2013… the year of unfulfilled expectations. But! It wasn’t as depressing a look back as I feared. Sure, the writers I expected to shine had a tendency to fall on their face, but there were some lovely little gems hidden behind the bigger names. And even those dramas that stumbled a bit in execution had a certain charm to them.
However — the biggest lesson I learned this year was that it is okay to drop a drama. So let’s begin our (color coded!) look-back with the dramas I actually gave up on.
Level 7 Civil Servant
- Dropped for: The sexism. Every joke seemed to revolve around, “Women… aren’t they just the most precious little airheads?” and not even the strength of Joo Won could make that ugly go away.
- Lesson learned: Dropping dramas can be a good thing! Also, sometimes reading the recaps is more fun than actually watching.
You’re the Best Lee Soon Shin
- Dropped for: The stupid. Every joke, decision, storyline and personality trait seemed to come down to, “But what’s the stupidest choice?”
- Lesson learned: Even really, really, really good actors (read: Lee Mi-sook and Jo Jung-suk) cannot save a script from a bad case of bad writing.
- Dropped for: Impending second-lead syndrome. I tuned in for Jung Young-hwa and when it looked like he wasn’t going to get the girl, I tuned out. As it turns out, I was half right?
- Lesson learned: Joining for the shallow means you can leave for the shallow completely guilt free!
Who Are You?
- Dropped for: Boredom. It started off well, but then the obvious episode-padding started and the mystery wasn’t all that mysterious and the romance wasn’t all that sparky and… I kind of wandered away and never came back.
- Lesson learned: It’s okay to let something fade off into the distance. (Also, Antique is an awesome movie. Starring Kim Jae-wook. That I’ve watched a lot.)
Gu Family Book (aka: Worst Drama of the Year)
- Failed because: It was a story about a hero… who never actually became a hero. Instead he accumulated a whole bunch of allies and father-figures who did all the heavy lifting for him.
- Extra bonus failure: The rapes (plural). The mind-numbingly horrible, superfluous, only-there-to-make-the-bad-guy-look-worse, followed by either the suicide or sex-slavery of the victim, offensive, rage-inducing, flames-on-the-side-of-my-face, rapes. This is the drama that taught me, sometimes it’s better to just. Stop. Watching.
- Failed because: It forgot to tell a story. It gave us a host of fascinating characters inhabiting a world with just the right touch of surreal… and then walked away. In a place ripe for conflict and chaos nothing much happened. (The exception was Kim Woo-bin‘s character — the lone possessor of an actual character-arc.)
- Too bad because: With such a brilliant cast and endless possibilities, it should have been such a fun and addictive drama. If only someone had given things a stir and turned up the heat. Instead what had been fresh and bright was left to molder into a wilted waste.
- Failed because: There wasn’t an ending. Seriously. There was a love-square and a broken bromance and a romance with an idol-specific obstacle to overcome and… those stories were all left hanging.
- Too bad because: Other than that, it was refreshingly fun and quirky little drama. But endings are vital and the last episode didn’t even qualify as “artsy.”
That Winter the Wind Blows
- Failed because: Endings are hard, yo! They don’t just write themselves! Only in this case, they do write themselves because this drama is based off of a j-drama and a movie. (That’s two ending samples, right there!) Unfortunately, the writer got caught up in a side story (is my theory) and left the rest of the drama to fend for itself. Which, all jokes aside, stories aren’t actually equipped to do.
- Too bad because: Good lord, it was pretty! So, so, so pretty. And the two leads were beyond compelling (and pretty!) to the point of breaking your brain just a little. But the ending required too much brain breaking (“don’t think — just… stare at the pretty”) which means, in the end, the story failed.
Barely Passed (seriously — just squeaked by) Dramas
Answer Me: 1994
- Bad because: The story became more interested in fooling the viewers than bringing them along for the ride. What should have been a cute concept became a painful one, especially when the story deliberately trolled their audience. (Bingguere, I’m looking at you.)
- Not completely bad because: My gosh, the characters were fully-fleshed! And world was lovingly created. And it really felt like this little found family lived and breathed and I could have easily loved them deeply. If only the show had let me.
- But ultimately: Over-indulgence spoiled the broth. The episodes were too long, leading to scenes that were too long. And the mischievous need to trick the audience changed from cute to cruel, at the cost of character logic and growth.
