Review extravaganza time!
I know: Already? It feels like just the other day I was killing myself to corral all my thoughts in coherent fashion in a monster review of 2011′s dramas, and already it’s time to lose sleep wrangling my thoughts together for 2012. Time sure flies when you’re having fun, or old. Guess which one I am?
These days I shy away from blanket statements like “This was an awesome year” or “This was a terrible year.” Dramaland has been putting out so much material that all the nuance gets sucked out of a flattening statement like that. If anything, 2012 was the year it overflowed with variety—so yes, there were terrible shows, and there were awesome shows, and there were shows every step in between. But thanks to the explosion of cable programming—aided by the launching of not one, not two, but four new cable stations boasting big drama lineups—there was just about something for everyone.
I’ll start with the non-drama series, since they’re a different format than our standard prime-time miniseries. It seems apt to talk about them together, to compare apples to apples. As with all years, I add the caveat that not all the year’s dramas are talked about in this post, but future reviews in our year-end series will do a pretty good job covering the spread.
Vampire youths from an alien planet spacewarp to Earth for the love of K-pop, and get wrangled into becoming idol trainees. This is not a case where you hear about the show and think, “How could this possibly go wrong?” Nope, it’s the kind of show where you could picture something going horribly awry at every opportunity—whether it’s the crackpot premise or the relatively green cast or the fledgling cable station that launched it—and wonder if it could somehow defy the odds.
Yes… and also no.
From a strictly business standpoint, Vampire Idol proved to be a mixed bag for its station, MBN, which launched in December 2011 with what seemed like a lack of preparation. The sitcom attracted modest early buzz and picked up steam with the younger demographic. But as the new stations soon found, programming is a tough business and their ratings began to falter; initial talk faded and MBN pulled the plug on Vampire Idol forty episodes early (from its planned 120).
From a creative standpoint, the show fared better. You’ll have to forgive the sitcom its crude production values, given what must have been a tiny budget, but the cast was appealing and the premise inventive. There were a lot of outrageous elements to the story—the ridiculous names, the Munsters-Meet-Rocky-Horror costuming, the wacky situations—but to their ever-loving credit, the cast stayed committed to their roles. There’s nothing worse in a campy project than an actor who seems embarrassed to be there. I love that they went for it, and that just made these vampidols all that much more endearing.
The creativeness went beyond just mashing unlikely genres together, since its universe felt full and thought-out; as we progressed, we saw that the story was going somewhere—both on earth and beyond. Clearly there were plans for the story to evolve… but the episode cutdown got in the way and the show never got to go where it was going.
This resulted in a truly rushed final week with a twist ending that was one of the biggest cases of dramaland WTF-ery I’ve ever seen. (Without spoiling the plot, suffice to say it’s like dropping a bomb, having a character ask, “What happened next?” and then slapping on a “The End” sign. Did somebody die? Did somebody get married? Was somebody a secret vampire all along?) Yet unlike other WTF endings in dramaland that have raised my blood pressure and had me swearing at my screen, this one didn’t piss me off, because it didn’t seem poorly conceived or lazily written. Rather, it’s like the writer was showing that there were Big Ideas in the works and used the final episode to deliver a big eff-you to the station, and I can’t help but be a little impressed with that. Although as always, it’s really the viewership that gets screwed most.
MBN has recently been able to salvage itself with variety and current-events programming, but early on it was after the sitcom market and You’re Here, You’re Here, You’re Really Here was another of its attempts. Like Vampire Idol, this was also cut from the initial 120 order (to 60) thanks to low ratings (army sitcom Bolder By the Day was another, getting cut from 50 to 36 episodes).
Unlike Vampire Idol, You’re Here didn’t have that spark of something special, that buzz factor to build up a mania following. It had bigger stars (Lee Soo-young and Jin Yi-han) and a bigger source of “inspiration” (U.S. sitcom Friends), but a more meandering approach with a juvenile funny bone. There’s nothing wrong with telling looser stories, but it always felt like this show didn’t know where it was going. Or that it was supposed to be going.
In the absence of other factors to make up for the lack of plotting—for instance, a great directorial style, fantastic acting, a quirky premise—it felt like a low-rent jumble of comic sketches. At the center you had three friends from childhood, living together, and… hanging out, I guess. Their mothers and fathers and bosses got into lame love triangles, but the main couple took an awfully long time to go anywhere.
Consider the more polished sitcom High Kick 3 by comparison (which I’m not covering this year since it was in last year’s review): That show also had a sprawling cast and small stories, but it treated its characters as real people and delivered poignant moments. It wasn’t necessarily a funny sitcom, but neither was You’re Here’s sledgehammer approach to laughs.
It’s too bad, because the loveline at the fore—Lee Soo-kyung and Jin Yi-han—was cute once it finally got moving and they were juggling the old friendship with the new romance. But it was too little, too late.
MBC’s Standby doesn’t have the cable excuse, and sure enough, it didn’t suffer the same shoestring budget as the abovementioned shows did. It had decent camerawork, an established lead-in (High Kick 3), and a heckuva star-studded cast. Okay, maybe “star” is taking it too far, but “mid-level-television-celebrity” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
I was pretty excited about Standby as it premiered, because I liked the idea of a workplace comedy to deviate from the usual family-centric ones, and I loved many of the cast members: Ryu Jin being goofy, Ha Suk-jin being hilariously uptight, Jung So-min being sweetly earnest, Go Kyung-pyo being a lovable idiot, Lee Ki-woo being… ab-tastic?
