Year in Review – The Lessons We Learn from KDramas in 2018

For me, the biggest lesson learnt this year (and actually every year) is, I still have no access to the 4th dimension. Where has all the time gone to? Why do I not have enough time to watch my beloved dramas? Maybe because I have pretty high tolerance, I don’t usually drop dramas and try my best to stick to the (sometimes bitter) end whenever I start one. Unfortunately, this year sees an increase on the dramas that were mostly dropped because of time constraint. 

Lesson #1 – Time Management

The first casualty was Shall We Kiss First?. Helmed by Kim Sun Ah and Gam Woo Sung, I was excited when the first news article of Show was released, and the story sounds like a good healing melo. Alas, time was not on my side (it never was) and between real life commitments and a slew of other dramas demanding my attention, Show gradually slipped out of my life quietly, forgotten until now. A moment of silence please.

Throughout the year, several other dramas followed suit, some I do have the intention to continue one day, some I know I’ll watch at 2x (or even 3x) speed, others I know are already sucked away by the blackhole never to return. Mr Sunshine was one I know I’ll resume watching because 1) I’ve already come so far (half way through) 2) there’s Yoo Yeon Seok, 3) I’m a history buff even though I do not like history involving Japanese Imperialism. Unlike other Kim Eun Sook‘s drama, I have to, albeit a little grudgingly, admit that she’s totally upped the game for herself by creating a world so rich in history and interesting characters and for once the love story is actually secondary. The cinematography is wonderful and I believe it has done its part in enticing foreign audience to visit the various filming sites in Korea. 

When time passes by faster than you think, the fast foward/speed up button is your best friend. I try not to use that button mostly because I felt it doesn’t do justice to the amount of time the production team and the artistes spent in presenting to us a drama, but sometimes it just can’t be helped. The Ghost Detective had such potential but the writer most probably had no idea how to spin a story to last 16 hours and I watched the latter half of it at 3x speed. Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food is another drama which suffered from not enough content to sustain 16 hours. The novelty wears off at around Episode 5 and yes, fast foward button to the rescue. KDrama production teams should really consider making dramas of shorter length than sticking to the 16-episode format.

Other dramas that couldn’t escape the speed up button/being abandoned

  • Radio Romance – 3x speed from beginning to end, so so boring
  • Tale of a Good Witch – It’s a shame Lee Da Hae‘s acting makes me cringe
  • Fluttering Alert – The OTP is cute but the story is so mediocre with irritating supporting characters
  • Suits – I just, just can’t bring myself to focus
  • Risky Romance – Can’t focus on this too
  • Bad Papa – I really want to watch this for Jang Hyuk but it’s so dreary I can’t
  • Handsome Guy and Jung Eum – A waste of Namgoong Min

Dramas dropped, but with the intention of completing one day

  • Mother
  • Familiar Wife
  • Miracle That We Met
  • Room No. 9
  • The Beauty Inside
  • The Third Charm
  • Just Between Lovers
  • Dae Jang Geum is Watching

Lesson #2 – Do not be a Busybody

In every drama there exist at least one character who just can’t stop poking their noses into affairs none of their concern, usually just for the sake of driving the story forward. We see that in Priest and The Guest, both dramas coincidentally about exorcism. In the former, Ham Eun-ho’s (Jung Yoo-mi) colleague Dr Kim acted on her suspicion and pokes around, almost disrupting the exorcism of Dr Song. Similarly, Detective Gu’s colleague lost her life at the hands of a very possessed Nurse Seo, after following him and Eun-ho to some abandoned area in the hospital (although yes I understand she’s acting like any police would, with the intention to save someone). We have another casualty in The Guest, when Kil-young’s (Jung Eun Chae) mother (Park Hyo Joo) decided to take check out what she assumes is child abuse after seeing Hwa-pyung being covered in bruises, and eventually gets killed by a very possessed priest-in-training. 

Not every nosy parker loses their lives, but some actually cause others to die because of their busybodiness. Or rather, these nosy parkers overestimated their own abilities and ignore well-meaning advice to stay out of harm. This is probably one of the reasons I cannot bring myself to enjoy Sketch, because both the male and female leads drove me nuts by 1) not understanding orders which tell them to stay put, 2) overestimating their abilities and try to save everyone but end up causing people to die. 

