This year has been a wild ride in k-dramaland. From the excesses of Secret Garden fandom to little shows popping up on new cable channels, it’s been interesting to say the least.
I made a list and checked it twice, and I was struck by the number of shows that I had watched at least part of and then bleached from my brain. Admittedly a couple of them ended in January, so I was thinking of them as last year’s shows, but still, that there is a whole lot of drama.
Despite many shows that started with great promise, this has not been a great year on the drama landscape. Show after show went down in flames. The funny thing is that I’m not the harshest of critics. I understand watching for the pretty, the silly or the crack of a drama. All I ask is for a show, whatever the genre, to get from the beginning to the end without somehow going bananas. That doesn’t sound too hard, but for some reason, this year it was.
But fear not! There were a few gems in that drama-mine, and some of them came from surprising places.
Year end lists are inherently biased by the tastes of the reviewer and the shows they actually watched. I don’t normally watch melodramas, so this is heavy on sageuk, action, fluff and rom-com. I tossed a few off the list, otherwise you’d be reading forever. If there is a show you don’t see listed, assume I didn’t watch it (Thousand Day Promise), or that it was one of the ones that I couldn’t finish (Manny). I’ll just hit the highs and lows, and some of the middle. There are spoilers – keep your eyes open! You have been warned!
First, I’ll dispense with one January show – Secret Garden ended in January, but I think of it as a 2010 show. And you don’t want to know what I think about it anyway. Trust me on this – you really don’t.
Sadly, here are some shows that started out with some promise, but they didn’t make it around the first turn.
Athena – this one lost me really fast. For all the big bucks they spent on it and several actors I normally would watch dreck for, this thing was just not going anywhere. Once I realized that the big fun huge action sequence was a dream sequence, I felt robbed. When they made Lee Jung Woo a slacker, I was gone. Not even adding Cha Seung Won and Kim Min Jong to Jung Woo Sung’s star power was enough to rescue it. I have watched the occasional later episodes when I have insomnia. It works pretty well as a sleeping pill, actually.
All I can say is that I sincerely hope that Kim Min Jong, who was outstanding in his last two series, both of which were absolute dogs, lands a winner next time.
On the other hand, the soundtrack! Athena has some of my favorite drama music of the year. Go figure!
Crime Squad – in which Song Il Gook is completely and utterly wasted on this show, and it was bad enough that one of the lead actresses quit mid-series. Yup, that bad. I lasted until I realized that the paperwork I was doing at the time was actually more interesting than the show. It’s long been a mystery to me that k-dramas generally fail at police procedurals. This is just another in the long list.
In this particular case, the series waffled between wanting to be light and wanting to be serious. There is no problem with having comic relief. Or even full out comedy. However, it would have helped if was actually amusing. Or that there was some rhyme or reason behind the serious vs. funny. But it all felt random. In terms of tone, it flip-flopped between Barney Miller and Homicide. Even Poseidon’s comic relief was more effective.
The Musical – I was glad to see this show land a spot, even the weird one it ended up in. Because hey! Choi Daniel! Park Ki Woong! Singing! What’s not to like?
It started out winningly enough, but within a few episodes it lost steam. Both of the guys were darned adorable, and I even added in a new adorable guy there – Kim Yong Min as the assistant director. But even that wasn’t enough to bridge me over. Somehow, for a show about a musical, there wasn’t really much music. What music there was, was actually pretty good, but why wasn’t there more of it? A musical has more than 2 numbers. We may have actually heard more of the real show Monte Cristo then our fictional one.
I think the pacing was off because of the once a week showing instead of twice a week, plus it endured two pre-emptions. It didn’t capture me enough to keep me going. As I write this, it still has a few episodes to go, but I won’t be watching them.
It strikes me as a show that may benefit from waiting until it’s all done and watching it in one nice rainy weekend.
Now for two that I finished, but more out of duty and a sense of righteous indignation than any real enjoyment.
King Geunchogo – no drama this year broke my heart more than King Crack. In the beginning it was so good that I was tuning in to watch it live.
It was fabulous. The characterizations were spot on, it was beautifully shot, the action scenes were great. I give huge, huge credit to Choi Myung Gil as the 1st Queen and Yoon Seung Won as King Biryu. They were fabulous. The problems arose in the middle, when the older generation started passing on, and the younger had to take over. They flopped.
