2011 – A Year in Review

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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::

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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.

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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 -

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(And thanks thundie, for letting me out of my little corner of the bloggie world and letting me play here!)

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50 thoughts on “2011 – A Year in Review

  1. Holy cow, momosan dear, 23 dramas!! That’s some record for a year-end review!

    This was a super awesome read, muah! (Confession: I stole a peek when you were still inserting pics, LOL.) Such breadth (pinch me, 23 dramas, how did you do it?) and also such depth. And the wit and snark! *salivates*

    It’s such a treat to have you writing for TP. Thank you for all your time and effort. May 2012 see you writing many more posts for this little blog! *runs*

  2. This is wonderful. I didn’t feel as disappointed with 2011 as you did, but I agree with you that there were a lot of shows that started out great and lost their way, some even in the last couple of episodes when all seemed to be going great – which made it even worse.

    I totally agree with you about CYHMH – even though it had all the hallmarks of melodrama, it was all done so well and the acting was so natural that I almost didn’t notice how many makjang elements it had until I thought about it later. And as you say, those things are not the heart of the show, merely the catalysts for the characters’ and relationships’ development. Jung Bo-seok is certainly the treasure I discovered in this drama. Love that last picture of him.

    I’ve added a couple of dramas to my to-watch list, thank you!

  3. Love this review, the first 2011 review I read. I actually didn’t watch many 2011 dramas (I’m busy digging into old Kimutaku dramas, lol), but from what I watch, it’s more entertaining than last year. And I found this huge crush towards Park Shi Hoo that I start digging into his old dramas too, kke. His acting is not that good but YAY for eye candy!

    I also add some dramas to my watch list. I’ve never read any “President” review before and I think of watching it now. Thanks for sharing! ^^

  4. Thank you Momosan for the lovely review… i do think maybe 2011 is a better year, maybe it helps that i also watched some j-dorama n 1 lovely c-drama on the side, so they were kinda help evening out :P

  5. Thank you, momosan, your review is outstanding… too bad you are not watching white christmas… It’s worth watching.. Your review make me want to watch some drama that I hesitate to watch.. Thanks again momosan ^^

  6. Thanks, momosan, I love reading year-end reviews and picking up on what other’s saw through their eyes, and how it impacted them; it was great to read your review and I totally respect where you are coming from as a reviewer. :)

  7. Omo! Thank you! Thank you, momosan, for helping me finally not feel so isolated from the kdrama community, I’ve been so disappointed with this year’s offerings. Especially if compared with the glistenings jewels from last year. But a lovely write-up, dat.
    I think I’ve only completed 3 shows so far, if I was to include Flames of Ambition. Or 4, if I count the almost complete Tree with Deep Roots.
    And I think Girl K features at the very top, for me too. Weee!

  8. Interesting post, thank you, and I am so amazed at myself for watching many of the shows you mentioned. I haven’t watched President and I saw only a few episodes from Flames of Ambition. You should watch Ojakgyo Brothers if you have the time- it’s funny and enjoyable.

  9. I really enjoyed your year end review. While I didn’t watch all of the same shows you did, I do agree with your overall assessment of 2011. This was the year of the can’t-be-bothered-to-finish-this dramas for me. I’ve never dropped so many dramas before! Especially considering how OCD I used to be about “finishing what I’ve started”! And there were so many disappointing endings, too! (I’m looking at you INR!)
    Still, there were a couple that will go on my all-time favorites list, TPM and Girl K, so, “Thanks!” 2011, and bring on 2012!

  10. Thank you for the lovely review Momosan. And thank you, thank you, thank you for including PRESIDENT in your review (and in top 5 no less). I was beginning to think that I was the only one that watched that show. It pretty much cemented my love for all things Choi Soo Jong. My first saeguk was Emperor of the Sea (which I loved), Comrades makes it into my top 5 kdramas ever and now President also makes it into my top dramas for 2011. It honestly made me think a lot about the politics within the show and about the reality of what it REALLY takes to become president. I thought his chemistry with his wife Ha Hee Ra was on fire. And Jay Park was a huge surprise to watch. Who knew the guy could act?

