Thursday, September 27, 2012

Drama Review: Answer Me 1997 (2012)

Grade: A+

Coming-of-age comedy

What it’s about
A nostalgic, pop-culture-centric journey through the lives and loves of a group of friends from Busan, beginning with their senior year in high school in 1997 and carrying through today.

First impression
I laughed and cried my way through this drama’s first episode, sometimes simultaneously. Could this be South Korea’s My So-Called Life, with a side of nostalgia? I got goosebumps when I heard the modem in the opening credits, and started getting teary with happy memories by minute five. Answer Me 1997’s pop culture references mean nothing to me, but some things are universal—including passionate fandom. As I spent most of the late 90s following my then-favorite band around the country, this show might as well have been written about me as for me. (Tragically, though, my life story is lacking in handsome boys next door.)

Final verdict
As far as I’m concerned, Answer Me 1997 is the drama of the year, and quite possibly my second favorite Korean series of all time. It has everything you could ask for in a television show about growing up: it’s at once silly, funny, sweet, tender, and poignant. With its naturalistic vibe and impossibly endearing cast of characters, I knew from the beginning that I was destined to love AM 1997. But what I wasn’t counting on was its clever storytelling—each episode is a seamlessly interwoven narrative created from flashbacks and flashforwards. The backstories draw you into the characters’ lives and make you feel as if you’ve known them for years, while the action set in the present day forms a nifty series of mysteries about their adult lives.

Most impressive, though, is that the script and direction never get so bogged down in all this complicated plotting that they lose sight of the human emotion we’re actually watching for. Every relationship feels real, from the long-simmering love between feisty Shi Won and upstanding Yoon Jae, to the porn-hound bromance of the 1997four, to Shi Won’s turbulent relationship with her dad. And there’s one more kind of relationship that AM 1997 handles perfectly: fanhood. Shi Won’s passion for Kpop boy-band H.O.T. is just as moving as any of this show’s romantic or family moments.

My only gripes are minor. For one thing, the second half of AM 1997 didn’t quite realize the promise of the first. (Of course, the first half was so wonderful that I almost died of it, so maybe it’s a good thing the quality went down ever-so-slightly as the show progressed.) The fundamental problem was that as the story moved away from the growing-up years of its characters, the plot accelerated toward the territory of the standard Kdrama love-triangle. Throughout its final third I missed the everyday, universal insights of its first few episodes, as well as the thoughtful centerpoint provided by the early school and home settings. But my biggest sorrow is that we didn’t catch a glimpse of Shi Won’s reaction to the breakup of her favorite band, which should have been a huge moment for her character and by extension for the show. Instead, the script only acknowledged it in passing as part of a voice-over montage, wasting a priceless opportunity to explore the innerworkings of Shi Won’s soul. And Korean viewers may not have been ready to see who was driving that red sports car at the end of the finale, but I was. I hope it was the dreamy flower boy we all know the person in the passenger seat deserved.

But even at its least compelling, I can’t stress what a delight it was to watch Answer Me 1997. It’s a big-hearted drama that’s revolutionary in its tacit acceptance that love is where we find it. No other television show has ever made me laugh as often, or cry so much

Random thoughts
• Episode 2. As always seems to be the case in Asian dramas, this show’s characters act incredibly young for their age. My days of trading teen magazine centerfolds ended by the time I was thirteen, and by eighteen had been followed by fangirling just this side of Almost Famous. Answer Me 1997’s female lead and I could still have shared tips about how best to obsessively stalk beloved musicians, though—and I physically felt her pain upon discovering her friend’s secret poster collection.

—This is clearly one of those shows I’m going to have to read recaps to understand. I totally lost the plot at some point during this episode—all those complicated “4 hours earlier” narrative jumps threw me. (I did not, however, miss the scene at the sink. Hubba hubba!)

—WTF is up with these sheep noises?

—Why do I keep seeing a character wearing ear-buds? The rest of the technology seems time-appropriate (dig those cassette tapes!), but I swear white ear-buds weren’t available until after the introduction of the iPod in the early 2000s.

Episode 3. Five minutes into its third episode, I think it’s safe to say that this drama is going to be second only to Coffee Prince on my list of favorites. So sweet, so silly, so poignant and real. Once again tvN is to thank for a visionary show that’s about a thousand times better than it has any right to be.