Sadly, writing will trump cast every time—or in this case, bad writing will sink a good cast. The show took a surface approach to everything: its characters, backstories, jokes, conflicts. All one-dimensional and therefore flat. I wanted to feel for them, but they never dug deep and searched for real connections. It was sitcom paint-by-numbers: here’s a joke scenario, act it out, slap in a laugh track! That makes it funny, right?
The characters were the show’s biggest weakness, in that they felt written as sketches or caricatures: big blank gaps with nothing to fill them in to make them feel whole. Ha Suk-jin did the most with his, and Im Shi-wan has won me over, but aside from them the characters often acted in ways that felt mechanical. I’d say better luck next time, but MBC has pulled the plug on sitcoms, so let’s just hope to see the cast in better dramas in the future.
At three episodes, Ma Boy is probably best compared to a TV movie—there’s not much time to develop emotions, and with such a young target audience (lead actress Kim So-hyun plays 16, but is just 13) the love angle lacks a sense of reality. (We know she can do tear-jerking romance, but this isn’t the same market as I Miss You.) That’s fine, as this falls squarely in the range of Disbeliefs I Can Willingly Suspend; just know that we’re working with a different set of restrictions here.
What works for Ma Boy is that despite its one-line premise (pretty boy disguises self as pretty girl), it doesn’t expect the gimmick to do all the heavy lifting. Our hero may find himself in drag, but instead of going for the cheap laugh, the show gives him an emotional conflict and a direction. The heroine has a key role in his trajectory, pushing him to find himself, so that while I don’t really feel the chemistry there between the actors (with their age gap, that’s something of a relief), I appreciate their narrative connection. As a bonus, supporting characters were cute too, with the idol boy Tae-joon wringing extra laughs for his adorable self-absorbed posturing.
Ma Boy’s biggest asset is that in three short episodes, it tells a story that’s surprisingly complete. It knows what it is and is true to its direction, leaving us with a satisfying wrap-up. Ultimately it was short and sweet. Like the heroine.
This was a good idea in concept. It wasn’t so awful in execution, either—for the first half, at least. Color of Woman was the inaugural drama for another fledgling station, Channel A, and I liked its approach. If you’re trying to hang with the Big Three stations, you need to set yourself apart somehow by being better or different. Color of Woman opted for different, with a tone that skewed lighter and slower than standard prime-time fare; it was a breezy take on the workplace drama, centered around a careerwoman and her friendships and romances. Sort of like Ugly Betty mixed with a bit of Dal Ja.
The tone was welcome, flirty and cute in a year that was rather absent of both. The characters had great rapport and the main foursome was charming. Pitting two diametric opposites against each other in work and in love, the two female leads could have been made shrill caricatures of catty frenemies. Thankfully the series took the other approach, developing them as grudging friends rather than backstabbers.
I’d argue that its place on a cable station was good for Color of Woman, which may have been too lightweight for a mainstream slot. In its corner of the TV grid, the series got its chance to play with a simple second-chances romance, and the requisite meddling stayed relatively low-key.
…until it didn’t. When the drama was all of the above things, it was entertaining enough—unchallenging and unthrilling, perhaps, but a nice casual watch. But perhaps the drama was too laid-back, too lacking in conflict, to sustain its initial premise. It started to run out of steam, and thus overcompensated by throwing excess at it. Breakups, conflicts, business-related schemes. What started as an easy rom-com turned exaggerated and lost its sense of fun. I’m still fairly sure there’s a cute show buried in the midst of all that clutter, but it may not be worth the effort to dig it out.
Like many dramas this year, Salaryman looked amazing from a purely visual standpoint. More and more shows are adopting fancier cameras and upping the quality of their cinematography, and sometimes the pretty pictures can obscure the value of the material itself. For instance, a fair share of mediocre-to-poor dramas have looked fabulous and may, perhaps, have been received with more generous spirits than a similar show shot in the standard format. Thankfully some did have the content to match their visual flair, and Salaryman was one of those.
I have to concede that I was a bigger fan of the offbeat wackiness of its earlier episodes, compared to the shift in focus of its latter half. I do wish that Salaryman had sustained that light-hearted thread the whole way through, which is a common complaint/occurrence in practically any drama that starts out hilarious. They just all tend to tone down as they progress; I’m not sure whether it’s a deliberate choice to skew dramatic once you’ve hooked your audience, or whether the loss of comic momentum is a hurdle all comedies have to confront at some point.
Even so, I found enough in Salaryman to keep me onboard and rooting for our characters, an unlikely odd-couple pairing of the perpetually great Lee Beom-soo and the amusingly foul-mouthed Jung Ryeo-won. The drama boasted strong performances all around, whether it was by the leads or the bevy of veteran mainstays who consistently turn out solid performances, led by Kim Seo-hyung as the tightly wound villain. There was an extension (sigh) that did drag the final stretch out longer than necessary, as those things are wont to do, but it was fun while it lasted.
Gorgeous costuming, a colorful fictional Joseon, a sparkling adolescent romance. Charming young actors, a stellar soundtrack with lush fusion-classical touches, a clear good-evil dichotomy, a hint of the occult. It’s no wonder that The Moon That Embraces the Sun picked up a lot of hype early on and built on that steam as the drama transitioned to its adult storyline. By then it had amassed such momentum that it was apparently going to take a lot more than a cartoonish villain (bug-eyed Queen Grandma), some amnesia, and a gossamer-thin thread of conflict to get people to turn away. And they didn’t.