They were starting to hit the live shoot and the production quality had a noticeable drop. The writers were clearly adrift, and the casting choices for the second half of the show were just bad. There is an episode that I call the “let’s go on a picnic” episode. That’s just about when the show completely lost where it was going. The remaining actors didn’t have enough gravitas to carry the weight of the show, and the writers certainly weren’t helping. It became painful to watch.
It says something about how bad the middle of the show was to note that it actually improved with the addition of some idol/actors as the youngest members of the family. ::shakes head in wonderment::
Poseidon – which I sincerely hope will be the last k-drama named for a Greek god. For all the hype about the Coast Guard support and connection, this is another case of a police procedural fail. It just didn’t work, and there was a surprising lack of Coast Guard specific action after the first few episodes.
This drama was snake-bitten from the beginning, but with the cast it ended up with, it should have gone somewhere. Sadly, it didn’t.
It wasn’t so much that the story concept was bad, but the writing was lame. Special Unit vs Organized Crime is a classic setup. The fact that literally half of the characters had some sort of hidden background of pain involving the organized crime unit was overdone, but typical of k-dramas.
The actors gave it their best shot, but it was the most overwrought, inane and drawn out plot imaginable. Sixteen episodes to go where snappy writing and more imaginative directing could have gone in far fewer.
It also had some of the worst musical editing it’s ever been my misfortune to hear. This was just incredibly bad.
Also, Choi Siwon, if you are walking like that, your pants are too tight.
And now for a few that crashed late in the game –
Warrior Baek Dong Soo – yes, I think we all know how I feel about WBDS by this point. At least WBDS gave me 25 episodes of Choi Min Soo, so for that I am eternally grateful. The less said the better, let’s move along, nothing to see here.
I Need Romance – sadly, I didn’t even get any Choi Min Soo out of this one. Shall we start with my problems with domestic violence? Ok, in this scenario of 3 friends, one of them, Hyun Joo, gets left at the altar and calls on her friendly handyman to fill in as a faux groom at the ceremony to save face (funny actually). Sometime later, as they are actually starting to date, she’s admittedly being an ass, and he hits her.
Yeah. Not a fan.
As far as I’m concerned, if a boyfriend hits you, he hits the road. Period. K-dramas and I differ on this expectation to a certain extent, but that was the moment in this drama where my antenna went up for trouble. For the love of all I hold holy, some day someone in a k-drama is going to smack someone, and that person will turn around, call the cops and charge them with assault. And I’ll stand up and applaud.
Anyway – the main couple Sun Woo In Young and Kim Sung Soo – he cheats, she dumps him, spends 15 episodes getting rid of him, all the while convincing herself that she deserves better, including dumping a rich younger boyfriend when she won’t change for him, and then in episode 16 she takes the cheating rat bastard back.
Why? Why do this to me, Show? I’m head-desking here again just thinking about it. I know people who have forgiven and taken cheating rats back. Yeah, it happens. Yeah, he begged for forgiveness and groveled before her parents, but WHY? Why spend 15 episodes building up her confidence about moving on and then have her take 2 steps back? Why, Show? Just – Why?
Heartstrings – I wasn’t going to include this in the review. However, momochan insisted. She may regret this.
Even if I allow for a slight irrational impediment, I found the story banal and the acting dull but the music was pretty good. I find CN Blue listen-able, and a little gayageum is always a good thing. It’s a real shame that the story was so disjointed. It might as well have been several CN Blue videos strung together. In fact, I’m a bit sorry that most of the songs were straight from CN Blue’s catalog, because fresh songs might have been more interesting, although Park Shin Hye’s version of Teardrops in the Rain was pretty cool.
Now, while Jung Yong Hwa has improved as an actor since You’re Beautiful, he’s still far better as a musician. Hand him a guitar and a mic and he comes alive in the show. Otherwise, he’s still quite stilted.
Basically, I think it lost me when it was tying to be too BIG – the BIG contest, the BIG anniversary event. When they happened, they just weren’t BIG. Now, momochan, who is not a CN Blue fan in the least, seems to like Heartstrings far more than I do. It may simply be that it was more successful in targeting a younger audience.
