Year end drama reviews always starts off like a looming chore, telling me to wash the dish one more time even though I’ve washed it thoroughly already. But then I grow to appreciate it, the added step may yield a dirty spot I missed before, or even the chance to slow down and enjoy the process rather than bemoan the redundancy of it. I write because I love it, so why not look on the brighter more useful side and believe I have one more burst of energy left to wrap up drama writing for 2014.
Tackling this year’s crop of dramas watched didn’t yield any opinion changes due to the passage of time. Things really were what was offered and the good and bad all combined into a rather uneventful year for me. I watched a lot less than usual and was quite content without any worry that I was letting things slip by, even punting promising fare for eventual rainy day marathons depending on my mood. Going with my own flow felt particularly assuring and that likely contributed to this feeling of accomplishment with the ones I did watch. Overall I enjoyed this drama year, did you?
I don’t regret falling so quickly for Dr. Stranger and deciding to recap it. Once in a blue moon comes a drama so far out there it defies sensible description. The entire watch experience was surreal not to mention the increasingly bizarro plot. In the end it became a roller coaster of an off-the-rails ride that left me toddling around like a drunkard after I disembarked. I like K-dramas for more than just romance and makjang, sometimes the productions will aim high and at least deliver something ambitious. I checked out Dr. Stranger since it looked like SBS was shoot for the moon, except it unfortunately fell into a black hole of insanity. For those who survived, it’s a collective drama altering experience indeed, one that is probably more memorable than any specific plot elements that happened in the story itself.
SBS knows a good young leading man needs the right series of dramas to keep on growing as an actor. Lee Jong Seok is clearly the one of the network’s big development projects and Dr. Stranger on paper is a broad canvas to showcase a promising young talent. The drama is based on a well-received Korean novel and normally having a finished source material is a like going off a recipe with less chance for writing failure. Alas Dr. Stranger is one of those productions that uses the existing source as merely an inspiration of sorts, taking the characters and constructing mostly new scenarios that are intended to amp up the intensity. It was billed as a medical-spy-romance drama and ended up feeling like all three elements were warring with each other. The result was basically rocks fall down, an all-kill consequence of the medical aspects used a tricks for the political conspiracy to render everything absurd to the nth degree.
The highlight experience of Dr. Stranger is that I was never ever bored. There was no stagnation because the story kept going to stranger and stranger heights. Initially there is the inclination to try and make sense of it, or hope that eventually it’ll all make sense when secrets are revealed, but that hope was dashed in a long and arduous water torture of surgical competitions that obliterated the very basis of doctors behaving competently and ethically. Leading man Park Hoon was initially fun to watch and the reason I started liking Lee Jong Seok after finding him rather unimpressive for so long. He was part surgical savant and all romantic one-track soul loverboy inside, a character that had a memorable personality and life experience at the start only to turn reactionary to whatever crazy plot twists the story needed to achieve. Second male lead Park Hae Jin was even worse off, a character so underused as to be a criminal waste of his involvement, not to mention toddling between good and bad at the drop of a hat.
It would be a gross oversight to discuss Dr. Stranger without discussing an out-of-drama situation involving the audience online fight that broke out over the romantic love lines in the story between Park Hoon and the two female leads, Jin Se Yeon’s North Korean first love turned spy doctor and Kang Sora’s hospital chairman’s illegitimate doctor daughter. The drama billed Jin Se Yeon as the female lead but her character and performance was less charismatic and engaging than Kang Sora’s second female lead. That alone was enough for the drama discussion to be dominated for the remainder of its run by second lead shippers arguing, pleading, wheedling, insisting that a love line twist was forthcoming and Park Hoon would end up tossing his first love over for the fun new girl he just met. Never mind that was a betrayal of the fundamental aspect of his personality which was his all-consuming love for his sweetheart.
Kang Sora may have acted circles about Jin Se Yeon, but that wasn’t reason enough to torpedo a love line which made sense within the drama, much less incessantly disrupt the existing narrative flow wishing for something different. That the second female lead supporting contingent was so vocal nearly ruined the snarky second half watch for me. When the drama went to crazy town and I wanted to just go with the flow, the broken record calls for a love line switch turned into a distracting side show on top of the hot mess onscreen. I know this has happened before, most recently in 2013’s mania hit Answer Me 1994, but there wasn’t enough meat on DS to even merit the in-fighting. Not a single character was remotely relatable and behaved like rational human being so who the the heck really cares which girl Park Hoon ended up with? That a segment of viewers ended up disliked DS because he didn’t pick Kang Sora’s character, as opposed to the story being crazier than a packed mental hospital, was the icing on the loony cake.
Verdict: The doctors were not only strange but highly unethical, watch for the unintentional laughs like watching two supremely stupid animals run smack into each other in slow motion and then back up and do it over and over again.
Bride of the Century
This drama feels like it aired so long ago yet it was merely a spring of 2014 offering. Perhaps the old school K-drama feel contributes to the sensation that it belongs to an earlier era of offerings. Bride of the Century is one of my favorite watches this year even if the drama doesn’t merit any further accolades. The satisfaction comes from BotC exceeding expectations and being so entertaining the whole way through. Starring Lee Hong Ki and Yang Jin Sang, second string K-drama leads who had yet to demonstrate leading status charism and acting chops, together they shone brighter than in any previous project with the synergy that so many more established actors don’t even deliver. It’s only sweetly funny to consider that two new stars of tomorrow was created in a K-drama that plumbed all the great narratives of yesterday.
BotC came packaged with all the standard ingredients of an arrogant condescending chaebol, plucky Candy heroine, hate at first sight followed by fast paced falling in love, meddling parents, and intrusive second leads. The one thing that sets this story apart, and perhaps ties all the stale elements together with a fresh flavor, is the supernatural ghostly element that hovers over the entire narrative. BotC had a fun ghost lady who played matchmaker and vengeance wraith with equal aplomb, not to mention actually being an integral part of the story from set up to progression. Who figured K-dramas knew how to use a ghost sparingly with such memorable impact. Same goes with the makjang elements from lookalike female leads to kidnapping and attempted murder to evil mother figures, the usual suspects made entertaining because it led to quick and satisfying resolutions each time.
A romance drama can’t work unless the central love story is satisfying, even if the other elements are interesting and well executed. The OTP couple delivered big time in BotC, Lee Hong Ki and Yang Jin Sung was the most unexpected success pairing of the year for me, their stock characters elevated to memorable by smooth synergy and great timing whether a scene called for funny or intense. They owned my heart through their ride and I rooted for them even through short bouts of noble idiocy or petulant sulking. Having nice family members around them helped flesh out the world so that I could see them making a happily ever after together, one that isn’t predicated on a last minute wrap up. The drama delivered lots of satisfying OTP moments during the falling in love phase as well as the aftermath when they were trying to stay together. Overall BotC is one of the better romance K-dramas I’ve watched in any year.
Verdict: Marry me, Kang Joo! Oh wait, there’s the family curse on being your bride, you say? Then I’ll be happy to come to your wedding to Do Rim.
Miss Korea is everything I want in my dramas, with much of it stuff I never even knew I wanted much less expected to find here. Once in a blue moon does a drama come along so under the radar to deliver the most pleasing punch to the heart. It also does the nearly impossible, it makes an aspiring beauty queen story genuinely incredible to watch, the typical hero’s journey arc transposed impressively to a girl who didn’t go to college and is working at a dead end elevator girl job. That MK succeeded is doubly more satisfying considering that long maligned pretty face actress Lee Yeon Hee finally delivered an acting performance she can be proud of. I was proud as well to see her rise up to the challenge and be along for her coronation ride. It’s a pity MK was so underrated during its run and even now long after, it’s not only my favorite K-drama this year but also had the best complete soundtrack to add another layer of enjoyment long after the watch is done.
The writer chose to set the story in 1997 right after the South Korean economy collapsed in the Asian Financial Crisis. The difficult time period wasn’t just a nifty conceit, it was fully integrated into why the two leads needed to jointly create a beauty queen as well as how the result could have come about because so many ordinary people were struggling collectively. The drama took on a bleak and gritty sheen, juxtaposed deftly with sprinkles of manufactured glamour that didn’t magically solve problems but did provide pockets of hope. Lee Yeon Hee either pulled everything she got to play one of the best female leads this year in any drama, or she took advantage of working with established veteran talents coincidentally all from the Lee family tree: brainy blustery ex-boyfriend Lee Seon Kyun, kind uneducated gangster Lee Sung Min, and beauty queen maker Lee Mi Sook. Whatever the reason, the viewers reaped the awards of a wonderful story told with sincerity and acted with passion.
The romance borrowed one of the popular set ups of the year in exes getting a second chance, but this particular OTP never settled for pointless bickering or fell prey to endless misunderstandings. They worked through their mutual mistakes and immaturity of the past while working together in the present to fighter a greater enemy that is the cruel real world. That they did it while choosing to love each other again midway through and never letting go was touching and so rare to see. Each episode solved a problem from a previous episode while presenting yet another challenge, just like real life where overcoming one hurdle doesn’t mean resting on laurels. The iconic Miss Korea beauty pageant was skewered with both affection and incisive commentary without resorting to vicious attacks. To add a postscript about all the eye candy in the drama is almost unnecessary, except Lee Yeon Hee was always one of the prettiest leading ladies in K-ent and MK was the drama that made use of all her talents inside and out.
