2014 was a year when we saw everything from alien to liars to remakes in the drama-sphere. Export prices for dramas shot up the roof this past year, and it’s a good reminder that the Korean wave is more than just about music and idols, as Korean dramas certainly have their own attraction as they actually appeal to a wider range of audience, young and old. Following up from the mid-year review, the drama fanatics on the team are back to bring you our thoughts and feelings on 2014’s showing.
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
|1||Bride of the Century||Another Parting||Witch’s Romance|
|2||Jang Bo-ri Is Here!||Liar Game||Misaeng|
|3||Liar Game||Marriage, Not Dating||Liar Game|
|4||You From Another Star||You From Another Star||Fated to Love You|
|5||Fated To Love You||Witch’s Romance||Pinocchio|
Honourable Mentions: You’re All Surrounded, Pride and Prejudice, God’s Gift – 14 Days,The Legendary Witch, Trot Lovers, Plus Nine Boys, Three Musketeers, Prime Minister and I, Let’s Eat
Irteqa: Before we dive into the dramas, how about we start off by explaining what we individually look for in a successful drama?
Lo: For me, it’s basically good execution. Average writing can be made wonderful with good actors and editing, but bad execution severely hampers even the best writing.
Irteqa: Not submitting to the wishes of viewers as to how a drama “is supposed to end” and remaining steadfast in a planned ending is what I look for in a successful drama. I applaud writers who conclude a drama based on how they believe it should end, not on how the viewers think it should end. When remaining true to the process, the authenticity and creative intention of a drama result in an outstanding production, even if it doesn’t get high viewer ratings.
Joyce: What really makes a drama for me would have to be the characters and the actors’ ability to effectively portray them. Characters are the one thing that stick with me long after a drama ends — everything from the little subconscious gestures to the hilarious facial expressions is exactly what makes them so beautifully flawed and human. It’s perhaps what made me love Fated To Love You, Misaeng and Witch’s Romance so much. The characters are just so well fleshed out and believable.
Of course, it helps when the script actually makes sense in the big scheme of things. I hate it when certain scenes or dialogue happen because they have to, as a signpost to tell the viewers “They fell in love.” Character motivations are so important in this aspect because they help us understand why characters act a certain way, beyond the obvious intention of introducing angst.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started with the real deal. It’s encouraging to see a variety of dramas covered in our list, and it looks like Liar Game is the sole drama that we all ranked in the top 5. What about it did you guys love?
Irteqa: For me, Liar Game was by far the most unconventional and unique K-drama ever to air on television. Nevertheless, it certainly did receive some discomforting comments and discouragement because it was a planned adaptation of the original series that so many fans loved.
I haven’t read or seen the original Japanese version myself but feel confident that the Korean adaption maintained its own claim to fame. With Liar Game, just to be able to say that I loved it because of how well it embodied the human condition is enough. Included in the human condition are behaviours, actions, relationships, and personalities that just can’t be understood at first glance. Because Liar Game included these elements, it kept me engaged throughout.
Lo: What drew me to Liar Game is that it never spells out its plot. Most dramas tell you who the bad guy is and what they want in the first episode. Here, we’re limited to the same knowledge as Da-jung (Kim So-eun). If we can’t figure it out, how can we expect them to? It’s an actual mystery, and the whole time every shred of information we get just makes the need to figure out the whole puzzle more pressing.
Irteqa: I agree! There were so many twists and puzzles! The “lying” and “betrayal” aspects kept me at the edge of my seat.
How about Da-jung’s character? It’s fascinating to think that her initial gullibility and “niceness” became her strength when she was forced into situations that required her to lie and deceive people.
Lo: Da-jung is a drama heroine in-universe. She is the kind of girl who everyone loves to watch on TV — sweet, selfless, giving. A real life Cinderella. She’s popular for the same reason Kate Middleton is: a fairy-tale brought to life.
Joyce: In general, we all love rooting for the underdog, don’t we? Especially if the underdog proves that he/she is worth rooting for. Also, if I ever go in debt, can Dal-goo please be my teddy bear loanshark?