The adults years were not without their appeal, and had some solid performances, like Kim Soo-hyun as the frustrated young king and Kim Min-seo as his love-starved wife. The problem was that as the drama wore on it became painfully clear that Moon/Sun was coasting on one conceit, and that everything else served as set dressing to frame that conflict: The king’s still hung up on his first love.
First love does occupy a huge part of dramaland as a motif, a motivation, a conflict that Just Won’t Die. A drama that hinges upon it is hardly new. Yet given the stakes in play here—the throne, the rule of an entire nation, succession intrigue—you can’t help but wonder why the king doesn’t have better things to do than obsess over a dead girl. A better drama would have given the king another layer of conflict to sustain the character, but no, this hero’s got a one-track-mind, and it’s not fixated on how to rule his country better. Even plotlines that were given such huge weight (as in the royal consummation) were suddenly dropped, proving that they were mere placeholders while the couple was in its separation stage.
With ratings breaking the 40% mark (truly rare these days, and for a miniseries, too), this drama is one of the most overrated of the year, in the most literal way. Yet how do you argue with a drama’s ability to speak to a huge segment of the viewing audience? Should we really be turning that disappointment inward, at our tastes, rather than blaming the show for churning out mediocrity dressed as fine fare?
Nah, I’d rather blame the drama.
The classic failed sequel. I knew I oughtn’t get my hopes too high for the second round, but even with my reservations I was ill-prepared for just how far this franchise could plummet in a year. Where was the heart, the fun, the tension, the underdog thrills? Where was the plot? The point?
Dream High 2 is what you get when you put together a show backwards. Which is to say: You cast, record songs, shoot, then remember at the last minute that you need a story. The first season was by no means perfect, but it’s as though the second took all the flaws of the first and magnified them, then ditched what made us love the franchise in the first place. That’s not throwing away the baby with the bathwater; that’s tossing out the baby, then serving up the bathwater as a fine vintage.
Yeah, no. We’re not buying it.
I can’t put the blame all in one corner, though; that’s something that has to get spread all around. The director was all over the place and needed focus. The musical sequences should have been fun, but were overproduced and irrelevant (ten-minute music videos dropped into an episode—yawn). The idol-laden cast was supposed to draw viewers, but they were paired in the strangest configurations bereft of chemistry. Kang Sora came off such a strong showing in Sunny, but her character was such a sad sack.
Which isn’t to say there was no potential. With the once-illustrious Kirin becoming a dump, we extended the underdog setup for the entire school, and the idols were formidable rivals for our motley assortment of averagely talented students. The songs were catchy.
But the series couldn’t commit to anything, and so rivalries fizzled out and lovelines trailed into nothingness and characters’ dreams were given up. Isn’t that a terrible message for a drama with this title? Dream high, but when your wings melt and you crash to earth you’ll have to change those dreams.
Or in other words: Give up. Like I did with the show.
Hands down (and hands up?), Shut Up: Flower Boy Band was my favorite drama of the year. And not by a nose or a hair, but a huge margin.
This was one of 2012′s earliest offerings, yet it’s still the one that sticks the most vividly in my mind, and more significantly, in my heart. There’s something about its approach—raw but not too gritty, heartfelt but not saccharine—that hit me deep and reminded me of what it felt to be young and floundering and scrabbling for hope. Not that I was ever a teenage street rat with abusive parents and a soul seeking solace in rock ‘n’ roll, but the drama isn’t really about that. It’s about making your way in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with you, of proving to it—and yourself—that you’re more than a lost cause, and of finding a home in your friends, even when you come to divergent paths. Or maybe especially then.
When I think of Shut Up, I think of hearts on fire. The emotion is stripped-down, and that rawness imbues it with added power. Especially when experience it through the eyes of a hero who struggles to process that depth of feeling in words—what a wonderful, charged performance by Sung Joon—because you get what he feels on a visceral level rather than computing his words intellectually.
Narrative themes aside, Shut Up was also wonderfully executed from a technical standpoint. Few dramas this year remained constant throughout and felt whole, but Shut Up had a completeness to its story and an ending that made sense and satisfied. It’s sad how rare that is in dramaland.
Even with all the angst and challenges the plot dished out, Shut Up also provided one of the best examples of bromance, served up five ways (six if we include Lee Min-ki’s cameo—how could we not?). The guys acted like real friends who didn’t always see eye to eye but always had each other’s backs. And at the drama’s core, amid the plotlines of friendship, romance, and ambition, we got a message of growing up and finding yourself, and of being true without selling yourself out (or anyone else) along the way. Words to live by.
Rooftop Prince is an odd duck. It’s one drama in the middle, bookended by a different drama at either end. It had some of the funniest laugh-out-loud scenes this year, but also got weighed down by absurd baddies and heavy melo twists. For a fusion sageuk, there was a tiresome lot of corporate takeover scheming. It had a time-travel element, but it got overshadowed—in a year full of time travel!—by reincarnation and that old standby, Fate.
To the drama’s credit, it was bolstered by committed comic performances, belly laughs, and a winsome chemistry between the leads, Han Ji-min and Yoochun. His portrayal of the haughty prince humiliated by modernity was hilarious, and welcome for its lack of vanity. ‘Cause we’ve gotta be honest here, that troll hair was not his best look, nor were the Power Ranger tracksuits or his comic array of derp faces. But they were all in service of the series, and it reaped the benefits.
