Looking Back: K-Dramas of 2014

2014 was a very odd year for k-dramas. The general sentiment among the international community is that there was nothing on. One only needs to look at the ratings to see how the domestic audience felt; forget cracking 20%, a drama was lucky if it managed 10%. Still, I don’t think this year was too bad. Sure there were more duds than usual, but there were quite a few standouts as well.

I Need Romance 3

I Need Romance 3

Though it’s framed a little bit differently than the first two, I think I Need Romance 3 was the best installment so far in the franchise. It’s a typical noona romance, with a cold, successful careerwoman changing her ways due to the love of a warm-hearted younger man, but it hit all the right buttons for me.  It wasn’t hard to sympathize with Kim So Yeon’s closed-off and socially awkward character Shin Joo Yeon, who would rather protect herself then actually get emotionally involved with others. It was always two steps forward, one step back with her, but who isn’t like that when they’re to break bad habits? Her romance with Sung Joon’s character Joo Wan was cute, more because of him than her as he knew her flaws and accepted her as she was in spite of the fact she always treated him like a little kid. More than the romance though, I was intrigued in Joo Yeon’s relationship with the other female characters, namely with frenemy Oh Se Ryung (Wang Ji Won) and her discovering how to become a dependable friend to co-worker Lee Min Jung.

It certainly had it’s missteps with a younger couple that seemed to go in circles with one another and Nam Goong Min was wasted as the annoying second male lead, but other than that it was a good watch and one I don’t regret.

God’s Gift-14 Days

God's Gift-14 Days

On the one hand, God’s Gift was thrilling, exciting, and kept me guessing until the very end. Not to mention it introduced me to Jo Seung Woo, who played the scruffy, but funny and lovable detective Ki Dong Chan that was leading lady Lee Bo Young’s only ally and fought for her and her daughter tooth and nail. On the other hand, Lee Bo Young was a frustratingly irrational lead and the show threw out red herring after red herring only to give a hackneyed ending that killed the best part of the show for no other reason than “It was Fate!” and wanted the audience to accept that as fact. I can admit that the show set up its ending far in advance, but it could have at least done a better job at explaining why it had to end that way.

Even now, months and months later, I’m angry at how God’s Gift ended. It killed any good will I had toward the drama and I’m still kicking myself for even bothering with it.

Sly and Single Again/ Cunning Single Lady

Cunning Single Lady

Thinking about Cunning Single Lady now, I wonder if I would have made it through if not for leads Joo Sang Wook and Lee Min Jung. Kicking off the trend of rom-coms reuniting exes, Cunning Single Lady doesn’t do anything particularly remarkable with its story as it meanders quite a bit during the first half as if unsure what tale it’s trying to tell and is short on laughs or any big emotional conflicts. It picks up around the middle, but even then it’s weighed down by its evil second leads and boring company politics. The supporting cast is rather one-note, even with this being newbie  Seo Kang Joon’s breakout role as I think he was coasting by more on charm than actual skill.

Even so, Cunning Single Lady remained an easy watch for the performance and interaction of its leads, who managed to breathe life into every scene they shared. I’ve only seen Joo Sang Wook in Good Doctor as far as I can remember where he was the detached, perfect second male lead, so it was an interesting change-up to see him as the cool self-made man who was actually an awkward, slightly petty inner nerd. I think this was a return to form for Lee Min Jung; it wasn’t her best performance, but she was better than she’s been in her last couple of projects. Her character Na Ae Ra wasn’t very well conceived, as she waffled between being a sly gold-digger and a Candy that had just taken a wrong turn, but Lee Min Jung plays her with enough conviction that you can’t help but like her. The two didn’t have amazing chemistry, but they sparked enough to keep me tuning in week after week.

Fated to Love You

Fated to Love You

The original Fated to Love You was one of the first Taiwanese dramas and honestly, I really, really hated it, but I didn’t drop dramas back then so I sloughed through every episode in spite of the fact that I could feel my brain cells dying. However, I re-watched it about a year ago for some unknown reason (because who revisits a drama they didn’t like?) and found it much more palatable the second time around, so I decided to give the remake a go.

Fated to Love You really improved upon the original, scaling back on the silly and melodramatic while still managing to tug at heartstrings. Granted, it still had the ridiculous tone of the original and got into some what-the-hell-is-going-on unnecessary angst in the second half, but it was definitely more grounded.

