TvN’s Answer Me series is one of the most popular cable dramas in Korea, creating devoted fanbases both domestically and internationally, as well as drawing ratings in the 18% range while most cable dramas are considered a smash hit if they break 5%. And now that the third entry, Answer Me 1988 has wrapped, how does it stack against its 90s-set counterparts?
Answer Me, 1988 was my first foray into the series, and I was blown away with how consistently it lived up to the hype. The most accurate word to describe the series is addictive: I watched 16 episodes in 2 and ½ days. It is mainly focused, like the other series, on the question of who Deok-sun (Girl’s Day’s Hyeri) will marry. Yet the drama is much more than a teenage romantic comedy. It is an ensemble show in the best way.
The five friends — Deok-sun, Jung-hwan (Ryu Joon-yeol), Sun-woo (Go Kyung-pyo), Dong-ryong (Lee Dong-hwi), and Taek (Park Bo-gum) — all live on the same block, with their parents and siblings becoming fully fleshed-out characters with goals and arcs rather than remaining satellites of their children. The neighborhood moms in particular are a delightful example of genuine female friendship; sharing complaints about husbands while perming their hair and shelling peas. The interconnections of everyone — such as Sun-woo’s mom marrying Taek’s dad, and Jung-hwan’s brother dating Deok-sun’s friend — give Answer Me, 1988 the aura of genuineness; as if you could find this exact block in 1988, because it’s too tangled for someone to have created it.
Answer Me, 1988 carries that genuineness into the world it’s set in. This isn’t the 1980s through the lens of nostalgia and political correctness, but a balance between the popular culture and political correctness. While Deok-sun is more focused on nailing her 80s blue eyeshadow and denim-on-denim looks while playing MASH, it’s not an attempt to shy from history as much as Deok-sun being a shallow teenage girl. Her sister Bo-ra, on the other hand, is a student protester, who was gassed and arrested while fighting for political change. The politics are not glossed over or overly emphasized, but used to color the differences between the sisters in a way that no doubt happened many, many times during the 1980s.
And yet, despite the wonderfully interwoven characters, despite the genuine, realistic writing, despite the fact that Answer Me, 1988 is more addictive than cocaine, this is not a drama I will ever watch again, because the ending is one of the worst-written I have ever had the misfortune to see.
Cards on the table: Deok-sun marries Taek over Jung-hwan, and it is infuriating, confusing, and so out of left field it’s coming from the stands. Truly, it is an accomplishment in the field of poor writing. The primary issue with Taek as the husband is how poorly the love triangle was framed. For the first third, the love triangle was set up as Jung-hwan—>Deok-sun—>Sun-woo. When it came out that Sun-woo liked Bo-ra, Deok-sun was forced to acknowledge that she had been more in love with love than anyone in particular.
After that debacle, the love triangle shifts, with Taek taking Sun-woo’s place. Yet from episode 8 through about episode 18, it’s clear that both boys like Deok-sun, while she only harbors romantic feelings for one of them, and it ain’t Taek. It is made clear that she sees Jung-hwan in a romantic light, and their continued romantic faltering provides much of the heartbreak; Deok-sun is unwilling to risk a second heartbreak and Jung-hwan wants her to be happy, even if it’s not with him. Her feelings for Taek are intense, but fuzzy. Her actions – keeping him fed, taking care of his health — are more platonic than romantic. It isn’t until very late in the series that Deok-sun gives a hint that she likes him romantically, and when she does, it comes after making overtures to Jung-hwan.
In short, Answer Me, 1988 spends 19 episodes making it clear that Jung-hwan loves Deok-sun, that she loves him, but it just fizzles out into nothing and Taek, who had always been framed as the second lead, suddenly gets the girl without any sign that the girl was interested until she kisses him. The end result is an ending that feels so hollow and false, as if it hadn’t been planned for Taek to be the husband until 5 minutes before it happened.
Adding to that are the future interviews. As people who were 18 in 1988 are in their mid-40s now, there’s a different cast for the present day. We actually meet the husband, just sans name. And that husband is acerbic and witty, always making a smart remark; someone Jung-hwan could easily become but not someone silent — stoic Taek could feasibly become short of brain trauma.
But what truly induces betrayal and anger at the finale of Answer Me, 1988 is the absence of the ensemble. Jung-hwan vanishes, Dong-ryong is absent, and the parents are in much smaller roles. The charm of the cast was the cast as a whole, and seeing entire chunks excised for the sake of an insincere romance is nauseating.
Answer Me, 1988 is a charming drama that captures the feeling of the times and the power of friends that become family. Yet if you watch it, stop at episode 18 and imagine your own ending. I guarantee you’ll be happier than if you watch the real finale.
(Images via tvN)