The winning moments for me were from Lee Hyun Jin, who has the voice of an angel, and Kang Min Hyuk, who was adorable. Lee Hyun Jin’s moment where he overcomes his stage fright and sings with the traditional instrument band is lovely. Sadly, other than the big show near the end of the series, he doesn’t figure in the show nearly enough. Lee Hyun Jin, we need to see and hear more from you.
My Princess – is a curious entry in this category. It is a winning little rom-com that proved that Song Seung Hun and Kim Tae Hee are made for screwball comedies.
It started beautifully, particularly when it referenced Roman Holiday and played into the classic comedy set up. The bit where she’s hiding in the antique car trying to delete her video history is a classic.
Despite the fluff and light and sweet, it didn’t seem to know where to end up. It was as if it had set up this alternate universe where there could be a constitutional monarchy, but it hadn’t figured out what to do once it got to that point.
Several of the characters seemed to have little purpose in the story, were criminally underused, or used and inexplicably dropped, like Lee Seol’s sister or Lee Ki Kwang as the chef. And of course, the evil second lead girl just became more and more bitchy and evil. I blame most of that on the writer not having the final goal in mind when the series started.
Anyway, sadly, as pretty, perky and funny as it was in the beginning, it was another one that fell flat in the end.
Best Love aka Greatest Love - as a satire about the entertainment industry I liked this more than I did as a straight up rom-com.
Dokko Jin was one of the oddest k-drama leads around and Pil Joo was one of the better second leads ever invented. But still it never really came together for me.
I finished Best Love, but felt it just ran out of steam and if I had dropped it before the heart surgery, I wouldn’t have missed it. Of all the Hong sisters dramas, this may be my least favorite (which is saying something, considering how I feel about the last half of Hong Gil Dong). I honestly wasn’t feeling the chemistry between the leads, but I did have a slight case of second lead shipping.
Next - the three that are still running, but are fun in totally different ways. I have hopes that they will close out the deal, but the way this year is going, at least one of these is likely to jump off the cliff.
Flower Boy Raymun Shop – this one has almost finished, and still might dive into the dumper, but so far, this comedy reminds me of whacky Japanese comedies I love more than any other k-drama I’ve seen. It started with the sparkles around Chi-Soo in the airplane, and it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit to have had animated hearts come leaping out of Chi Soo’s chest (waves at Ouran fans!). It’s whacky, but purposely so.
It’s not afraid to reference other shows just to get a few giggles (see episode 1’s intro of Chi Soo on the plane vs. Coffee Prince). And it’s another example of a show where the background music is often hysterically appropriate (Sweet Escape playing as he’s talking with his friends about hiding from his father!) and actually became a plot point (episode 9).
Jung Il Woo is really good playing an immature, over-indulged brat. He goes from fits of pique to pathos and hits all the proper ranges in between. The other main boys, and Lee Chung Ah as Yang Eun Bi are all equally quirky and odd. Surprisingly, for a show where Jung Il Woo has to carry a lot of the load, the other guys have enough story to work with and make it an ensemble.
One of the funniest things about this show is the wordplay. If a pun can be made, it will be. If some motif can be used and twisted into pretzels, it will be. If a comment can be misunderstood, used as a double entendre or otherwise served up for a return volley of a joke, it goes there.
As I said, I have a serious love for over the top whacky comedy, so YMMV on this one. Since more than one k-drama comedy in this style has foundered trying to figure out how to finish, I’m cautiously hopeful this might be the exception and keep up the whack until the end.
Tree with Deep Roots – So far I like it, and it’s clearly starting to build to a close. For a story that is technically about the development of an alphabet, it’s surprisingly interesting. There is an undercurrent of humor, and I have to love a king who can curse a blue streak. The show has a nice balance of swordplay and palace plotting.
When we first meet Ddol Bok in the opening sequence, I thought to myself, well, this is trying a little too hard. But then that turned out to be the introduction to the childhood sequence. And when we got back to that spot 3 or so episodes later, it no longer seemed flashy and overdone, but merely a way of showing his mind working.