Rooftop Prince was wildly uneven, even at its best, but thankfully it happens to be one of those shows that manage to remain entertaining despite the flashes of ineptitude. Yes, the villains were terrible and over-the-top, but their incompetence at villiany made them fun to hate. And it turns out that viewers will forgive lack of plot momentum, IF the alternative is at least entertaining. Our quartet of Joseon fish out of water were definitely that, with their adorable misunderstandings of present-day culture and the way they latched onto their 21st-century guide like a mother hen.
The series tends to fall apart under scrutiny; it comes together as a whole the way a closetful of mixed puzzle pieces do—you can cram them together, but they won’t fit right. Its resolution of the time-travel conflict is bittersweet at best (and that’s if you didn’t find it aggravating or confusing), added to the fact that the time-travel mechanism itself was never explained. Really, it was just a shell for Fate—watch out, she comes disguised now! But to look on the bright side, this was a drama that made me laugh and kept me smiling, and allowed me to disengage easily at all other points. As a bonus, that durned Yoochun is just adorable, especially paired with the sprightly Han Ji-min.
So while it almost doesn’t register as a real drama series for me, as a collection of comic vignettes it does the trick.
If Rooftop Prince had one of the flimsiest time-travel explanations of the year, then Queen In-hyun’s Man had the strongest. I wasn’t perfectly satisfied with it, but the narrative did a solid job of establishing the rules and hewing to its internal logic (most of the time). Thanks to that consistency we were able to invest ourselves into the hero’s century-skipping; the time-travel became a character unto itself, at times a savior and at others a heartbreaking antagonist.
What it wasn’t, thankfully, was an agent of Fate. This drama took a seriously refreshing attitude about Fate—in that it had no hand in things. The characters rejected the idea that they were drawn to each other by anything other than choice, and such was the strength of that choice that they always managed to find their way back to each other. Even across time, space, and forgotten memories. Where there’s a will there’s a way, apparently, which means these two earned their happy ending.
A good thing, too, since Yoo Inna and Ji Hyun-woo had some of the strongest, most palpable chemistry around. Perhaps that’s helped by their offscreen dating status, but that’s never a guarantee that the kisses will crackle onscreen. Fortunately for this smitten duo, they got a lot of practice time in. (Seriously! So many kisses. Not a complaint.)
There’s political intrigue in the Joseon scenes and meddling exes in the modern-day ones, but mostly Queen In-hyun’s Man is pure romance. And the best kind, at that: The kind that defies all pesky interferences and does its damnedest to be realized. The kind that feels like everything pales in comparison to such an intense love. The kind you wanna believe in.
Yeah, that was look on my face too—a little horrified, a little deadened inside—while watching the whole thing. I’m still not sure why I did. Maybe it was human nature rearing its ugly rubbernecking head, where you see a train wreck and need to know all the gory details.
Nowhere in dramaland was the premise-versus-execution quandary more apparent than in Dr. Jin. Especially considering that it had an existing template of how to execute it properly. It’s like taking tracing paper to a drawing of a tree and coming away with a mutant cat. There’s a well-produced, well-received source drama right there; you couldn’t manage a half-decent facsimile?
Under this production team, no. The directors bear the brunt of the blame here, proving that Dr. Jin was a failure of realization, not conception. In theory, we could have gotten quite the interesting historical-fusion melding as the modern doc struggles with ethical questions of whether he should let people die to let history run its course, or to interfere because he took an oath to save lives. (In practice, our hero was a hard-headed dolt who seemed surprised every time he realized that messing with history was perhaps inadvisable. But did it anyway. And then got upset when all was not well. You dolt.) From a genre standpoint, Dr. Jin offered up a fresh take in the rather cluttered field of medical dramas by forcing our hero to MacGuyver his way through the Joseon era.
The directors seemed determined to outdo themselves on the gross-out scale, pouring loving attention and intimate detail into shots of vomit, pus, and diarrhea. And syphilis boils, and crude abdominal surgery, and you get the point. You’d think they could put the same care into character consistency or a romance that didn’t defy logic. (She has the same face, ergo she is a parallel existence? And because I love one version, I automatically love the other because of the transitive property of love?) The acting ranged from acceptable to terrible… yet you can hardly hold the cast accountable when nothing else made sense.
Worst of all, perhaps, was that even if the individual flaws were overlooked (and that would be one major blind spot), the drama would still fall abysmally flat, because as a whole it’s just as much a mess as its parts are. Tonally unsure of itself, Dr. Jin had some broadly comedic moments where you were almost sure they meant to be funny, but then went for weighty political intrigue (which got peppered with farts, ’cause, okay), time-travel-driven existentialism, melodramatic romantic angst, social commentary, and the kitchen sink while we were at it.
This is a textbook failed drama if ever there were one—being that failure came on all levels—and a show really ought not be watchable solely ironically. On the upside, unintentional hilarity is still hilarity. (A gummi bear brain fetus. WTF?)
Oh, Gaksital. Hold on, I need a minnit to pull myself together. *tears*
If I recall Gaksital through a coldly analytical lens, I will remember that it was far from a perfect show. It had uneven swings in pacing and tempo and its rough edges were sometimes visible; you could make out the place where its vision hit up against constraints of its production environment (say, the live shoot, the budget, the sets). So Gaksital it wasn’t a seamless affair; there were bumps and hiccups along the way. I remember that.
Yet it had a potent alchemy that elevated the show beyond its weakest links. Overall it left such a strong impression that when I think of the drama, it’s like the thinking recedes and the feeling takes over. I relive its emotional highs, the welling of spirit and passion that it inspired.