    I totally forgot about Flames of Ambition till you mentioned it just now. To be honest, I haven’t finished it because I couldn’t find the time to but I remember it being some intense drama. I wanted something that was kinda on the same tone to follow Giant and FoA did do that for me. The acting in this drama is top notch: Seo Woo, Shin Eun Gyung (love to hate), Jo Min Ki and my favorite Yoo Seung Ho. It’s so hard to find a makjang that’s wonderfully scripted AND acted.

    I’m kinda surprised to hear you say that Best Love is your least favorite Hong Sister drama. I was sure that was gonna be on everyone’s top just because of all the puns, zaniness of the plot and character (Dokko Jin I’m looking at you), dialogue etc. But it’s okay, everyone has their different taste, my least favorite would actually have to be My Girl. Yes, I know. Sue me. I actually didn’t get caught up in the hype as some people, and while I found it funny, I didn’t find the leads’ chemistry to be as strong as I would like.

    My personal favorites this year would have to be CYHMY, Killer K, President, Princess’ Man, 49 Days and Dream High for all the things that you listed. I have yet to watch Tree With Deep Roots but now after reading your take on it, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for the review!

    • Hi there, I also don’t enjoy Best Love. The main lead guy was just too annoying for me watch it.

      While everyone thought he was funny, I couldn’t stand him (the character not the hot actor that I like)…

      Dokko Jin is like Joo Won from Secret garden, I can’t stand them, so of course I couldn’t end the dramas… I did read the recaps because it was less annoying and take less of my time…

      funny, no?

      • It’s not that I hated Dokko Jin, it’s just that sometimes as a character he was way too over the top and it seemed like he shouted half his lines. But as an actor, I think Cha Seung Won nailed the pampered actor bit really well. I did initially compare Dokko Jin to Joo Won (another character I had trouble liking) but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like Joo Won was such an asshole up until like the last 3 or 4 episodes whereas Dokko Jin was more like a kid in a man’s body (loved his scenes with Ding Dong). So yes, while Dokko Jin’s character annoyed me sometimes, it was definitely a lot easier to take in than Joo Won’s character. I liked Dokko Jin’s character heaps and bounds over Joo Won and in retrospect, I ended up liking Best Love more just because it made more sense haha.

        I also enjoyed the meta jokes littered throughout the drama and you could feel like the entire series was some sort of satirical commentary on the entertainment world, which ended up being hilarious overall.

  11. Thanks for your review. I’m not as disappointed with this past year’s dramas. I rather enjoyed this year’s offerings. I would pick TPM over the The Duo for sheer entertainment value, but besides being Sagueks- heavy on the bromance, I think they strike me as different stories. The justice/revenge seeking in TPM seemed much more personal than the justice seeking in The Duo.

    My favorites, in no particular order were CYHMH, The Princess’ Man, 49Days and Me Too Flower (even though it’s not finished airing yet.)

    CYHMH- I loved the characters and how sincere they were without being caricatures. I loved the bromance! And I loved the Mother/Son relationships. CYHMH is an infinitely charming drama worth it’s 30 episode run.

    The Princess’ Man- I loved how epic everything was and how the story was just as much about Se Ryung if not more so. The story also kept a pretty fast pace and had such interesting secondary characters especially the gang from the Gisaeng house. It was a very entertaining saguek.

    49Days- I loved how different a concept this was than most kdramas. I encourage this! (Yeah for different set-ups and drama concepts)The show was executed so well and you really didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. And(!), it actually mattered what happened in the end as opposed to just being “would they or wouldn’t they get together,” which in the end can get kinda old. I had no problems with the ending. I agree the whole family twist in the end was unnecessary and a distraction, but I’m willing to forgive for that.

    Me Too Flower – I really love the OTP as the couple they are, but also as the individuals they are too. They strike me as real, sincere and truthful characterizations of people who’ve had to deal with really difficult situations in their lives. And they didn’t come out the other end all happy-go-lucky as if experiencing pain doesn’t hurt and doesn’t leave a mark on your personality for better or worse. Because they’ve gone through so much I really root for them.

    I’ll have to check out President now. Wasn’t really on my radar.

  12. Lol! I totally Agree with your first batch of unsatisfying Dramas.
    You’re second batch of Dramas is actually my FAVORITES this year.
    And I never watched your TOP 5s…. Lol.

