I’m well aware that it’s not the done thing to post yearly round-up articles in mid-April, but “better extremely late than never” has been my long-standing motto as a blogger. Besides, quarantine rules have granted me the extensive amount of time necessary to finally realise my ambitious endeavour of ranking every Korean drama I watched last year. My rambling will strictly cover miniseries and web dramas that premiered in 2019, and is virtually spoiler-free for your convenience. Without further ado, let us relive a worryingly sizeable chunk of what the Korean drama industry had to offer in 2019.
41. I Am Not a Robot
In a near-future in which androids serve humans as housekeepers, robot Ahn Doyoung rebels by following Cha Gaeun, the niece of his owner, to school. The duo bond as they attempt to balance leading normal teenage lives with hiding Doyoung’s true identity.
First of all, I want to preface my criticism with the concession that I know it’s not entirely fair to judge proper miniseries and web dramas by the same criteria. Though it can’t really be avoided in this article, I’ll keep the discrepancies in target audiences and production value in mind when ranking shows. In any case, “I Am Not a Robot” isn’t a complete mess, and as far as web dramas go, there’s certainly a lot worse out there. However, it’s the absence of imagination that makes this show worthy of last place. From the writing to the acting to the directing, the drama makes no attempt to be anything other than an excuse to switch your brain off. In fact, whenever I watch anything with Ji Minhyuk in it, I’m honestly just reminded of his painfully embarrassing stint as a “rapper.” It’s going to take something special to dissipate that impression of him, and “I Am Not a Robot” isn’t it.
Disturbed by her recently discovered ability to see ghosts, Minah confines herself to her room and lives idly. She refuses to interact with the outside world, with the exception of two affable spirits. However, her reclusive lifestyle is thrown into chaos by the ghost of a mysterious young man.
I actually had relatively high hopes for “Ghostderella,” because I was under the impression that the tone of the series was going to be entirely different to what it actually was. However, the vacuous writing and lack of effort put in production make a tremendous waste of forty minutes. I don’t know if there’s a second season in the works, but the show barely feels as though it begins, let alone ends. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from the ambiguous conclusion, as the bulk of the narrative was barely comprehensible. Virtually no context is provided for any of the characters or events that play out in the show, meaning that viewers are forced to rely on cheap and unsuccessful humour for entertainment. There is admittedly something a little quirky about “Ghostderella,” but I think the fact that I’m struggling to even articulate why it falls short speaks volumes about how much substance it lacks.
39. My Absolute Boyfriend
Special effects make-up artist Eom Dada is fresh out of a long-term relationship with top-tier actor Ma Wangjoon, whom she dated for seven years. Suddenly, an android designed to be the perfect boyfriend is mistakenly delivered to her, setting a chain of chaotic events in motion.
Have you ever seen a drama without a single likeable character? Neither had I, until “My Absolute Boyfriend” aired. It’s somewhat understandable considering that the series of events they’re forced to navigate are completely bizarre and make absolutely no sense, but still. Although Bang Minah’s acting has improved somewhat, Eom Dada is an endlessly frustrating heroine who loses all semblance of personality after her mechanical beau Younggoo comes into the picture. Not only is Dada herself extremely unlikeable, but it’s also difficult to discern which of her two love interests is the least annoying. One the one hand, you’ve got a guy who comes across as a little obnoxious and entitled, but it’s sort of excusable considering his ex-girlfriend of seven years has decided to cosy up with a hunk of metal. On the other hand, you have a one dimensional puppy-like robot who insists on calling the female lead “girlfriend” rather than her actual name. It’s a difficult choice to make, but the show demands it, what with the love triangle being the only real conflict it has to offer. Even so, the writer hedges his bets by trying to satisfy both camps, resulting in a cop-out ending open to your own scathing interpretation.
I personally refused to root for either Younggoo or Wangjoon, but I definitely think Wangjoon is the only character in the drama who demonstrates real growth. By observing how a “perfect” boyfriend behaves, he’s able to understand what he personally lacks as a partner, but also reaffirm his understanding of love as something that demands a human element. Dada and Wangjoon’s clash over this belief is by far the most interesting aspect of the drama and I think the storyline would’ve been a lot more mature and interesting if it had focused on this idea more. Instead, it devotes itself to a pseudo-tragic and unromantic “oh-no-the-robot-might-break-down” plot. Although the actors and production crew do the best they can with the woeful script, there’s something so intrinsically cringeworthy about “My Absolute Boyfriend” that causes the entire show to short circuit.
38. One Fine Week
When girl group member Kim Byul finds her career hanging in the balance due to performance anxiety, the only way to salvage it is to appear on a dating show with a popular male idol. However, the daunting eyes of the public hold her back. Out of desperation, she temporarily switches places with her doppelgänger Jung Daeun, an ordinary part-timer in a cafe.
A number of idols announced that they were taking hiatuses due to anxiety diagnoses in 2019 (I counted at least eight), so Kim Byul’s predicament feels like a much needed nod to the very real struggle that many celebrities face. With that said, don’t go into “One Fine Week” expecting some sort of deep, insightful commentary on the Korean music industry. It’s blatantly obvious that the storyline is engineered to cater to delusional idol fans and any creepy fantasies they may harbour. That might be acceptable if the show’s quality was somehow elevated by its acting or production, but sadly I can’t say that’s the case. Seo Jisoo lacks the competence to play one character, let alone two, and Shin Junseop’s boyish smiles hardly make up for it. The two are awkward together at best, and cringe-inducing at worst. “One Fine Week” is exactly the sort of nonsensical fluff you’d expect from Naver TV, but it’s completely void of the swoon-factor that normally makes up for it.
37. The Guilty Secret
Plagued by guilt for having a crush on her best friend’s boyfriend, Woo Jisoo confesses her secret to her friend, Miji. However, things take a turn for the worst when Miji, who harbours a secret of her own, transfers to Jisoo’s school.
As you likely know, the web drama format is particularly popular among high-schoolers, many of whom lack the time to watch, uh, quality TV. That’s why most of them are teen-centric and focus on a blend of issues like academic pressure, friendship, relationships, and clique-drama. But what happens when you remove all of the other elements and focus purely on the drama? Not a whole lot, “The Guilty Secret” reveals. At this point, I honestly feel like Playlist Global is constantly rehashing the ingredients that made “A-Teen” successful, only to come up with half-baked products. The first few episodes in particular are awkward and rushed, but the entire show feels incomplete and lacking in depth. In saying that, they’ve at least attempted to make the story feel somewhat meaningful, and the production is clean and well-considered. Although there’s nothing particularly compelling or entertaining about “The Guilty Secret,” it’s put together with enough care to justify its conception.
36. I Wanna Hear Your Song
Aspiring timpanist Hong Yiyoung lives diligently, teaching children music and auditioning for orchestras despite suffering from chronic insomnia. She befriends Jang Yoon, a mysterious man who calls her every night in order to help her fall asleep, and assists her with uncovering the truth about a tragic accident that gave her amnesia.