Gaksital was characterized by a number of notable traits: For one, it dared go darker than many a prime-time drama has ventured. Forget sheer body count, the hero himself traversed a side swath of the nobility spectrum—from not at all to awesomely so, but not always on a linear path.
Moreover, the storytelling was strong and the direction top-notch. Action, music, gravitas—all were calibrated skillfully and in service of the story; it didn’t feel silly when trying to convey dire, or underdeliver when going for grand. Committed acting from leads Joo-won and Park Ki-woong brought their conflicted love and growing antagonism to life and broke your heart, in a small-scale representation of the greater conflict, which broke your heart again.
Historical context was worked in to anchor the story in a specific time and place, and that incorporation of real-life injustices and atrocities added heft to the fictional storyline. But it was the show’s deft hand that conveyed the emotional weight, and the show’s awesomely shot action scenes that made it so badass. Gaksital may have had its missteps, but nobody could accuse it of being afraid to go to difficult places or taking the easy way out. It had balls of steel, and a heart as big as the country our characters fought to claim for themselves.
Romantic comedies are so dependent on chemistry that even when you’ve got all the other elements in play, without a spark between the couple you’re toast. That’s what I Do, I Do felt like to me: a workable setup pulled down by a lack of believable connection between the workaholic heroine and her much younger, much more naive love interest.
It’s a shame since individually, they did their parts. Had I Do been a bigger hit, it would have been lauded as Lee Jang-woo’s big breakout; he burst onto the screen with such exuberance and warmth. Plus, Kim Sun-ah has had chemistry with so many of her co-stars that you just take it for granted that she’ll sizzle with anybody. Part of the problem was that she was so true to character that her type-A humorless heroine rarely broke from her dour mold to reveal the vulnerability underneath. I understand that as a narrative choice, but it had the unfortunate side effect of killing Kim’s spark. And she has such spark.
Trendies like I Do live and die by their relationships; since so many of these shows tread the same ground in terms of plot, it’s up to the dramas to find characters the audience can root for and get behind, whose paths we want to follow. Again I think he succeeded; she had a tougher task and never quite got there for me. I wanted to like her, and I wanted her to succeed—but emotionally, I wasn’t with her.
Where I Do picks up points is in really going whole hog with its concept of reversing gender roles in the workplace. She’s not just a noona, but the acting head of the company. He’s not just a younger co-worker, but the fresh-faced new hire who’s the total bottom of the office totem pole—the guy who fetches coffee and cleans up the office. More than being about age, this is about power and role reversal. For all that dramaland loves its Candy heroines being rescued by their Daddy Long Legs and chaebol heroes, it’s rare to get the flipside.
The drama didn’t do as much with that swap as it could have but I appreciate it taking that step, perhaps clearing a path that more future drama heroines can travel. Preferably in stylish heels.
Big is a concept without plot. That is to say, it’s a body-swapper without direction. It’s Gong Yoo, there to just… look pretty. (Which he achieves, fabulously.)
Not all dramas need to be heavily plot-driven; depending on the genre, a strong concept can carry a lot. However, for being a high-concept fantasy romance, Big really needed to work through its story so that there was a point. It needed a meaning behind the whole gimmick upon which it’s predicated, other than an excuse for a star to do some charming acting. (Which he did, fabulously.)
A resolution that made sense would’ve been nice, while we’re making a wish list. It felt like the story ended because the show ran out of time and direction; it came to an end because it stopped moving, not because that was the destination. Insert time skip, automatically resolve conflict! (Whaddaya mean, the world doesn’t work that way?) What a travesty to build the drama around one actor, especially when his true identity wasn’t the “hero” of the story. You put the star before the story, and we all suffered. (Even if he was fabulous.)
The biggest misstep the drama made was in raising this very interesting philosophical question—if the hero’s inhabiting another’s body, who is it that the heroine loves?—and then failing to answer it properly. You really wanted the drama to go there, to prove that of course the shell was less important than the good stuff inside, but then why couldn’t they actually show that? In refusing to give its hero his resolution, or to trust us to accept it, the drama basically contradicted the message it purported to convey. The shell was most important after all.
Big did mask some of its plotular failings (at least early on) by bringing out that gorgeous hi-def camera to put its gorgeous cast in the best possible light. A couple of quirky characters in the supporting cast kept the tone zippy, with Suzy as a dogged stalker and Baek Sung-hyun as a lovelorn puppy. So cute.
It wasn’t all drear; when Big bothered to be funny it was breezy fun—although you’d never guess that it was written by the zany Hong sisters, given its sedate sense of comedy. It’s like the star writing duo finally got tired after eight dramas and let their minds and senses of humor go on vacation. Next time, I’d rather they took the vacation and came back refreshed, ready to make us laugh with more cracktastic fare in the vein of You’re Beautiful or My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho. By no means do I write them off as scriptwriters because of one big (heh) disappointment, but I’m also not about to let my love for Delightful Girl Chun-hyang, Best Love et al. con me into letting Big off the hook. This one’s a miss.
Aw, Arang and the Magistrate. Whether it was because of timing, strong competition, or its plot dense in worldbuilding, I feel like this show got short shrift; it gets my nod for the year’s most underrated.
On the surface this seems like your garden-variety fusion sageuk, although who’d've thought I’d ever say fusion sageuks were ordinary? But there you have it—they’ve become so commonplace that being fusiony and sageuky alone is no longer enough to make a drama stand out from the pack. Arang did that by diving into its fantasy mythology with enthusiasm and constructing a rich world that was fresh, well-conceived, and above all, home to a complete story.