  13. You are like a omnipotent k drama god. How do you even have time to watch so many shows. I am sort of the opposite of you and love shows with solid dramatic story lines and I think if you could handle a little bit of melo then Thousand days promise is it (Su Ae is my new girl crush). I haven’t watched President yet but now that it is suggested I am going to pick it up during X-mas holidays.

    On the side note CYHMH was good, but in terms of comparing Life is Beautiful and CYHMH…I feel Life is Beautiful is a better shows in terms of acting, writing and directing. I think it was the 64 hrs of my life well spent as far as I am concerned. I was waiting this year to have a show like Life is Beautiful and the only one that comes close to give me that feeling is Thousands Days promise for some reason.

    WBDS was such a waste of good actors, but at least it had bromance factor going on which kept me coming back for more. Yeo Un practically declared his love openly to Baek Dong Soo in almost every episodes and how does BDS responds…he crushes YU’s heart with his actions/thoughts and then sword. :)

    City Hunter was good and better at portraying what it wanted compared to IRIS and Athena, but in some ways it feels just as overhyped as other two.

    Princess’ Man was so good it was heart wrenching and I am thoroughly enjoying Vampire Prosecutor (I am waiting for it to finish so I can watch all the episodes at once).

    Korean comedy dramas and rom-com are usually not my cup of tea because I feel that they are usually not done very well done. And if they are well made then the ending is usually out of the left field and totally disappointing. But I have heard too many good things by Flower Boys Ramyun Shop and will give it a try. I might even pick up High Kick, but am still waiting until few more episodes are out.

    I started watching Flames of Ambition and I do agree its the best of makjangs out there, but it became to much for me to handle so had to drop it. Not sure if I am going to pick it up in future. That show is definitely not for the faint hearted.

    Lets hope 2012 brings bigger and better things in terms of kdramas.

    • Carp!! had to this because I actually did have a question. (cont. of previous post)

      Can any one recommend me another drama like Life is Beautiful because I have not found any yet. Can also be an older drama, but would be better if it had subs.

      • Well, Life is Beautiful was a family drama, and CYHMH is a light melo-ish drama. So, let me think… the weekend drama I watched in 2009 was Sons of Sol Pharmacy House aka My Too Perfect Sons. That was pretty good, AND as a plus, you get to see a younger Ji Chang Wook play the youngest, sewing and quilting loving, son.

        Speaking of LiB, though, how weird is it to see Kim Young Chul as Prince Suyang in The Princess’ Man after he was such a sweetheart of a father in LiB?

        • My first encounter with Kim Young Chul was in Wang Geon, as Gung Ye. Then, the Iris head honcho inside NSS or whatever the acronym is. Then, LIB… and my jaw dropped at how sweet he was. Then, back to all being ok when his Suyang gave his Gung Ye a run for the most morally ambiguous regent.

  14. While I enjoy reading this [and yay for President love!!! It was mentioned rather rarely in all the Kdrama blogs I go to, but I cannot help but wonder why – it is awesome. AMAZING. Oh, and awesome! :D], I would like to point out just a wheee minor mistake. It’s Jay KIM, not Jay Park, from TRAX that stars as the son in President. And thank you for writing! <3

    • Dab nab it! And I was trying to be so careful checking names – pffft. Well, at least we know we were talking about the same guy!

      As to why President flew under the radar, well – I think the highest it ever did in the ratings was about 8, and more often came in around 6, so it wasn’t hugely popular. It was up against things like My Princess and Sign, which both had higher ratings. I have no idea how it was advertised, but it might have been a hard sell, since I’m not sure if there was a category for it other than “political drama” which doesn’t sound as interesting as it really was.

      • It’s such a pity that Koreans are way into sageuks, which are political drama dressed in historical garb. President was great, and my favorite character had to be Ha Hee Ra’s. Or perhaps I just loved her portrayal of her character. The blood in my veins still run chill when I think of the evil death glares (oftentimes at no one in particular) she’d put on less than a second after playing the charming wife. My only other experience with Ha Hee Ra was To Be Your Side, where she played a sweetheart of an eldest sister to backstabbing, jealous middle sister. So, I was totally unprepared for her as a villainess. But Wowza.