Oh geez. Not only was “I Wanna Hear Your Song” a total disaster plot-wise, it was also just… extremely creepy. When you’re forced to spend half the drama wondering whether or not the male lead secretly wants to kill the female lead, it’s difficult to be invested in any sort of romance between them. Kim Sejeong and Yeon Woojin have absolutely no chemistry, and the initial implication that Jang Yoon is low-key a stalker who considers Yiyoung his nemesis stamps their already dwindling flame into the ground. None of the characters are particularly likeable or engrossing, and the show’s lacklustre “mystery” in no way makes up for it. The plot is painfully predictable, and chock-full of morally dubious moments one would expect from a drama’s villain rather than its heroes. If you don’t want to be bored out of your brains and mildly disturbed at the same time, I’d recommend skipping this one. Instead of a symphony, “I Wanna Hear Your Song” is a discordant mess.
35. Melting Me Softly
Ma Dongchan is an ambitious variety show PD famed for his wild productions. His craziest idea yet is to broadcast a cryonics experiment in which two people are frozen on live television for twenty-four hours. The only people willing to take part in the risky experiment are college student Ko Miran, who has served as a guinea pig for several of Dongchan’s shows, and Dongchan himself. However, when the experiment goes horribly wrong, the pair find themselves awake not after twenty-four hours have passed, but twenty years.
Perhaps the biggest letdown of 2019, “Melting Me Softly” takes an intriguing premise and turns it into a total train-wreck. My favourite aspect of the drama was its exploration of the ramifications of missing out on such a huge chunk of one’s life. Of course, there’s no shortage of dramas featuring characters who fall in and out of comas and are faced with changed societies, but “Melting Me Softly” does brilliantly at humorously showing how much the world has evolved in such a short period of time. However, the show makes the fatal mistake of instead devoting itself to a poorly devised “conspiracy” plot that makes zero sense. There’s also the issue of the half-baked romance between the two leads, who show literally no sign of attraction to one another until they randomly declare that they’re dating. Crowded with melodrama and obnoxiously over the top comedy, “Melting Me Softly” is a colossal waste of airtime.
Deeply depressed by the turn her life has taken, middle-aged housewife Min Jaehee attempts suicide, but is intercepted by the abrupt appearance of a mysterious bottle of perfume. Upon trying it on, Jaehee discovers that the perfume has the power to temporarily restore her youth and change her fate. She decides to pursue her dream of becoming a runway model, leading her to cross paths with uptight fashion designer Seo Yido.
Ah, yes. Another contrived “you’re-perfect-just-the-way-you-are-except-you’re-not” show is just what the world needs. “Perfume” masquerades as an empowering, body-positive drama, but it fails miserably to act on its own philosophy. The show’s “comedy” revolves around physical gags that poke fun at obesity, even though its message is supposedly that outward appearances don’t matter. It’s particularly unsettling when leading actress Ha Jaesook herself has previously spoken up about her frustration with body shaming in the industry. I wonder if the writers can even see a hint of irony in the show’s delivery of its moral stance. For some reason, it’s okay for our male lead to make out several times with the younger and slimmer version of Min Jaehee, portrayed by an actress twelve years younger than Shin Sungrok. However, he doesn’t even peck a much more age-appropriate actress when she’s in her true form, even though it’s the romantic climax of the show. So much for subverting gender roles. Don’t fall for KBS’ pseudo-progressive bull, and give “Perfume” a miss.
33. IN SEOUL
Like many high school seniors, Kang Dami desperately wants to enter a college in Seoul. However, considering her grades and financial situation, this is a near-impossibility. Her mother Song Youngjoo constantly reminds her of this, creating friction between the two as they navigate their final year of living together.
“In-Seoul” sounds as though it’s a show written to represent the extremely common dream of young people across South Korea to live and study in the big city, which it kind of is. But it ultimately disrespects that dream by presenting us with an incredibly obnoxious protagonist who fails to realise that the hurdles she faces can only be overcome with hard work rather than whinging. I guess, in that sense, slacker Kang Dami is an underrepresented demographic in teen dramas, but she’s honestly fairly frustrating to watch, and I wish that the show followed her character developing a healthier outlook on life. With that said, I think if young viewers go into the show with an open mind, many will finish it with a newfound appreciation for their parents/guardians and the support they’ve given them. That doesn’t mean the show is good, though. It’s really not.
32. 4 Reasons Why I Hate Christmas
Four university students who hate Christmas due to their own personal circumstances coincidentally encounter one another and end up spending the holiday season together. As they grow closer, they open themselves up to both Christmas and romance.
Context is key for any viewing experience, and it’s important to remember going into “4 Reasons Why I Hate Christmas” that Christmas in Korea is less about family lunch and presents and more about couples. So much so that “Confession Day” on September 17th, is celebrated exactly 100 days prior to Christmas, and the idea is that if your feelings are reciprocated, you’ll celebrate your 100 day anniversary on the holiday. It’s basically considered the most romantic day of the year. It should therefore come as no surprise that our Christmas-hating heroes are all very much single. The show is cute, but not enough so to make it worth watching outside of December. The acting is mediocre, but the show’s holiday spirit is carefully conveyed through all aspects of visual production. It’s a bit of harmless fun, and most viewers are bound to relate to at least one of the characters to a certain extent. I personally watched “4 Reasons Why I Hate Christmas” when it was airing as a holiday novelty, and I recommend you do the same at the end of this year if you haven’t seen it yet.
31. Maybe, Maybe Not
An introverted university student with the ability to read minds encounters a caring upperclassman who she unexpectedly can’t read. As he encourages her come out of her shell, she finds herself falling for him.
Remember the “swoon-factor” I mentioned earlier that makes up for the innocuous nature of web dramas? Well, “Maybe, Maybe Not” is a prime example of a show that lacks any real substance but is still guaranteed to make you smile. What I like about college web dramas is that they often represent “outsiders,” slang for the unpopular kids who don’t fit in and are, well, outsiders. Namgoong Yeji is an outsider if ever there was one, equipped with hyperawareness of everyone’s faults due to her mind-reading abilities. The kindness Cheon Jungseok unexpectedly shows her presents the glaring question; is he like her, or are there genuinely good people in this world? I appreciate shows that work to expose just how ridiculous the whole outsider/insider dichotomy is, and “Maybe, Maybe Not” does so in a delightfully adorable way. Gong Yoorim offers an authentic portrayal of a struggling introvert, and her manic pixie dream boy (portrayed by social media star Kim Kangmin) lends hope for people struggling with the same issues as her, sans the clairvoyance. Be warned, though — the show features one of the worst kissing scenes I’ve ever seen, and when it comes to Korean dramas, that’s really saying something.
Cha Min, the insecure yet kind heir to Korea’s top cosmetics company, changes his mind in the midst of a suicide attempt but dies nonetheless. However, he’s granted a second chance at life with an exceptionally handsome face thanks to ‘Abyss,’ a magical soul-reviving marble. When his longtime friend Go Soyeon is murdered, he revives her through the same means, though she is reincarnated with a plain appearance due to the disagreeable personality she had when she was alive. Together, they investigate Soyeon’s murder.
I love Park Boyoung. I love Ahn Hyoseop. So why don’t I love “Abyss“? A lot of people, including me, were anticipating a hit, but the show fell flat on so many levels. I could criticise the sloppy writing, the nonsensical twists and turns, the insinuation that Park Boyoung is “average looking” and the plot’s continual violations of its own established rules, but above all, “Abyss” is just so very boring. From the first episode, the show failed to hook me in, but I persisted because of my sky-high expectations. Unfortunately, from start to finish, “Abyss” is a messy snooze-fest, undeserving of the talents that grace its promotional poster. I’m also not sure exactly what the drama is trying to say about body-image, but the idea of a person’s soul manifesting in the form of physical beauty ultimately comes across as highly distasteful. To add insult to injury, the characterisation is lacklustre, the plot is poorly constructed, the OST is dull, and the leads have zero chemistry. There’s infinite potential in the show’s premise, but sadly, it’s all lost in the abyss.
