With their finite running times, Korean dramas are able to explore topics that are essentially impossible for American television—including debilitating diseases and terminal illness. You can’t very well build a show around a character that might not survive the first season when your ultimate goal is making it to the TV version of the afterlife: syndication, a lucrative state of being that’s generally only possible after 100 episodes of a show have aired. When a central character dies on American TV, you can bet it’s a form of punishment for a misbehaving actor or because someone’s contract was too expensive to renew.
This doesn’t mean that Americans are immune to sentimental storytelling about illness or physical disability. This kind of plot may be less in vogue today, but we did more than our fair share of grappling with obscure cancers and other tragic physical ailments during the weekly TV-movie fad of the 1970s. In fact, this kind of death-and-dismemberment porn was so popular that a new term was coined for the genre: Disease-of-the-week. With the demise of short-form TV on these shores, though, so too came the near-complete extinction of this kind of programming. In the past twenty years, I can only think of main characters in three American series that dealt with anything of the kind: Life Goes On, a 90s-era family show that featured a character with Down Syndrome; The Big C, a currently airing Showtime series about cancer; and Glee, whose giant, diverse cast includes a nonspecifically wheelchair-bound character.
In Korea, on the other hand, the disease-of-the-week genre is alive and well (if you’ll pardon the perhaps inappropriate cliche). This week’s batch of spoiler-free reviews is devoted to shows focusing on a central character’s illness or disability.
Autumn in My Heart (2000)
All the things that make the Eternal Love dramas such a love/hate viewing experience for me were already in play in this, the first show of the series. It’s painfully sentimental, slower than molasses on a cold day, and the plot’s centerpiece is the quasi-incestuous love between a man and woman who believed they were siblings until they were teenagers. But in spite of all this, Autumn in My Heart still manages to be sweeping and swoony and undeniably romantic. It features gorgeous scenery and lovely cinematography, and its pair of star-crossed leads feel so believably drawn together that even their squicky background couldn’t stop me from rooting for them. And, of course, it eventually (d)evolves into a disease-of-the-week drama full of foreboding nosebleeds and tearful goodbyes.
I genuinely liked the first half of this show, which was essentially a big, goofily overwrought family drama about the repercussions of an accidental baby-swap in a hospital nursery. As with all the other Eternal Love dramas, though, Autumn in My Heart is 50 percent guilty pleasure and 50 percent pure frustration. Its characters are inexplicably stupid and unlikable, its plot consists of one ridiculous improbability after another, its pacing is moribund, and its look is best described as mid-80s-feminine-hygiene-commercial-chic. But still, I watched every single episode, and when I was done put the next show in this four-drama series in my Dramafever queue. High praise, indeed. C+
Let me start off by saying that my hatred of this show is probably irrational. Everyone else seems to love it, but the only reasons I kept watching after episode 3 were the compelling, complicated relationships between the two male leads and their mother. The disease-of-the-week elements at play here are not one but two deaf characters (one of whom successfully pretends to be hearing throughout most of the show) and a “slow” dad.
Can You Hear My Heart focuses on the interwoven fates of two families: one rich but miserable, the other poor but loving. If the characters associated with the latter could be completely scrubbed from this show, its grade rating would go up several points for me: I loathed the calculatedly pathetic grandmother, the cartoony, “noble savage” mentally challenged dad, and Bong-Uri, the hollow-eyed, soulless female lead. And don’t even get me started on the Lee family, their utterly useless friends who existed for no purpose other than padding a few episodes with what somebody probably considered to be comic relief.
The biggest tragedy involved in this show? That I won’t be getting back the 30 hours of my life I wasted on it. (Apparently, I’ll never run out of nasty things to say about this poor, defenseless drama. For more, see my lengthier review here.) D
The Greatest Love (2011)
The Greatest Love (2011)
A light-hearted romantic comedy may seem like a weird fit in this category, but one of this show’s key plot points is the male lead’s heart condition, which he obsessively tracks with a wristwatch-like heart-rate monitor. Ultimately, Greatest Love is what Disease-of-the-week drama looks like when it’s filtered through the pop-culture savvy lens of a funny Hong sisters script. Don’t come to this show looking for a compelling over-arching plot—beyond the process of the lead couple’s inevitable hook up, there’s nothing of the sort to be found. The real charms here are the main characters, an over-the-top odd-couple composed of a level-headed former singer in a girl band and a zany, Tom-Cruise-esque superstar. Their zippy, arch repartee is lightening fast and a pleasure to behold, and the chemistry between the actors is as palpable as anything I’ve seen in a more traditional Kdrama romance. Also wonderful are the show’s little moments of universally understandable goofiness—the phone-in reality show contest, the male lead’s need for “charging,” the potato love.