My favourite thing about this year’s dramas might just be the amazing spectrum of confident and endearing female characters. From Chun Song-yi (Jeon Ji-hyun) to Baek Ji-yeon (Uhm Jung-hwa), Joo Jang-mi (Han Groo) to Kim Mi-young (Jang Nara), we got everything from a bespectacled post-it note to a confident career woman. I really appreciate that drama heroines are getting more attention paid to them and are finally straying away from the typical one-note stock characters. Even Park Shin-hye finally snapped up a more fascinating and multi-dimensional character than her mopey Candy character in Heirs.
Irteqa: Joyce, I think that you’ve brought up an excellent point with your observation regarding the feminine ferity in dramas this year. We got bolder, more dynamic, and slightly intrusive female protagonists with a tender spot for romance.
Lo: Hands down, 2014 was the year of ladies in dramas. Every slot on my list has a fabulous, multi-dimensional lead lady. The thing that really made 2014 for me, though, was that this is the year dramas got self-aware.
Before 2014, Da-jung would have been hated for her passiveness, Song-yi would have been the villain to Se-mi‘s heroine, and Marriage, Not Dating wouldn’t have existed. What made it work is that the whole idea of pretending to date someone so your parents would break you up, thus providing emotional blackmail material, is a crazy-ass drama plot … and everyone points this out. No one acts like this is a better solution than telling your parents to back the hell off. It’s a stupid idea that everyone knows is a stupid idea, but they do it anyway.
Joyce: Speaking about Marriage, tvN really outdid itself this year. While the success of all tvN’s ventures differ to varying degrees, there’s no doubt that it is indeed using its position as a cable channel to test out some of the more wacky narrative styles (Plus Nine Boys) and genres. And there’s no better time than now, as most audiences seem to be tiring of the quintessential chaebols and damsels in distress.
Both Lo and I have three tvN dramas in our top 5, and that’s really quite a feat for a small cable channel to accomplish. In case we assume tvN would be finding a niche in humanistic slice-of-life rom-coms, it unleashes corporate drama Misaeng and action-thriller Three Musketeers. It’s evident they really pride themselves in their production because even Misaeng, which I thought might be a pretty dry drama overall, has such amazing detail and expression captured in every scene. Even seemingly boring job politics are elevated to the stakes of life-and-death that I find myself strangely invested in the smallest victories of the characters.
While Lo’s and my top pick remained the same as our mid-year choice, it’s interesting seeing Bride of the Century as Irteqa’s top favourite. The only thing I know about it is Lee Hong-ki stars in it, and there’s some marriage going on, duh. Why did it appeal to you so much?
Irteqa: When I watch dramas, the lone criteria I have that determines whether or not it is a “top” drama is the presence of an enduring and realistic love between the leads. It has to be overwhelming, abstruse, and engaging. For this reason, I selected Bride as my top drama. What sold it for me was the absolutely amazing chemistry between the two leads. Lee Hong-ki really outdid himself in this one. Thus, I should probably check out Modern Farmer.
Thematically, I also really liked how the drama was a combination of contemporary and historical genres. The historical aspect certainly did not diminish the contemporary, but it provided a groundwork for happenings in the contemporary. Even though the fake dating scheme as Lo mentioned is definitely overused and cliché, I feel that it is utilized so often because it allows for more intricate relationships to develop. This is exactly what happened in Bride of the Century.
Lo: So, Fated. It never really caught my eye, but I’d like to hear what you two have to say about it.
Irteqa: Fated is another example of a Korean drama adaption that went where it was supposed to and beyond. I wasn’t expecting much when I decided to tune into the first couple of episodes, in fact my only motivation at the time was seeing the fruition Jang Hyuk and Jang Nara‘s twelve-year reunion would possibly bring.