Song Joong Ki killed it as young King Sejong. Han Suk Kyu kept it going – the scene where he confronts the Mil Bon assassin and cycles through challenging monarch to worried parent to his final challenge is as lovely a bit of acting as you’ll see. It’s the flip side of what Jang Hyuk gets to do with Ddol Bok, going from groveling stupid guard to competent investigator to an intelligent schemer within the space of a scene. And then there is Ga Ri On, the butcher/coroner/noble leader in disguise. Everyone has multiple personalities, which is weird but interesting.
Little Ddol Bok was a little too shouty, and it gets mired down and overly talky in the middle. I actually enjoy a good philosophical debate, and Tree is full of them. I hope it will pull it out in the end (although I have my suspicions about where the non-historical character part of the plot is going). Just as the temple scene in Chuno bought my heart despite all other nonsense that went on in that series, when Jang Hyuk’s Ddol Bok calls for Dahm-ah in that small boy voice, he won my furry little heart for this drama.
Duo and Princess’ Man have more depth and are more crushingly tragic, and Tree is blatantly pounding home it’s views about class and politics and how knowledge is power. But for me, Hyukkie plus Han Suk Kyu is still a win. If anyone happens to think that this gets extra brownie points for Jang Hyuk being in it, they would not be wrong. However, Midas leads the list of shows I ditched. Turns out I won’t watch him read the phone book.
I’m going to stick another heads up in here, though. Because the show is so much about language and words, if you need subtitles, please find good ones. Of the sets I’ve seen in the wild, Viki the better choice. Although in the case of the cursing in one set of not great subs, it became rather amusing as I was retranslating on the fly for my Mom. She, btw, likes it but thinks it’s being heavy handed in the rhetoric. I can’t really argue there.
Vampire Prosecutor - seriously. Who knew? With a title like that, who suspected that it would be the stylish series that it is? And I will happily eat my words. A police procedural k-drama that works. Well, assuming one of your prosecutors is a vampire. And what a charming fellow Yun Jung Hoon is as Prosecutor Min!
Take a small core group of investigators. Have an overall arc of a story and each episode has a crime/puzzle of it’s own. Morality is fluid, crimes are both natural and supernatural. The dialogue is snappy, the characters well defined, the directing moody. Have a charming and flawed lead, some comic relief and some chemistry between the team members. (Last year’s hardest working man may have been Kim Gab Soo, but this year that award may go to Lee Won Jong who was in Warrior Baek Dong Soo, Scent of a Woman, the short (and charming) Princess Hwapyung’s Weight Loss AND Vampire Prosecutor.)
The hook of the vampire special skills isn’t overused and is flawed, so the show doesn’t depend completely on magic. It also doesn’t abuse flashbacks. The flashbacks here have a purpose and are well done as opposed to the random time filling flashbacks that have filled many another show (WBDS, I’m talking to you). In fact, the fight club episode is told almost entirely in flashback from different points of view and to great and humorous effect.
Unlike The Musical, the once a week pacing of this show is properly done to keep the viewer coming back for more. The show is just finishing up, so it’s always possible it will fail, but so far it’s showing no signs of it. Fingers crossed. If it finishes with a flourish, it’s going to land pretty high on my favorites list for the year.
And now, in no particular order, is the middle of the pack.
49 Days – In retrospect, writing about this show is amusing because of the kerfuffle about the ending. I spent the first few episodes snarking about Nam Gyu Ri’s assets, and enjoying Jung Il Woo’s Scheduler. Then, once Lee Yo Won really started getting going, I started appreciating the show.
There was an unfortunate impression given by some of the publicity that this was either a romance or a romantic comedy. In fact, it was clearly going to be a fantasy melodrama, and was basically a Buddhist morality tale. Personally, I have no problem with that.
I want to give credit, actually, to Jung Il Woo for starting with the over the top Scheduler and becoming another character entirely with visible shades between each point. He actually carried the first few episodes with his antics, otherwise the show would have had no momentum. Applause also to Lee Yo Won for playing essentially 3 different roles in one person. Not easy, and she managed it.
Other than thinking that the last twist about the family was overkill and unnecessary, I enjoyed 49 Days. Yes, it was fun to laugh at a restaurant with no customers, the thought that putting a hat on Jo Hyun Jae would make him look like a highschool student and other nonsense (on call exorcists, anyone?). The show had plenty of odd moments and plot holes, but it lands in my plus column if only for actually going where it intended to go in the first place.
