I’m sorry to inflict yet another best-of list on you but I figured it would be good for my swiss cheese memory to jot these down for posterity.
It’s been a year of many firsts: my first year of K-drama watching, of blogging, of tumblr-ing (is that a word?), and of meeting a lovely community of fellow drama obsessives (that means you!) which has been totally awesome.
I wish everyone lots of love, happiness and many more good dramas in 2014!
These worked for me in all the ways that matter–heart, story, substance and execution–and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend every one of them. In no particular order:
I Hear Your Voice
This is the show of firsts for me–it was my first live-watch and through it I discovered the agony of the weekly wait and for that, it has a special place on this list. But it’s the only show that felt consistently compelling for all the right reasons. Peopled with multi-dimensional characters, it’s plot moved in thrilling tandem with the growth of its characters and their relationships to each other. At the heart of the show was a brilliant turn by Lee Bo Young as one of my favourite heroines of the year. Hye Sung was a character in all senses of the word who had intense relationships with not just her man, but with her mum, her friends and co-workers.
This is a grittier rom-com than we’re used to, and though it played amateur hour with the law, I salute it for its brilliant use of well-worn tropes that serve to remind us that cliches can be awesome when they are bolstered by a strong story. Points for the best use of amnesia ever, and for making laundry, cooking and watching TV seem like the sweetest of mating rituals.
Oh, and also for uniting the noonas of the world now nurturing a massive crush on Lee Jong Seok.
The End of the World
I’m not sure when it happened, but at one point it dawned on me that this show’s dark claws had sank in deep when I could practically smell the fear and dread in the air. It took a couple of false starts and the right frame of mind for this to finally take hold on me but when it did, this slowburning thriller, procedural and character study did so to such creeptastic proportions.
On the surface it’s apocalyptic premise of a deadly viral outbreak seems familiar enough territory–it’s not like you’ve never seen a zombie or contagion flick before. But spins it into an interrogation into the cold, dark hearts of people. Does the virus strip away that which make us human–compassion, empathy, morality–or does it merely amplify what already lurks inside the darkest, deepest corners of our psyche? It’s fascinating and deeply unsettling, made distressingly real under the hands of director Ahn Pan Seok who masterful in his detailed and cinematic approach.
I wonder where else this series could have taken us had it not been truncated at 12 episodes. But what we ended up with anyway rivals any drama made ever.
Points for being what must be the first butt-crack ever displayed in a K-drama! (And please don’t let that stop you from watching this.)
The drama that gave me the teenage love story of the year! Two damaged boys find their way back to each other, searing the annals of dramaland with a bromance to rival any heterosexual love affair. I kid you not! Nam Soon and Heung Soo are the core of this show, erstwhile friends and soul mates who fight to forgive, heal and overcome the hurts and betrayals that ripped them apart. Thanks to Kim Woo Bin and Lee Jong Seok who infuse their every interaction with a palpable intensity, this pairing’s climb back to the light provides much of the drama’s highs.
It’s a tough act to follow, so much so that everything else tended recede to the background. I did wish some of the girls friendships got a similarly meaty airing, and that the teachers’ arcs were as compelling, but at it’s best this drama foregrounded unsugar-coated youthful struggles with a refreshingly realistic eye.
A true ensemble drama, I treasured that ultimately, this was a story about the redeeming power of believing in the best in people, and seeing the good in them when they’re only capable of showing you their worst.
There is value in consistency and while this show did not grab me as intensely as the others, it never failed to deliver on its tightly plotted and emotionally rich story each and every week. It’s reliability was a balm in a sea of dramas that lost the plot halfway.
A redemption story of a dead-beat wastrel wrapped up in the form of an action-thriller, there were times when the latter elements in the drama stretched the boundaries of credibility and earned some eye-rolling, but I never once felt like the drama did not know where it wanted to go. Lee Jun Ki’s sincerity and scappiness shone through as Tae San clawed his way out of one hair-raising tight corner to another. A great supporting cast in the form of Park Ha Sun, Kim So Yeon and the cutest moppet Lee Chae Mi were just more ways this drama never let me down.