Well of course sometimes people are well meaning when they become busybodies, like in Mystery Queen 2, although this time round for some strange reason it’s no longer quirky and interesting like the first instalment. Seol (Choi Kang Hee) pokes her nose around in order to find clues to nail the culprit…and I didn’t complete the drama because it just wasn’t interesting any more =(

Lesson #3 – Everyone has a Story

Every strange lead has a secret which leads them to being who they are, usually prickly and definitely not someone we’ll be friends with in real life. However they make good characters to watch in a drama and a reason for us to escape the mundane life. Usually the male lead was traumatised by someone or some event during childhood, which made them paranoid or difficult to be with, and it’s always up to the female lead to prod them out of the little castle they built around themselves.

From Seo Poong (Junho) and Doo Chil-sung (Jang Hyuk) in Greasy Romance, to Lee Young Joon (Park Seo Joon) in What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim, Jang Seon-gyeol (Yoon Kyun Sang) in Clean with Passion for Now, and Kim Min Gyu (Yoo Seung Ho) in I’m Not a Robot, all these guys experience some sort of childhood trauma. With the exception of the guys in Greasy, practically every other male lead who suffered in childhood are chaebol kids. In fact Seon-gyeol and Min Gyu are so similar that they treat their robot vacuum cleaners like a person and both are so stringent with hygiene. 

Not exactly during childhood, but some of our male leads were scarred during their formative years. In Thirty But Seventeen, our male protagonist Gong Woo-jin (Yang Se Jong) blamed himself for causing the “death” of his crush, to an extreme extent that he withdrew from the world so much he actually rocked the caveman looks. Similarly, Yoo Baek (Kim Ji-seok) from Top Star Yoo Baek, found out during his teen years that his Mom treated him more as an ATM machine (Baek apparently made his debut as a teen) and his strained relationship with his Mom seemed to result in him being self-centered and conceited (why? I have no idea but let’s just roll with it). 

Dr Baek Beom (Jung Jae-young) from Investigation Couple was not traumatized in his childhood, but he suffered from huge betrayal and loss as a working adult (spoilers: no thanks to a meddlesome Dad) and eventually turned him into an eccentric (but brilliant) pathologist, albeit difficult to work with. Terrius, or Kim Bon (So Ji Sub) saw his love being assassinated right in front of him, and spurred him to take revenge in My Secret Terrius. He became extremely paranoid and overanalyzes mundane concerns from his ahjumma neighbor, thinking that she’s a spy like him. 

So perhaps next time before we diss someone for being difficult, let’s consider for a moment if they’ve been scarred in the past.

Lesson #4 – Adulting is Difficult

We’ve seen so many memes about how difficult it is to be an adult and KDramas seem to agree with it as well. Dramas in an office setting or about a particular occupation always remind me of the difficulties of adulting. Woohoo Waikiki is all about navigating the world being someone in the 20s, fresh into the scary society. It is always reassuring to have friends to have your back, as seen in Your House Helper. Once they resolved the misunderstandings, the four girls in Your House Helper provided support for each other as they each face their own set of problems in their work places.

I was apprehensive when Live was first announced, as what’s so interesting about the lives of patrol police? As it turns out, it tells the difficulties of the job, and that just having passion is not good enough a reason to remain a patrol police. They are first and foremost a human, someone’s child, spouse or parent, but most people conveniently forgot that fact. Live serves as a timely reminder to us that the people in uniforms put their lives aside to protect and help civilians.

In the other workplace dramas these year, Misty builds its story around a charismatic news anchor who appears to be formidable. Underneath that glamorous appearance, Lee Hye-ran (Kim Nam-joo) hides her scars and traumatic teenage years, becoming a force that even male colleagues are afraid of (and that says something in a male chauvanistic Korean society). She should be the role model of all future dramaland female leads, for upholding their own principles and not kowtowing to pressure. And speaking of which, Yoon Jin-ah (Sohn Ye-jin) in Pretty Noona set a good example for whistle-blowing the sexual harrassment at the workplace.

While not sexual harrassment, Feels Good to Die is a good fantasy for those who actually work under a horrendous boss and also sometimes wishes for his/her death (?) I like the rhetoric that was posed in one of the episodes: does a person change because of his/her position, or the position changed the person? While it’s admirable that Baek Jin-sang (Kang Ji-hwan) sticks to his no-nonsense work ethics, his low EQ made him an enemy to all in the workplace and also created unnecessary tension.