  15. Hmm it seems like every year we keep saying “last year was better” but for me it’s always the same. The amount of stuff I find watchable pretty much stays the same. And like you, I only ask a drama to be heartfelt and be true to itself right to the end. That’s why something like Dream High remains on my favorite list and something like City Hunter dropped out (I thought it lost its spunk the same way Nana lost hers). But anyway, I’m not one to be disappointed because a handful of watchable dramas are enough to satisfy me. I already spend enough time on this stuff as it is >_< sometimes I'm even glad a drama isn't my taste so I won't have to see it on top of others I'm already hooked on.

  16. Your list and Thundie’s comment that you’ve seen a LOT of dramas this year surprised me. It had me wondering, “Is that a lot? Does that mean I watched a lot?” So I decided to assess… and this was the list. Apologies in advance for its lengthiness.

    Did not finish
    1. Brain (after episode 2, who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it one of these days, the actors are highly regarded)
    2. Can’t Lose (sometime after the divorce finalized, happy for you but you had some serious competition at the time, drama-wise I mean)
    3. Crime Squad (after episode 2 – Song Il Gook, I like you more in sageuks)
    4. Duo (shortly after the youngsters grew up, Chun Jung Myung had that same constipated look he’d had throughout the sucky half of Cinderella Sister, so I couldn’t subject myself to any memories of that)
    5. King Geunchogo (left when Geunchogo’s love of his life was pregnant and felt not adequately appreciated enough to consider turning against him or his purpose or something like that. What was wrong with you, Eoraha? I wished someone would squish shrill and bug-eyed Wi Hong Ran. What happened to the greatness that had me lauding you to everyone else? You made me eat crow!)
    6. 1000 Days Promise (when I just couldn’t bear the angst around episode 6. TWDR’s demanded my all.)
    7. Protect the Boss (when the dreaded extension ruined the kicky plot)
    8. Scent of a Woman (left before the last two. Not even Lee Dong Wook’s hotness and Eom Ki Jun’s wonderfulness could make me go on.)
    9. Secret Garden (left before the last two. Joo Won was reprehensible. Whatshername was even worse. She and Nana, I want to shoot both for pretending to be all that and then fizzling out.)
    10. Spy Myung Wol (yeah, need I explain?)
    11. Warrior Baek Dong Soo (left when I got sick of the red ginseng plot, but thankfully after Choi Min Soo’s primal cries of grief at his loss and before I would have had to grieve at Chun’s miserable, pitiable fate)

    Forced myself to finish
    • City Hunter (good comparison to Batman, because the ladies usually don’t amount to much in those, just as much as Nana drove me bonkers with her inanity)
    • Bangja Chronicles (it was good, but felt soulless. Especially in comparison to the film version.)

    Laughed/Enjoyed lots but didn’t quite stick
    • Best Love (Dokko Jin reminds me of most of my best guy friends) – Gumiho being my fave Hong Sister drama
    • 49 Days (I don’t dislike Nam Gyuri so much now, but I now love love love Jung Il Woo and Lee Yo Won even more)

    Dug
    • Dream High (I love Suzy! The robot Suzy especially!)
    • I Need Romance (I choose to forget about the ending. The ladies were the best.)
    • Flower Boy Ramyun Shop (though I’ve fallen behind, unable to process anything other than TWDR, so it’s now in danger of being dropped due to sheer inertia)
    • President (Ha Hee Ra. Nuff said)

    Holler!
    • Vampire Prosecutor (I love me some Bloodtender.)
    • Girl K (OMG, Girl K, I would soooo recruit you to go to my alma mater women’s college. You’d be so fierce there.)
    • Yacha (I don’t care. Jo Dong Hyuk just rocked. Or was he just hot, so hot that his hotness short circuited my ability to discern…)

    Heartwarming/Precious
    • Can You Hear My Heart (Maru-yah, be nice to your wonderful dad. Can’t you hear you’re breaking my heart? Your dad’s heart? Your own heart?)
    • High Kick 3 (Sniff sniff. Warm Fuzzies. Seokkies, you two rock. Ji Won, you’re my girl! The show really should come up with some pretext for Julien’s removing his shirt more often.)

    Oh, you humble me, you thrill me, you ennoble what it means to be human
    • Princess’s Man
    • Tree With Deep Roots

    Banking for the future
    • Flames of Ambition
    • Ojakkyo Brothers

      • Only 27 dramas, anais? No, that’s not a lot at all. No siree. :lol:

        But kidding aside…

        WHERE DO YOU FIND THE TIME??