Verdict: And the winner of the 2014 Koala’s Favorite K-drama is……..dark horse contestant number 3 Miss Korea!
In a Good Way
For me In a Good Way is one of those once-in-a-decade awesome dramas, the kind of growing up journey that the viewer never wants to end because there are always more tremulous and insightful nuggets to mine. This is hands down my favorite TW-drama of the year, which sadly isn’t saying much since the offerings were so lackluster in 2014. I’m happy this one didn’t slip by my radar despite the early casting reveals showing a mostly green and fledging cast of wide-eyed pretties. Aside from the allure of male lead Lego Lee, this drama was by all accounts greenlit as filler fare before the next usual idol silly drama dropped. In the end IAGW proved to be above and beyond anything I thought I wanted in a TW-drama and gave me so many incredible memories and song selections to last until the next TW-drama crack arrives.
There’s always a niche for school setting dramas and the trick is to find really likeable and charismatic lead characters and weave compelling interactions between the group of friends. IAGW mastered that trick with sincerity and deftness which worked wonders to smooth over the clunkier bits of what passed for serious plot situations. The story starts from the chance meeting of country girl aspiring college student Lin Jia En played by the statuesque girl-next-door Kirsten Jen with the life of Lego Lee’s most popular boy on campus Liu Shan Feng (Liu Chuan). From their interactions, a larger web of college students ranging from childhood buddies to new crushes and same major friends all converge together at the silly sounding Treasure Hunting Club to solve mysteries and discover that real life treasures are more than just tangible finds. From the mundane to the serious, the students grew through conflict and companionship until the viewers are thoroughly drawn into their world and feel solidarity to seeing everyone get deserving happy endings.
It’s understandable that IAGW may not be for everyone, and my love for it comes from really connecting with the cultural mores and throwback 90’s era when I was in college myself. Not to mention most Taiwan idol dramas are the same tired shtick strung together different ways with different performers, so the startling freshness of the IAGW story and approach was doubly unique. The long length at 26 episodes allowed all the main characters to be explored as the characters went through growing pains entertaining and awkward. Whether it was unrequited first loves that needed to be retired, seeing a childhood friend in a new light, learning to be independent and brave, the characters tackled major life obstacles and always found resolutions that felt true to life. I especially loved the great female friendship bonds and stalwart bromances that threaded its way through the entire narrative. But I wouldn’t love IAGW as much as did even with all these satisfying elements if the central romance didn’t suck me in from the first episode on and never loosened its grip on my heart.
College heartthrob Liu Chuan and country girl Jia En is the pairing of girlish dreams made real. I enjoying the pacing of their falling in love through dating process as I watched it live, and in hindsight the steady progression becomes even more special because at each phase there is something to savor. Theirs was a romance that looks like storybook love yet delivers a gut punch by the end when Liu Chuan’s entire college journey leads him to a very difficult fork in his life. The story is about love and family and delivered equal amounts of both throughout its run, all leading up to a conclusion that is bittersweet and hopeful. Fairytales can happen when the perfect guy with a discerning eye cuts through the bumpkin unsophisticated exterior and sees his soulmate within, and endings can be both happy and sad when the girl grows up through love that both shelters her when needed and pushes her away when required. If Miss Korea had the best K-drama OST then IAGW is the Taiwan drama counterpart with a perfect song for every moment. The beginning was glorious and the ending a meaningful culmination of the journey.
Verdict: The freedom during school years is a privilege not a right, but what one does with that privilege may lead to unbreakable friendships and the love of a lifetime.
Of all the dramas I watched this year, Border might be the most consistent in quality and execution from the first to last frame. Even better is that it kept getting better and better, a feat that is both rare and incredibly satisfying to experience as a live watcher. Starring Oguri Shun, and really he headlines this baby through every frame even when he’s not onscreen, Border is the story of an ordinary homicide detective who gets shot point blank in the head on assignment and survives with the new ability to see and talk to dead people. His brush with death also leaves him with a bullet stuck in his head, which may or may not be the reason for his supernatural new skill, but neither the bullet nor the new skill is something that makes his life easier.
With the help of his snarky detective partner, a no-nonsense lady medical examiner, and stalwart cop boss, the ghost-seeing detective must solve murders of the episode all while trying to find out what darker conspiracy led to his getting shot in the head. Border highlights all the reasons why J-doramas are my go-to fix for detective procedurals. It balances the serious with the light and never overplays the emotional hand. Throwing in the talking to dead people conceit, which K-dramas tried out last year in 2013 with both Who Are You and The Master’s Sun, Border may be late to the game but its execution elevates the one trick pony to a gaspworthy conclusion in nearly each episode. Scardy cats needn’t be afraid as the dead spirits are pitiful and aggravating more than terrifying, and serve a meaningful purpose in each unique case.
Shun’s character of Detective Ishikawa Ango is perfectly played with gravitas and solemnness that fleshes out his solitary personality and struggle with doing his job with a new bag of tricks. This drama isn’t just for the fans of various elements whether it’s the who-dun-it or seeing Shun delicately brood his way towards solving crime with the help of the dead victim. There is always unexpected macabre humor to liven up most episodes, and the great thrumming background music always kicks up at the right time to up the intensity when needed. I never missed the lack of a romantic subplot and instead really loved the professional attitude of all the law enforcement leads while still retaining personality quirks. Border is just a good dorama that works for any viewer, but be forewarned that the final episode and its major doozy of an ending will leave you gasping for breath.
Verdict: Make a run for the Border! And it’s not to get no Taco Bell!
First Recess: Dramaland Snaps of Month in 2014:
January: Downside was Prime Minister & I with Lee Bum Soo and Yoona sucking so hard in the second half it blew. Upside was Yoona confirming she’s dating my precious Lee Seung Gi in real life.
February: In a Good Way cemented as TW-drama crack with Lego Lee redefining campus dreamboat.
March: Bride of the Century barreling out of nowhere like a free lottery win ghost bride complete with all the tasty makjang you can swallow.
April: Secret Love Affair keeps the select few spellbound and endlessly admiring of the art unfolding onscreen.
May: Inexplicably falling for Dr. Stranger and Lee Jong Seok. Stranger things may have happened but I’d be hard pressed to top this double whammy anytime soon.
June: Lee Jun Ki reuniting with Nam Sang Mi in Joseon Gunman, keeping me happy as a zoned out on eucalyptus koala for the next two months.
July: The most divisive and aggravating melodrama makjang of the year arrives in Temptation, viewers scream in frustration and still keep on watching. The most challenging and memorable human romance of the year arrives in It’s Okay, It’s Love, viewers gape in delight and hanker down to keep on watching.
August: Two phrases linked together that shocked K-ent – Kim Hyun Joong and Domestic Violence.
September: Iron Man, or Blade Man, or whatever is going on with that man who sprouts blades from his back and has anger management issues combined with her chinless wonder in one drama.
October: Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu hits a triple of delightful rom-com with three ways to enjoy it.
November: Pinocchio arrives with thoughtful confidence instilling hope of closing out the drama year on a high.
December: All the casting talk about 2015 dramas – Hyun Bin turning down Kill Me Heal Me for Hyde, Jekyll and I, everyone turning down Kill Me Heal Me with a miraculous last minute save by Ji Sung and Hwang Jung Eum, Blood turns bloodless with the casting of one-expression Ahn Jae Hyun and wide-eyed Gu Hye Sun, and all eyes on the big Kim Eun Sook disaster zone comeback Descendants of the Sun.
Prime Minister and I
It’s weird writing about Prime Minister and I now since the drama aired half of its episodes in 2013 and the remaining bits so early this year I almost left this drama off this review. Since I didn’t write about PM&I in last year’s year end review, not to mention the second half was so…..different than the first half, I think it worthwhile to take a retrospective look back at it. Everything about this drama started off on the wrong foot when young idol-actress Yoona was cast opposite much older established veteran Lee Bum Soo. The kneejerk reaction is to scream “noooooooo!” and who could blame the collective derision and howls of outrage. It felt like Lee Bum Soo was being asked to lower himself to act opposite a pretty young thing who has her legions of fans but does not garner positive reactions from the general drama watching public. I was particularly miffed because the story sounded so cute, a single father prime minister and his comedic romance with a young tabloid reporter. To have the increasingly rare rom-com tank because Yoona was cast in it was doubly chafing.
Then the promos ramped up, and maybe my expectations were at rock bottom already thanks to PM&I’s predecessor Marry Him if You Dare, but suddenly everything looked….cute. Not just cute, but strangely warm and charming, that indelible vibe I crave from rom-coms was present between Yoona and Lee Bum Soo. It wasn’t icky like uncle-niece, they actually looked unexpectedly complementary. Then the first episode aired and BOOM it was a done deal. I fell in love with this drama like my first taste of a French macaron from Paris. Each morsel was perfection from the sparkling chemistry between the leads to the ridiculous set up to get them into a marriage contract all the way to the precocious entertaining kids. I could not get enough of this show and each episode was happiness for two days followed by the interminable wait to see which of the leads would fall for each other first, whether their ruse would be blown, when the hot kissing would arrive to lessen the sexual tension between them. It was hubba hubba and I was all moar moar moar!