29. Failing in Love
Due to having an unrequited crush on his best friend, Lee Shiwon, 18-year-old Kang Parang pursues countless girls in an attempt to fill the void he feels in his life. After finally confessing to and getting rejected by Shiwon, Parang resolves to renew his approach to dating and seek out sincere relationships.
I was of two minds whilst watching this drama. Is Lee Shiwon a “strong female lead?” Or is she a deceptive character that suggests that when girls “friend zone” males, they’re secretly playing hard to get? Either way, Parang’s attempt to overcome his shortcomings and pursue more respectful relationships with girls was refreshing and not something I’d seen before, even though the execution of this idea was a little awkward. The show compromises its storyline by pouring all of its effort into its characterisation, which ultimately isn’t strong enough to make the show worth your time. With that said, I did admire Son Sangyeon’s understated performance, and I think he’ll be one to watch out for in the future. The set designs are also really cute, with careful attention paid to the colour palette. If you like simplistic teen stories, “Failing in Love” is one to consider watching, but don’t expect top-notch quality.
28. I Have Three Boyfriends
Rahee finds herself in a bizarre predicament when a case of amnesia leads her to seemingly wind up with three different boyfriends. Whilst she attempts to ascertain her true feelings, she dates all three men simultaneously and keeps them in the dark about the situation.
Okay. This is controversial. I realise that I’ve probably been a little generous ranking a show called “I Have Three Boyfriends” this high, but hear me out. By no means is it masterfully acted or put together, but there’s a message beneath the ridiculousness of the show. The comedy of the drama is underpinned by a mystery, albeit a low-stakes one, and how it’s pieced together is surprisingly satisfying. It takes a lot of skill to disguise a fan-servicey reverse-harem as a somewhat meaningful story, and I respect that. I hesitate to say too much for the risk of spoiling it, but “I Have Three Boyfriends” manages to be everything you’d expect from a web drama, and at the same time, everything you wouldn’t.
27. My First First Love 2
The sequel to “My First First Love,” the drama continues the story of Yoon Taeoh and his eclectic group of housemates. The five friends grapple with coming to terms with their true feelings, and take control of the problems holding them back once and for all.
What made season one of “My First First Love” sort-of-kind-of-almost good? Its self-awareness, its prioritisation of friendship over romance, its unexpected pairings, and its rare ability to not take itself too seriously. Well, prepare to kiss all that goodbye in season two. There is one subplot in particular that completely converts what was once a fun, lighthearted show into a cliched, soapy makjang, but a multitude of elements contribute to the show’s downfall. Its poor pacing and tonal shift are the key culprits, and they put a damper on the growth that the characters have done in season one. I’d still recommend the show to those who want to see how the characters’ stories play out, but be aware that you might not love your second time as much as your first.
26. Angel’s Last Mission: Love
Haughty prima ballerina Lee Yeonseo is blinded by an accident that occurs mid-performance, leaving the ballet company heiress all alone in a huge house with virtually no future. In order to be able to return to heaven, mischievous angel Kim Dan is tasked with finding her true love, but doing so will be no easy task.
“Angel’s Last Mission: Love” is your typical fantasy/workplace fusion romcom, and one that I personally enjoyed a lot less than the average viewer. I’ve seen a lot of people complain that the drama started strong but rapidly unraveled. I can agree that it ended miserably, but I don’t believe that it was anything particularly special about it to begin with. From start to finish, “Angel’s Last Mission: Love” continually contradicts its own narrative, and dishes out countless cliches and one-dimensional characters. The dull, arduous, and illogical journey of our heroine and her supernatural beau may lead to happily ever after for them, but certainly not for viewers.
25. Love Alarm
Overnight, the world is taken by storm with the release of “Love Alarm,” a mobile app that alerts you when someone who likes you is within a ten metre radius. The app is particularly popular with high schoolers, with the exception of Kim Jojo, who’s outdated phone is incompatible with the application. Suddenly, her quiet life is interrupted when the most popular guy in school takes an inexplicable interest in her.
“Love Alarm” is one of those rare dramas that starts off terribly and gradually gets better, as opposed to the other way around. Make no mistake, it’s a silly show with a silly premise and a silly love triangle that’s just as cringe-inducing as you’d expect. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the darker tone of the season’s second half, which delves into ethics of digital culture. What happens when people are forced to wear their hearts on their sleeves, like it or not? What about when someone’s likability is used to measure their worth? To what extent does technology nullify human emotion? These questions bring “Love Alarm” to a boiling point in its final episode, setting the show up perfectly for a more thought-provoking and mature second season. With organisations dedicated to overthrowing the new world order and an unlikely hero determined to romance Jojo the old-fashioned way, there’s plenty of substance for the writers to work with in future episodes. Although the show is difficult to take seriously at first, its bold dive into dystopia promises to take the show to new heights in 2020. As long as they don’t screw it up.
24. Best Mistake
In order to fend off an unwanted suitor, high school student Kim Yeondo claims she has a boyfriend, sending him a picture of a random guy. However, it just so happens that the picture she sent was of Ji Hyunho, an iljin who uses the incident as a way to force Yeondo to do his bidding. As the pair spend time together, they become friends and Yeondo’s preconceptions about her classmates are challenged.
“Because of someone else’s standards, those kids got labelled as iljins,” female lead Kim Yeondoo declares as a ragtag group of friends walk into school in “Best Mistake’s” opening scene. “Those who didn’t get good grades, but spoke loudly,” she narrates as a teacher tuts at their unruly arrival. “This is a story about them.” It’s a powerful introductory scene that instantly made me reevaluate my own biases. Student gangs and bullying are a serious issue, but in a conservative country like Korea, students who rebel in less morally reprehensible ways tend to get shunned by society and lumped in with “iljins” nonetheless. “Best Mistake” is a nod to youths who experiment and dabble in debauchery, but are otherwise kind and caring individuals who deal with their own personal struggles, just like everyone else. When a typical high schooler who’s been walking the straight and narrow becomes suddenly entangled in their lives, we’re given an adorable story of friendship and romance that makes “Best Mistake” a show worth watching.
23. Dating Class
In this web-series, six university students with very little dating experience enroll in an elective dating class. From Professor Jo Seokhyun, they learn the ins and outs of healthy relationships, and put them into practice on practical assignments, or dating “missions“.
Okay, when I read the synopsis for “Dating Class“, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes. Imagine if something that ridiculous actually existed in real life, right? Well, it turns out it does. I’m sure all Korean entertainment fans have heard of the “sampo sedae”. They’re the generation accused of “giving up” on romance, marriage, and childbearing because of social pressures and economic hardships, shunned for contributing to the country’s declining birthrates. Terrible, right? Like, c’mon wankers, lie back and think of the Republic of Korea! University dating classes aiming to promote healthy outlooks on dating and encourage relationships are consequently becoming increasingly common in South Korea, and “Dating Class” gives us a little insight into the romantic and personal benefits students can gain from them. The show is more than a little goofy, but its heartfelt moments and well-considered characterisation give merit to what some viewers may see as a slightly bizarre academic trend.