        In comparison, I have finished only seven 2011 dramas as of today. Which means… I am in deep shit.

        • Only 17 finished. Some of those were really short. Granted, some I dropped may as well have been full length. But that’s still probably 20ish. Hm… I save an hour/day for kdrama. If I don’t hear it, my Korean goes to pot, and I’ve been told my Korean has improved a lot in the past year. So both pleasure & edification. :)

  17. I think, looking at your list and mine, that we’re probably watching 2 or 3 shows a week, so call it 6 hours a week and maybe a few rainy weekend marathons (and we had a lot of rain here this year). It adds up over the year. Normally I wouldn’t have watched quite that many, but I’ve been sticking very close to home for the last 6 months, no classes, no shows for the dogs, so I’ve had more free time than usual.

  18. Thank for the review, momosan~ Haven’t read a word because I want to wait until I’m done with mine so I don’t get subconsciously influenced, but will be back to comment then.

  19. Thanks, Momosan, I always love reading other’s choices. I actually finished 34 dramas this year and stopped countless more, but most were not 2011 offerings. Also, I think my obsession will wane a little as this was my first year. My top 3 dramas for 2011 are A Thousand Days Promise (nothing can compare with the writing or acting – I feel like I want to send my kudos and a fruit basket to the writer!), 49 Days (because even with its obvious flaws, it really kept my interest and I, for one, liked the ending) and Protect the Boss (soooo cute), with TPM and CYHMY close behind. Now I see there are some others that you’ve recommended that I need to watch. Good thing I’m not a working woman anymore!

  20. Thanks for the review. Those are a lot of dramas to watch. I only watched 4. I agree I also enjoyed watching Flames of Ambition.

  21. Wait, I didn’t leave a comment?? Must’ve left my brain in the trash can or something. Or, y’know, never had a brain at all..

    But really, all I want to say is: This review is awesome, and now I feel greater pressure than ever. -_-

  22. Really, and where is White Christmas? It’s strange for me not seeing it in the lists… As for me, I think WC is the strongest show this year (the whole year of dissapointment><)….

    • Since you are the third or fourth person to ask, I saw White Christmas about 3 weeks ago because I’d had it banked for future viewing and figured it might different enough that it was worth putting in the review. It’s pretty good. For those who haven’t heard of it, White Christmas is a short series in which a small group of students at an elite boarding highschool stay behind during Christmas break with a teacher and an uninvited guest who shows up after a car wreck. The set up is very Agatha Christie in a psychological thriller way. The cast is notable for the younger actors, many of whom, oddly, are now in Vampire Idol.

      For a k-drama, it’s an unusual topic, but it’s familiar as a basic “locked room mystery” or “stranded in the winter” horror in English or American dramas – or in film from anywhere around the world. It is beautifully shot, and very well made. My main problem with it is that I found it so very derivative. Since I’m perfectly capable of watching a zillion versions of, say, Sherlock Holmes, this isn’t fatal, but the show gave me the uneasy feeling that it was actually a remake of something I had previously seen (as opposed to the 2 specific Agatha Christies I can name that it merely reminded me of). Now, either it was a remake and I didn’t know it, or it was so similar to the rest of the genre that I’ve seen in my long long years of watching stuff that I knew where it was going long before it got there.

      Anyway, I also found some of the acting weak, and, in one case kind of annoying.

      So, there you have it – for me it was in the middle range, not great, not awful – but good – and beautifully shot and well directed and unusual for a k-drama.

      (I’m wracking my brain to figure out what show it’s really reminding me of, but all I’m coming up with is that it’s probably Japanese….sorry!)

      • Thanks for sharing your thought about white christmas, it means alot to me… Luckly i haven’t found similar tone, so I can enjoyed this drama more… One thing I loved is WHite christmas has good storytelling and great chemistry between the cast, this element is enough to make me addicted and become one of my favourite drama …

  23. Awesome you loved The Duo too!! I thought it was really overlooked. Such an interesting story, and you’re right, it kept a more personal level that made it easier to watch and connect to.

  24. Pingback: 2011 à Kdrama-land – Mieux vaut tard que jamais | minalapinou

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