Some dramas fail in the second half by little things that are easy to miss when it first arrives, but accumulating until the last episodes are sluggish and sucked dry of life. PM&I wasn’t like that at all, it succeeded so well in the beginning so of course its trainwreck could only be of the ball of glory going down in flames variety. This story was sold and bought by the audiences as a Korean Sabrina of sorts, where the old jaded much older man is reborn through love with a young woman who unexpectedly connects with someone scarred by life already. The failure came when the second half betrayed that premise at the core and turned it into the story of a fallen disgraced ex-wife returning to wreak havoc through guilt on everyone she abandoned in her life. How that happened still baffles, when it was happening in real time I felt like a person ingesting a slow working poison each week and wishing for a swift end. The poor Prime Minister and his pretty thoughtful young wife had their love story yanked out from beneath them so she could play the martyr and he could exemplify the virtues of husbandly moral idealism.
As the drama was hijacked in the final third by the return of the Prime Minister’s ex-wife, all the warmth and life was sucked out of the story and all the characters I cared about, leaving everything a shell of what I once loved. There was neither romance nor comedy left, everything turned to tears as everyone tried to all be noble idiots at once. The kicker is that the screenwriter was clearly capable of finishing the drama right, I never felt the writing was incompetent for the lack of talent to follow through. The whole thing went down rancid like higher ups didn’t like what the drama would have said if the Prime Minister divorced his selfish ex-wife and picked the pretty young woman who loved him, so the story was changed and the “mother” figure got her redemption at the expense of everyone else. That was such a bitter pill to swallow, the notion that a woman so selfish as to leave her husband and children without a by-your-leave could then be accepted back just because she lived for years alone in penance for her misconduct. What a barfworthy message. I signed on for a joyful second chance love between an emotionally closed off prime minister and his accidental chirpy fake wife, all I ended up with was a handshake.
Verdict: There is an “I” in Prime Minister, but there was no satisfying “We” at the end of the mostly heartwarming journey because the final pothole (plothole) was just too big.
My love for Big Man isn’t big in the least but qualitatively the drama doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s much better than most of the scattered offerings this year and suffered only for the lack of a more gripping premise. I can say that spending 16 hours watching Kang Ji Hwan masterfully explore every emotional high and low moment of his character was worth it, but it’s a pretty small niche of Kang Ji Hwan fans to give Big Man any memorable boost. Add in Jung So Min fans who want to watch her back in prime time even if she’s playing the second female lead, then this drama delivers moments of delight hidden in a forgettable package.
Big Man is intended to be one of those “little guy WINS!” uplifting yarns, but whatever satisfaction gleaned from reaching that goal came on the back of a mostly dull ride. The FF button couldn’t be found fast enough sometimes. There were memorable nuggets most especially the ahhhhmazing chemistry between Kang Ji Hwan and Jung So Min, so electric they must do another drama together as the OTP. It was shame the female lead was the wet blanket character and performance by Lee Da Hee, I don’t dislike her but she’s so bland here I just ended up glossing over all her scenes.
Not sure why the powers that be didn’t switch up the coupling since Lee Da Hee actually showed signs of life and exhibited chemistry with Second male lead Daniel Choi. Speaking of which, he must’ve enjoyed himself playing the increasingly crazy evil dude with imminent heart failure, the plot device used to set everything in motion when his rich parents actually try to murder Kang Ji Hwan in order to steal his heart for their sonny boy. That plan fails and they end up having to pretend Kang Ji Hwan is the dad’s illegitimate son and from there on Kang Ji Hwan keeps getting screwed over until he wises up and starts to fight back. That’s kinda It, no more no less.
Verdict: This was no Big Man on Campus, that’s for sure.
Trot Lovers (Lovers of Music)
There’s a oddly incompetent from the start aspect to Trot Lovers where the train was basically off the rails to begin with yet it still insisted on making the journey. Following along became an endurance test to see how much worse this drama could get. Sure there were silver linings and good takeaways, but as a complete drama it was just baaaaad with a side of stupid tricks. There are always one or two music dramas a year whether set in high school, college, or in the music industry where aspiring hopefuls cut their teeth on the school of hard knocks. Trot Lovers picked a very unique genre of trot music to initially differentiate itself from the legions of K-pop stories. I find trot very fun to listen to, not something I would have on my play list but the dramatic up tempo beat lends itself nicely to drama accompaniment. Throw in three leads who are all singer-actors in Jung Eun Ji, the returned from the army Ji Hyun Woo, and the resurgent Shin Sung Rok, this one had me excited early on.
The early stills was warning enough something was amiss in the production, saddling Ji Hyun Woo with the worst ashy dye job in recent memory. Dirty grey blonde does not suit him, or anyone for that matter. It could have been a blip but turned out to be the harbinger of all the pitfalls to come. Basically Trot Lovers is a story with characters and situations written like a collected pan of loose sand. From the get go I didn’t like Ji Hyun Woo’s self-centered star nor was Jung Eun Ji’s downtrodden marathoner with homegrown pipes all that interesting either. The whole thing started off with a shaky whimper much like Jung Eun Ji’s trot audition scene in the end of the second episode, but unlike her turning it around, the drama never managed to get its act together. Other than Shin Sung Rok, that is. Both his performance and his kooky agency president character was the highlight all the way through. Not sure if anyone watched just for him but that was my reason alone.
I feel the need to chew out Trot Lovers a bit more in this wrap up review because of the cheap stunt it pulled halfway through and continuing to the end, taking what already was unrisen fare and making it makjang slop. There was attempted murder and amnesia, two of the dreaded K-drama extreme tropes that have no business being in most dramas much less in a rom-com. It was all so overwrought on the basis of foundation that was never laid properly, the romance just started like five minutes before the male lead got whacked in the head and forgot his real lady love, while the attempted murder was over petty singing jealousy that might’ve been to invoke the ballerina nails in the pointe shoes sabotage. That stunt probably lost the drama its few faithful fans and turned the remainder into a “how much stupider can it get” type watch. The finally tally was bad indeed as the drama managed to toss in last minute parental strife and the cure-all “trip to the US” separation, leaving a romance that clawed to shore with barely a breath left using the most hideous of doggy paddle strokes. Everyone involved deserved so much better.
Verdict: Trot isn’t just for old fogeys, but a completely stupidly written musical romance is for no one.
Discovery of Love
I liked Discovery of Love so very much watching it live the whole way though despite the drama heaping on the good variety of frustration and aggravation all stemming from flawed main characters. I wouldn’t call this drama particularly mature or sophisticated, but it certainly doesn’t try to pander to the lowest common denominator of romance where the girl is a sweet saint inside and the guy needing love to cure his attitude problem. From the production team behind the cable network I Need Romance series, DoL was wrapped in the same sleek packaging as its INR siblings but with a bigger budget and a little less oomph. This was yet another of the many reunion OTPs of 2014 and Jung Yumi and Eric ended up delivering a different type of satisfaction from their tense and melodramatic coupling in Que Sera Sera. I loved them here yet again but only liked the drama, does that make sense?
Novels come in many styles and so do romance K-dramas, even if the preference is the typical cold chaebol needs his heart warmed by plucky heroine trope. Heck even the classic My Name is Kim Sam Soon was based on that with the outlier being the Candy was caustic, abrasive, and not your usual size-2. DoL falls more towards the recent trend for K-dramas to present romance as more mutually irritating, without any character naturally easy to root for and a central relationship that makes sense to end with a break up. Jung Yumi and Eric got to showcase their incredible chemistry in DoL again but the enjoyment came only in the flashback scenes of their 5 year long relationship that ended in a bitter break up on a train platform. The storytelling intersperses both their relationship and the reasons leading up to the break up with the present timeline where the leading lady is dating a nice doctor before crossing paths again with her ex-boyfriend. What follows is 16 episodes worth of the all three leads working through their emotional issues whether it’s past love, present love, or even guilt love.
I didn’t find DoL all that insightful or incisive, if it tried to be that then nothing was said that was particularly illuminating about relationships that I didn’t already know. It was more realistic than the typical K-drama romance conflicts, and the problems which plagued the leads were insecurity, self-absorption, lack of communication and the like. A fundamental stumbling block were the two leads not being particularly wonderful or likeable people, neither were awful human beings but it grew progressively taxing to watch them plod through how to make relationships work when I felt they were their own biggest weakness. Much of the drama is spent on hashing out problems with very little action to speak off, other than a few fights to liven up the mood and one too many “uh oh gotcha moments” to end episodes which then didn’t go anywhere in the next episode. The ending was the choice I wanted and felt was much better suited for the female lead in the long run, but getting there didn’t give me the warm happy feeling since the journey was so rocky. The best parts of the drama ended up being the lead chemistry, Eric’s perfect and phenomenal acting, and the second lead romance by Kim Seul Gi and Yoon Hyun Min.
Verdict: I didn’t discover anything about love but it wasn’t a total waste of time to take a 16-episode trip to check it out.
Writing about this drama genuinely feels uncomfortable now after all that’s happened to leading man Kim Hyun Joong since it finished airing. I still want to devote at least a paragraph to it since the drama was about more than Kim Hyun Joong even if his character was the central figure in the story. This was billed as an epic set in China while bringing in Korea and Japan, all happening during the wartime era of the early 1900s. I’ve long thought K-drama could branch out more into period fare beyond sageuks and on paper this one was plenty intriguing. Kim Hyun Joong plays a lowlife gangster trying to scrape by on his fists alone while contending with the balance of palace between rival gangs from various nationalistic backgrounds all trying to get a piece of the China prime turf.