It indeed is tough being an adult.

Lesson #5 – Do not be too trusting

Yoon Shi Yoon as Prince Eun Sung in Grand Prince is actually quite an annoying character as he is just so trusting in his elder brother, Prince Jin Yang (Joo Sang Wook), despite repeatedly being betrayed. Similarly, Sung Ja Hyun (Jin Se Yeon) doesn’t seem to learn her lesson and always get betrayed. 

In Lawless Lawyer, Han Je-yi (Seo Ye-ji) was immensely betrayed by her role model Justice Cha Moon-sook (Lee Hye-young) when she learned that Justice Cha was not only corrupt but also kills without batting an eyelid. Conversely, Bong Sang-pil (Lee Joon Gi) only trusts his fists despite being a lawyer. To be honest I can’t remember much about Show, except Choi Min Soo‘s swagger and Lee Joon Gi being too skinny. But it was a fun drama to watch.

Lesson #6 – The Art of Suspending Your Disbelief

Drama isn’t drama if it does not require some suspension of disbelief (ask all who’s watching Empress’ Dignity and they’ll give you an affirmative answer), and the art of suspending disbelief is highly necessary watching some dramas. Switch: Change the World is one of such dramas, where Jang Geun Seok plays the role of two guys who simply too too darn similar to each other. I actually enjoy the drama very much when it was airing, and I really appreciate the fact that most of the important characters caught on early, or were let into the secret of the swindler pretending to be the prosecutor. It kind of increases the stake and made the narrative more compelling, although sab would probably complain about the villains here being too dumb and one dimensional.

Conversely, Your Honor failed to make the ridiculous switch-a-roo situation more realistic because for goodness sake, gangster twin brother Kang-ho (Yoon Shi Yoon) has such different mannerisms from judge twin brother Soo-ho, yet nobody picked up the differences. At least in Switch, the swindler learnt all the mannerisms of the prosecutor and took care to avoid being recognised as a fake. This is where the suspension of disbelief is highly needed while watching Your Honor, else we’ll be all tearing our hair out in frustration.

Suspension of disbelief is like an innate ability when watching a sageuk, especially when it’s set in a fictional era. What I love about 100 Days My Prince is our Prince/Won-deuk (Do Kyung Soo aka D.O.) knows something is wrong when he was told who he is, after losing his memory, although he too decides to suspend his disbelief and roll with what he’s told. The entire setup in 100 Days was silly to begin with and I thought it actually helped with suspending disbelief.

Fantasy is another genre where it is only natural to abandon all logic while digesting the drama. That said, the writer has to create his/her own set of logic such that the story that he/she wants to tell will not fall apart. We’ve seen successes and failures in the fantasy genre, and sadly I didn’t manage to complete all of the fantasy dramas that I started watching this year. Hwayugi was one which I did finish watching. While the rules were fairly well adhere to, the storytelling still fell flat and not all that memorable. Fairy Mama and the Woodcutter was another that suffered from the storytelling despite an interesting synopsis. Beauty Inside was good with the body and face changing hijinks, but once it hit the noble idiocy stage it was snoozefeast for several episodes. Miracle That We Met also ran out of juice by half-time, and it is obvious the writer had no idea how to wrap up loose ends. I’m Not a Robot is probably the most underrated winner in the fantasy genre as it remained steadfast in telling a story of healing and forgiveness under the guise of SciFi + romance.

Lesson #7 – Family is Important

Family is a common theme in KDramas, be it biologically related families, or random people who come together to form a ragtag family. It’s usually the latter that brings more entertainment and laughters, as seen in Woohoo Waikiki. We have 6 young adults living under one roof, learning how to be an adult, while caring for an infant and developing their love and professional lives all at the same time. Hijinks never seem to run out in the Waikiki Guesthouse (where guests appear so randomly) and it seems more like a sitcom than a proper drama. Ragtag family provides just as much warmth as a “proper” family does, as single mom Han Yoon-ah (Jung In Sun) and her little girl Seol learnt.