Jang Hyuk’s over the top acting takes some getting used to (I can still hear that crazy laugh echoing in my head), but he was fun without being too hammy and he knew when to reel it in to make Lee Gun feel like a real character instead of a caricature. Besides, once Gun started to fall for his wife, he became committed and wasn’t afraid to charge on ahead. How can you not like a guy like that? Jang Nara had a much more difficult character to work with, yet she elevated Kim Mi Young beyond that of an eternally self-sacrificing character into one who was able to rationalize and choose when and where it was best to back down. Together the two were wonderful, tackling every obstacle thrown at them and quickly resolving misunderstandings while learning more about each other.

If Fated to Love You had been sixteen episodes, it would have been perfect. But it was twenty and I found myself wondering if the show could stretch such a fluffy story for that long (It can’t.). The thing is, Fated to Love You removed a lot of components that made the original drag on so long and that was both its strength and weakness because it took out a lot of things that were so frustrating about the original, but when you have to fill twenty episodes, you know writers are going to start pulling stuff from their ass. And no one likes amnesia-induced, noble idiocy ass pulling. Nobody.

Marriage not Dating

414px-Marriage_Not_Dating

This show unexpectedly crept up on me, as it had no actors that I really cared about and aired on the weekend, which is not normally when I watch dramas, but snow over at The Drama Corner recommended it and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

With dramas, especially with rom-coms, it’s hard to do a concept that hasn’t been done to death, but Marriage not Dating managed to put a fresh spin on the contract relationship trope. The writing was smart, managing to subvert expectations with its cold openings, though it did fall into the common trap of dragging out the fake relationship a little too long. Still, it was mostly fun to watch thanks to leads Yeon Woo Jin and Han Groo. They’ve been stuck firmly in supporting cast territory for the last few years and honestly neither of them have taken on roles that have caught my eye, but this drama proved that these two can handle a show all on their own. Let’s be real; no one really cared about the supporting leads, three-fourths of whom were either crazy (I’m looking at you Sunhwa) or terrible people.

The two crackled when on screen together and between Yeon Woo Jin’s facial gymnastics and Han Groo’s crazy eyes, there was always a laugh to be had. Of course, a drama doesn’t work if it’s all fluff and our leads managed to deliver on the emotional front as well, pulling you into the struggles and development of their characters. I’ll admit it wasn’t easy to like them all the time with Jang Mi being such a doormat sometimes and Gi Tae’s initial self-centered, stand-offish attitude being hard to stomach, but I came around to understand and care about them.

Overall, Marriage not Dating was a cute show that managed to breathe some much needed life into rom-coms this year, keeping me laughing and emotionally invested from beginning to end.

Discovery of Romance

Discovery of Love

The most surprising thing about Discovery of Romance was how polarizing it was; viewers either loved it or hated it, there was no in between. As should be expected from the writer of the I Need Romance series, which take a more serious look at romantic relationships, Discovery of Romance breaks from the usual cliches found in romantic comedies by presenting the interactions of realistically flawed characters without ever veering into the melodramatic.

I’ll admit that the main reason I was excited for Discovery of Romance was for the reunion of Eric and Jung Yumi since they didn’t get their happy ending in the twisty melodrama Que Sera, Sera back in 2007 and while it’s definitely not as heartwrenching as that drama, Discovery of Romance definitely wasn’t going to ride on good time rom-com hijinks to get the main couple back together.

I think a large part of what made the viewership so divided was Jung Yumi’s character Han Yeo Reum. She was conniving, selfish, and sometimes mean-spirited. Yeo Reum wasn’t looking out for anyone but herself, but she wasn’t cold or emotionally closed off.  There were plenty of times when we saw her break down and when she let her emotions get the best of her. She was unflinchingly human and it made it hard to hate her, even when she shows off her relationship with her boyfriend in ex Tae Ha’s face right after he just drunkenly confessed to her or she cowed current boyfriend Ha Jin into doing as she wished without considering his viewpoint, I couldn’t hate her.  I think I just liked a heroine that thought and wanted for herself, instead of always giving to others. There just aren’t a lot of females like that in dramaland (and if they are they’re eeevil), so Yeo Reum was a refreshing change.

I could try to form coherent words about Eric’s performance as Tae Ha, but I’m sure all that would come out is “Nnngh” so here, have this picture instead.

DORep1-00556

No, but seriously Eric gives quite the performance here as Kang Tae Ha, Yeo Reum’s initially overly confident ex-boyfriend who’s sure he can win her back only to realize it won’t be as easy as he thought. Tae Ha’s cockiness turns out to be his downfall and leads to a big turning point for his character as he’s forced to eat some humble pie as he realizes and repents for his past mistakes.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention the secondary (tertiary?) couple played by Kim Seul Gi and Yoon Hyun Min. They were adorable as bunnies as the best friends turned lovers and while their story was mostly played for fluff, it didn’t make it any less satisfying to watch.