Beyond Kim Hyun Joong, I was tuning in for the great supporting cast including Kim Jae Wook as the second male lead and for all the period setting pretty set pieces and costumes. The first few episodes were better than I expected, including Kim Hyun Joong at least not being an epic fail, but then the low ratings and low buzz sent KBS into a tizzy and the drama did become an epic fail by the massive second half rewriting, which included abruptly rewriting out via an off-screen death of Kim Jae Wook’s character. By then I was as mentally checked out as everyone and all that was left was watching the hilarious fan fights between whether leading lady Im Soo Hyang should get the guy or second lead Jin Se Yeon. The ratings were actually not the pits but the drama fell into a pit on the way to trying to fix what wasn’t broken, and turning a moderately watchable piece into an assortment of shoddy storytelling.
Verdict: This was one of the least inspirational dramas ever, and the impetus to keep watching was just to see if the production could pull off a lot to chew. The answer is a definitive NO.
Oh Joseon Gunman, how do I love thee? I can count the ways but why bother when you’re just perfect the way you are. This was the one drama this year where I actually felt disappointed more viewers didn’t love it quite as ardently as I did. I would have appreciated the collective squee sessions and larger forum for discussion but the early excitement wore down quickly with this one. I’m not quite sure how to dissect why this drama worked for me as much as it did, yet didn’t appear to connect more with the English online viewing audience. It did win the time slot in ratings for the entirety of its run even with tough competition in Fated to Love You and It’s Okay, It’s Love, but in truth the wins with by negligence percentage points and one could say those three direct competitors were the shining beacons of quality in an otherwise very uneven year.
Was I in a sageuk mood? Nor really since I spent 6 months hate-watching Empress Ki. Was it my love for Lee Jun Ki plus his reunion with Nam Sang Mi, the leading lady I loved him with the most of all his previous costars? Both did contribute mightily to winning my affection. But I think it boils down to the story following a very effective formula of the righteous returning hero revenge story that triggers my forever love for The Count of Monte Cristo. Lee Jun Ki played a swordsman nobleman whose life is turned upside down when his military commander father is killed and falsely accused of being a traitor. He escapes certain death and returns years later as a Japanese businessman with a penchant for guns, using his new identity to suss out the truth and avenge his family. Nam Sang Mi perfectly complemented her beloved avenging gunman loverboy as his smart lady love with more heart than common sense. There was exciting shooting and fighting galore and Lee Jun Ki cosplaying period gunman and Joseon warrior, what more could I ask for?
The supporting cast was excellent but special shout outs go to Choi Jae Sung as the noble warrior daddy to Lee Jun Ki as well as Yoo Oh Seung and Jeon Hye Bin playing a father-daughter duo of former slaves turned merchants. The latter were formidable and pitiable opponents for the righteous avenging gunman, creating conflict that I could pick a side to support but still understood where the other side was coming from. The drama was segmented into three different arcs and each time the leading man had to pick a side to fight for only to quickly learn that it was just as dirty and self-serving. There were no easy answers in this story but the people I cared about either got a deserving ending or went out with a bang rather than a whimper. The directing was impressive and the writing solid, but it was the heart of this story that really stood out from the various elements. For a year that premiered sageuk dud after sageuk dud, JG was far and away the best sageuk by far and hopefully will be the one to live on for future viewers to discover and enjoy.
Verdict: A Joseon Gunman shot me in the heart with awesome and I lived to recap the entire tale.
I highly recommend Wonderful Days, one of those non-buzzed about non-idol-filled dramas that instead delivers so much more in entertainment value. Even the lone idol that is Taecyeon as the second male lead was unexpectedly decent here. If this particular Lee Kyung Hee penned drama aired as a 20-episode prime time fare I guarantee there will be many more eyeballs giving it a shot. Being a long weekend drama , and I mean long in terms of 50 episodes spanning 6 months airing time, scares off the casual viewers. It’s exactly those casual viewers that can benefit from watching one of the better written family dramas in recent years, with plenty of conflict and intensity but equal parts warmth and growth. Lee Kyung Hee never writes tales requiring token villains and one-note heroes to drive the narrative, her stories are always about the dirty and real places in between good and bad. Wonderful Days captures that essence masterfully.
Watching too many makjang dramas, still a staple in the weekend time slot, can lead especially overseas viewers to wonder if Korean society and culture really is as insanely overwrought as what’s portrayed on TV as family driven conflict. Wonderful Days showcases a very complicated family that doesn’t sell any member short in good and bad traits alike and allows the audience to warm up to everyone and then settle in to watch their lives unfold. It’s not a slice-of-life drama by any means, but keeping with it requires patience and a thirst for some down home storytelling. It’s fun watching a story set outside of Seoul, outside cosmopolitan worldly Seoul, and instead spends time with in a provincial city with fascinating provincial characters. Lee Seo Jin rides his career resurgence thanks to the variety show Grandpas Over Flowers to hitching his horse to yet another winning role, that of an emotionally stunted prosecutor come home at last. He’s also the perfect counterpart to a shockingly decent Kim Hee Sun as his sheltered childhood girlfriend grown into a tough as nails woman.
This isn’t a romance that’s meant to titillate and spawn “ships”, it’s just good old-fashioned love getting another deserving second chance. In fact, I’d argue that the drama isn’t even about the opposite sex romance, it’s all about the dysfunctional ties of family. Lee Kyung Hee must’ve had fun drawing out the family tree because the central household had a predilection for twins and awkward generational and age related gaps due to a pater that couldn’t keep his pants zipped up. The outlandish family set up was used smoothly to tackle tons of typical family woes from the returning wayward son who is a successful prosecutor to the maturation of the hot head youngest of the family with a chip on his shoulder. WD is best for the little moments and the deep reflections of what family means and how to overcome disappointment and outing up with the nitty gritty. This was one of the better weekend dramas to come around and hopefully it’ll have the legs to rope new viewers in the years to come.
Verdict: It was a fast six months because the days passed wonderfully watching this drama.
Hi! School: Love On
I thought Hi! School: Love On would be this year’s Monstar. That’s a compliment considering that Monstar was one of my favorite K-dramas last year, not to mention one of the better high school themed stories from Korea in recent years. A high school drama airing once a week and filled with idol-actors supporting roles anchored by a rising young actress as the lead, HSLO looked promising when I first started watching and was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy. The story is about an angel Seul Bi who falls to Earth and falls in love with grandma-raised high school boy Woohyun while his rival emo other high school boy Sungyeol also finds his heart aflutter for her. Growing up child actress Kim Sae Ron plays older than her real life 13 years and has romantic scenes with all grown up Woohyun that takes a while to wrap my okay around. Ultimately the romance is sweet and the real life age gap smoothed over by how professional everyone is in acting out their roles.
The drama ended up losing me gradually and the once a week airing (with multiple preemptions) didn’t help. The seeping away of interest happened through the development of lackluster story lines of high school bullying, cliques, classroom conflicts, and a smattering of after school special messages. Monstar made it work with the periodic singing plus an overarching goal of the gang winning a music battle, here the big conflict was keeping angel Seul Bi safe and human and nothing else. Her secret almost getting out only works the first time, by the tenth time someone almost busts her real identity I was looooong checked out and watching periodically based on habit. The other story with Woohyun’s birth mom being his high school teacher and the new stepmom to Sungyeol never elicits a lick of emotion from me, mostly because the story never has one big powwow discussion and drags out the reconciliation ad naseum. Not sure why KBS rushed Kim Sae Ron to play a high school student but this was a waste of her time and talent.
Verdict: Psssst. P.A.S.S.
I will forever wish Empress Ki aired the entirety in one calendar year and save me the hassle of trying to piece together a third from 2013 and the remaining two-thirds from 2014. In many ways EK might have fallen victim to the split drama syndrome where the parts that aired in one year are significantly better than the remaining portion in the subsequent year. Cheongdamdong Alice fits that exact same profile and overall EK was a drama where I loved the first third and mostly hated the last two-thirds. I’m fine with viewers assuming I’m a shipper of the male lead who didn’t get the girl, but really I just like a story where the characters venture on journeys to become better people while EK was the exact opposite where the main leads went to hell in a personality hand basket as the drama progressed.
EK also rankled in how uneven the production was, at times epic big-budget and swashbuckling but more often tinny and repetitive in the conflict. It was the highly fictionalized life journey of Ki Seung Nyang in her road to become the future Empress Ki of the Yuan dynasty, a female-centric drama that ought to be more than how she’s constantly surrounded by men who want her or want to kill her. At least Seung Nyang had a kickass personality in the beginning of the drama, and no matter how poorly written she became Ha Ji Won maintained a tightly hold on her performance the entire time so everything went down smoother. I can see why this drama was a hit domestically and overseas because she really does have a super star’s charisma onscreen whether Seung Nyang was a girl pretending to be a boy warrior or a scheming concubine sowing the seeds of revenge.