Adolescence Medley/Medley of Youth
A four episode drama special that captures the sweetness of first loves and coming-of-age with wit, depth, and a sense of fun. Set in a rural school, it’s young, capable cast set about learning a thing or two about what courage and friendship means. It’s a love letter to a bygone time of innocence which is echoed in it’s green pastoral setting.
This was the loveliest surprise of the year, and I’d happily spend more time with these characters. I wish it was longer. Now how many dramas can you truly say that about? Points for introducing me to the dreamy Choi Tae Joon as the school jjang, who by the way, went on to act in Ugly Alert, apparently one of this year’s best makjang-free daily dramas.
The Best of the Rest
I liked these less then they perhaps deserve, but I’d still recommend them. In some particular order:
The Queen’s Classroom
If I told you that a drama about a teacher who blackmails, humiliates and emotionally-manipulates her students into compliance was a feel-good drama, would you believe me? Heartfelt and harrowing, The Queen’s Classroom offered a more intimate, quiet take on student shenanigans than its grittier, teen-centric School 2013. I liked that “Witch” Ma, played superbly by Go Hyun Jung as one of the year’s most fascinating characters, remains a cipher to the end. That this drama managed to avoid kiddy aegyo with a cast of loveable elementary school students is enough of an achievement in my books, but this also gets nods for a compassionate, memorable portrayal of a transgendered character.
This is the drama that swept me away in it’s tide of dark and seductive thrills. It had me hanging on to its every stylish move. Then it dumped me unceremoniously when its incessant twists and recycled plot points grew tiresome. But somehow I clung on to it because it got so much right, much more than it got wrong, and what it did best was rooting its mayhem and violence in the complex relationships of the dysfunctional (and best-dressed) family of Baksa Ahdeul, Sapari and Jin Sook, brought to life by a trio of amazing actors (Jung Kyung Ho, Choi Moo Sung, Kim Yu Mi). They gutted me and left me weeping like no other characters did this year.
A knotty, plotty time-travel thriller that didn’t strike a chord with me. I do like to be emotionally engaged and this one kept itself just out of reach despite some pretty harrowing scenarios and a worthy hero. But it is undoubtedly a slickly directed and capably written and doesn’t take it’s audience for granted. It keeps one step ahead of you while making sure you never quite lose your way, which is no mean feat for a drama with multiple timeframes and some pretty convoluted plotting.
The Master’s Sun
Buoyed entirely by Gong Hyo Jin and So Ji Sub who were so perfectly matched and crackling with chemistry that they sent my Real Life shipping heart into spasms. When RL shipping starts to get more exciting than the drama that inspired it, you know you’ve got a problem. The big mystery of Joo Joong Won’s childhood trauma fell flat, and his arc wrapped up so early that Tae Yang’s felt more like a last-minute excuse at forced separation. Still, it’s early episodic beginnings had entertainment value, and a truly traumatic and moving mid-series climax marks this a worthy if patchy Hong Sisters effort.
Flower Boy Next Door
The quirk. The indie vibes. The shy, retiring heroine. The untame-able Enrique Geum. The pensive, thoughtful internal monologues. The great performances of Park Shin Hye and Yoon Shi Yoon. The sexy, scruffy mooning of Kim Ji Hoon. It was winsome, fresh and good, until it wasn’t. I will remember this for it’s near-perfect first half before the weaksauce, cliche-ridden end stomped all over it.
Dating Agency Cyrano
A breezy, well-made rom-com that is just what the doctor ordered for days you don’t feel like investing too much. Points for capitalising on its great set-up as an agency for the love lorn, and balancing light humour with poignant sweetness. A likeable cast of characters with SNSD’s Soo Young pulling off a surprisingly charming turn as the plucky heroine, with some excellent and enjoyable cameo appearances to boot (Taemin, Lee Kwang Soo, Jung Yu Mi just for starters). Fun, entertaining, forgettable.
Half-baked, under-cooked, approach with caution. In no particular order:
I can’t believe I wrote as much about Heirs as I did. Which means that A) there must have been enough to natter on about in the first place and B) it was never bad enough for me to drop it. And that’s all I have left to say about this drama.