Mysteries are best unraveled in slow, gradual reveals that keep just enough information out of our reach to keep us engaged, but not so much that it feels like the writers are fishing for ways to be deliberately cryptic. Too many shows are so intent on keeping the audience guessing that they change things along the way to keep the truth ever out of reach—those get aggravating. Arang unveiled its answers with a confidence that bespoke careful planning, and if you happened to guess the truth ahead of time, great. They weren’t going to yank that out of your hands and swap it with something else just to frustrate your expectations. I appreciated its assurance in its mythology and the way everything fit together in the end.
Although Arang started off with a comedic bent, the prevailing tone was one of stirring pathos—it was buoyed by a quiet kind of intensity, much of which we have Lee Jun-ki to owe. I have never liked him more than as the steadfast, dogged magistrate, who emitted strength even in stillness. He was one of my favorite characters of the year, even above Shin Mina’s sympathetic displaced-ghost character, who sadly became less interesting as the story turned her more into an object to be moved by the others’ machinations. But as much as I was let down by her lack of independent movement, I loved her chemistry with the hero, and together they conveyed a sweetly stirring romance. Arang may not have had the passionate smooches or the grand confessions, but the characters’ connection felt rock-solid and full of longing.
As icing on the cake, the drama’s score was one of my favorites of the year, rich and melodic to match its colorful world. With its emotionally charged and engrossing storytelling, it’s too bad more people didn’t cotton on to Arang and the Magistrate, but it did all the right things for me.
What a fantastic story Answer Me, 1997 turned out to be. By all rights it should’ve been a tiny show on a cable station that aired to a niche fanbase of 30-somethings who could relate to the nostalgia of being in high school in 1997. It was expected to air quietly, and exit quietly. Thus there were zero expectations and practically no promotional hype going into its premiere; what little attention it did garner was mostly thanks to Eun Ji-won, former ’90s idol, joining the cast of rookies.
Instead, the little miniseries that could quickly drew positive word of mouth and blew up into a full-fledged sensation, not just outperforming expectations but setting new records for cable, its ratings outstripping some prime-time dramas on the Big Three. The newbie cast rose to the occasion and delivered strong performances, and Answer Me, 1997 worked its way into the pop-culture consciousness at large.
For all that, Answer Me can thank its writing: witty, thoughtful, and smart. This is a writer’s drama through and through, and I firmly believe that’s why it was capable of such a dramatic Cinderella story (for the production, I mean, not the plot itself)—the producers allowed the writers to tell the story they wanted, and trusted them to deliver. Then because they did deliver, the fans recognized that quality and came onboard in droves.
It helps that the ’90s are just far back in our memories to be a fun throwback, with its H.O.T fashions, the Sechs Kies fanwars, and the S.E.S hair. Not to mention the parade of cameos to send the audience a wink-wink, nod-nod at the references. Still, no abundance of meta jokes could carry a show, and that burden fell to the show’s adroit hand in portraying the sweet little moments of life, and the relationship at its crux: Jung Eun-ji and Seo In-gook, who played first loves thwarted by missed timing and miscommunication. The series played with the “Who does she end up with?” question the whole way through, but that wasn’t really the driving force (because we all knew, didn’t we?). It was their rapport that grabbed us and made us wish them the best.
To be sure, some of its overwhelming hype worked against it; the drama’s second half get bogged down by overindulgent writing, meandering conversations, and fan-service-driven moments. The plotting lost momentum and the charm of the high school years faded a bit. It’s true that those things diminished my enjoyment as we wound to a close, but taken in a broader context these are truly small complaints. Overall, Answer Me, 1997 was one of the strongest dramas of the year, alternately humorous and heart-tugging, with relatable emotions that took me back to a time that felt sweeter and simpler. Even if those outrageous hairstyles are the furthest from either.
Here we come to the most recent of the time-slipping bunch with SBS’s Faith, which bears a number of similarities to previous entries in the genre, most obviously Dr. Jin for the medical angle. As it turns out, though, when you’ve got so many dramas trading on the same central conceit it’s really the differences that stand out, rather than the gimmicks they’ve got in common.
Faith shook things up a little by making our traveler a female character, which seems a minor difference on paper, perhaps, but opened up a whole host of issues bypassed by the other dramas. And I don’t just mean by forcing our heroine to concoct her own cosmetics out of herbs (though she did that—you can take the girl out of Cheongdam-dong, but you can’t take Cheongdam-dong out of the girl). In making the woman the foreign entity, Faith turned her into a spoil of war, buffeted about by powerful men who all wanted to possess her in some way as an asset. Thankfully, she wasn’t having any of that and refused to relegate herself to object status.
That’s one example of Faith’s strengths: It had interesting philosophical debates written into the storylines, with characters’ actions reflecting the greater themes and messages in play. Too bad Faith also had one big downfall: It was plodding. Some might say slow. Others might use the word boring. What it wasn’t was exciting, epic, or grandiose.
Since there are plenty of fine shows that are not exciting, epic, or grandiose, this should not have been a huge drawback for Faith, except for the fact that this project was once drawn along the lines of exciting, epic, and grandiose. That was before it languished on the shelf for a couple of years while the production dealt with a revolving door of lead actors and lost a chunk of its budget. Nothing a good revision couldn’t fix, only you got the sense that they never were able to fully shed their former intentions. Some parts were scaled down accordingly to this newer, quieter, more cerebral story. Others wanted to be badass and action-worthy and were woefully short of the mark in execution. Ultimately it felt like Faith wanted to be two different shows but never could make up its mind which way to go.