The kicker really is that I grew more and more disenchanted with her character and with it the bits of earlier affection for the story. The love triangle also contributed to my disillusionment, the way the story manipulated both male leads, Joo Jin Mo as her first love the deposed Goryeo King Wang Yoo and Ji Chang Wook as her husband the Yuan Emperor Ta Hwan, putting them always at the mercy of fate interceding to direct Seung Nyang towards one side to reach a preordained conclusion. I really would have preferred the drama do away with Wang Yoo’s character, despite liking him so much more than Ta Hwan, because he served no purpose other than represent all that Seung Nyang gave up in her quest for power. If she’s going to become Empress Ki, then just keep going straight ahead without the awkward injection of a third wheel spun in circles the entire time. Pain and pitiful does not a satisfying watch make. EK was more exciting than all the sageuks this year but the ugh factor was also much higher.
Verdict: The Empress rules but too much in-fighting in her male harem made for a bipolar romance.
The Lee Bum Soo idol acting boot camp continues in Triangle, and here he doesn’t just have one pretty boy idol to show the ropes, he pulls double duty and works his magic on two idols. Such is the life of one of the best actors in Korean entertainment who adds value to any project whether in the role he plays or in pulling more from his costars in every scene. Triangle had big shoes to fill following behind MBC’s hit sageuk Empress Ki, but the switch in genres from period to brotherly melodrama gave Triangle breathing room to pave its own path. Initially Lee Bum Soo was supposed to be joined by real life good friend Song Seung Heon, who ended up declining the role for whatever reason. It could have been the story sounded just like a mash up of previous MBC dramas Giant and East of Eden, with brothers separated by paternal tragedy and needing to find each other. The network then went young and in came idol-actors Jaejoong and Im Shi Wan to play the little bros to Lee Bum Soo’s hyung even if no gene combinations would ever possibly produce those three in the same family.
Aside from the knee jerk ignominy of seeing Lee Bum Soo as a cop playing supporting to Jaejoong’s character as the middle brother who is now as lowlife gambler, once the drama got going all my reservations were quelled. Jaejoong was incredibly decent, and I mean his decent acting was so incredible to behold because of how much he crapped all over the craft in Dr. Jin (also costarring Lee Bum Soo). Maybe he’s one of those actors that needs the right roles rather than being a thespian like Lee Bum Soo and his brethren who can play any type of character. Whatever the reason, the result was a drama that now had the ingredients to not suck and the potential to deliver the man pain as the three brothers, also including Im Shi Wan’s maknae as an arrogant rich asshole, start befriending and fighting with each other. This really was a male-centric drama and both female leads Baek Jin Hee and especially Oh Yeon Soo was totally background filler. I didn’t sign up expecting the ladies to have any meaningful contribution or own story arc, but the extent to which they were underused was still much too obvious to ignore.
Sadly Triangle was all bark with no bite, not even a remote attempt at mimicking a bite. The conspiracy was dull, the gambling scenes were repetitive and anemic, and basically everything but watching the brothers get closer and closer towards reuniting was a waste of time. Good acting is only worth watching so far, and this drama is probably for diehard Jaejoong fans, those who are skilled as judicious FFing to get to the good bromance scenes, or want a drama to have onscreen while knitting or ironing. I know Im Shi Wan has gotten much love this year, less for Triangle and mostly for the cable drama Misaeng, but I was quite underwhelmed by his turn as the raised by the villain youngest brother with a stick up his arse. Maybe his too pillowy lips are just not my thing. Overall Triangle limped to a finish, too bloated at 26 episodes, it could have easily cut ten and hit all the good gritty moments as a standard 16 episoder and ended up all the better for it. Sometimes less is more, especially in the case of a writer with the aptitude just to string elements together without the insight on how to make it all interesting.
Verdict: An uneven triangle, watch for Jaejoong’s break out performance and not much else. Unless you’re a fan of brotherly man pain.
Sly and Single Again
I’m actually surprised that Sly and Single Again seems to have quite an ardent viewing contingent when it was airing because I tried so hard to like it but all I could do was follow along casually. It wasn’t offensive or terrible, but it lacked a hook for me to turn the passable fluff into pulling real emotions out of me. Sometimes drama watching feels like wandering through a portrait gallery and with most pictures just gaze-worthy and only something special keeps me standing there for a second, third, and fourth look. Sly and Single Again was like a painting I gave a cursory glance to before walking into the next room only to find it even more uninspiring so I turn back around and return to it. Lee Min Jung only works for me in the right role and this wasn’t it, whereas Joo Sang Wook was much more entertaining to watch even if he wasn’t all that great of a character either.
That really is the rub, this drama didn’t have an OTP that I could cheer for so I never knew what was the point. For the exes to overcome all their immaturity and misunderstandings and get back together in the end? I would have to like them first, and most of the time I didn’t like them individually or together. It’s such a hard line to write characters behaving badly but still make them relatable. I’m not sure if it was just me, but something was just off here about the characterization from the start. A marriage failing through changed expectations and unexpected hardship is plausible but the two leads were such caricatures when they met their marriage came off as child’s play and the divorce a particularly bad fight. After they ran into each other again, the surrounded story about the male lead’s technology company and its trials and tribulations also rang empty, existing to serve as the backdrop but never delivering anything meaningful on that message front.
Verdict: Too much sly people for me to really care about them. The single part wasn’t half bad, just not sure why it took that long and so many hoops for two people to get back together after breaking up just like that the first time around.
A New Leaf
I almost didn’t want to include A New Leaf (Repentance) in this year end review, except I did everything with it that I do with all the other dramas I included – I watched it from beginning to end even if I don’t remember why anymore LOL. It was one of the two MBC lawyer dramas this year (the other being the still airing Pride and Prejudice), and for once hewed really close to the legal side of the narrative rather than using the law as a trendy sounding board for romance or intrigue. ANL was the story of a win-at-all-costs legal whiz who gets a personality transplant after an accident and turns his legal career around to help the downtrodden. It’s as straightforward as that, and the drama actually sticks with it and doesn’t muddle up the personal redemption arc with the typical K-drama romance shoved in.
Kim Myung Min was his usual brilliant self but this particular performance wasn’t as memorable as some of the other indelible creations in his oeuvre. I felt leading lady Park Min Young got the better end of the bargain, playing a pleasant young lawyer already with a passion to do good, able to coast off Kim Myung Min while being a likeable character for the audience to relate to. This was more or less a dry drama, even with some interesting cases of the episode and some quirky side stories involving other characters around the firm or the lead characters. I wanted to like it more but there wasn’t any more to like, a lot of supporting roles played by solid talent like Jin Yi Han and Chae Jung An was underused and too much time spent on corporate legal shenanigans at the expense of more character building.
As a lawyer this drama did an inoffensive job at exploring the both the legal morass and the moral compass of being an officer of the law. There are technicalities that may yield legal victories but clearly at the cost of what is morally right. The execution here was drier than it needed to be, but the onscreen charisma of Kim Myung Min, along with Kim Sang Joong doing an excellent take on the devilish law firm partner, helps keep the story afloat rather than sinking into the pits of boredom. I’m not sure if this one is worth recommending but I certainly didn’t regret watching it. A decent and smartly written yarn about one person getting a second chance and making the choice to be good rather than keeping doing evil’s dirty work. Not a bad message in the end.
Verdict: Not much fun to watch but somewhat rewarding with the kumbaya message at the end.
God’s Gift: 14 Days
By all accounts God’s Gift: 14 Days should have been a massive hit in either ratings or quality. To begin with, SBS really cast it as critical catnip with leads Lee Bo Young, coming off a masterful previous year with drama awards up the wazoo, paired with musical theater veteran an all-around awesome actor Jo Seung Woo. Then the drama is given the cool trick of being a time-traveling vehicle as well as time-restricted to 14 days to alter the course of events. It might turn out of be a one-trick pony but it sure seemed snazzy from the outset. I wasn’t all that interested when it was announced but loved the first episode so much I was in a happy thumb-twiddling place thinking a new unexpected crack drama has arrived. Then episode doused that particular fire fast and what remained was the burning embers enough to keep me watching along for the entire drama.
The drama did a good job building and building the tension, with new clues and new dangers coming at each successive turn. I ended up being more interested in the who-dun-it than hoping that the good guys win in the end and the little girl doesn’t die the second time around after her mom gets that miracle time-travel back to prevent it. Lee Bo Young tried her best but her character was that annoying combination of stubborn and impetuous, it’s hard to root for a mother when she’s mostly getting herself into trouble to begin with. Same goes for the little girl Saet Byul, it’s going to sound terribly callous but she was one of the most infuriating little precocious kids I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching in a show. As a central plot device I hoped she wouldn’t die, but it’s not because her character ever garnered a lick of emotional sympatico from me.
The highlight of this drama, aside from a moderately well-plotted mystery and conspiracy, really comes down to Jo Seung Woo as the complicated and fascinating male lead. There isn’t enough accolades to toss at him like confetti to compliment both his performance as well as his likable character. In a drama filled with good-to-great acting from the entire cast, he manages to assuredly assist Lee Bo Young as the determined mom yet have all the spotlight shine on him. Months later I’ve forgotten details of the plot but some of his scenes remain etched in my mind, the way he goes from being on the sidelines to the most gutwrenching center of the plot when the truth ends up being the salvation he fights so hard for, but at a great cost. I didn’t even care if the little girl lived, all I wanted was for his character to have his happy ending. Whether that happens or not in the end, it was worth watching God’s Gift: 14 days just on that hope alone.