Dream High – I had originally dropped this in the first episode because Yonsama scared me. Honestly. However, I was persuaded to come back by a song clip, and I ended up parking my brain and watching it. The setup is familiar and it was all pretty and cotton candy. As it turned out, I was mostly listening for the music and for the secondary couple. Kim Soo Hyun was fairly winning as well, but IU and Woo Young were just adorable little chipmunks.
Any pretense this had to being actually about a performing arts school was ridiculous. There may have been a few classes tossed in, but those were more set up for a song than anything else. There was a nod to the perils facing youngsters in the business, but it wasn’t much more than that.
Some of the music was fairly decent, if overly saccharine. Park Jin Young turned out to be a riot, and it was a lot of fun to see Ahn Gil Kang have a turn at comedy again.
Let’s face it, it was a giant commercial for k-pop, but it didn’t pretend to be anything else, which may have been one of it’s charms. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and was even willing to poke fun at itself. It was light and fluffy and worth the smiles it produced in the middle of a dark winter. It just is what it is.
Scent of a Woman - this has divided many a k-drama loyalty. Kim Sun Ah as a dying woman who finds love. To me it was an interesting exercise in watching the classic 5 stages of grief – from denial to acceptance – acted out. Plus, some tango never hurts. Again, the score for this was excellent and evocative. Hey, I have a thing for music – sue me.
I was fairly invested in the show until maybe half way through, then it lost me when people started going all noble idiot. Honestly, of all of the characters in the show, I enjoyed watching Uhm Ki Joon the most. His movement from aloof doctor to deeply caring one was really sweet to watch, and he also got to be the center of some of the best humor.
If you find Lee Dong Wook more charming than I do, then you’ll probably like this show more than I do. I did like the tango interludes, and was rather sorry that we didn’t see more of Veronica and the tango classes. In fact, I was rather hoping Dr. Poopy Seok would end up with Veronica, just to see more of them together at the end.
What irked me about the show was the blatant commercialism of the sponsorships and the ending, which had clearly been switched from her death to appreciating the blessing of a each new day she got. Personally I could have gone either way, but it was a little unfortunate that you could see the shift in the script. At least there was no magic cure. For me, this is one that while you are kind of glad you watched, you aren’t likely to rewatch.
City Hunter – my expectations for this were so low that just not sucking would have been a surprise. Imagine my shock when it managed to successfully create a universe where the characters made sense. No, in the real world, Nana couldn’t be a salesgirl one day and on the presidential bodyguard detail the next. But this wasn’t a real world story, it was a manga. Sort of. A manga-prequel. Whatever. It made a universe and sold it.
In this universe, evil drug-dealing pseudo-Dad could be the old friend of the President. And you can rescue random people being beaten up and find that you fall in love with a photo of a girl they just HAPPEN to have because of other seriously unlikely connections that we buy because they are selling them so winningly.
It’s similar to Batman’s Gotham. In that world you don’t shoot someone, you tie them to a table and have a blade swing menacingly over them so that they can be rescued in the nick of time. In City Hunter’s world, you wear pink pants, drive a new car every day, are an MIT computer geek by day and assassin by night. Why not? I happen to be a computer geek, so while IRIS and Athena literally gave me hives in the computer security department (there is an episode of IRIS that honestly could be a class on how NOT to run a secure network), somehow I am perfectly willing to overlook the same nonsense here, just because they were selling it well.
This show had a style and sensibility that was appropriate for the genre. Lee Min Ho and Park Min Young, you go. Lee Joon Hyuk – well done, man. Evil pseudo-Daddy – Kim Sang Joong – you rock.
Can You Hear My Heart – aka Listen to My Heart – every year I pick a weekend drama to watch. Last year it was Life is Beautiful. This year, it was CYHMH. This show might get the prize for the worst preview synopsis ever sent out – it was described something like – a man hiding his deafness falls in love with a girl who is pretending to be mentally handicapped. No. So not that.
Despite that, this show is a light melodrama. It’s got all of your usual tropes, but somehow played in a gentler way. So while we have birth secrets galore, we have evil business maneuvers, semi-psychotic mothers, murders, amnesia, and second wheels that want to intrude, that isn’t really the heart of the show.