22. Love with Flaws
After losing her parents in a tragic accident when she was in middle school, Joo Seoyeon and her two older brothers are left to fend for themselves and raise their teenage brother. Despite their unresolved grief, the four successfully form a functional family unit and become closer than ever. However, Seoyeon develops a distaste for attractive men due to the annoyances she’s suffered at the hands of her handsome brothers. Chaebol Lee Kangwoo holds a grudge against Seoyoon for an incident that occurred in middle school, and when the pair reunite by chance, she finds herself overcoming her biases.
I’m not going to weigh in on the whole Ahn Jaehyun and Goo Hyesun fiasco, because all I can conclude from the information that’s available to the public is that they’re two adults who mutually wronged each another and fell out of love. With that said, what Ahn Jaehyun needed to bounce back from a high profile scandal and smear campaign was a win, and instead he delivered a career-ruiningly bad performance. I know a lot of people blame his scandal and presumably scattered mental state for his woeful portrayal of Lee Kangwoo, but I just don’t think there’s anything about the soft-spoken actor that screams “haughty chaebol”. His over the top expressions are perfectly matched by leading lady Oh Yeonseo’s, and together, they share one of the worst romances to ever air on Munhwa.
It sucks that the main romance is so poorly realised, because the show has several outstanding supporting couples who are certainly worth watching. I also cannot praise the show enough for its healthy portrayal of a gay love-line for the first time in a Korean drama. The late Cha Inha carries the show squarely on his shoulders with his historic portrayal of wry bartender Joo Wonseok, giving a performance worthy of concluding his career. Kim Seulgi is the only other cast member to make an equally significant contribution, pulling her weight as Soyeon’s cheeky best friend and coworker Kim Mikyung. The relationship between the four siblings is also lovely, and offers a dynamic rare to find as a focal point in a miniseries. So yes, the drama certainly does have a number of flaws, but it redeems itself through the efforts of its delightful (albeit slightly oversized) ensemble cast.
21. My First First Love
After moving into a vacant family property, Yoon Taeoh finds his newfound independence stifled by the appearance of several new housemates. Four of his friends – a wealthy runaway, a dropout, and a childhood crush who’s been evicted all move in with him, spinning a complex web of friendship and romance.
“My First First Love” marks Jisoo’s first leading role, a point that I had to fact-check because I find it somewhat difficult to believe. Leading lady Jung Chaeyeon is in the same boat (more believable), but it’s hard to say whether or not the duo’s “first first” attempt at taking on leading miniseries roles is a successful one. “My First First Love” doesn’t do much to prove why a remake of a show barely four years old was strictly necessary, and offers little beyond archetypal characters and a lacklustre storyline. However, the drama is an innocent and joyful celebration of youth, and for that reason I found myself entertained by it. College romances were scarce in 2019, so if you’re looking for your fill of bashful courtships and blossoming friendships, “My First First Love” is as good a place as any to get it.
20. A-TEEN 2
The second season of Playlist’s smash hit web series, “A-Teen 2” continues the adventures of Shiwoo, Min, Beoram, Kihyun, and the two Hanas. Additionally, two new characters are introduced, new student Jooha and Kihyun’s younger sister Ahyun. As the characters move towards university, they strive to maintain their friendships and realise their dreams.
“A-Teen” was arguably the most successful web drama of 2018, so it was only natural that we would see a second season the following year. “A-Teen 2” doesn’t make any huge divergences from the first season, although Do Hana, who was previously at the story’s centre, is notably absent for most of the episodes. I can only assume that Shin Yeeun was tied up with other projects whilst filming was going on, which is disappointing because she’s leaps and bounds better at acting than her cast-mates, with the exception of Kim Donghee, who I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on as well. Another unfortunate change is the shift towards romance, in contrast to the first season, which had a better balance between friendship and romance. A very weak love triangle emerges, as well as some additional supporting characters who seem to seem to serve no purpose other than diverting attention from characters who are actually likable. Sure, “A-Teen 2” delivers more of the clique that viewers know and love, but you get the sense that their storylines have been somewhat exhausted. However, the show still retains its energy, and there’s plenty of fun packed into its twenty episodes.
19. Touch Your Heart
Washed-up actress Oh Yoonseo hopes to make a comeback in a new drama after being falsely implicated in a drug scandal. However, the condition for her portraying a legal secretary is that she must prepare for the role with three months of real life experience. Therefore, Yoonseo finds herself working undercover as the secretary of Always Law Firm’s ace, the talented yet awkward and aloof attorney Kwon Jungrok.
“Touch Your Heart” was a much-needed reunion project for Lee Dongwook and Yoo Inna, who as far as I’m concerned, were the saving grace of “Goblin”. The show sees the pair explore both their comedic and romantic chemistry at length, which makes for a joyous viewing experience. Additionally, the drama that underpins the show isn’t overdone, and is well paced enough to keep the momentum going. Despite the fact that the story is more understated than that of other legal dramas, healthy character development, entertaining mini-arcs, and a solid overarching story are more than enough to entertain. Although “Touch Your Heart” ultimately doesn’t offer anything particularly groundbreaking, Lee and Yoo accentuate the show’s many strengths with their comedic talent and palpable chemistry.
18. Moment at Eighteen
Choi Junwoo’s passive approach to life leads to him becoming a victim of circumstance, falsely accused of school bullying and expelled. Leaving his mother behind, he moves to a tiny apartment and transfers to a new school. However, whispers of his expulsion and a false accusation of stealing a hagwon teacher’s watch are all it takes to plummet his reputation to rock bottom, especially when class president Hwiyoung exacerbates these rumours. The only people who see Junwoo for who he truly is are his new best friend Ohje, and the kindhearted Yoo Soobin, whom he quickly finds himself falling for.
Despite its sloppy storyline and tendency to lean into tropes, “Moment at Eighteen” still somehow has a uniquely entrancing personality of its own. What immediately hooked me into the show was the intimate, almost voyeuristic feel that it had. I was fascinated by our introverted hero and eager to unpack his heavily guarded baggage. Choi Junwoo is an incredibly unique character, and testament to the fact that not every teenager has lofty dreams. Some are so beat down by life that they spend their days trying to keep their heads down, but many lack the privilege to do so with ease.
Typical teen dramas invite stressed out high schoolers to vicariously live through characters who liberate themselves by discovering “what’s really important in life” and abandon their studies for friendship. Instead of taking this route, “Moment of Eighteen” encourages youth to work towards happiness within a framework that’s realistic for them. Watching a kid who’s been dealt a bad hand slowly accept that he’s allowed to want more from life is truly gratifying and more worthy of airtime than rich and sociopathic overachievers cracking under parental pressure. Although the show is guilty of a weak loveline and several lulls, it should be commended for its representation of LGBT issues, innovative directing, and thought provoking writing.
17. Her Private Life
Beneath a veneer of professionalism, gallery curator Seung Deokmi is a passionate and devoted fangirl of popular idol Cha Shian. Hiding her double life as a fansite manager becomes increasingly complicated when she inadvertently crosses paths with Shian as part of her work, and her new boss, retired painter Ryan Gold, discovers her secret.