Dating Agency: Cyrano
- Bad because: The main romance had no heft to it. I liked the characters, but I didn’t feel like I really got to know them. Or that there was much to know.
- Not completely bad because: It was fun and light and breezy. And there was some lovingly meta takes on what makes a romance a romance.
- But ultimately: I walked away feeling like nothing really happened. Which is weird, because things did happen. Just… they didn’t seem to count for much.
I Miss You
- Bad because: So. Many. Tears. Bad things were happening to our characters and they went through some heavy, emotional times. But a scene without tears was a rare scene indeed. Which makes for emotionally exhausting viewing.
- Not completely bad because: The drama tackled the aftermath of rape from the perspective of the victim and had, I thought, a really important and ultimately positive message to deliver. Which, it did deliver the message. Just… it was a little soggy on arrival.
- But ultimately: I enjoyed the drama, but I can see why it made so many people’s “failed” list. I understand why the show worked the emotions, but it did cross the line into overwrought.
- Bad because: The plot was so thin you could see though it. The world barely existed. The supporting characters were heavy on the caricature, light on actual character.
- Not completely bad because: Gong Hyo-jin and So Ji-sub and the chemistry they created. Seriously — they could power a small country. Forever. Also, there was some fun trope-busting. And the cast was filled with good actors who did the best they could with the little they were given.
- But ultimately: Even the most compelling romantic leads require a story to follow and a world to inhabit. It felt like the drama tried to cover up its barely-there story with charm alone. It didn’t quite work, though it did save it from total failure.
Passed (with room to improve) Dramas
Alice in Cheongdam-dong
- Good because: The rom-com that wasn’t, this story totally deconstructed the greatest arc-type of them all: the “Candy Girl” myth — while taking sharp swipes at the harsh class division between the haves and have-nots. And it did it with a clever sense of humor and an even more clever use of “Alice in Wonderland” motifs.
- Slightly flawed because: The tone of the show was confusing at times, sliding from frothy humor into dire dramatics at the drop of a hat. It was well worth the effort to stick with it and see it through… but that it was an effort in the first place is the problem.
Flower Boy Next Door
- Good because: A low-key, quirky, heartfelt romance with a unique lead couple — I loved the characters, the world they inhabited, and the journey the drama took them on. It hit me in my heart and cut me to my bones and I really did love it to pieces.
- Slightly flawed because: The drama tried to shoe-horn in some of the usual rom-com tropes, especially towards the end. With the quietness of the story actually being told, it made for an uncomfortable fit and some emotional whiplash. I easily forgave those teeny-tiny flaws but… I did notice they were there.
Incarnation of Money
- Good because: A comedic take on the typical revenge-melodrama, this drama was both exciting and funny. It had a lot to say about greed and vengeance and it said it very well. The highly talented cast were well suited to the task.
- Slightly flawed because: The romance was really light and I missed the warmth a deeper romance would have brought. As it was, the drama was enjoyable and engaging but once it was done, I was done.
Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love
- Good because: Such a deep and passionate and world-shaking love story! And Kim Tae-hee as Jang Ok-jung owned me completely. She and Yoo Ah-in created a couple that scorched everyone around them and left viewers hoping beyond hope that history wouldn’t happen.
- Slightly flawed because: The third act got bogged down in repetitive court schemes and the final conspiracy had its share of logic-holes. It felt like the writer reached a touch past her abilities. But the heart of the show captured me so thoroughly, I didn’t mind the misses.
- Good because: Highly intelligent, tightly told — this is probably one of the best time-travel dramas out there. It also had a compelling romance and a delightful bromance and a heartwarming mentor/mentee relationship.
- Slightly flawed because: It got bogged down in the middle, stretching an emotional complication so far it dipped dangerously close to makjang territory. Once past the quagmire the story picks right back up again, but you do have to push through to get there. (Some might say the villain was a flaw as well — but I adored his eye-popping, mouth-breathing grotesqueness.)
- Good because: Birthplace of the one bromance to rule them all! Showcasing a friendship that became a legend (crossing from the tv-screen into real life) it really was compelling enough to earn all the acclaim. And that’s not even the only bromance in the show!