The pleasantly surprising first episode brought on a torrent of emotion and fantastic acting. Jang Hyuk especially stood out not only with his awesome hairstyle, but also with the maturity and gentility of his externally emphatic character, Lee Gun. He was gentlemanly, protective, and understanding towards post-it girl Kim Mi-young. Mi-young initially gave off the impression of the trite and docile female protagonist, selfless and susceptible to betrayal. From the moment she met Lee Gun, I could see subtle and exciting development in her character. The presence of that enduring and realistic love was there from the beginning and therefore pulled me in even further.
Joyce: Seconding everything Irteqa said. I have to emphasize that the series was entirely buoyed by Jang Hyuk and Jang Nara’s fantastic portrayal of their characters. I really couldn’t imagine how it could have been done better.
The development of the supporting cast was also a great addition — Mi-young’s family, Gun’s friendship with Mi-young’s mum, Gun’s bromance with his secretary, Gun and his Dragon. How much do I love that Mi-young’s pregnant sister is acting with her as her again in Mister Baek?
And while the series isn’t going to earn many points in terms of realism, it certainly tied together the heart and fun of rom-coms so poignantly well. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine.
We’ve discussed quite a bit about our favourite dramas so far, how about we mention briefly some of the other dramas that we loved?
Irteqa: For my choices that deserved an honourable mention, The Legendary Witch is an emotive and faithful story mirroring the cruelties of family ties, Pride and Prejudice is passionate and thoroughly imbued with the realities of the law and profession, and Trot Lovers was light and musical with enough tenor to make it a memorable drama.
Lo: You’re All Surrounded and The Prime Minister and I are my honourable mentions. They were both good dramas but lacked the innovation that a lot of dramas from the second half of the year showed. Let’s Eat had a lot of warm and fuzzy, but it needed some better plot.
Joyce: Pinocchio has a quirky fantasy element to shake up a seemingly normal world, and it has completely sucked me in with its engaging characters and plot. Surrounded provided a feel-good underdog success story with great character growth. God’s Gift – 14 Days had all the ingredients of a perfect thriller especially with the casting of hot gruff ahjusshi Jo Seung-woo; it unfortunately left out a reasonable ending. Plus Nine Boys somehow made an unconventional drama structure work, and it introduced to the world introduced another up and coming model-turned-actor Kim Young-kwang (who’s currently rocking out in Pinocchio as well).
And the depressing question of the day, what were some of the disappointments of the year?
Irteqa: For me, it would have to be My Lovable Girl, Prime Minister and I, and Sly and Single. Of course they seemed promising at the beginning, but then each plot started rambling, and there were no signs of structure or growth. The characters were also flat; I didn’t see much progression in their relationships or as individuals. And the biggest shortfall in all three of these dramas was the fixation on past mistakes and events. There was far too much focus on divorce, death, and denial and none (until the very end) on making up and moving on.
Joyce: Irteqa, it seems like we had comparable expectations which were also similarly dashed. Sly introduced a prosthetic leg, which literally became a crutch for the drama. Lovable had the trainwreck of a script and storyline, given the very enamouring and glamorous idol world. Journal of the Night Watchmen had a very engaging setup to work with, but the villain was absolutely nonsensical. And Joseon Gunman wasted the gem that is Lee Jun-ki with a rather passive female lead and good guys who could never catch a break. It wasn’t a bad drama per se; it had terrific performances and action scenes, but it could have been so much more.
Lo: Same for me, Sly had such a great premise — it gives a new look at divorce and maybe shows that true love doesn’t always run smooth — and then … fail. So much lazy, hackneyed failing. All the fail was in that drama.
Still, 2014 gave us a ton of good dramas that have left us with the hope that 2015 will be just as excellent. I’m counting down until the premiere of Perseverance, Goo Hae-ra and am desperately hoping for Liar Game Season 2. Fingers crossed.
Joyce: And for anyone looking for City Hunter redux, Healer might be right up your alley. The premiere has looked promising so far!
So these are our authors’ picks and comments for the drama pickings this year. What were some of your favourite dramas this year, and more importantly, why?
(MBC, SBS, KBS, tvN, TV Chosun)