Verdict: I know what I would do if I was given the time-traveling ability to go back 14 days in this drama to save a character. And it would not be the little daughter. Dong Chan-ahhhh!
I only half-heartedly watched Temptation, one of the few and most high profile pure makjang dramas this year, and even without being totally invested the burbling sensation of growing aggravation would interrupt an otherwise compelling watch. I can’t imagine how much worse it got for diehard viewers who were captivated by the story, characters, and/or acting enough to get really sucked into it. This is the drama that was made for hate-watching, an activity best described as loathing everything that is happening but too fascinated to turn it off. Temptation reunited the popular early Hallyu drama Stairway to Heaven OTP of Kwon Sang Woo and Choi Ji Woo, but then subverted expectations by making them an onscreen pairing that delivered the most bipolar audience reaction ever. One either rooted for them or rooted for them to burn in Hell. There was no happy middle, and I kinda liked it that way.
I started watching Temptation mainly due to nostalgia and curiosity. I liked the StH couple because that drama was so dumb and ridiculous it made for a hilarious watch experience back in the day, and since then Choi Ji Woo occasionally works for me like in The Suspicious Housekeeper while Kwon Sang Woo is like nice bland white rice. This was the second high profile adultery themed K-drama this year coming after the delicate nuanced execution of Secret Love Affair. Temptation wasn’t going for subtle, it was a sledgehammer of contrived situations all building towards one huge what if offer – was a rich bored female CEO in the right right to offer copious amounts of money to buy three days of a married man’s time, not to sleep with him, but to make the wife think anything could have happened and thereby test the marriage. Marital strife and moral boundaries are great fodder for drama plumbing, the fundamental fail of Temptation is creating a scenario so wholly improbable as to render the discussion moot to begin with.
The acting was decent all around, enough to make watching the drama entertaining, that and joining the chat fest of hating on every single character in the story. None of the four leads were remotely in the right, and all were varying degrees of annoying and unpalatable. I wished them all to perdition and could care less who ended up with whom, other than the out-of-drama enjoyment of seeing Kwon Sang Woo and Choi Ji Woo still sharing a lovely onscreen rapport ten years after StH. Park Ha Sun’s wronged wife role was probably my least favorite character, having all the flaws and wrongs of the other three but clinging to the belief in her own righteousness and moral superiority. It was a treat seeing Lee Jung Jin having fun playing the second male lead as an amoral shark with zero desire to be a good person and no problem with admitting it. The drama ended up not going all the way to the depths of darkness and instead took the detour to try and reach happy land for the leads, a strange place likely populated only with the sounds of distant crows cawing once the leads got there. I didn’t care any which way, this drama was best watched with no emotional investment and plenty of snark.
Verdict: Do not be tempted to watch, unless your taste buds run skew towards the aggravating and self-absorbed.
You From Another Star
You From Another Star was the undisputed drama event of 2014 even if a few episodes aired in 2013 and audience hype was there right from the start. Most drama memories tend to fade with time and the shows that aired in the earlier part of the year are usually the first to slide into oblivion. It’s a testament to what an incredible tour de force this was that even non-fans like myself still recollect it vividly, whether it’s remembering what I liked or all the stuff that didn’t work for me. YFAS has a looooong ways to go before it becomes a faded memory when the next big blockbuster drama hit comes along to replace it, mainly because it’s harder and harder to create something with such buzz and audience connection. Critiquing whether YFAS is qualitatively good or if the acting was solid is almost beside the point.
YFAS was billed as the glorious comeback to dramaland for Jeon Ji Hyun, film A-lister screen goddess and CF queen. The current generation of drama watchers has only heard about her meteoric rise to stardom in 1999 with Steal My Heart and Happy Together before she transitioned solely to film. Who knows if she was really lured back to drama land because of the script or the chance to work with Kim Soo Hyun again after The Thieves, the result was a lightning in a bottle type of synergy of the right actress for the right role. While many fans swooned over Kim Soo Hyun’s alien professor male lead, it was Jeon Ji Hyun that captivated me from the first frame to the last. Her performance was alive and brimming with acting passion the way Kim Soo Hyun merely delivered the technical components without the commensurate emotional elevation of his role.
That the story was itself bipolar made it that much wonkier to watch. The alien-actress romance bits mostly worked but the serial killer villain played by Shin Sung Rok was straight out of a 1970s bad superhero television show, only missing the cackling and sound effects. It was like two separate dramas stitched together as one, giving the story plenty of things happening but not the right effect as those things just blended together awkwardly. Aside from the central romance and the serial killer villain, there was not much else to remember. It’s a testament to what a wonderful acting job Park Hae Jin did as the second male lead to end up stealing the thunder (for me at least) from Kim Soo Hyun. I loved the glorious wardrobe and hilarious attitude of the starlet Chun Song Yi, which is enough of a reason to watch this drama, even if on paper the star-crossed romance that was supposed to be epic left me feeling mostly cold.
Verdict: Must watch, if only to develop your own opinion as to what everyone has been talking about. Love it or hate it, it’s indisputably an event drama.
Second Recess: Drama-watching Highlights and Lowlights of 2014
Low: Highly anticipated dramas not up to par – Tomorrow’s Cantabile, You’re All Surrounded, The Secret Door.
High: Reunion of Popular OTPs – Lee Jun Ki-Nam Sang Mi, Jang Hyuk-Jang Nara, Kwon Sang Woo-Choi Ji Woo, Eric-Jung Yumi, Lee Dong Wook-Lee Da Hae.
Low: Real life scandals making it hard to watch the actor or actress in dramas anymore – Lee Byung Hu’s sleazy blackmail affair also involving Dahee of GLAM, Kim Hyun Joong assaulting ex-girlfriend with a punch-happy fists.
High: Idols who exceeded acting expectations – D.O. in It’s Okay, It’s Love, Im Shi Wan in Misaeng, Jaejoong in Triangle, Yunho in Records of a Night Watchman, L in My Lovely Girl, Im Seulong in Hotel King, Baro in God’s Gift: 14 Days, Sooyoung in My Spring Days.
Low: Actors and actresses who can’t do their day jobs – Go Sung Hee in Records of a Night Watchman, Jin Se Yeon in Dr. Stranger/Inspiring Generation, Ahn Jae Hyun in You’re All Surrounded.
High: Yoo Seung Ho returning from the army!
Low: Yoon Eun Hye picking a movie with Park Shi Hoo as her sole leading acting project in 2014.
High: Jeon Ji Hyun’s drama return in 14 years was even better than possibly imagined.
Low: Bitter drama fan fights over rival onscreen shipping – Kang Sora fans v. Jin Se Yeon fans in Dr. Stranger, which guy does Empress Ki really love.
High: Dogs ruling drama land this year: Mamoru in Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu, Dal Bong in My Lovely Girl, hyung’s dog in Pinocchio.
Low: Chicken and beer suddenly becoming a “thing” when it’s been delighting taste buds since forever.
Pleasantly Surprised (Love Myself or You)
This is one recommendable drama, especially coming from an usually weak Taiwan drama year when almost everything I checked out was blah. There were few gems and I really wanted Pleasantly Surprised to deliver across-the-board since I liked everything about the story set up to the two leads Puff Guo and Liu Yi Hao. Unfortunately a recommendable drama doesn’t a crack drama make and this one turned out like a fantastic soufflé that didn’t quite rise entirely, to borrow a food metaphor for a drama set in a foodie world. What did work was better than the majority of silly Taiwan drama plot fails so I ended up following along every week without ever falling in love with. I made a nice friend in the end, too bad I was hoping I went in thinking it was a date.
Pleasantly Surprised starts off by turning the usual cold male lead and warm sweet female lead premise around and that remains one of the best parts of this story. Aloof loner chef Du Kai Qi is too self-sufficient and emotionally stunted to enjoy social interactions, preferring to everything alone and having no sadness about it. She’s fine as is, but we know, and her childhood good friend Ah Jie knows, that her life could be so much richer if she just opened her emotional door a little. The chemistry of the two leads were lovely but never rose to sizzling, which likely played a major role in this drama not getting more buzz. I complain that too many dramas rely on manufactured angst to bring in viewers, sadly this one had too much sanity to render it a tad too placid.
Verdict: More than just pleasantly surprised, I was happily entertained by sweetness and laughter, and the awesome message that a girl can keep on being her prickly self and love the guy who loves her just the way she is.
You’re All Surrounded
Passion and star power can only do so much to bring in the viewers to a drama. You’re All Surrounded is a bigger disappointment than most dramas because it’s laden with so many big name stars and a seemingly foul proof premise of a bunch of rookie cops learning the police ropes through hijinks and hard lessons. This was billed as workplace funny (check), romance between rookies (check), bromance with a superior (check), and law triumphing over villainy by solving a central mystery (check and check). It ended up delivering none of the above, and by delivering I mean fully following through to a satisfying conclusion. Some of the central elements were half baked to begin with and others never fleshed until given a perfunctory wrap up. I wasn’t sure what was the end goal, and sometimes it felt the cast also sensed that so the performances were mostly perfunctory. When doing a project, both the participants and the audience want passion even if the little details are a bit messy, and YAAS was everything but that.