Episode 5. I honestly have very little to say about this show beyond declaring my love for it. Every episode makes me laugh until I wheeze and cry at least once. It’s humane to all its characters and full of acute observations about adolescence, that utter horror show that somehow manages to be shot through with miracles. The flashback portions of the story would have been enough for great viewing, but factor in the modern day, Clue-style mystery about which two characters are about to get married in 2012, and this is perhaps the most transfixing kdrama I’ve ever seen.

Episode 6. I think I may have to drop Answer Me, 1997—not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it’s like Kdrama kryptonite. Every episode leaves me blubbering pathetically; I hardly ever cry when I’m watching dramas, but episode 6 required at least half a box of tissue. The romance stuff is cute, but Shi Won’s love/hate relationship with her blustery dad is breaking my heart into approximately a thousand pieces. Mom and Dad’s stormy marriage is also a killer—especially when Mom started calling that drama writer to beg for a reprieve, as if the writer were actually god. Like My So-Called Life, this is a show with room in its heart for all its characters, no matter their age group—even if they like Sechskies. (Of course, I have no idea who or what this “Sechskies” may be. Every time the name comes up I mentally fill in *Nsync.)

Episode 8. I’m afraid Answer Me 1997 has used up the universe’s allotment of awesome for the next decade or so—as if one Yoon Jae wasn’t enough, now there are two? You wound me with your wonderfulness, AM 1997. [Finale note: But whatever became of Yoon Jae II? He disappears after an episode or two—more’s the pity.]

Episode 9. “I’m buying them for my nephew,” eh? Thank God for iTunes—nowadays we can buy all the One Direction albums we want from the privacy of our couches. I have to say I’m a little squicked out by the turn the love story is taking. She’s too young for him, and his history with her family makes it even weirder.

Episode 10. This fan rumble between the H.O.T. girls and their Sechskies counterparts is so epic it’s like a lost scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Battle of Kpops Deep. (With the female lead’s turncoat friend playing Wormtongue, of course.) I just hope everyone makes it out alive.

Episode 13. I’m a bit confused about the length of this drama’s episodes—back when they first started airing, Dramabeans said they were 30 minutes each, and two were airing back-to-back in Korea. But I just watched a 55 minute episode on Dramafever, which is immediately followed by a 30 minute episode. I think DF messed up the episode breaks, which is just what a multi-layered drama prone to time skips doesn’t need. I guess that explains why the opening montage often shows up 25 minutes into the show, eh?

Episode 16. This drama has uncovered something that could make me like Michelle Obama even more: If she’d spent the early 80s in the cutthroat world of fandom, trying to become president of Michael Jackson’s fan club. (It would have been good practice for being First Lady, right?)

More posts about Answer Me 1997
Favorites: Six Scenes from Answer Me 1997
The Time Traveler’s Drama: A Chronological Map of Answer Me 1997

Watch it

You might also like
Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, for its relatable coming of age story

The book Bye, Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair with the Bay City Rollers by Caroline Sullivan, for its spot-on depiction of obsessive fandom, American style


  1. *Getting excited* I promise this will be my next venture, once I finish a few more projects (Mars/Buzzer Beat or more likely once TTBY is over). I need to have a midly open drama schedule, because I have a feeling I'll end up marathoning this.. :D

    Got another article up at MDL:

    1. You really have to watch Answer Me 1997...for once, the hype is well deserved. I can't even believe how good these tvN shows always are.

      And your new Dramalist article is pure genius. It's also totally true, with one exception: As far as I'm concerned, idiotic questions are the best part of watching dramas. When are you going to break down and start your own blog? ;)

      I have yet to succeed in getting anyone I know to join my obsession. One coworker almost gave in, but then he told me the drama he was considering was Winter Sonata, and I think my reaction may have soured him off Kdrama forever. ("Oh my god. Don't do it! Please, don't watch that drama. Seriously. Don't watch it. How about Time between Dog and Wolf instead? Or maybe a nice sageuk?")

    2. I should also have said one more thing: You're a really good writer, Sara. Both of your articles have been smart, funny, and really nicely worded...hooray for clever Kdrama fans :)

    3. Haha!! Sara your article is so true!! I only have one friend who really enjoys watching kdrama with me and sadly she is SO busy :( That's why I have you guys!!!