Yikes, that’s a relatable premise if ever there was one. But seriously, the whole closeted fangirl thing is a really fun twist on the typical workplace romance, and it’s a shame “Her Private Life” abandons it so quickly in favour of tired cliches. Virtually everything that makes the drama worth watching is gradually overshadowed by unnecessary melodrama, and it consequently loses its spark fairly quickly. And what’s more, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the writer felt it was necessary for our heroine to share pseudo-incestuous ties with literally every male that romantically interacts with her. However, it’s worth noting that Park Minyoung and Kim Jaewook have some sizzling chemistry, probably the best of any onscreen pairing last year. If you’re willing to overlook the obligatory “childhood connection” storyline and questionable characterisation, then there’s plenty of fun to be found in Seung Deokmi’s private life.
16. He is Psychometric
Lee Ahn gains psychometric powers as a young boy after his parents perish in a fire, and one day, becomes embroiled in the life Yoon Jaein, the daughter of the man deemed guilty of the arson. Under the table, Ahn uses his powers to assist Eun Jisoo, a detective and the friend and colleague of his foster guardian and adoptive brother, prosecutor Kang Seungmo. Together, the four of them investigate the truth about the unsolved murder case that’s been casting a shadow over their lives for years.
Starring two inexperienced lead actors, “He is Psychometric” was a risky venture to begin with, and it became even more so as the series progressed. What starts out as a quirky and lighthearted show underpinned by a tragic mystery quickly descends into total doom and gloom in a tonal shift that feels grossly unfitting and unnecessary. The show’s central mystery is painfully predictable, and it honestly felt as if the whole narrative was engineered for maximum shock value as opposed to quality storytelling. However, the drama is still unfailingly riveting and I found myself enjoying it thoroughly despite its deeply entrenched flaws. The relationships of the characters are persistently intriguing, and the series actually makes really clever use of Lee Ahn’s powers. Although the show’s second half is poorly constructed, heartbreaking, and unsatisfying, I can’t bring myself to hate it. Somehow, the darkness of “He is Psychometric” is inextricable from its joy.
15. Hotel del Luna
Due to a terrible sin that she committed when she was alive, Jang Manwol is forced to run Hotel Del Luna, a hotel that exclusively hosts the dead. When talented and intelligent hotelier Goo Chansung is unwillingly roped into becoming the hotel’s manager and only human employee, he develops a passion for helping restless souls find peace. Despite being painfully aware that their relationship is temporary, Manwol and Chansung find themselves growing deeply attached to one another.
The top contender for most overrated drama of 2019 is a no-brainer for me. I get that IU and Yeo Jingoo are household names. I get that the Hong sisters have cooked up a bunch of hits. I get that the OST is full of nice ballads. But what I still don’t get is why people are so indignant that HDL is some sort of masterpiece. A tvN drama about a naive individual fated from childhood to both see ghosts and cross paths with an ancient supernatural being against their will, finding themselves falling in love with said being despite the fact that their existence in the human realm is imminently coming to an end? Never seen that before. Oh wait. We have. That’s “Goblin”. Yep. Literally “Goblin”. An entire country has already been obsessed with that exact same plot before, but what the heck — let’s do it again! God forbid that something original becomes popular. “Hotel Del Luna” might be a little uninspired and over-the-top, but the set design is breathtaking, and Jieun and Jingoo just barely save the show with their comedic delivery. And if nothing else, the show is worth watching for Jang Manwol’s clothes alone. Trust me.
14. Romance is a Bonus Book
Divorced, broke, and unemployed, former copywriter Kang Dani lives deeply regretful of deciding against jilting her ex-husband on her wedding day. She’s faced with immense prejudice at the hands of hiring committees, who look down on her for trying to reenter the work force after several years of unemployment. Out of desperation, she feigns a lack of education and experience in order to become an intern at Goryeo Publishing, where her longtime friend Cha Eunho works as the editor-in-chief.
Lee Jongseok was shipped off to public service last March and won’t be back in the business until 2021, but rest assured, he didn’t leave without imparting us with another lovable character. “Romance is a Bonus Book” is also a noteworthy project for Lee Nayoung, marking her first small-screen comeback in nine years. Out of all the dramas that I watched in 2019, RIABB is definitely the most true to the conventions of the thirty-something workplace romance sub-genre. Dani and Eunho are childhood friends who are forced to cohabitate, and the progress of their relationship is largely reactive to the affairs of their office. However, despite the show’s cliches, it touches on a lot of important issues.
Something that gave me a particularly huge culture shock was that the idea of seniority is so integral to the Korean corporate world that in many cases, an under-qualified older worker returning from an extended hiatus may have better career prospects than one with a degree and work experience. Watching Kang Dani crawl her way back up from rock bottom was definitely a wakeup call as to what single mothers in South Korea are often forced to go through, and the show delivers this idea with a warranted amount of gravitas but a refreshing lack of pretension. The drama also gives viewers a valuable insight into the publishing industry and emphasises the eternal value of books in the face of society’s dwindling appreciation for them. Although viewers who don’t enjoy slice of life shows will struggle with “Romance is a Bonus Book,” those who do will find the lighthearted storyline and visually stunning production more than sufficient. Ultimately, the drama is one that grants Lee Nayoung a graceful return to the industry and Lee Jongseok and a worthy goodbye from it.
13. Everything and Nothing
Ko Minjae is a reticent and studious seventeen-year-old who finds himself entangled in the life of the quietly confident and slightly eccentric Ahn Seoyeon. Both come from broken homes, with Minjae’s mother having an affair, and Seoyeon’s mother dating a multitude of sleazy men. Together, the pair are forced to confront the dark side of teenage sexuality.
Yoon Chanyoung and Park Shieun are no strangers to working together, having starred alongside each another in a range of dramas, including “Pluto Squad,” “Six Flying Dragons,” and “Thirty But Seventeen.” But “Everything and Nothing” is the first time the eighteen-year-olds have shared leading roles together, and the poignant tone of the show allows the pair to skilfully showcase the promising future of Korea’s entertainment industry. I must admit, though — I never imagined going into the series that it would be so incredibly gutsy. “Everything and Nothing” is one of the darkest dramas I’ve seen to date, and it just barely toes the line of what Korean audiences would consider acceptable. I never expected to see a teens in a K-drama getting contraceptive implants or struggling to buy condoms whilst in uniform, but “Everything and Nothing” showcases all that and more. It’s an imperfect tale that probably couldn’t sustain itself beyond the four episodes that it ran, but it’s ultimately an incredibly powerful one.
12. Rookie Historian Goo Haeryung
In the early 1800s, Joseon makes a radical change by inviting female historians into the palace for the first time in centuries. Goo Haeryung, a strong-willed woman desperate to avoid marriage is among the few chosen, and she works tirelessly to become acknowledged by those around her. By chance, Prince Yirim, who sneaks out of the palace and moonlights as an infamous romance novelist becomes Haeryung’s close friend and confidant. Together, they strive to make Joseon a more liberal and equal place for all.
Firstly, I acknowledge that casting Cha Eunwoo and Shin Sekyung alongside each other was quite frankly, an idiotic decision. You usually need at least one lead who can actually act for the drama to be watchable. However, RHGH still somehow manages to be an incredibly engrossing and innovative sageuk regardless. The visuals of the show are breathtaking, and the costumes, set design, and cinematography believably inject life into Changdeokgung Palace. Careful attention is paid to specific elements unique to the era, providing a thoroughly immersive viewing experience.
