In a nutshell: I did not like this drama. I should have. It had everything going for it. Richly drawn characters — a fully realized world with note-perfect costuming, set-design, and music — an ensemble cast of devoted, talented actors — all anchored by a deeply compelling and quietly tender coming-of-age tale. Unfortunately, there was a schtick. Dependent on fooling the viewers, the schtick sucked up all the air in the room, undermining the overarching story and turning a touching side-story into an offensive bait-and-switch. Too clever for anyone’s good the creators of the previous Answer Me: 1997 managed to take a good idea and spoil it.
What worked: The story takes a nostalgic look at life in Seoul in the early ’90’s through a motley group of college students, living together in a family run boardinghouse. They bond over their outsider status as small town folk in the big city while gathered around the overflowing dinner table. There’s a lovely low-key vibe to the rhythm of their stories and even foreign viewers, such as myself, could appreciate the sepia toned feel of the drama. (For those familiar with the time and place, the touchstones of that era were apparently spot on.)
The characters are finely drawn and very well played. Go Ara completely broke her just-a-pretty-face reputation, fully inhabiting the brash, confident, yet sometimes achingly vulnerable Sung Ja-nung. She’s the core of the story — the center around which everything else swings — and she anchored the drama beautifully. Even when everything else about the story was falling apart, I loved her.
Yoo Yeon-seok continued his upward trajectory with his role as Chilbongi — the outsider amongst the outsiders. The lone Seoul native, a rising baseball star — on paper he seems like an alpha male. But with his sweet, self-deprecating nature, he settles more comfortably into an underdog role. He dips in and out of the story — disappearing for several episodes — but whenever he’s onscreen, he fills it.
The hardest row to hoe, role-wise, was everyone’s big brother “Trash.” (A nickname lovingly bestowed.) Played with a great deal of charm by Jung Woo, his otherwise simple and straightforward character is hampered by the story’s need to keep his motivations a mystery for much of the drama. There are depths there, but we’re only allowed to see the edges of it. However, Jung Woo manages to create a center and a solidness to an otherwise bizarrely elusive character.
Also of note were the comic-relief roles played by Kim Sung-kyun (managing to balance awkward frog against sweet prince without losing either aspect), Min Do-hee (growing believably from a closed-off stranger to an open and supportive friend), and Son Ho-jun (letting the squishy heart of his cocky man-about-town slowly rise to the surface). Finally, Lee Il-hwa did a warm and moving reprisal of her mom role. (I adored that, in this go around, the mother-daughter relationship took more center stage.)
What didn’t work: Unfortunately, two fatal flaws pulled this Icarus down into the cold and unforgiving sea. One flaw was an overindulgent conviction that everything the show did was awesome and deserving of long, lingering examination.
The actor hardest hit by that conviction was Sung Dong-il. His scenes tended to go on and on (and on and on). At times, seeming less designed to further the story being told and more designed to highlight either Sung Dong-il’s comic or dramatic skills. Which, he’s certainly skilled. However the lack of disciplined directing or editing resulted in comic scenes that slid too far into slapstick, and dramatic scenes that sailed uncomfortably close to furniture chewing. (His skills were on far better display in Answer Me: 1997 and Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love.)
The second flaw was the desperate need to trick the audience. The trick, the twist, became more important than telling the story. Characters were completely sabotaged in the name of surprise. And the central relationship remained a story mostly untold because the show wanted to keep that relationship a secret. Which meant that what should have been a quiet love story, with a compelling and mature obstacle to handle, was reduced to a ‘shipping blood-bath. Plenty of dramas use narrative tricks as a tool to plump up an otherwise skinny story. But in this case a robust story was diminished to better serve the narrative tricks.
In conclusion: Overindulgently long, enamored of its own cleverness, Answer Me: 1994 is a disappointing failure. I can’t not recommend it, because the things done well were done very well indeed. But I do recommend viewers proceed with caution. This is one story where it might be better to get thoroughly spoiled before watching. That way you can watch the story and skip the gameshow.