The romance between the modern Kim Hee-sun and Goryeo’s warrior Lee Min-ho ended up carrying much of the show, which is fine since they showed rapport and really worked the star-crossed (or time-space-crossed) lovers angle. It was less fine in that Faith wasn’t meant for the romance to be the end-all and be-all, so the love story had to shoulder more narrative burden than it should have. In contrast, the rest of the cast lacked cohesion, often dropping in and out without transitions, leaving threads untied.
Faith was by no means the worst of the time travelers, but neither was it at the top of the heap, either. Unfortunately its production limitations were all too evident, keeping it firmly in the middle of the pack.
As a true sequel—uncommon in dramaland—Vampire Prosecutor 2 hit the ground running, wasting no time in picking up where Season 1 left off. We had our hot broody vamp back, hotter and broodier than ever, as well as his team of prosecutor-investigators. We lost a couple of supporting characters, but gained meaningful additions: the warm but stubborn new coroner joined the workplace family, the icy and unyielding new prosecutor became the antagonistic boss, and a fearsome new Big Bad rolled into town in Red Eyes.
By all rights, this indicated an upgraded Vampire Prosecutor. With the team camaraderie already established, we could get right to enjoying the repartee. Our hero went from aloof to a protective father figure to his team, which invested him more fully than in the first season. Plus, we were given a window into the backstory of this show’s taken on vampire mythology.
I know all this, and I was prepared to jump into Season 2 with all the gusto of the last one. Yet for whatever reason, it lacked a certain spark this year and I was hard-pressed to pinpoint the cause. The series had the same stylish look, the same fast-paced action scenes, and the same amount of blood ‘n’ guts (maybe a little more). Why didn’t I care as much?
I’m still not sure I know, but a huge chunk of my investment in the story must have left the building when the show chose to expand its vampire world and therefore diminished the hero’s own role in it. There were long stretches of story that omitted him, that had him offscreen or reacting to stuff, and that was frustrating. What good is Vampire Prosecutor without THE vampire prosecutor?
Being on a cable movie channel, OCN, this show enjoys greater leeway with violence and language—it’s part of the appeal, really. It feels that this year they ran wild with that freedom, however, and went far beyond the needs of its stories to just out-shock and out-gore itself. It got hard to watch, and felt more and more gratuitous. Part of our vampire prosecutor’s aura of cool comes from his stylish restraint; it would serve the drama to strive for the same.
As the most recent of the year’s big hits, Nice Guy is riding a wave of buzz right now that positions it nicely for awards season, which is good news for its cast. It certainly knew how to push all the right narrative buttons and give us fast-paced melodrama. In conjunction with strong performances and brisk editing, Nice Guy had the knack of sweeping us into its world of revenges and betrayals.
That speed was a huge asset, because the drama didn’t allow you to take any time to pause and consider its flaws, of which there were plenty—it just barreled onward, overriding potential hangups. As though dancing in circles around the audience would prevent it from noticing inconsistencies, or at least from caring about them. To be sure, as a tactic it does work; I would find myself swept up in the feeling of the show, regardless of the little voice protesting the absurdity of the events that were transpiring onscreen.
I’m not sure Nice Guy would have been the success it was without Song Joong-ki playing the titular nice guy—or is he? The show argued, sort of, that he was the world’s nicest guy, which is why the betrayal sent him on that path of destruction wherein he turned into a woman-using, body-selling, self-hating bad guy, except all his badness was really just a roundabout expression of his innate niceness, because he never would have been driven to such extremes had he not been a decent person at the core, hence his badness is proof of his goodness. Or something.
That’s an example of the convoluted kind of logic that formed the twisted framework for this show, which had you scratching your head until you usually just gave up and figured, “Hey, it sounds good. Must be right.” If it sounds smart, it must be smart? Again, it’s dancing in circles to confuse your audience into compliance, like the writers picked up battle tactics learned by watching insects.
But back to Song Joong-ki, who was certainly good as the hero (a term to be used loosely here), though perhaps not as strong as he was in last year’s Tree With Deep Roots. I felt no connection to the character, which was partly a function of writing that kept him a cipher for most of the drama’s run, and partly because he was a guy who did bad things and then got excused because he was really pretty, and also maybe really just misunderstood at the core. Because god forbid he actually be held accountable for his misdeeds without rationalizing it through this filter. If anything it was Moon Chae-won’s amnesiac heroine who drove the story, although her inexplicable love of the hero never rang true for me.
That may be because these were not people who existed in our reality, but rather in a hyperreality of extreme situations and extreme emotions. Thanks to the strong acting and a very well-paced sense of escalation and movement, despite my misgivings I found Nice Guy an easy, engaging watch—maybe because time flies when you’re watching unlikable people being horrible to each other. There’s a queer sense of detached gratification in watching them tear each other apart, I suppose.
That’s why I feel like there’s a strange veneer over Nice Guy, like it somehow managed to use its stylish delivery to hoodwink the viewers into thinking it some masterwork of cleverness when really, it’s pretty conventional stuff, just packaged really prettily. Even without the flat ending—disappointing in its ambiguity, but more so in the way its message seems to negate a lot of what happened in the show—Nice Guy gets my vote for the year’s most overrated drama.