      I definitely am going to watch Answer Me once I am done with my BoF and Hana Kimi comparisons, but they may be a while lol. It sounds really good though!!

    4. No no no, I am NOT blogging!! Doooon't make me pppllleeease! :P

      The section of idiotic questions is also mainly for me.. I have to stop myself from nit-picking alll the time and learn to just go with the flow.. "It's Kdrama.. It's just Kdrama.."

      I have a friend who finally agreed to try something and asked for recommendations. I flatly told her, do NOT watch Autumn in my Heart, OMG Do NO watch it.. but she did anyway. I held my breath for a few days, but she loved it! I was in shock. Clearly I did not trust her enough. She just finished Coffee Prince, and of course it's the best. :)

      Thanks to you both for the yummy feedback. *beams inside* I really enjoy writing those, but I never know what I should do next.. any suggestions? I'm coming up empty right now.. which is how I was for a week after I finished the first article.. I think I need to dream about this some more..

    5. You have to admit, though, that blogging is totally fun ;) I'm pretty much out of ideas, too, but whenever I'm about to throw in the towel on this site something new occurs to me. (But I sure don't have topics to spare!) I remember thinking when Big was first announced that I'd keep blogging until it started airing, and then give up because I'd clearly be out of things to say. Three months later, here I am...

      Recommendations are always hard to give, but when you're giving them to a newbie it's totally impossible to tell what they'll like. I like to think the fact that I'm obsessed with trash like BoF is proof of this. I'm normally reasonably intelligent =X Oy. Okay. So maybe I do have a topic to spare: How about a list of drama recs for newbies based on personality types? Goth = Vampire Prosecutor, Asian food junkie = Kimchi Family?

      The guy who was threatening to watch Winter Sonata does watch The Bachelorette religiously, but also regularly mocks my fondness for Lifetime Original movies. So I think the ending wouldn't have been happy.

  2. Hmmmm I will think about that and let you know if I think of anything.

    Amanda, since you are thinking about rewatching BoF and I was planning on rewatching in order to compare it with Hana Yori Dango, do you guys want to have another drama chat? BoF would be a good one I think.

    1. Yay! I'm so up for another drama chat, and I think BoF would be perfect. (If Sara can get over her aversion to idiotic questions, anyway...)

      Anyone else want to join in? When shall we do it?

    2. Oh I will have my list of idiotic questions READY! (I've secretly been wanting to finish watching BOF someday... secretly...) Secret's out!

      I'd join! As long as you don't mind the snark ;) Just about every single evening/night is good for me. Saturdays (not this coming one) are also usually wiiide open. Mom's coming tomorrow... maybe I can persuade her to try Pasta... she loves cooking shows, why won't she sit down and watch a cooking show in Korean??!?!?

  3. Yay!! I am open Friday evenings after 4:00, all day Saturdays, and all day Sundays with the exception of this Saturday because it's my husband's birthday. So excited!!

    So you've brought up a lot of questions about cultural things. I could not help thinking while watching Hana Yori Dango, what the heck are those combination kitchen table/bed quilt things? They sleep under their kitchen tables?????

    1. Kotatsu!!! I so want one... (Although it seems as if they must be terrible fire hazards.)

      I'm available after 5:30 on Fridays, and most Saturdays (but not Saturday 10/13—because that's *my* birthday!).

    2. Maybe next Saturday then? Does that work for everyone?

    3. Oh and my bday is the 16th :)

    4. Saturday works for me...want to do it in the afternoon, in case it turns into a marathon like last time? ;)

      And aren't we a bunch of libras! (I really am. Making any sort of decision is all but impossible, because I have to figure out every possible angle of everything before I can commit. Then, of course, I get incredibly frustrated by all the deliberation, freak out, and pick whatever's closest at hand.)

    5. Afternoon sounds good to me :)

      I have to over analyze every decision I make too *sigh*. Aren't we supposed to have balance or something? Lol.

    6. Well I'm not a libra.... but I say afternoon works. :) Time?

      About to finish my Coffee Prince marathon this evening... *dancinglikeanidiot* yayaaayayayay! Oh, and my mom watched the first episode of Pasta this morning.. She liked it. I can update my MDL bio to include SIX converts now. :P Crazily enough though, I also made her listen to G-Dragon and BigBang.. and she asked me to make her a CD for her drive home.. >O_O< Wow! I'm good!