- Slightly flawed because: The girls got shafted. Not completely, but they did settle further into the background than had been originally planned. Also, the drama had a tendency to get preachy when teaching issues came up. But with such a bromance on offer, it seems churlish to complain and I actually admire the show-creators for recognizing what was happening and shuffling the show around accordingly.
- Good because: It’s a melodrama that did its job almost exactly — giving us an insanely dysfunctional love story between two completely messed-up characters and making us like it. There’s all kinds of scheming and vengeance-taking and chest bounding tears in this one. As promised.
- Slightly flawed because: It could have been crazier. I wanted the villain to relish his evilness. Instead he had a vaguely redemptive beat that didn’t fit my schadenfreude needs.
She is Wow
- Good because: Such a risqué, unapologetically black comedy deserves to be relished. It gave us deeply flawed characters with deeply flawed goals and somehow got us rooting for them.
- Slightly flawed because: I’m of two minds on this… On the one hand I’m not entirely comfortable with how a gay character’s storyline is handled. On the other hand — it fits in really, really well with the story itself. Is the flaw in the drama, or is the flaw in me? Either way, it’s a small hiccup. Ultimately, I really did enjoy watching this one.
- Good because: A redemption story with a driving pace and a hero who actually needs redeeming. He starts out in a surprisingly low place and has to claw his way up into becoming a worthy human being. And we’re with him every painful step of the way.
- Slightly flawed because: There are some massive coincidences to hand-wave away. And there’s some dependence on narrative tricks to keep the tension levels raised. But if you’re able to let those go (and I was) the story does what it set out to do.
Top of the Class Dramas
Can We Get Married?
- Good because: This is such a lovely and loving look at the hard work involved in building and maintaining viable relationships. No one is completely good, no one is completely evil. I loved every single story in this drama, because the characters were all so very, very human.
- Even better because: Lee Mi-sook. I was absolutely blindsided by how completely, totally, and fiercely I loved her character. And that in a drama brimming with talented actors and meaty characters.
I Hear Your Voice
- Good because: Finally a straight up, no-apologies, rom-com! (For some reason the usual no-brainer of mixing romance with comedy was thin on the ground in 2013.) But this drama delivered the goods. Plus, it threw in an exciting “escape the vengeful murderer” storyline. And I do like exciting.
- Even better because: I adored the gender flipping that went on. Especially because it gave us the hilariously cool and cocky, anything to save face, Jang Hye-sung. She was awesome and Lee Bo-young played her note perfect — from her hair flip to the little strut in her step.
The Queen’s Classroom
- Good because: It takes a surprisingly dark and psychological story, sets it in the primary colored world of grade school, and manages to make it work. An intriguing mystery that also manages to say good things about the power of friendship and the importance of being true to yourself.
- Even better because: Teacher Ma is a character that could easily be diminished as she’s pulled out of the shadows. Far too often the mystery is more compelling than the answer. In Teacher Ma’s case, though — the more you learn the more intriguing she becomes. And that is damn good storytelling.
- Good because: Brothers at odds always makes for a good story. Make the brothers estranged twins — one an uptight cop, the other a laid back ex-con — and you’ve got the makings of something gloriously classic and wonderful. And that’s what this drama delivers.
- Even better because: It showcased the acting talents of Suh Joon-young and threw in an extra bonus with Park Hyung-shik in the flashback scenes.
Best Drama of 2013
- Good because: Gorgeously filmed, tightly written, it’s noir done right. Filled with bad men and dangerous women — you don’t know what side should win the war, but you do know who you want to win. Even while you don’t know what he’s trying to win in the first place.
- Even better because: Found families. The drama is all about the steely-strong bonds of found families and the bonds between these characters? Tighter than blood, from womb to tomb, they kill for each other, die for each other, and it’s their love for each other that gets you to love them so fiercely.
- Achieves “best” because: Rewatching it actually takes away plot-holes. This is the first time I’ve seen a k-drama that was this well thought out and this well realized. I adore complex plots, and this drama gave me complexity in spades. But it kept its heart as well. And those two things combined is a rare beast indeed.
And there you have it! I watched a lot of k-drama and I was disappointed in a lot of k-drama. But there were some good spots as well, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Here’s hoping for a more fulfilling 2014!