The core of the show is Cha Dong Joo and his mother Tae Yeon Seok; Bong Ma Ru, Bong Woo Ri and their father Bong Young Kyu as well as their grandma. Throw in a few more relatives, and you have the interlocking families that fate keeps throwing together.
The real gem of this show for me was Jung Bo Suk as Bong Young Kyu. He is simple. By that I mean not only is he mentally handicapped, but his world view is very simple. Unlike the rest of the drama-verse, he doesn’t hold the sins of one person against someone else. Because he believes people, he is easily taken advantage of. However, the flip side is that on other occasions, people live up to and far beyond his expectations. If asked to do something, he will try, come hell or high water. His meeting with Ma Ru is just heartbreaking. All he asks is to have Ma Ru come home and eat a bowl of rice. ::heart melts into puddles::
Unlike most shows, once the OTP got together, it was clear that only a seismic shift would drive them apart again, no matter how many curves the story was going to throw at them.
There was also a high bromance factor going on between Dong Joo and Ma Ru that was fun, particularly in the instances where it not only drifted into slash, but romped right up and jumped into bed with slashiness. In fact, I think Nam Goong Min‘s Ma Ru probably carried the heaviest acting load in this show. He’s the one in the show who has the most trauma heaped on him, and is the catalyst for a lot of the story. He did a fine job.
Now, fair warning. I’m willing to let a lot slide, if only because it’s so rare for a k-drama that has a disabled character in it, let alone 2 leads, and then treat them with some respect. Anyway, within the rules and tropes of melodramas, this one was a sweet and graceful little melodrama that set up camp and charmed me.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff!! My top 5 for the year –
5 – The Princess’ Man – just take that knife and stab me in the heart a few more times, Show. Seriously.
The show starts out pretty and sweet, shot in light and pretty colors. And then it sinks into dark and heavy. While it’s basically about the internecine warfare that breaks out within the court and royal family as they jockey for power, it’s also got the whole Romeo and Juliet thing going on with the couple whose families on opposing sides.
The main characters start out as sheltered, pampered young nobles thinking that the world is their oyster, that they’ll get married to their matched up partners and sail along. When they are hit with the cold realities of life, death, and politics, their worlds fall apart.
I am less impressed with Park Shi Hoo’s Seung Yu than I was with Moon Chae Won’s Se Ryung. As princesses go, she was pretty kickass and self-rescuing. I really appreciated the supporting cast, including the Princes who were jockey for power. Kim Young Chul as Prince Suyang was scary as hell at times.
This show is not without flaws. It started slowly, particularly for Park Shi Hoon. It occasionally overdid things. For me it’s a near thing as to whether I liked Duo or Princess’ Man more. On the whole, I just prefer Duo’s smaller world than the one in TPM.
4 – Flames of Ambition – aka Flames of Desire – I seriously debated whether to count this as a 2010 or 2011 show. It ended in March, and I didn’t watch any of it until this year, so I decided to count it for 2011. You want makjang? Step right this way.
Normally I don’t watch melodramas, which is why I didn’t start this when it first came on (to my everlasting regret, I chose to watch King Geunchogo). It wasn’t until I heard squeaks of OMG! – Holy COW! – WHAT WHAT – OMG! coming from people whose drama watching opinions I respect that I sat up and added it to my “bank it and marathon it list.” That turns out to be a bad idea. Like most really good shows, marathoning it will cause your brain to explode or for you to become an insomniac.
Shin Eun Gyung’s Na Young is going to go down in my books as one of the most evil characters I have ever had the pleasure of seeing on the screen. The minute she encouraged someone to rape her sister, I was completely agog. Her reasoning is actually logical to her in the moment, which makes her actions even more frightening. And she’s not even close to being the only or even master manipulator in this story.
Even at it’s most histrionic, and that would probably be the first few episodes, it keeps you riveted. And when you consider those scenes (take Seo Woo’s suicide attempt) in isolation, they do seem over done. In context, it didn’t.
Almost all of the actors are spot on. Yoo Seung Ho plays a character much older than his actual years, which occasionally showed in his acting, but more often resulted in pondering the inappropriateness of ogling him.
If you are at all willing to go down the makjang road, this is the show for you.
