done without the savant trope here – people with autism don’t have to be geniuses to be interesting.) Sang-gu is forced to help run the family business which involves cleaning out the person’s belongings after they’ve passed. Not only do we get some family bonding and healing for our main characters, but we get touching stories from their clients. It’s heartwarming without being too saccharine which hits the sweet spot for me.
At a Distance, Spring Is Green is a campus drama about friendships and dealing with past trauma. While each of our main trio had some healing to do, Joon’s story of childhood trauma was at the core. My favorite aspect was the bromance between the stern Joo-hyun and puppyish Joon who had great chemistry. I was unfamiliar with both Park Ji-hoon and Bae In-hyuk, but I enjoyed their performances as fledgling adults making their way in the world. I wish they’d utilized So-bin’s character more beyond the romance because that was most definitely the weakest aspect of the drama; it felt completely unnecessary and unconvincing. Even so, I enjoyed watching these young friends grow and heal together.
Adding some physical healing to the mix, we have Hospital Playlist 2. I’m a huge fan of the first season, so I was really excited for season two. Once again, we got our fantastic ensemble and moving patient stories where healing goes beyond the physical. But I was disappointed with all the romance thrown in this season. The wonderful friendship among our five leads is part of what makes the drama special and is more than enough on its own. The shoehorned in relationships didn’t stop me from enjoying the drama though – it just made it less awesome than season one.
When you’re in the mood … for something spooky
I love a good horror drama, or even a drama with some horror elements, but there aren’t always a lot of offerings. This year brought four horror-ish dramas that each had something different to offer. Cult stories are my jam, so I couldn’t resist Hometown. While I did find the ending unsatisfying with too many loose ends, what most made it worth the watch was Han Ye-ri’s fantastic performance as an aunt determined to do whatever it takes to find her niece who goes missing in connection with a cult. I’ve always loved Han Ye-ri and her ability to make her characters feel so real and easy to empathize with. Uhm Tae-gu was also effective as her creepy brother (who might just be a cult leader), although they had criminally little screen time together. There was also a group of adorable teenage girls solving mysteries, so that was a plus.
On the surface, Happiness seems similar to Sweet Home (which aired in December of 2020) since they’re both trapped-in-a-building-with-monsters dramas. However, they had very different tones and appeals. Whereas Sweet Home was dark and more straight-up horror, Happiness took a much different tact. It had a lighter tone and was almost more thriller than horror, despite the zombies. But it worked surprisingly well, which is in large part thanks to the cast. It was the less deep but more fun of the two, and I felt more attached to the characters.
On the lighter side, we have Sell Your Haunted House which isn’t exactly horror but is all about ghosts. Jang Nara played the stoic, cool protagonist pitch-perfectly, and I enjoyed her character arc involving coping with her mother’s death. For me, it was a little too ghost of the week, but that’s just my preference. Don’t expect nuanced villains, though – the main villain is pretty cartoonish and stereotypical. While this wasn’t what I’d call a great drama, it was still fun overall. And who doesn’t want to see Jang Nara be badass?
When you’re in the mood … to question your faith in humanity
There were a few strong offerings this year of the dark variety. By now, it would be difficult not to know about the wildly popular Squid Game that put its own twist on the death game genre and offered up a critique on classism and capitalism. Despite its dire subject matter and violent nature, it didn’t feel overly heavy or depressing. It was easy to binge without feeling gloomy afterward.
For something even darker with a grimmer feel, there’s Hellbound. With so many dramas in recent years focusing on classism, it was refreshing to see a thematic drama that delved into a different topic. At only six episodes, it was tight and suspenseful, exploring the conception of morality and fear. It’s not what I’d call it good time per se, but it’s well made and well worth a watch when you’re in the mood for something deep and macabre.
I’m not usually a fan of crime dramas, but I have to give Beyond Evil its due. It is a serial killer drama, which is a strangely common genre these days, but it held its own. What set this crime drama apart for me was its small-town setting and character focus. It wasn’t super flashy and felt more grounded than a lot of these types of dramas do. I’m also a fan of the no-one-can-be trusted trope, so I liked how the drama didn’t make it too obvious who the good guys and bad guys were. Shin Ha-kyun in particular was fantastic as the haunted and unpredictable cop who was once suspected of murdering his sister.
When you’re in the mood … for introspection
Sometimes, I find myself in an introspective mood and dramas can appeal to that in various ways. The past year gave me a couple of dramas that satisfied my introspective mood differently. On the somber end of the spectrum is Human Disqualification, a beautifully filmed drama that examines the pressure to conform to society’s view of what makes one a successful person. Every character is a misfit in their own way and struggles to find meaning in life, as well as their own worth. Jeon Do-yeon and Ryu Joon-yeol are both fantastic here. It’s not at all a lighthearted watch, but it’s a great, slow-paced drama for those times when you’re contemplating the challenges of life. Although it can seem depressing at the start, it does end on a hopeful note, so I came out of it feeling positive.
On the more feel-good side, Run On was a lovely relationship-focused drama with a contemplative vibe. I appreciated that it didn’t resort to any unnecessary drama to keep things interesting. We got likable characters, fun friendships, and a sweet romantic relationship that developed in an organic way. Something about the drama felt almost soothing, and sometimes that’s just what I’m looking for.
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