When watching dramas, I can simply like or dislike based on my immediate reaction. It’s personal and introspective. When writing about dramas, my likes and dislikes take on a life of its own outside my private thought bubble. I’ve noticed people can be offended if it differs from theirs, or find validation when it coincides therewith. That’s fine by me, since I take it in stride, believing only that candor is always cathartic.
With that said, this rant and rave discussion of In Time With You will likely put me squarely in the minority opinion on this drama, and likely rile some feathers. Eh, if I can eviscerate Secret Garden earlier this year, I’ll take on all comers with my discussion as to why I am having a horribly constipated time watching ITWY, which stars my favorite TW-actress Ariel Lin. I still love you Ariel babe, but I freaking want to destroy your character Chen You Qing. Imma getting my sword ready now, sweetie, so you better hold on tight.
Like all first impressions reviews I write, it’s based on one or two episodes at most, and is merely a snapshot of the set up to presuppose what’s to come. I genuinely loved episode 1 of ITWY, and elected not to recap it because I felt it was a drama best watched alone and not discussed communally. The subsequent episodes continued to be enjoyable for me, but I was starting to get that little pit in my stomach, that flutter which left me feeling uneasy. Something was beginning to feel more and more off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it (yet). As my love for the drama turned to merely like, and finally into a reluctance to watch each new episode, I figured I owed it to my darling Ariel to figure out why.
After much inner back-and-forth debate, I finally came to a startling realization. It feels like SG déjà vu again, a drama highly anticipated by me, starring my fave actors, helmed by my fave scribe or director, ending up disappointing me to such a degree that I have whiplash and feel way more horrible than if it just sucked out right. The main reason for SG and ITWY’s failure for me is the exact same crutch – both dramas aim so high, have such promise and ability to fulfill every expectation, but fail because it refuses to dial down the manufactured characterizations. Or like Serendipity once said about a drama “this fails the Aspirational Gap test.”
What fails for me in ITWY? It stems from one person only – the heroine Chen You Qing – and radiates outward from there like a miasma. Let me explain. From the beginning I found You Qing difficult, a character that is prickly and seemingly complex. I liked that she had an attitude, even if her attitude comes off as self-absorbed and holier-than-thou. I figured we’re along for the ride to see her mature and change.
She spent all of episode 1 waxing platitudes about turning 30, complete with dreams of furry time chasing her, and making it Such A Big Deal. Lemme tell you something – turning 30 is not a big deal. Turning ANYTHING is not a big deal. Every day is a big deal, living your life with purpose, conviction, and meaning. A birthday with a round number? That’s just a figurative milestone but is not a literal switch that means You Qing is starting to age. But You Qing makes it that way. She’s like a 16 year old who thinks that her life is pretty much downhill once she turns 30. But a mature (and realistic) 30 year old would look back fondly on her life lived until then, and then press forward to make sure the next 30 years are just as good if not better than the past.
So right off the bat You Qing gives me the impression that she is self-absorbed and a drama queen. Remember her chiding the teenagers in the elevator, and her attitude towards vapid La La who might be clueless but surely isn’t spiteful or evil and warranting such condescension from Queen You Qing. While You Qing may think she knows better and can lecture people, but she comes off as petty and patronizing. As I watched more and more of this drama, I came to realize that You Qing doesn’t just come off that way but is secretly magnanimous and wise, she IS in fact petty and patronizing. Even worse, she’s that way to everyone, including her best friend and poor mistreated Li Da Ren.
What really drives me up the wall is that 30 year old You Qing is literally the same version as her 18 year old self in high school. She has not grown a single bit of emotional maturity, and instead continues to think the world revolves around her. She can give pep talks to friends and family members in trouble, but she doesn’t actually live any of the grand speeches she spouts. She tells her divorcing friend to be strong and move on, when she herself is stuck on Ding Li Wei still. Worse yet, You Qing lies to herself and tries to pretend she’s not. She’s the worst combination of hypocritical and delusional when it comes correctly judging herself.