Year end has confirmed that YAAS was one of the most highly rating SBS prime time dramas of 2014, but that doesn’t say much when the drama went without any real lingering fanfare. It’s such a shame to lead Cha Seung Won playing a guilt-ridden and duty-driven police detective and Lee Seung Gi as a vengeance and absolution filled rookie. They were billed as the two twin stars of the drama and both delivered what was asked of them, a solid performance and copious amounts of male lead onscreen charisma. But their star shine couldn’t mask a terribly written police procedural where cop incompetence was so extreme and the central villainy so preposterous. This was a K-drama procedural played like a US sitcom minus the laugh tracks, that just doesn’t work and the muted reception from the viewers is confirmation enough. I just wish it didn’t end up that way, YAAS was genuinely chock full of promise form the cast to the production team, one of those easy pitches that basically should have been a swing out of the park. Still can’t quite get over how and where it all went wrong.
It’s important to point out that YAAS falls into the category of disappoint rather than being a total fail. It was much better than so many K-dramas that aired this year so my indifferent reaction stems mostly from a personal wish that this promising production could have risen above being simply mediocre. That goes for my reaction to the rest of the cast aside from the two male leads, even leading lady Go Ara was just okay and that’s a sad place to be after her breakout and critically lauded performance in Answer Me 1994. The romance never took off even if the childhood connection was promising initially, making the two leads go through the paces of becoming partners to friends to lovers with all the excitement of watching water boil for a cup of mediocre joe. The chemistry wasn’t nonexistent, like everything fundamentally flawed with this drama, it just never went anywhere beyond the perfunctory. The biggest compliment for YAAS is that it’s not that bad, the saddest realization is that it’s ultimately so forgettable.
Verdict: The fail is all on the screenwriter, surrounded by so much talent and doing only the most obvious and slapdash with it.
It’s Okay, It’s Love
Of all the dramas that aired in 2014, It’s Okay, It’s Love shines as one of the best written and most memorable watches of the year. Normally I find drama watching best subjective, even crap works as long as a particular viewer enjoyed it. IOIL is just that good I’m willing to get out on the limb and argue that opinion is fairly objective in this case. For IOIL, even better than just winning viewers during its run is sensing that this drama has something even more precious up its sleeve, longevity and legs to keep bringing in new viewers in many years to come. These days ratings are low and quality even lower, and it’s the latter that is absolutely a requirement for a drama to be sticky enough that it’ll withstand the test of time. That was really what built Hallyu K-drama entertainment, a steady wave of new dramas built upon old school classics that remain watchable today. Without the bedrock even the new wave has nothing to crest on.
I didn’t think I would love IOIL that much, and honestly I thought about bailing about one-third into the run. The beginning was so good it left me breathless, this incredibly fizzy story about a charismatic playboy writer and his intrusive romance with a physical passion adverse psychiatrist with an attitude up the wazoo. Write Noh Hee Kyung is one of my favorites, forever admired ever since I watched her Goodbye Solo even if her subsequent works were less than inspiring and moving for me. What she does that remains consistent is a studied intelligence in writing a story that aspires to have a message as told through well-crafted characters. Sometimes it works and other times comes across as too contrived, trying a little too hard. IOIL toed that fine line beautifully, occasionally leading lady Gong Hyo Jin’s character inched across a little but always was pulled back in the nick of time. Her character was the reason I almost dropped the drama, so much self-absorption wrapped in an inconsistent shell of a savvy professional.
By sticking through her ungainly growth in the beginning parts of the drama turned out to be the best decision ever, because the female lead is the lynchpin to anchor the wild ride that is the male lead played by Jo In Sung. IOIL was billed as a romance humanistic drama exploring the world of mental health professionals and mental illness. That unwieldy sounding premise actually ended up delivering on what it set out to do, and a whole lot more if you ask me. The script was wonderful with a particular punch towards the end, but the acting of the entire cast and especially Jo In Sung elevated it to fine art. Real life psychiatrists may find fault with the way the writing discusses mental illness, both diagnosis and treatment, but it’s not so ridiculous as to negate the greater message, and I’ll even argue it was done with as much thoughtful consideration as can be attempted by a non-medical professional scriptwriter.
There was the requisite twists and turns, most notably in the delightful debut performance of Do Kyung Soo (D.O. of EXO) playing a pivotal character, but the story never relied on the gotcha moments and instead was all about the aftermath. I figured out that big twist right away but it’s hardly ruins the shock and awe to come with world completely brought to life filled with broken and flawed people, some of whom suffer from conditions beyond control while others are living the aftermath of unfair circumstances. What happens when phobias and illnesses are confronted and managed? How to move forward to love someone with mental illness? I found myself crying many times over in moments of sheer agony as well as joy, echoing the great expanse of life that encompasses the good and bad moments that can all be experienced with choosing to love a person who happens to be have broken pieces inside but remain a wholly worthwhile individual.
Verdict: It’s not just okay, it’s magnificent and totally worth every ounce of love.
My Lovely Girl
If ever a drama can be perfectly described with one word, then My Lovely Girl meet anemic and the two of you can toddle off to get hitched. I do have to give MLG credit for coming along at the right time during the end of summer slump where the arrival of a frothy uncomplicated romantic aside felt welcome as long as it delivered even a teensy amount of sweetness. Sadly the drama not only didn’t deliver, it kept sucking up more and more brain cells and oxygen as it meandered to an ending that was as devoid of romance or emotion as any crap drama in recent memory. Double threat singer-actor Rain came back from the army and ended up doing MLG as his comeback drama ranks as one of those all-time terrible project choices. He basically babysat a bunch of idol actors and actresses, most of whom couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, or had the ability to act but didn’t do any of it onscreen for this particular drama. That the best actor, and crowd favorite character, ended up being a Golden Retriever speaks volumes about this drama. It stinks so bad the whiff still lingers even as I write this year end review.
Sometimes I don’t know how a drama can go so wrong. That’s not the case with MLG where I can pinpoint and dissect this baby’s flaws in consecutive fail moves. First comes the concept, doing a man-falls-for-little-sister-of-ex is asking for trouble right off the bat. As a rom-com, avoid the messy family ties lest it turns into a makjang. Then comes the missed casting, Rain was actually suited to play his character of the tormented songwriting talent, but leading lady Krystal was terribly miscast in both the role and her chemistry with Rain. There were stirrings, sightings if you will, of incipient romantic possibility in the beginning, but it quickly proved to be a figment of the imagination. Even more glaring was that Krystal had great chemistry with second male lead L, who probably is the only cast member to walk away from this dud with a win in his pocket since he was the lone winning character in the drama. Even I grew to like him after being so thoroughly offended by all his previous attempts at “acting” before. He may have improved here incrementally, but that and a cool character was enough to come out smelling like roses.
The biggest fail of MLG once you stack all the earlier miscues together turns out to be a story that just went nowhere and had no purpose. I couldn’t figure out whether it was a music story where characters had career growth in the industry and hallelujah breakthroughs. Or was it a romantic redemption story when the male lead makes the right choices this time around to keep his true love? Could it be a fated to be story where the ghostly specter of the dead ex-girlfriend leads her younger sister to the man who almost became her brother-in-law. In the beginning I was curious to see what the writer intended, by the end I was dumbstruck by the pointlessness of 16 hours to tell a story where the leads end up hugging at a train station after nothing big happens to drive them apart and nothing big happens to bring them back together. A typical 30 second cloying cell phone commercial featuring a romantic couple would have been more satisfying than 16 episodes worth of inane brain cell killing dreck like this.
Verdict: The drama should have been named My Lovely Dog instead, the love between a man and his dog that endures through successive sisterly girlfriends.
My Secret Hotel
I don’t even know how to approach writing about My Secret Hotel, other than feeling annoyed at the reminders of this drama because I need to write about it one more time. This is the drama I wanted to shake like a rag doll asking why it simply couldn’t do the one basic thing right. Why can’t a drama about exes reuniting actually have the exes reuniting until the last five minutes of the final episode? Don’t claim it’s because the drama needed to drag out the narrative tension because I call bullshit. Half the viewing audience would have been fine with the OTP in bed chatting about nothing for an hour on end, bonus points if male lead Jin Yi Han sings all his lines and extra bonus points for female lead Yoo In Na flashing a boob top of two under the covers. See? It’s not hard keeping the audience happy, until the writer tried to get ahead of herself and all hell breaks loose.
MSH had all the hallmarks of being one of those trendy cult hit tvN dramas: a fun concept of a murder at a hotel bringing exes back together, a great cast of Jin Yi Han, Yoo In Na, and Namgong Min, and a snazzy execution with an excellent soundtrack and whimsical cinematography. The drama hooked me from the start by having a strong capable female lead with great chemistry with her ex-husband, making it exciting and plausible to watch their second chance at love and marriage all unfolding with a dark murderous presence behind them. The second male lead served nicely as the foil, showcasing his own chemistry with the leading lady as well as offering a tempting alternative against her going back for double dipping. There was a lot of snappy dialogue and unspoken secrets to tease a great journey ahead. I was onboard for the ride and looked forward to the drama taking the trip with exciting twists and turns along the way, each delivering an important advancement.