Although the drama does feature classic sageuk elements (you better believe evil councillors make an appearance), greater focus is given to the interconnection between politics and societal values. As a result, there are several innovative subplots regarding censorship, gender equality, medicine, education, and the clash between Confucianism and competing ideologies. Although the storyline does get a little convoluted at times due to the sheer amount that it tries to squeeze in, it’s continually entertaining and touches on a lot of issues that other sageuks don’t. It’s also refreshing to see events play out through the eyes of a royal who isn’t the Crown Prince or a regent, but a neglected young man concerned more with literature and romance than palace affairs. Although Eunwoo and Sekyung drag the drama down, Yirim and Haeryung lift it up, re-defining the sageuk genre by seeking societal change rather than political power.
11. The Crowned Clown
Travelling clown Haseon earns a living by mimicking the tyrannical King Yiheon, whom he shares an uncanny resemblance to. However, his act becomes a little too real when the Royal Secretary forces him to act as the King’s body double. Whilst Yiheon recovers from a drug addiction and hides from treacherous forces threatening his life, Haseon is thrust into the cutthroat world of palace politics. But what happens when the fake is better than the real deal, and it shows?
Yeo Jingoo is one hell of an actor, and if “My Absolute Boyfriend” caused you to forget that, then “The Crowned Clown” will certainly remind you. The twenty-two-year-old gives a show-stopping dual performance as both Haseon and Yiheon, making it difficult to believe that the unstable king and the righteous imposter are indeed played by the same person. Kim Sangkyung gives the junior actor solid support as the Chief Royal Secretary, and together the duo share a multitude of powerful and brilliantly acted moments. The great performances and writing are supplemented by the production, which is darker than I initially expected, but successfully cultivates the tense and high-stakes atmosphere that keeps the show’s momentum going. Although the drama makes a crucial narrative mistake at its halfway point for shock value, its storyline nonetheless remains truly gripping from beginning to end. Sure, you’ve got your typical corrupt palace officials, your court conspiracies, and your over-the-top showdowns, but “The Crowned Clown” executes them with such finesse that it’s difficult to be mad about it.
10. Class of Lies
Disgraced attorney Gi Moohyeok is kicked out of his law firm and stripped of his license after losing a murder trial concerning two high school students. In order to take his revenge, Moohyeok decides to take the case into his own hands and solve it from the inside of an elite private school by masquerading as a substitute teacher.
A trope all too common in high school dramas is the tortured-rich-kid, wherein writers blame the morally reprehensible behaviour of wealthy kids on the lofty expectations of their pushy parents. “Class of Lies” totally subverts this idea, suggesting that privileged teens should be held accountable for their own behaviour. Rather than overworked students who lash out at the world despite their inner fragility, the apex predators of Chunmyung High School are portrayed as callous and calculative, and god is it satisfying to watch Gi Moohyeok see right through their facade. It’s a point that only OCN would ever dare to make, and I’m so very glad that they did.
However, despite the show’s refreshing overarching philosophy, its execution falls a little flat at times. The most engaging elements of the mystery are solved all too quickly, and the duller bits are dragged out until the anticlimactic end. The series really shone when it focused on the psychology of its characters and their motives, and it would’ve been a lot better if it had carried this through to the end instead of moving on to less interesting storylines. In saying that, provided that you can stomach the angst and poor pacing, the drama is edgy and thought-provoking enough to make it worth your while. A show set in a school focusing on a murder mystery rather than teen issues is more or less uncharted territory, making “Class of Lies” an innovative and enthralling watch.
9. The Tale of Nokdu
After being suddenly attacked by a group of female assassins, island dweller Jeon Nokdu decides to infiltrate the village of widows, which men are strictly prohibited from entering. Disguised as “Lady Kim,” he investigates the truth about why he has become a target of the village’s elite female warriors. In the process, he crosses paths with kisaeng trainee Dong Dongju, who helps Nokdu maintain his false identity, and uncover his real one.
After countless dramas in which sageuk heroines disguise themselves as men, “The Tale of Nokdu” brings a welcome change with its adaptation of a webtoon in which just the opposite happens. I had no idea what to expect going into the show, but the gender-bending is definitely its strongest aspect. Not only does Jang Dongyoon make a very convincing woman, but the drama is surprisingly respectful in its approach to that specific storyline. Unfortunately, this element of the show is discarded far too quickly, and the humour is quickly lost in typical sageuk nonsense. The show’s jarring political shift makes virtually no sense considering we’re told how things play out very early on, positioning viewers to be more invested in the two leads than the fate of the country. Not to mention that the outcome of the political plot is highly unlikely to satisfy viewers anyway, so the drama arguably would’ve been a lot stronger overall if it had just ignored the affairs of palace altogether. After all, the relationship between Nokdu and Dongjoo is adorable, as are their interactions with their community, and it’s a shame that side of their story wasn’t given as much attention as it deserved. However, the only reason that I’m so frustrated by the drama’s faults is because they infringe on what is an otherwise fantastic show, from start to finish.
8. Crash Landing on You
Chaebol heiress Yoon Seri unexpectedly winds up in North Korea after a paragliding accident, where she is found and rescued by elite North Korean Army captain Ri Jeonghyuk. Unable to return home, Seri hides in North Korea under Jeonghyuk’s protection, with her every move being the difference between life and death.
The second highest rated drama to ever air on Korean cable, “Crash Landing on You” enthralled audiences worldwide, despite its controversial reputation. Although the idea of a woman safely landing in North Korea undetected and then falling in love with a soldier there understandably raised some eyebrows, it’s easy to overlook the absurdity of it all given how entertaining the show is. “Crash Landing on You” never tries to pretend that it isn’t completely over-the-top and goes all out with its humour and dramatic action sequences. Furthermore, the show is actually relatively objective in its portrayal of both the North and the South, as it shines a light on the atrocities that occur in North Korea but acknowledges the ways in which adversity brings the country’s people together. A key point of the drama is that North Korean citizens themselves are not inherently evil, and it does its best to accurate portray the level of insight regular people have into the affairs on the state. The creators of the drama worked closely with North Korean defectors to achieve this level of authenticity, and the resulting product manages to be both entertaining and respectful.
In terms of romance, Hyunbin and Son Yejin completely sell it, so much so that they’ve been enveloped in dating rumours for quite some time now. A largely pre-produced big budget romcom with a military focus and a buzz-worthy lead couple, many have drawn comparisons between the drama and “Descendants of the Sun”. But if you ask me, “Crash Landing On You” is a whole lot better than DOTS. Sure, it’s got the same ingredients, but it takes itself a lot less seriously, and the ridiculous premise develops a lot more smoothly as a result. Funny, visually pleasing, and just the right amount of campy, “Crash Landing On You” is bound to be long remembered as a classic Korean drama.
In 16th century Joseon, Crown Prince Lee Chang discovers that the King has fallen ill to a mysterious plague that brings the dead back to life as flesh eating monsters. The treacherous Haewon Cho clan conceal the king’s condition from the rest of the palace, using the fact that he is supposedly alive to maintain their position of power. When the Prince sets out to discover the truth, he is unjustly branded a traitor and left to help the Southern Provinces fight off the rapidly spreading epidemic.