You Qing really needs to thank the lucky stars that she has a friend like Da Ren who understands her and gives her such wide latitude to be a snippy bitch whenever she feels like it. The fact that all the guys love You Qing makes me even more pissed, because the drama posits that men like her brand of passive-aggressive posturing paired with only the least amount of ability to be genuinely honest with herself. If You Qing derides men in general for liking the “eternal 25 year old” pretty young thing, at least they admit to thinking with their shallow primitive instincts and don’t pretend otherwise. I can’t fathom what the drama is trying to convey when two male leads are in love with a selfish and condescending harridan like You Qing who believes she’s some sort of awesome specimen of womankind.
While I loathe You Qing, I firmly stand by my initial impression that Ariel is hitting it out of the ballpark in her performance. The eye-rolling, the know-it-all smirks, the piercing looks of annoyance, Ariel has got all the tics down pat. Ariel can’t possibly do anymore to sell You Qing, who feels three-dimensional because of her performance, but completely one-dimensional as a character construct. I never thought the day would come that Ariel could play a character I dislike more than I disliked her Yuan Xiang Qin in It Started with a Kiss, but she’s outdone herself this time.
I disliked Xiang Qin in ISWAK because she’s got no backbone, has the brain power of a mildly intelligent guppy, and looks perpetually confused. But that dislike never veers towards loathing because she’s so damn earnest, and is such a caring person with her heart on a platter for Zhi Shu. Xiang Qin is like my uber-affectionate Shih-tzu, who can lick me to death but also can’t quite figure out where his tail is. How can I hate on such a clueless but big-hearted puppy?
You Qing is completely different, and right now something HUGE has to happen in the drama to redeem her for me. I refuse to conditionally like her just because she’s the heroine of this drama and is played by Ariel. That would make me a brain dead lemming. I find You Qing akin to my neighbors annoying pampered pet Chihuahua. That thing thinks she’s god’s gift to the world, prances around like she’s the Queen doling out haughty looks left and right, and then nips at my fingers when I try to be nice and pet her. She has the most annoying high pitch yapping, and doesn’t have a clue that even in the dog world, she’s small fry that the neighborhood sleepy Golden Retriever can smush with one paw if he wanted to.
Stepping back from the You Qing ranting, as a whole, ITWY is a masterful work that is leaps and bounds above almost any other TW-drama out there, current and previous works alike. Director Winnie is just brilliant in the way he films, mixing shot angles and movement (or inaction) so that the scenes feel intimate and connects with the audience. For the last few episodes, I’ve been watching solely to appreciate his directing, as well as enjoying Bolin Chen’s spot-on and understated performance as perpetually lovelorn Da Ren. Newcomer Sunny Wang is totally making me cross-eyed and spazzy with how much impact he’s making in any of his scenes. His massive body tattoo aside, he’s got masculine sexual chemistry oozing out of his pores. No wonder You Qing goes weak-kneed around him.
While I complain about You Qing, I know there have been leads in other dramas written so unlikeably which doesn’t drive me nearly this insane. What perplexes me is how ITWY tries to force feed the audience into accepting that You Qing is supposed to be “right” and “commendable” and “strong”, when to me she’s none of that. It’s the aspirational gap at work, where the drama wants me to like a heroine who I can plainly see is a grade-A bitch if I ran across her in real life. I simply find You Qing holding her temper in check most of the time because she has to since she’s in the professional work place and is supposed to be an adult now. Otherwise she’d be even more impossible to stomach.
In high school, You Qing didn’t have to pander to anyone (such a work place environment and professional and personal etiquette), so she was free to prance around class like she had a stick up her ass and purposely torture the poor belittled male classmates. She clearly must’ve gone out of her way to design that ridiculously froufy pink cat mascot just to stick it to the boys, because otherwise I can’t figure out why she’d pick that rather than some less polarizing mascot that might appeal to both genders of the class.