    7. I guess we do need to decide on a time lol.

      So random, but on my fb the YEH fan page that I follow popped up with a bunch of bday stuff for her today. So evidently today is her bday :)

    8. Okay nvmnd. Maybe they are just over excited and getting started early on the bday stuff. I looked it up and her bday is Oct. 3rd., but still, she's an Oct. baby too like us. That's kind of cool :)

    9. Still, we October babies are clearly awesome!

      And about that drama watching chat: How about 2 pm EST on Saturday? After reading your post about Hana Yori Dango, I'm totally psyched to rewatch BoF ;)

  4. God, I REALLY want to see this. This was at the top of my list even before peeps started writing about how good it is. I'm so jealous right now because I haven't watched any k-drama for a few months now, and this post is killing me. I'm totes just going to ignore that I'm swamped and it's Chuseok this weekend and just get onto watching this stat. I don't know if I should thank you or curse you for this post.

    1. You should blow off your real life responsibilities and watch Answer Me 1997—You can thank me later ;) It's a perfect real-world antidote to half-baked shows like Big. ('ll probably like it. As soon as someone tells me how brilliant a show is, I assume that my expectations won't be met. Here's hoping you won't find that's the case here.)

  5. I'm so glad you loved it!!! I agree, hearing everyone gush about a show makes me more critical of it while watching. For AM1997 I was following it as it aired, so I was one of the gushers.

    I think ep 13-16 should have stayed as 1/2 hour long each, because the pacing really slowed down in the modern day portions.

    What I really loved about this is as you and db mentioned, how all the characters felt real and human and lovable, and all their connections with each other were so well done...I don't think I've ever cried because of a tv show, but for some reason the scene where Shi-won's parents sends her off to college and her dad won't get off the bus brought tears to my eyes. I think shows like these are why I continue to watch kdramas--I love the snark and slickness of Western shows, but AM1997 has heart.

    ...and now that it's over, I don't have anything to watch. Only thing I'm keeping up with right now is Vampire Prosecutor 2. Time to get cracking on that backlog I guess...

    1. My love for AM 1997 is growing toward pathetic. I sat down this morning planning to write a list of my favorite moments for next week's post and then spent the next four hours reading the dramabeans recaps and rewatching key scenes (and, of course, crying over them yet again).

      I also loved how fully-formed all the characters were, and that they really seemed to have human souls. (Or, in the case of Yoon Jae II, a puppy soul.) The part on the bus killed me, too—it's an example why at its finest television can be truly universal. It may not have looked the same, but every single adult in the world has lived through that very moment. I swear whoever wrote this show should get the Nobel Prize this year ;)

      It's funny. At this time in the last Kdrama cycle I was excited for lots of new shows. Now I'm pretty ambivalent about everything coming down the pike, with the possible exception of that new Park Shi Hoo drama. I still have a lot of this batch to watch, though...and my "to watch" list on dramalist is longer than the New York City phone book.

  6. This drama is so awesome. Might have been the best drama of 2012. It was just great and truly enjoyable.

  7. Hello, I just came across your thoughtful review of the show. Like you and your friends, I've also blown away by the power of those characters portrayed in the show. Besides I wonder if you would mind if I try to translate your review in Korean and post it on a members-only website. I believe my friends will appreciate your view too. Thanks!

    1. You're certainly welcome to translate this review into Korean and post it, if you'd like.

      In fact, it would make me happy if you did. I'd love to see the results, though, and it would be nice if you could include a link to this blog.

      Thanks for asking!

  8. Haha I loved this drama too~
    sucks that it's over though. I love realistic things that are just out there to warm your heart instead of either being annoying & unreasonable or adding too much drama.

  9. Hello. This is A.K.I.A. Talking…
    Thanks for the great review of Reply 1997 / Answer Me 1997! I enjoyed it a lot.
    I added it to my collection of reviews for the show. The show has now an average score of 97.5%.
    It is now the top scored show of 2012
    Here is a link to the page if you would like to give it a look:
    Thanks again for the review. If you want to do something with my blog, please contact me.

  10. Sports betting system generates +$3,624 profit last week...

    Z-Code System winning bets and forecasts for MLB, NHL, NBA & NFL!!!


    Get professional trading signals sent to your mobile phone daily.

    Start following our trades today & make up to 270% per day.