3 – President – this is the best show no one watched, and I will promote it at the slightest opportunity. I think of it as a sageuk in modern dress. Choi Soo Jong stars as Jang Il Joon, along with his real wife Ha Hee Ra, as he runs for President, and skeletons from their past and present show up and shape the election. What each of them is willing to do and to lose from their lives in order to win an election are at the core of the story.
Jang Il Joon goes from idealist to manipulator and back again. Jay Park (of TRAX) does a surprisingly good job as Min Ki, his newly found son and documentary film producer. The weakest performance is probably Sung Min (of Super Junior), but he improved over the course of the show.
The supporting cast was excellent, including Kim Heung Soo as the campaign spin doctor and Hong Yo Seob as the noblest of the other candidates.
The problems I have with the show are noticeable, but still mere quibbles in the greater scope of the show. For a documentary filmmaker, Yoo Min Ki doesn’t do enough documentary filming. There is a daughter who inexplicably has virtually no involvement in the story after the first episode or so. And there are a few inserts of obvious sponsorship that jar.
The story is far more stylized than reality based in terms of politics, but it did what it did very well. It deserved better than it got in the ratings.
2 – The Duo – this show rescued the middle of the year for me. For the epic review go here! But on the scale of shows for the year, it made up for loads of disappointing shows.
Basically, it’s a tale of two boys – one a slave, one a noble, who are switched. So you know from the start that it’s going to be a tale of class and power.
The outstanding actors of this for me were Lee Sang Yoon as Gui Dong, Yoon Yoo Sun as Mak Soon and Choi Jong Hwan as Lord Kim. The younger cast, who were around for longer than the average sageuk, were really the ones who set the tone for the entire show. Even the supporting actors were very well fleshed out and rarely caricatures. It took Chun Jung Myung a while to settle in to his role as Chun Doong (and he desperately needs riding lessons), but eventually he found his footing.
The real beauty of this show was that it stayed almost exclusively in one small town, showing the effects of the greater society on this small group, rather than going to the palace or to war or going for a grand scale. From the beggers to the nobles, we spent time with people, not characters. Duo showed the big picture through this small lens.
My Mom, who watches sageuk almost exclusively as her k-dramas of choice, loved this show. She had some serious hate going on for Maksoon, the wetnurse/slave who did the switching. It’s says something about the power of this show that more than once we sat around and talked about it over dinner.
1 – Girl K - aka Killer K – is it cheating to put a short cable series at the top for the year? Maybe. It still rocked. At only 3 episodes long and on cable, it was able to go places that a broadcast station wouldn’t dare going. It’s definitely rated 19+, for sex and violence.
I did mention in the beginning that I’m a fan of action dramas and movies. Girl K has the same feel as the best Korean action movies. It’s dark, terse and violent. It’s leavened by some humor from Baek Do Bin, but make no mistake about it’s attitude – it’s dark.
In this drama-verse, a corporation can use and abuse people unapologetically. Psychotic killers aren’t even the worst of the evils in this world, when doctors and companies can do evil with science.
The cast was awesome, and had a couple of great performances by newcomers. Han Groo hit one out of the park her first time at bat starring in this. She has swagger and vulnerability and is kickass. She was equally as convincing as a killer as she was a teenager going on her first date. And I was astonished to find out that Young-min, the boy who likes her, is played by a member of the pop group ZE:A, Kim Dong Joon. Who knew?
It was a joy to see Kim Jung Tae step up out of his usual supporting role into more of a lead. Kim Roe Ha as the psychotic killer and one of the first of the baddies we encounter is just awesomely evil and crazy.
The short run of the series was perfect. It didn’t fill dead time with nonsense. It had enough twists and turns to keep things going, but it got to the point, and did it with style.
As a whole, I’d have to say that 2011 was not a good year for k-dramas. There was so little gold in all of that pretty glitter. So many shows bit the dust in one way or another. Two shows from 2010, Joseon XFiles and Comrades, land much higher in my all time dramas list than any of this year’s shows. The top five, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who is a fan of those genres.
On a more positive note, however, some other promising shows like Color of Woman and Queen Insu are just starting. Rumors of other fairly decent shows in the pipeline mean that 2012 may be an improvement over 2011.
Hope springs eternal.
(And thanks thundie, for letting me out of my little corner of the bloggie world and letting me play here!)