For all that Discovery of Romance did right, the ending just left me wanting something more. My brain knows that this is a romantic comedy and therefore there has to be a happy ending, and while some aspects of it were wrapped up well, something about it just felt incomplete by the end. It was almost perfect though.

Liar Game

Liar Game

I have not seen the j-drama Liar Game (it’s in my queue, I swear I’m going to watch it soon), but I did read a bit of the manga a while back, so I felt a little worried about how the remake was going to go. Changing the underground game into a TV show sounded like it would take all the tension out, but when you set up a fantastic battle of brains between a villain as sinister as Kang Do Young played by the fantastic Shin Sung Rok going up against a morally grey hero like Ha Woo Jin  portrayed by Lee Sang Yoon, Liar Game could not go wrong.

The underrated Kim So Eun turns in a great performance as the innocent Nam Da Jung, who is a little too naive for her own good most of the time, but adds a much needed humanistic element to the show to keep it from getting too cut and dry.

The games were intriguing, though I’ll admit the stakes didn’t always feel as high as they tried to make them out to be, but the huge mystery behind the Liar Game more than made up for that as it was just as fun to try and figure out.

The unusual ten episode format kept the story from dragging and makes for a quick watch, so definitely check it out if you’re looking for something smarter than your run-of-the-mill revenge thriller.

Misaeng

Misaeng

Hands down, Misaeng was the best drama of 2014. Disposing of the normal bells and whistles of k-dramas, Misaeng took a frank look at the corporate workplace through the eyes of Jang Geu Rae (Im Shi Wan), an underqualified new hire trying to find his place and determined to prove his worth.

From its story and acting to its production, Misaeng lacked in no arena. The director’s high attention to the smallest of details required an intensive watch as the tiniest glance or a slight lingering shot could change an entire scene. It’s hard to describe how a powerpoint presentation can be exciting and heart squeezing, but that’s how good the directing in Misaeng was.

The world of Misaeng, with its dull gray colors, felt quite close the one we call our own. There were no easy, quick fix solutions and even triumphs came with consequences. It almost felt too real, but that feeling of being able to relate is undoubtedly what made it such a hit.

The most refreshing aspect of Misaeng though was its focus on non-romantic relationships. Sure there were few hints of a romance, but ultimately it highlighted friendships and camaraderie.Who didn’t like watching the four newbies always gather when one of them was facing a problem? Sure, they didn’t always have answers, but it was good to have a listening ear. And who could forget the moment Sales Team 3 tried to drink sour milk to get out of a project? It was definitely those little moments that made Misaeng such a feel good, humanistic drama.

Fittingly, the OTP of the show was Chief Oh and Geu Rae. You can always count on Lee Sung Min to deliver and he gives an amazing performance as the honest and principled Oh Sang Shik. He definitely has flaws (mostly overworking and drinking) and is slightly naive in the way he approached his work, but he showed a steadfast dedication to his co-workers and his company that was nothing short of endearing. It was no wonder Geu Rae admired him and that unflinching loyalty coupled with his determination is what made Geu Rae such a great character to root for.

The Greatest Marriage

Greatest marriage

The Greatest Marriage had the potential to  be a decent drama by tackling a modern day problem; the struggle of single women against Korea’s patriarchial society. I’ll refrain from saying too much on the subject as I’m not well-versed on it, however The Greatest Marriage did offer the opportunity to shed some more light on the sensitive issue. In spite of the fact that seeds were planted early on for the unraveling of the story with an uncomfortable romance between Park Si Yeon and her obsessive boyfriend No Min Woo, his crazy chaebol family, and a sexist, self-serving male lead in the form of Bae Soo Bin, who I have never seen ham it up so much, I held out hope that this show would give a rational presentation of how single mothers are treated in Korean society. Instead, it just went full out crazy and had all the characters dump on the heroine for having a baby out of wedlock.

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show quite as insane as Greatest Marriage because I normally have enough common sense to bail before then, but it just kept on reeling me back in. It’s batshit crazy to be honest. There’s kidnapping, attempted murder, and so much screaming and crying. I pretty much watch every episode with my mouth wide open or giggling my head off at the insane amount of bullshit going on, but the show felt, I guess, self-aware. Like there would be some weird, offbeat humor whenever someone started acting crazy and it felt like the production team was telling me “Don’t take this seriously,” and that it made it much more palatable to watch.