But since You Qing was still in high school, and I found their boy-girl battles funny and cute in it’s pointless silliness, I cut her some slack. But over a decade later, I feel like she’s still the same immature girl inside, now wrapped in the professional shell of a seemingly well-adjusted and successful career woman. Which is why her jabs and passive-aggressiveness towards many of the characters in this drama drive me bonkers, because she should know better by now and accept that she’s not some all-knowing goddess with the right to judge everyone else.
I had huge issues with the way You Qing behaved towards Da Ren and his clearly not-going-to-work relationship with Maggie. First You Qing snarks about Maggie behind her back, and during the dinner early on when Maggie invites herself along and tries to be polite and engage You Qing, all she gets is loads of backhanded comments and eye-rolls that go all the way to the ceiling. Really, You Qing? This is how you treat the friend of your best friend? Granted Maggie isn’t the right one for Da Ren, but You Qing’s complete lack of graciousness really grated.
Things went from bad to worse when Maggie tagged along, as she had every right to because she was dating Da Ren, on the weekend trip with Da Ren and You Qing. One would think You Qing was Da Ren’s girlfriend and Maggie the interloper, the way You Qing acted like her trip was ruined and couldn’t even be bothered to be anything more than barely civil to Maggie. When You Qing declined to go sightseeing the next day with her excuse that she wanted to work out some more at the hotel, I seriously wanted to reach into the screen and slap her silly. That was how I behaved with I was 9 years old and didn’t want to attend a family dinner with my folks, and my parents did slap me silly for being a brat.
I think the drama cannot have its cake and eat it, too. It cannot build up You Qing to be so distasteful, and then force feed her to me as something tasty. This is not saying You Qing doesn’t have plenty of good traits, and push comes to shove she is a decent person. But she is nowhere near the endearing and generous character that we are led to believe based on the fact that poor blind Da Ren loves her and Ding Li Wei is inexplicably still hung up on her.
Da Ren is clearly much too good for You Qing, but I don’t have much sympathy for him in the conundrum he created for himself. A man who doesn’t have the guts to confess his feelings for the woman he loves digs his own grave of self-pitying sadness. Though You Qing really is to blame for most of it, since she actively refuses to allow Da Ren even the slightest chance to confess to her, even if neither is that delusional as to think the other person doesn’t secretly know the truth already.
Eight episodes into ITWY (which is scheduled for 13 episodes total), I’m just exasperated by this story despite the beauty of the storytelling mechanism. If You Qing still wants Ding Li Wei and the man is back and supposedly changed and still wants her, then she should by all means go for it. Her woe-is-me resistance rang so false and futile, like a queen dramatically falling down in a faint oh so daintily. That man is sex-on-legs, and I for one would be completely understanding if You Qing took him back and gave him another chance. If he’s still a douchebag, then end it again. It’s really not that big a deal.
But once You Qing took Ding Li Wei back, then clearly something has to give with her very complicated relationship with Da Ren. While men and women can be platonic friends, it’s clear to everyone in the drama that Da Ren does not have platonic feelings forwards You Qing. I don’t blame Ding Li Wei for being insecure about him, and I fault You Qing for being so self-absorbed that she’d completely dismiss her boyfriend’s very valid concerns.
I feel like all the relationships in this drama are a series of people going about love in all the wrong ways, and then suffering more because of it. While everyone else accepts their faults, only You Qing appears to live in the self-deluded grandeur that she’s doing things right (for the most part). Erh, no. I found You Qing’s break up with Ding Li Wei years ago to be really screechy and whiny on her part, even if she was in the right and he was in the wrong. I find that even when You Qing is right and logical, her attitude and the way she conveys it just comes off all wrong.
It pains me to have such a huge aspirational gap with this drama, because it might be one of the most beautifully filmed and acted dramas I have seen from any country. So much care went into it, and it is conveyed beautifully. The drama continues to climb in ratings, breaking 3 as of episode 8 which aired this past Sunday. I think ITWY deserves all the accolades, and I am happy to pile on more when it comes to its presentation and execution. I think the OST can be dialed back a tad, but the music is wonderfully evocative most of the time.