I was pretty shocked to find out that the “Kingdom” is the first ever zombie drama to emerge from Korea. I guess it was only a matter of time after the success of “Train to Busan,” and now “Kingdom” has received even greater critical acclaim. The idea of zombies in Joseon does admittedly sound really dumb and gimmicky at first, but it’s actually sort of genius. By marrying an exclusively Korean genre with one typically associated with the West, the show captivates a global audience with a story that can’t be seen anywhere else. The popularity of the series is easily understandable, considering its powerful performances and breathtaking cinematography. But above all that, what I admire most about the show is its boldness in terms of exposing the brutality of the upper class in the Joseon era. Although the violence and suffering that stems from classism is a theme commonly explored in sageuks, it’s rarely handled with such realism, and it probably never will be outside of the horror genre. “Kingdom” shines a light on how easily a great and powerful empire can collapse in the face of catastrophe, a message equally as terrifying as the flesh eating beasts at the centre of the show. Kim Eunhee allegedly worked on the script for eight years before it was realised, and her efforts certainly pay off with the resulting innovative and visually stunning Netflix series.
6. Extraordinary You
Bubbly high school student Eun Danoh is happy and content with her life until she finds it bizarrely interrupted by intermittent periods of memory loss and a non-linear flow of time. When she decides to investigate this peculiar turn of events, she finds out that she’s a character in a cliched romance comic. To add insult to injury, she’s not even the protagonist, but a mere supporting character. In a contract engagement with her unrequited crush and dying of a heart condition, Danoh sets out to change her fate with the help of a mysterious background character, who seems to hold the key to changing the story.
The quirkier, lighter cousin of “W,” MBC’s “Extraordinary You” premiered as a charming and thoroughly entertaining story about defying fate and finding oneself in the face of adversity. However, like so many other terrific shows, the quality rapidly declined as the drama went on. The first thing that hooked me into the series was its detailed world building and quirky atmosphere, coupled with its humour. Something else that really intrigued me was the identity of the male lead. I went into the show completely cold and had no idea what to actually expect, so I was completely thrown by the fact that the we weren’t even shown Rowoon’s face for several episodes. As a general rule, we’re usually introduced to love interests within the first few scenes of a show, so the approach that was taken in “Extraordinary You” felt extremely clever and true to the world in which the story was based. It’s a very meta angle, genuinely turning a lead character into a mere extra before he comes into the spotlight, and one that makes the show feel all the more immersive and as though viewers are a part of the action.
However, once the male lead’s identity is revealed, the show gradually spirals into a typical high school romance akin to the kind the writer is trying to make fun of. “Extraordinary You” is gaping with plot holes, and its rushed ending fails to answer several key questions that very easily could’ve been addressed in earlier episodes. The drama thrives the most when the few “self-aware” characters try to change the story, and it’s a crying shame that the focus of the series deviates from that towards the end. With that said, “Extraordinary You” thankfully retains its humorous, cosy and light tone from beginning to end. The acting is a key contributor to this, with leading lady Kim Hyeyoon’s persistently upbeat performance keeping the show afloat at its lowest moments. Lee Jaewook is also a major standout, proving his acting chops through the versatile role of Baek Kyung. The entire ensemble of characters as a whole is terrific, and the world which within they exist is incredibly entrancing in spite of its flaws. Ultimately, “Extraordinary You” is a bubbly and bouncy tale, and its imaginary world provides a welcome break from the considerably less entertaining nature of ours.
You can read Wasta’s review of the drama’s webtoon source material, “July Found by Chance”, here.
5. The Light in Your Eyes
25-year-old Kim Hyeja’s dream of becoming a news anchor is destroyed when she loses decades of her life in the span of a day due to a tragic accident and a magic watch. As an 80-year-old, she re-encounters her neighbour Lee Joonha, whom she befriended after a college reunion when he was an aspiring reporter. However, Joonha is no longer the man she knew, and he now lives desultorily as a con artist after having his dream shattered and his spirit broken. Discontent with this newfound reality, Hyeja strives to bring back the past and return Joonha and herself to their former selves.
Woah. Not to be dramatic or anything, but the finale of “The Light in Your Eyes” threw me for such a loop that I literally felt physically sick after watching it. I wasn’t sure if I’d just witnessed a genius hour of television or a masterfully disguised piece of retroactive continuity, and I honestly still can’t decide. Either way, it’s rare for a drama to make me feel as much as much as this one did, and for that reason it makes the top ten. Initially, I had basically understood the drama as “Nam Joohyuk unwittingly falls in love with a grandma,” which sounded hilarious enough to get me to watch it. However, do not be fooled. Despite the claims of its creators, “The Light in Your Eyes” is anything but a comedy. It’s a heart wrenching and insightful tale from start to finish, but it certainly isn’t funny.
Most of the story’s events are nods to the elderly and the ageism that they experience on a daily basis, struggles that hit so much harder when a twenty-five-year-old is the one subjected to them. And there’s certainly nobody more qualified to deliver this message than eponymous actress Kim Hyeja, whose skill is unquestioned in the industry despite her advanced age. Naturally, her performance is exceptional, and the rest of the cast similarly excel. However, the most surprising star of the show is undoubtedly Nam Joohyuk, who steps up his skills by tenfold and astounds in every episode. Lee Joonha is an incredibly complex character who descends from an idealistic and quietly playful man to a dark and slightly manipulative one, and believably pulling this off is no easy feat. However, Joohyuk ditches his sparky persona without hesitation and throws himself into the role completely, convincingly enough for me to discard all my preconceptions about his acting skills.
As if top-notch performances weren’t enough, the show’s directing is also superb, creating a fully polished final product. In saying that, “The Light in Your Eyes” probably sacrifices itself in part for the sake of its ending, as it can feel a little scattered and laggy at times. Until I was able to see the bigger picture, I often found myself frustrated by holes in the narrative, but these are compensated for by the show’s amazing cast, writing, and directing. On the whole, “The Light in Your Eyes” is poignant and absolutely essential viewing.
4. Search: WWW
After being used as a scapegoat for her company’s corruption and fired, 37-year-old web portal director Bae Tami is scouted by a rival company. In order to surpass her old company and take revenge, Tami will need to grapple with workplace misogyny, the ethics of keyword manipulation, and the affection of a gentle man ten years her junior.
As a viewer constantly frustrated by the passive role of women in K-dramas, watching fully fleshed-out female characters was a breath of fresh air. But as a critic, I have to question whether or not putting women in pantsuits makes the show worthy of extensive praise. Search: WWW is a great drama, but it certainly could’ve done more to subvert tired tropes. Given the simplistic nature of the plot and the complex nature of the characters, it was disappointing to see the show waste time leaning into cliches rather than building on its core message and ideas. What I do want to applaud is the drama’s pacing and boldness in terms of sociopolitical commentary. The show makes no attempts to conceal its stance on corporate corruption, the patriarchy, and censorship, which is what makes the drama as a whole so excellent.
Overall, “Search: WWW” is an innovative show that provides an intelligent and progressive insight into Korea’s IT industry. Written with warmth and wit, the storyline weaves together important messages about relationships, politics, and female empowerment. Thanks to the charming set design and strong cast, these messages to come to life with an unapologetic vigour. Freshly debuted screenwriter Kwon Doeun’s vision is a testament to the fact that women can have both power and personality, a sentiment that other K-dramas could stand to learn from.
You can read my full review of “Search: WWW” here.
3. Strangers from Hell
Overwhelmed by the sky-high rent prices after moving from the countryside to Seoul, Yoon Jeongwoo moves into a decrepit goshiwon in order to save money. Jeongwoo soon realises that a creaky bed and a shared bathroom are the least of his problems when the disturbing behaviour of his neighbours leads him to question his own sanity.