All the side characters are terrible people that do terrible things and don’t learn anything, so I’m just going to talk about our heroine Cha Ki Young because she was so awesome in the beginning. In spite of the fact that she is a national figure, Ki Young isn’t doing trying to be an example to other women or start a revolution; screw society, she’s just living the way she wants. On the other hand, as much as I love Ki Young, I’m frustrated that all of her kick-ass moments stemmed from the fact that the entire supporting cast are out to get her. I want her to succeed, but at the same time we were retreading the same conflicts over and over and over again to the point that it got a little bit tedious and you wanted something else to happen.

There’s a myriad of other side stories in the background, highlighting the dysfunctional relationships between other couples, but I don’t really care enough about those to talk about them as they’re merely window dressing to the main story. At this point, I’m just watching it to see Ki Young get her happy ending.

Valid Love

Valid Love

Even though it’s not finished, I figured I should put Valid Love on here since it’s already halfway through its run and I have no idea if I’m going to remember this drama a year from now. With the way it was promoted (look at that poster and then look at the one for Secret Love Affair), I expected something different than your typical tired wife trying to escape the trappings of her life through an affair.I suppose that could still change and even if it doesn’t, Valid Love is still an interesting character drama.

I do feel like we’re still exploring these characters, especially the two men in Il Ri’s life, but I like what we’ve gotten so far. When we first meet Il Ri, she’s this impulsive, 4D high school student that tries to summon aliens and though she obviously matures by the time she’s married and has accepted her responsibilities, that desire for something more is still buried inside of her. It’s no wonder that she’s drawn to Carpenter Kim (or as jandoe has dubbed him, sexy mofo), bonafide badboy loner who is oddly possessive of her. Carpenter Kim is definitely more than a little ambiguous as you’re never quite sure what he’s thinking or what his motivations are as I don’t get the feeling that his love towards Il Ri is exactly healthy. He’s helpful and supportive, I can’t deny that, but something about him just rubs me the wrong way. Despite being a participant, Il Ri’s husband Hee Tae sometimes feels like an outsider looking in as he serves as our narrator. I like Hee Tae and think he’s a good guy, but he can be a little too submissive to those around him and I wish he’d pay a little bit more attention to what’s going on at home rather than burying himself in his work.

What makes Valid Love such a compelling watch is that not everything is as it’s initially presented. This could be something simple like fake-out scenes or trying to figure out the chronology of events. Even the whirlwind romance and subsequent marriage between Il Ri and Hee Tae wasn’t as easy as it seemed. It does deliberately withhold information at times, but not for a ‘gotcha’ moment as much as to offer a different perspective on how events unfolded.

I can’t recommend it, since it’s not finished yet, but definitely worth a look. The first two episodes are rather weird and I guess a little slow, but totally necessary and it get’s better after that.

Overall, I think k-dramas took a turn for the better in 2014. There were dramas that showed that even the formulaic could still be fun (Marriage not Dating) and dramas that thought outside the box and actually paid off (Misaeng, Liar Game). I don’t know how my k-drama watching will go for this year, it might be like 2013 again where I only finish one or two, but with k-dramas continuing to evolve, I think it will be a looong time before I kick the habit.

Image credit: dramabeans

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4 thoughts on “Looking Back: K-Dramas of 2014”

  1. SQUEEE to the everything about this year-end review. Extra points for that Eric/Tae Ha photo and eeeeeverything you wrote about Discovery of Romance! (Gonna have to rewatch one of these days seriously, cos I keep talking/thinking about this show haha). Can’t say I agree with your POV on INR3 though unfortunately, but I like what you said about Kim So-yeon’ character – I’d forgotten how emotionally closed off she was, which really added depth and provided a basis to why she’s the way she is. About Marriage Not Dating- I think all of us pretty much stayed on for the leads cos mannnnn those were some terrible (acting and character) supporting characters. And you’re watching Valid Love! YAY

    Happy 2015 dmohican14!! Hope we’ll all have a blessed year ahead 🙂

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    1. Haha, I think we’re on the same wavelength because I’ve been thinking about rewatching Discovery of Romance as well.I think it got to me more than I thought.

      Happy 2015 to you as well jandoe! I hope everything goes well for you!

      Like

  2. Mmm… mehh on k-Liar Game. I couldn’t stand Lee Sang-yoon’s posturing, he was so annoying. I hope you get to watch the J-drama, the stakes were higher and made sense, and Matsuda Shota was fantastic as Akiyama.

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    1. Well the k-drama Liar Game worked for me mostly because of Shin Sung Rok then Lee Sang Yoon, though I guess I’m in the minority on that front. If the winter j-drama season turns out to be disappointing, then the original Liar Game will be the first thing I watch.

      Like

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