City Hunter: C
Secret Garden: D
I have a horrible confession: two of last year’s most beloved shows are dramas I didn't like. Yes, City Hunter and Secret Garden, I’m talking about you.
My dislike may have as much to do with my expectations as it does with the actual quality of these shows, though. I usually watch only things that have already completed their run rather than watching as each new episode airs and is subbed, so I tend to be pretty spoiled from the get go. And so before watching either of these shows I’d already read any number of glowing reviews, many written by people I admire and respect.
City Hunter, in particular, is much loved by most people who aren’t me.
Billed as an action show, it’s a step outside my comfort zone—I’m more of a watcher of cozy romances, as embarrassing as that may be to admit. I expected City Hunter to be something dramatically different from the Korean dramas I’d already seen, as there tends to be a real dichotomy between the romance and action genres in American entertainment: Romance gets away with shallow, fluffy, and fun, while action is grittier and more nuanced.
Instead, City Hunter felt like last week’s leftovers, warmed up and served as filet mignon. It included all of the standard Kdrama tropes: cancer, birth secrets, romantic leads sharing living quarters, a Cinderella romance, and so on and so forth, all mixed in with a standard-issue revenge drama. It tried to be all things to all people, I think, and ended up looking like somebody who had gotten dressed blindfolded in a pitch black room: all the key pieces were there, but none of them matched or made sense as part of the greater whole.
The villains were one of the show’s biggest problems. They were largely bumbling fools, and because the show was so overstuffed each of them was far too easily dispatched. There was no subtlety here—see bad guy, thwart bad guy, move on to next bad guy.
Buried amid all the other junk, it is possible to find greatness in City Hunter: Lee Min Ho has star quality to spare. Bad Daddy is an amazing, ambiguous character, and his role in the final showdown is poignant and spot on. And even I’m not heartless enough to have disliked the comic relief provided by City Hunter’s live-in buddy, Bae Shik Joong.
Then there’s the prosecutor, who was actually more interesting than City Hunter himself: he was torn by his allegiance to law and order, and his growing realization that law and order sometimes isn’t the best way to get things done. But what could have been an exploration of this character’s conflicting emotions and existential angst was generally passed over in favor of City Hunter, a guy nice enough to punish bad guys without killing them, but not nice enough to feel guilty about his lavish lifestyle being funded with drug money.
To keep the womenfolk happy, the show also included romance, which was awkwardly shoehorned between the offing of bad guys. Park Min Young is thirty kittens worth of cute, but seeing her slight approach to Bear Na Na I wouldn’t feel comfortable with her protecting my ham sandwich, say nothing about the president’s daughter. (I do hope she and Lee Min Ho get married and have lots of adorable babies, though.)
To me City Hunter felt like a mildly entertaining show lacking in depth that was full of missed opportunities.
And on the topic of missed opportunities! Secret Garden, why did you break my heart so? I’m all about supernatural romance, so I thought I’d love this show. But after about three episodes I couldn’t believe what it expected to get away with.
If its characters hadn’t been paper-thin and indifferently acted, it might have had a fighting chance. As it was, though, it became clear that everybody involved knew the body-switch plotline was a complete failure when the actors stepped back into their original roles for key scenes, even in the middle of the switch storyline.
I’ve since watched Who Are You, another Kdrama body-switch show, and seen proof that this plot device can be handled brilliantly. During Who Are You the male lead’s body is taken over by the ghost of another man, who is sometimes also visible in his own body.
Who Are You's male lead always made it crystal clear who was inhabiting his body, unlike Hyun Bin's Pee-Wee Herman-esque turn in Secret Garden. (It’s hard to tell affectless wooden blocks apart, after all.) I would argue that this is partially the result of better writing, but what really made Who Are You more compelling was the actors it showcased. The male lead and the ghost brought their characters to life—they spoke in specific ways, moved in specific ways, and made certain character-specific facial expressions. This gave the actor playing the male lead something to work with when he body-switched with the ghost.
To my eye, it didn’t matter which character the Secret Garden actors were playing—it all looked the same, except for a sneer here and there and that painfully obvious toe kick thing the female lead was prone to do.
Secret Garden also committed one of the cardinal sins of Kdramas, as far as I’m concerned: it kept the lead couple apart too much. This might have been okay if their individual stories had been stronger, or if the secondary characters had been more interesting (or, in the case of Oska, less reminiscent of Jar-Jar Binks). As it was the viewer was forced to go from the not-terribly-interesting main leads to the outright dull second leads far too often.
And then there’s the plot, such as it is. Why were their bodies switched? Who knows. The show didn’t bother to tell us, because once it moved beyond this cutesy plot device it essentially ignored the whole thing.
Exactly what makes a show work for someone and not for someone else is a mystery. What's not a mystery is that neither of these shows worked for me.