Who Are You?
A middling show that did spooky and silly really well. Think chills of the haunted house at the funfair variety. Shame the larger arc of police corruption and the insipid romance got in the way because good natured and bouncy Taecyeon and his partner So Yi Hyun were a hoot week to week. Kim Jae Wook gives the most soulful, tragic starring–hmmm I wonder if Lee Min Ho consulted for tips before starting Heirs.
Welcome to crazy town! If not for Ji Sung who makes abusive, self-hating man-pain look and feel somehow less ugly and loathsome than it is, I wouldn’t have made it to the end (the meds I was on at the time might have helped too). I have a sneaky feeling that this drama thought itself better and smarter than it was, which makes me even feel less charitable towards it’s rather staid if extreme brand of crazy. Points though for doing the crazy well enough for the drama to be an addictive watch–for all the wrong reasons.
I liked, no loved, parts of this drama so so much–it’s women, it’s context, and it’s bitter sweet tone. But I can’t in good conscience let it off the hook for losing its way and squandering so much of it’s potential. You can’t have a drama called Mirae’s Choice, build up to it for 16 episodes and not show the audience Mirae emphatically choosing whatever it was the drama wanted her to choose (Was it a man? Or herself? Couldn’t she have both??). Ultimately, the drama, like it’s titular character, was a little spineless. But a some soul and heart goes a long way in my books and this drama had this in spades.
Gu Family Book
I almost forgot about this one. Which says it all, doesn’t it?
Jung Kyung Ho as Baksa Ahdeul/Shi-Hyun in Heartless City: Is this the same boy who was scrubbing So Ji Sub’s back in MiSa? What a difference a decade makes! Jung Kyung Ho nails this role of the classic, tormented noir anti-hero. With his lithe frame, and sleek suits, JKH was insanely charismatic. He was also dangerous, broody, intense, and fragile. He can also convincingly kick ass.
Gong Hyo Jin as Tae Yang in The Master’s Sun: Thank goodness Gong Hyo Jin is effervescent and earthy and grounds what essentially is a daft flighty character with a believable sense of human being. Not to mention, having spot on comedic timing and skills to wail so convincingly.
Lee Bo Young as Jang Hye Sung in I Hear Your Voice: With that sassy hairflip, the huffy skip, Lee Bo Young effortlessly threw off all the physical ticks that bring a character to life.
Lee Jin Sook of Heartless City: The ultimate survivor, Jin Sook stood head and shoulders above all characters for me in a year that had many great women characters. She’s a steely, ruthless, fabulous queen bee, who thankfully, exists beyond convenient tropes, and can therefore be morally ambiguous, and cause murder and mayhem. A ring leader and a mother figure, she complicates matters for others around her because she loves them fiercely and unconditionally. Which makes their betrayal so utterly devastating which this scene below brilliantly captures (spoiler warning!). I can’t watch it without tearing. Kim Yu Mi is awesome. That is all.
Best Bed Scene: Heartless City
In a year with near zero lip-locking sizzle, thank goodness for Jung Kyung Ho and Nam Gyu Ri steaming up screens with tongues, and scarred bare torsos. Yowzah!
Best Soundtrack: Heartless City
The best soundtracks aren’t just a collection of singles, but have scores that bolster the drama’s tone and mood. Heartless City‘s sexy, moody, classic yet contemporary incidental music was the clear winner but it also had similarly evocative songs.
- Adolescence Medley
- Ahn Pan-seok
- Choi Tae Joon
- Dating Agency: Cyrano
- Flower Boy Next Door
- Gong Hyo Jin
- Gu Family Book
- Heartless City
- I Hear Your Voice
- Ji Sung
- Kim Ji Hoon
- Kim So-yeon
- Kim Woo Bin
- Lee Bo Young
- Lee Jong Seok
- Lee Jun Ki
- Medley of Youth
- Mirae's Choice
- Park Ha Sun
- School 2013
- So Ji-sub
- So Yi Hyun
- The End of the World
- The Master's Sun
- The Queen's Classroom
- Two Weeks
- Ugly Alert
- Who Are You?