Sadly that never materialized as the drama train basically ground to a halt and parked itself at a place called “leading lady indecision”. In order to drag out the romantic resolution, the leading lady was turned into an indecisive and waffling nitwit in the second half of the drama while the poor male lead just kept trying to win her back with the persistence of a slavering attack dog. The second male lead’s charisma turned inexplicably sinister to toy with the murder mystery, and by the end I was exhausted just spinning my wheels in place with all three of them. The whole thing was dragged out like a rubber band pulls much too taut, only to be resolved at lightning speed in the final episode with all the misunderstandings cleared up and a multiple murder mystery solved basically over tea. The too taut rubber band was released and smack poor me in the face, a blistering reminder of yet another drama that couldn’t get the job done.
Verdict: The hotel had secrets all right, all rancid from sitting there too long, as was a romance that couldn’t be bothered to actually talk though misunderstandings. I couldn’t wait to check out of this joint.
Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu
This is my one J-dorama crack a year, which I especially savored because no J-dorama really did it for me last year in 2013. Much as I appreciate the quality of shows from Japan the majority are in genres I have no interest in so the rare as a phoenix Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu (Today I Take the Day Off Work) is like an oasis for a parched Koala who most always need a little romance dust sprinkled. I enjoyed everything about this story and execution other than actually wishing for a more love triangle-esque narrative when normally that would frustrate me. What makes this an odd watch stems from the leading lady liking a different male lead than most of the audience connected with, leaving me often tamping down the urge to scream “pick the other guy!” even while having fun with the central romance as written.
KwKY is the story of a just turned 30 office lady and her unexpected romance with the 21 year old college part time coworker that sounds straight out of a manga. Which turns out to be exactly that, this story is adapted from a manga and with it comes elements that feel a dash old-school, or that could just be the personality of female lead Hanae and her throwback dating attitude. Without a single relationship under her belt, she tumbles into bed and then into love with young but more romantically experience Yuto, all the whole sexy and wry older man Yu watches from the sidelines and makes snarky pithy commentary that hits the spot. The action takes place in Hanae and Yuto’s workplace filled with interesting supporting characters and side stories that actually add to the richness of the world. Same goes for Hanae’s home life with her understanding doting parents and precocious scene-stealing mutt Mamoru.
My only wish for this story somehow feels rather unsuitable, that Hanae could give the older Yu a fair shot rather than living in her own limited romantic fixation on younger Yuto. But that wish doesn’t negate what a solid satisfying rom-com KwKY has been with an overall mellow vibe that pushes characters forward through little conflicts and applicable resolutions. The story made good use of fantasy sequences that were always uproarious and the family pet Mamoru wonderfully integrated into the story from being dragged on unwilling walks to serving as Hanae’s sounding board for romantic woe. The eye candy was packed to the gills from lovely Ayase Haruka to smoldering Tamaki Hiroshi and soulful young hottie Fukushi Sota, rendering a complete watch experience from visual to thoughtful.
Verdict: Addicting and oh so easy to watch, a nice classy lady gets her first whiff of romance and much comedy and sweetness ensues even if it’s not particularly enlightening to modern mores of dating.
Marriage Not Dating
Marriage Not Dating was one of the better sleeper hits of the year. I actually liked it so much in the first few episodes that I considered recapping it, but it soon hit a major speed bump that touched upon a pet peeve of mine. Ultimately it saved me from diving into a recap project for a drama that didn’t hit all the right buttons and turned out to have a better start than finish. The best part of MND was the fresh feel it delivered in the beginning, starting with the charismatic fun leads Yeon Woo Jin and Han Groo. I like him more than I like her, with goodwill for both, and ended feeling the same way towards both after the drama. The drama leaned heavily on the physical humor, almost all of which worked but might be a little off putting for those wanting less uncomfortable situations abounding per episode. That really sums up my quibble with MND which felt like the same per episode series of set up runs into problem leading to uncomfortable but important resolution. Rinse and repeat.
The highlight of the drama was really the chemistry of the two leads, even more so than individual performances or their characters. I found Yeon Woo Jin’s Gong Ki Tae entertaining but not all that well-written other than plumbing his extreme phobia for marriage predicated on family strife. I really didn’t like Han Groo’s Joo Jung Mi, especially when she slipped into her Gumby spastic performance and moreso when her character was being used as the trash bucket where everyone dumped crap for her to help shoulder. I think she’s a wonderful person inside but it’s frustrating when her too nice side went on for too long. It’s one thing to be giving, it’s another to suffer immense physical and emotional duress for someone else solely for the sake of pity and obligation. Parts of MND was like a joke that went on too line and lost the punch line. Maybe I was feeling a bit irritable at that time but I simply hadn’t the patience to watch Jang Mi almost crap her pants and get harangued repeatedly just because she didn’t when to end the charade.
I have to stress that my quibble is likely a minor one, and even with it I still watched the entire drama and mostly enjoyed myself. I also had to ignore the risible second leads, two of whom couldn’t act their way out of paper bags (Jinwoon and Han Sun Hwa), and the other two (Heo Jung Min and Yoon So Hee) with an unpalatable random romance of their own. The leads really do have incredible chemistry to overcome carrying the baggage of a dead weight support cast, not to mention the parental generation characters were a hit-and-miss of dastardly and just plain self-absorbed. MND could have worked much better with a less trendy story line, or at least a narrative that flowed with more pared down antics. My biggest takeaway was getting to see Yeon Woo Jin unleash all the weapons in his acting arsenal from loose limbed comedy to wrenching emotional frustration, confirming his potential to headline the big leagues after wowing in a one-trick pony story stretched 16-episodes thin.
Verdict: Date this drama but don’t marry it in the end.
Secret Love Affair
It’s a shame that so many people avoided Secret Love Affair because it really was one of the best K-dramas of the year. With that said, I’m not sure I can fully recommend it either because it’s such a personal thing on the subject matter of adultery. It doesn’t even matter that the drama was somber and intricate, emotionally raw and thoughtful in the treatment of both the love affair and the vast vast age gap between leads Kim Hee Ae and Yoo Ah In. Ultimately the viewer needs to be okay with watching this story without any knee jerk reactions to give it a try, otherwise missing it isn’t a travesty either. This drama is probably tailored best for two distinct groups of viewers – those who love classical music and those who savor exquisitely written dense fare. Audiences looking for fun times need not bother entering, this was decidedly not a fun watch experience.
I don’t mean to dissuade checking out SLA, on the contrary I think this wonderfully mature and dark drama conveys much more impact that most dramas I’ve watched. The rub really is that I didn’t feel good about it, this dirty world of music that was like a leech sucking the female lead played by Kim Hee Ae’s spirit dry while giving her dribbles of nourishment to keep her alive. Yoo Ah In was spectacular in embodying a homegrown piano genius who finds musical breakthrough at the same time he discovers a soulmate who is twenty years older and already married. It’s basically a recipe for disaster and that the drama instead made it a beautiful love story with zero tawdriness was remarkable. The story has no magical happy ending but leaves the viewer with a profound sense of future hope.
Verdict: Not for the casual or faint of heart viewer, but the soulful beauty in a dark place once seen and heard is a transformative experience.
Last Recess: Currently Airing Drama 2 Cents
Mr Back: Burst out of the gate with the highest first episode rating of any prime time drama that premiered in 2014, but lost all the mojo and momentum with a reverse-aging tale that was too manic and not particularly heartfelt.
Pride and Prejudice: Solid start but got progressively more and more boooooring. Investigating and talking, rinse and repeat, does not an interesting drama make. The lack of OTP skinship or progress has everything to do with why it turned into the height of dullsville.
Pinocchio: From “good” to “soooooo good” to “oh my god stop being so good or else I’ll get spoiled!”. Lee Jong Seok is spot on and Park Shin Hye quiets her naysayers in delivering a warm, spirited, and romantically involved performance. This wooden puppet deserves turn into a real boy.
What’s With This Family: Park Hyung Sik and Nam Ji Hyun are love as the youngest OTP set in this entertaining weekend drama with minimal makjang and a great message about how to treat family members.
Healer: Solid and promising first four episodes thus far. After countless Ji Chang Wook dramas, this is the one that flips to switch for me on liking him. Nice blend of City Hunter-esque action with a softer touch of nefarious intrigue both past and present.
And That’s A Wrap, Folks!
I actually had fun writing this year end review, a task I put off more than my usual go-getter approach not because I was dreading it but more the result of simply too much else going on. 2014 is ending on a high note for me with Pinocchio, but even without it I would still look back with fond bemusement on the offerings that came and went. Drama watching doesn’t really linger for me anymore, very few stories and performances are sticky enough to leave me euphoric or seething long after it’s gone. I still haven’t settled down to treating drama writing as a job, complete with deadlines and task outlines. The freedom to write what I want remains the most satisfying part of keeping this blog, letting pass the dramas that don’t interest me while giving a chance to those that do regardless of the final outcome.
Sometimes an epic fail drama creates a more fun watch experience that mediocre fare even if my blood pressure roils because of it. I recapped quite a few turkeys in 2014, from chanced upon crazy like Dr. Stranger to “I told you so” fails like My Lovely Girl, but while those dramas may have sucked the recapping process was cathartic and the ensuing discussion entertaining. That makes an alternate way to enjoy dramas, no? I do wonder how long the Hallyu wave will continue as drama ratings continue its one-way downward spiral and the audience target has grown to factor in overseas viewers from the start. Will the world of the K-dramas that I loved, the classics that brought me into the fold, transform until it’s unrecognizable and unpalatable, or merely morph to a more dynamic and international version of itself? I don’t have any answers but am looking forward to seeing what 2015 brings.