Ultimately I think the story concept is fundamentally flawed and not even the best acting by Ariel and Bolin can patch the gaping holes. I still don’t understand how and why You Qing and Da Ren are best friends, and the depth and meaning of their friendship eludes me on a fundamental level other than the superficial trappings where they know each other’s likes and dislikes and put up with each other’s quirks and shortcomings.
I’m told they are best friends, they act like best friends, but the foundation of their friendship rings hollow to me. It feels like Da Ren has been in love with You Qing but hadn’t the courage to confess in the beginning, so he elected to become her best friend to stay close to her. And You Qing reciprocated his friendship because Da Ren was always reliable and not a threat, becoming her perpetual fallback option. That is not a best friends story I can buy into and root for.
At this point, I want You Qing and Da Ren to get together because he’s obviously the only one who can put up with her attitude and love her unconditionally because he knows ALL her flaws. You Qing also needs Da Ren because she’s so insecure that only someone with his grounded sincerity can give her the security blanket in love she craves. I feel like all the secondary leads like Maggie and Ding Li Wei are the collateral damage to the pas-de-deux of You Qing and Da Ren’s low-EQ way of having a relationship.
I love Ariel so much it actually tempers how much I loathe You Qing, because anyone else playing You Qing I would pretty much stabbity to death in my mind already. I’ve had to go rewatch parts of LoCH2008 to coo over Ariel’s perfect portrayal of Huang Rong to get the bad taste out of my mouth from her You Qing. And while watching LoCH, I suddenly had an epiphany, realizing that You Qing is a modern day version of Huang Rong, with even the same character growth trajectory.
High school You Qing is bratty and prickly, thinking she’s smarter than everyone else and always itching for a battle of wits. She’s pretty much Huang Rong in LoCH, the 16 year old Rong Er who caused havoc because she could until she met her steady rock of a Guo Jing. You Qing at 30 years old is identical to adult Hong Rong in RoCH, which universally all the critics have found fault with for being an adult but still having teenage Huang Rong’s brain smarts but not enough of a mature woman’s EQ.
Everyone loves teeange Huang Rong in LoCH and hates adult Huang Rong in RoCH, even though she is the same character in both books. Young Huang Rong was motherless and had a barely there father, hence her dissociation with human affection and morality until she meets Guo Jing. I accept her character’s growth in that story, but hated when the adult retained her brilliant deductive mind but appeared to have lost empathy along the way. Similarly, while high school You Qing’s attitude and antics are cute in its childish pettiness, the same shit being pulled by a 30 year old You Qing is just unacceptable and really off-putting. I expect characters to grow, and so far I see none of that in ITWY.
I feel like ITWY is like a bizarro modern version of the LoCH love story. So instead of smart but morally ambiguous Huang Rong (You Qing) and dumb but kind-hearted Guo Jing (Da Ren) getting together when they are teens because they realize they are made for each other, somehow that relationship doesn’t happen. So Guo Jing instead wastes his time with clingy and forward Princess Hua Zheng (Maggie), while Huang Rong messes around with a bad boy like Ouyang Ke (Ding Li Wei) for awhile. What a big old waste of everyone’s time, forcing everyone to spin in circles because the two leads refuse to just be honest with each other.
When I watch a romantic drama like ITWY, which tries to aim for realism and sincerity, I am even more picky than if the drama was some over-the-top silliness that doesn’t purport to be anything other than throwaway entertainment. I wanted ITWY to be brilliant inside and out. But my conclusion is that it’s just fabulous looking on the outside, but rings with manufactured manipulation on the inside. ITWY is akin to a gorgeous photobook, beautifully put together, but a deeper look reveals each picture is artfully but artificially posed.
I’m not even sure I have any desire to finish the drama, other than to keep enjoying watching Ariel onscreen plus savoring the eye candy of the visual presentation of this gorgeous piece of work. Frankly I don’t care if I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way about ITWY. In the end, this is simply my personal opinion. I will never say ITWY is a bad drama. On the contrary, I think it’s an excellent drama that has one huge and significant characterization flaw that I simply cannot bridge because it undermines the very foundation of the love story it wants to tell.