It’s rare to find a horror drama that doesn’t rely even slightly on supernatural elements, but “Strangers from Hell” does so well at exposing the dark side of humanity that I wish it could happen more often on Korean television. It’s evident how much care has gone into cultivating the show’s dark tone, and it’s the first thriller drama so far that’s managed to genuinely freak me out a little. Admittedly, the show’s pacing is a somewhat awkward to begin with, and the actions of its antagonists are arguably revealed a little too quickly. But at the same time, “Strangers from Hell” isn’t really about the big reveal. It’s not a whodunnit, it’s a commentary on human psychology. And really, the idea that every one of us is capable of evil if the right buttons are pushed is what’s most terrifying about the show. For that reason, Yoon Jongwoo’s descent into insanity was one of the most enthralling things to air on Korean TV in 2019. Im Siwan totally sells his character’s terrifying evolution, weaponising his full emotional range to showcase mental anguish and turmoil that feels totally raw and authentic.
Even so, Lee Dongwook outclasses him by a mile with his spine-chilling portrayal of Seo Moonjo, the drama’s enigmatic antagonist. I think it’s fair to say that Dongwook has totally revolutionised his soft, romantic image, as everyone is now completely terrified of him. Both lead actors demonstrate amazing growth with their roles, and their dynamic is near impossible to look away from. However, although the show’s acting and tone are amazing, the storytelling leaves something to be desired. Towards the halfway point, the episodes became somewhat dull and repetitive, and several characters with plenty of room for exploration were neglected and not used to their full potential. If proper use was made of the show’s vast ensemble, “Strangers from Hell” could’ve been a lot more polished over all. Despite these several bumps in the road, the drama reaches an incredibly satisfying crescendo in its final episode, giving the daring and gripping tale the conclusion it deserves.
2. When the Camellia Blooms
When Oh Dongbaek moves to the small countryside town of Ongsan in order to raise her newborn baby and opens a popular bar called Camellia, her status as a female bar owner and single mother invites judgement, pity, harassment, and gossip. However, Dongbaek nonetheless becomes a key member of the everyone-knows-everyone community. Six years later, unsophisticated yet virtuous police officer Hwang Yongsik moves back to his hometown after a stint as a big city cop, and he immediately falls for the beautiful newcomer. When Dongbaek becomes the target of a serial killer and her past scars reemerge, Yongsik does everything in his power to keep her safe and help her find happiness.
A refreshing escape from the typical big city setting, the cosy town of Ongsan and its inhabitants offer an insightful look at motherhood, romance, and intergenerational trauma. The town’s resident “Princess Diana” Dongbaek is a far cry from Gong Hyojin’s typical role, though she’s definitely one of her best, worthy of the daesang she won for her performance. Unlike the sassy and capricious characters Hyojin has played in the past, Dongbaek is soft-spoken and so acclimated to social exclusion that she almost never stands up for herself. Although the first few episodes of establishing this characterisation are a little slow, Dongbaek’s development and interactions with the rest of the community quickly become more than enough to hold the show together. The characters are real and compelling and capture both the best and the worst of humanity. The best character by far is Kang Haneul’s Yongshik, who is perhaps the most unique male lead I’ve ever seen, period. Although Yongshik is initially interested in Dongbaek because she’s beautiful, he quickly falls for who she is as a person, and lifts her up in a way that’s remarkable to watch. Unlike most male leads, he’s righteous, goofy, affectionate, and a little awkward, defiant of the rigid standards that are supposed to represent the pinnacle of masculinity in Korean dramas. If you’re sick of the typical cold, stiff chaebol nonsense, you’ll love the unpretentious country bumpkin and his adorable antics.
The rest of the main cast measure up to the high standard set by Hyojin and Haneul, including Kim Kanghoon, who plays Pilgoo, Dongbaek’s son, and Kim Jiseok as Kang Jeongryeol, Dongbaek’s ex and Pilgoo’s father. All members of the complicated, fictional family reflect the challenges that come with single parenthood, which is a unique issue for a miniseries to explore. They have a breathtaking backdrop to work against, with all aspects of the show’s flawless production contributing to its wistful, romantic feel. The drama’s weakest aspect is definitely its mystery, which admittedly enriches the show’s criticism of ostracisation, but is poorly developed and trivial in the grand scheme of the narrative. “When the Camellia Blooms” was given an additional four episodes in the midst of its run, and it’s obvious that the writer back-pedalled on how the mystery was supposed to play out and extended useless subplots in order to filibuster. However, I’m certainly not going to complain, because the drama wrapped up in a wholly satisfying way, reflective of its overarching philosophy — that everyone is entitled to happiness.
1. Be Melodramatic
Three women working in the entertainment industry, assistant drama writer Im Jinjoo, documentary director Lee Eunjung and production company employee Hwang Hanjoo, live together along with Eunjung’s brother and Hanjoo’s child. All three women reach significant turning points in their professional and romantic lives, which play out as they team up with others in the industry to produce Jinjoo’s debut drama, “Things Will Be Fine When You Turn Thirty.”
The mawkish romanticisation of mid-life crises is a somewhat tired sub-genre of Korean dramas, but it’d been a while since dabbled in it, so I decided to give JTBC’s “Be Melodramatic” a try. Going in with zero info, I expected a drama featuring the usual thirty-somethings crying over their life choices in the darkness before cozying up with their co-worker who shows them the true beauty of life. I did get that drama, but one that felt astronomically more authentic and resonated with me in a way that I never could have anticipated. The reason “Be Melodramatic” is such a delight is because it knows that not taking itself too seriously is the key to retaining its artistic integrity. It’s not a fluffy vicarious escape from the chaos of life, nor a pretentious cesspit of nauseating existentialism. It’s a show with just a sprinkle of cynicism, perfectly counterbalanced by a clever and comforting story.
It’s a crying shame that “Be Melodramatic” is more famous for its OST than its script, because its ratings aren’t at all indicative of its overall quality. The show features a number of directorial choices never seen before in a Korean drama and a cast who perfectly deliver every scene with wry and mischievous comedic timing. Even if “Be Melodramatic” wasn’t a hilarious and touching ode to its target demographic, its originality alone is worthy of extensive praise. The show is essentially a drama-within-a-drama-within-a-drama, as Jinjoo’s script is about people in the industry, and it occurs to her that she’s subconsciously channelling much of her personal life into her script. This is especially interesting considering that “Be Melodramatic” is the combined genius of rookie screenwriter Kim Youngyoung and experienced director/screenwriter Lee Byunghun, reflecting the dynamic of the show’s lead characters. This super meta premise allows for the show to play by its own rules, with some great satirical comedy, LGBT representation, and incredibly raw commentary on grief. The show regrettably takes a few episodes to find its footing, but once it starts asking the right questions, it never looks back. “Be Melodramatic” is certainly an imperfect show, but it’s made with a love for its viewers that’s palpable in every scene.
Admittedly, 2019 wasn’t the greatest year for K-dramas. There weren’t many buzz-worthy titles besides HDL and CLOY, and I found myself uncharacteristically longing for a fast paced show with extraordinary circumstances and high stakes. In saying that, I was thoroughly impressed by both the creative and political leaps that were made last year. It’s evident that Korean TV is rapidly becoming more progressive, and it’s only ramping up the quality of dramas. Not only did I get to see three single mothers in main roles and four gay characters last year, but also groundbreaking writing, directing and cinematography. There’s still a long way to go, but the fact that Korean dramas are managing to creatively mature whilst still retaining their unique cultural identity has me optimistic for the future of the industry.