On the other hand, Greatest Love leaves a number of its shiny toys essentially unused. The reality dating show angle is downplayed to the point of becoming useless filler, and the dreamy second male lead doesn’t really seem to fit into the rest of the show. Although I thought he was funny, I can also see how Dokko Jin could be annoying (and any way you look at it, he’s clearly a retread of the Tae Kyung character in You’re Beautiful). Overall, though, this show is one of my favorites of 2011. A
Scent of a Woman (2011)
Probably the most genuine of the Korean dramas I’ve seen dealing with serious illness, Scent of a Woman benefits massively from its likable cast and sympathetically drawn characters. It’s a familiar story: A woman who has lived her life for the future—scrimping and saving and always taking the responsible, safe path—is diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and realizes just how much she’s missed out on, all for the sake of a future she’ll never get to see. Naturally, job-quitting, extravagant shopping sprees, tangoing, and vacations of a lifetime are soon to follow.
Half The Bucket List and half Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday, you’d think that a show like this would be brainless and route, headed for the same old tragic ending you’ve seen a thousand times before. But one of the greatest pleasures of Scent of a Woman is that it refuses to become what you expect of it—sure, it’s sad, but it’s also thoughtful and funny and maybe even a little bit freeing. At its core, it’s about taking control over your own destiny just as much as it’s about dying. (This is easy, of course, in Kdramaland, where cancer and its treatment mostly involve beautifully lit afternoon naps, rather than sickness and hair loss and general misery.) The show’s obligatory Kdrama love triangle is sweet, its ending is surprising but fitting, and its dancing scenes smoking hot. Definitely the disease-of-the-week drama to watch if, like me, you don’t like the genre much. B+
The Snow Queen
You know a drama is going to be juicy when the adult version of the female lead is introduced in a hospital gown, desperately threatening to slit her wrists rather than endure further treatment for the terminal illness that has afflicted her since childhood. From melancholy beginning to devastating ending, The Snow Queen is close cousin to the Endless Love dramas—but thankfully, it features a significantly less frustrating plot and characters that are smart and interesting, rather than limp and prone to tears.
The story focuses on a bratty, poor-little-rich-girl falling in love with the tortured, rootless man who blames himself for the suicide of her older brother. Character-driven and old-fashioned in its leisurely pacing, it manages to be both sad and tragic without feeling unrelentingly, abusively so (unlike, say, the self-consciously piteous Autumn in My Heart). I’m no great fan of Hyun Bin, but in this show at least I can see his appeal: dirtied up a bit, he’s a sympathetic, watchable presence on screen. A-
Winter Sonata (2002)
Far and away my favorite of the Endless Love dramas, Winter Sonata bears all the hallmarks of the series: beautiful scenery, slow-moving storytelling, and tragic, seemingly doomed love. Somehow, though, its plot manages to feel forward-moving and action-packed—maybe because in the space of twenty episodes it finds time for two separate cases of amnesia, scandalous birth secrets, a number of car accidents, a surprise doppelganger (or is he?), a near rape, a love that may or not be incestuous, and lots of frolicking in pristine, freshly fallen snow. Korean drama has come a long way since 2002, though, and it can be hard to watch this show without cringing today. The production values are astonishingly bad—a dangling microphone is visible in at least one scene per episode, and the set design is cheapie-porn awful, full of nearly empty rooms dotted with Rent-a-Center furniture.
But with significantly less navel-gazing and dwelling on the cruelties of fate than the other Endless Love dramas, it’s easy to see why Winter Sonata is the Ur-Kdrama for so many international viewers. It may feel dated and cheesy and unapologetically sensational, but it’s also a powerful love story that really does seem to embody the spirit of “pure love” its director claimed as inspiration. B+