There were plenty of ragtag families in dramaland this year, or shall we say friends are families when one is living away from their biological families. My Secret Terrius is one which played the friends are families card well, as we see a tightly knitted community made up of the residents at the King’s Apartment. The ahjummas (and that lone stay-at-home Dad) look out for each other, shared information and surveillance that parallels Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS). Thirty But Seventeen is another fantastic story about friends who’re like families, helping each other heal and grow. Also, who would have thought the gang of swindlers in Player would make such caring oppas to Ah-ryung (Krystal)?

Families are formed when people live together, with the intention to look out for each other. My Husband Oh Jak-doo tells exactly that kind of story, two strangers initially bound by a marriage contract which eventually blossomed into true love. Goodbye to Goodbye is a story of a broken wife/mother who at first grudgingly looks after her son’s pregnant girlfriend, and the surrogate mother-daughter relationship grew into one of the most heartwarming story of how families are made. The drama also explores several other parent-child relationships, which I found really thought-provoking. KBS’ weekender earlier this year Shall We Live Together, gave us an endearing story of two lovers separated at youth, overcome their misunderstandings and brought together their separate families to become one big family.

Not forgetting one of dramaland’s favorite tropes, dysfunctional families are also everywhere in this year’s dramas. I generally give makjangs a miss so there’s not much I can talk about, but what I am sure of is, one of the most memorable dysfunctional families of 2018 belongs to that in Money Flower. Who can forget that sizzling tension between Kang Pil-joo (Jang Hyuk) and Jung Mal-ran (Lee Mi Sook), who should be, mother and son in name? The dysfunction begins from Gramps and gets continued by family members who are either greedy or seeking revenge. This is one drama that did the revenge plot right without resorting to being overdramatic.

And with that, I shall end my year in review with the following list of dramas that I’ve completed this year but can’t fit into the thesis above.

Dramas that somehow can’t be categorised

  • Children of a Lesser God – Awesome from start till end. Cults are scary stuff
  • Life on Mars – What is real and what is not? I really hate putting this as a time traveling drama, after knowing it isn’t in the original
  • Return – Drama within drama. And that derail in the second half. Argh
  • Hwayugi – I think the Hong sisters have lost their touch
  • God’s Quiz: Reboot – Beware of AI

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all! 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. humbledaisy1 says:

    Thanks for the list. I never thought I might want to watch Live but to quote you,
    “They are first and foremost a human, someone’s child, spouse or parent, but most people conveniently forgot that fact.” I may have to watch it now.

    I think that what you wrote is the driving force of the best dramas. When someone is greedy/driven/lazy/rich enough to forget that others are human beings as well, things begin to happen. If we are lucky, love or friendship. If not, pain. I guess this is why MoneyFlower was my favorite 2018 drama with The Beauty Inside a close second. Best Wishes for 2019!

  2. What a marvellous review Kooriyuki. The categorisation you have used regarding the dramas in 2018 is excellent 🤗

    My absolute favourite: My Mister. Then there is Money Flower sitting in a category all on its own and if My Mister hadn’t come along, then it would have been my pick for the year. I thought Misty was wonderful until the end. And then there is Mr Sunshine. If you do get the chance, please finish it. Just breathtaking and the friendships and other relationships are so special.

    I thought The Beauty Inside was very special too. In particular, the middle episodes are very hard to beat. Foxbride Star was another one and then there was 100 Day Prince.

    My favourite family drama: Shall We Live Together. What an awesome cast. This is closely followed by Terius. I’m a sucker for any type of soy show whether it’s serious or not.

    My stats show I drop 1 in 4 shows and 1 in 50 movies. One show I have been “talked” into picking up again is The Third Charm. I dropped it after the fifth episode. I won’t mention Grand Prince again 🤣 One show I’m glad I was talked into was Devlish Joy – the initial relationship was beautiful. Another is Life on Mars – it turned out much better than I expected. There is still not enough out there to convince me to look at Suits. Then there is Mama Fairy – I enjoyed it to start with. The quirkiness was good (eg dancing goats in the vineyard), then it crashed and burned for me. As for Pretty Noona, I stopped at episode 10, because I felt the story was going to fall apart.

    The rollovers are The Last Empress. I don’t know why I’m still hanging in there. Alhambra is great and so is Clean With Passion. Fate and Furies is up there too.

    May you and the gang have a magical 2019 🎉🍾🎉

    1. kooriyuki says:

      Thank you as always for your insightful comments! May 2019 be awesome for you too!

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