The other big trend this year, though less represented in this review, was the body-swapper. The comedy was inherent in the premise, so I was all set for hilarity in Oohlala Spouses as a married couple on the outs gets swapped and comes to a new understanding.
Curiously, the body-swappers didn’t capitalize on the full comic potential and chose to go melo, which seems like an odd choice until you remember that dramaland loves its melos. Still, I would have been onboard with a melo twist… if only the show weren’t built on what I believe was a flawed premise. Namely, that this was a marriage that should be saved.
The setup itself worked, but where it fell flat was in the portrayal of the marriage at the outset. In getting us onboard the heroine’s plight as the unloved, unappreciated wife, the drama went to extremes in painting the husband as a terrible person. The fundamental conflict was made so strong that the lead was left too far afield in unlikable territory. I’m all for character redemption, but the balance was so skewed in the beginning that I just couldn’t get behind the idea of reconciliation.
Thus the “gods” pulling the strings behind the scenes seemed unreasonable and capricious, and I wanted to demand that they just let these poor humans be. Who were they to “know better”? They were Fate in person form, in the most annoying way possible.
For a while I pondered whether the alternate pairing was viable, only that turned out to be impossible since the show became locked into its original concept at the outset with its reincarnation framework. It established the idea that our married couple is Fated To Be, and we were stuck with it.
I’m setting these dramas off in their own section, because as of this writing they’re all still airing. But some are already near the halfway mark and next year’s a long way off, so I’ll touch on them briefly here.
All that aside, I’ve been keeping up with the show despite the decision to stop recapping it (too aggravating for that level of scrutiny), and I find that the show has enough qualities to keep me coming back. (One of those may be a masochistic trigger, so take with a grain of salt.) The conflicts are strong, and I Miss You is actually a fairly quick watch, despite the fact that the content has a tendency to raise your blood pressure or make you want to die.
The issue I have with the show is in the way it doles out the pain. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with drawing upon intense human experiences as a driver of storytelling, so the fact that pain is doled out isn’t the issue. No, it’s the way the drama makes tearjerking its goal, rather than an organic byproduct of a well-written story. Each plot turn feels designed to maximize your viewing anguish, as though there’s some complicated drama calculus designed to churn out the highest pain-per-second quota possible. Thus I feel manipulated into tears, rather than shedding them because I’m caught up in the plight of these people. I don’t do well with crying on cue, and this is no exception.
That’s why I Miss You feels strangely cold, despite the amount of intense emotions paraded in and out of these characters’ lives. This kind of show is and always has been a vehicle for acting more than anything—the kind of stuff to beef up the highlight reels and give the stars an exercise in expanding their range. I find Yoon Eun-hye and Yoochun credible in their roles, and I’m fairly sure they’ll come out of this project better actors. Good on them.
King of Dramas is a prime example of how you can turn anything into drama fodder, with pumping action and suspense and stakes, just so long as you execute well. The biggest conflict these characters face may be whether their drama makes it to air or whether they’ll have jobs for much longer, and yet my heart’s always ready to leap (or sink) along with them. The director earns the credit for much of this, knowing just when to turn up the sly humor or when to dial it down for a flash of real feeling to poke through.
I hesitate to name a drama best anything before it’s completed its run so I can’t call this one my favorite comedy of the year, but I can say it’s pretty close to claiming that title anyway. Yes, that’s partly because we’ve had a thin year for solid comedies, but it’s also because King of Dramas has a droll wit that makes me laugh, out loud, episode after episode. After so much heaviness and melancholy these past months, the burst of good humor is a welcome addition in dramaland.
Admittedly, the drama version of Jeon Woo-chi isn’t quite the zippy, stylish action-comedy I wanted it to be—not like the movie, say. It took longer than it should have to get to the point, and didn’t give enough anchoring into these characters or their world or why any of this is going on. So flawed, yes.
It is, however, picking up momentum now at a few weeks in, thankfully. Clark Kent is the obvious point of comparison for the hero’s nerdy, bespectacled alter ego, and after all the Batman-esque revenge stories we’ve seen, it’s definitely fun to have a lighter, more comic take on a classic superhero. The show also provides Cha Tae-hyun with plenty of fodder to make us laugh—he gets two characters, thus double the opportunity to crack us up with his hilarious brand of physical comedy and quick-witted deliveries.
This isn’t the show to turn to for epic conflicts or badass fighting (the action scenes are campy on a good day, best appreciated with a healthy side of humor). But if you’re into fantasy comedies and sageuks with a twist, Jeon Woo-chi might be the ticket to liven up the selection you’ve got on your plate. Not that it’s overflowing with drama selections or anything, I’m sure.
Just barely a week old at this point, I’ll keep this one short. Especially considering the 2013 in the title; I’m sure it’ll have a space in next year’s lineup. It just felt like it’d be such an omission to ignore School 2013 when it evoked such a strong response in me, and seems poised to take up residence in my heart for the foreseeable future.
This isn’t a trendy show, and it’s got a stated focus on keeping things realistic—real-life problems depicted in real-life ways. That means multi-faceted characters who shy away from stock characterizations, and people caught between rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to navigate their slice of their world. Already School 2013 shows potential to be the kind of drama that will quietly move you, speaking to you through its understanding of universal human experiences rather than big sweeping dramas. If this is a sign of what 2013 has in store for us, I think we’re looking at a promising new year.
What did you think of dramaland this year?
My favourite by far this year (and one of my favourite period) was Arang. What about you guys?