Thursday, November 22, 2012

Drama Review: Nice Guy (2012)

Grade: A-

Revenge melodrama

What it’s about
A young man out for revenge falls in love with the stepdaughter of his first love, a woman who betrayed him after he gave up everything in his life to protect her. Makjang and madness ensue.

First impression
From its very first scenes, this drama is a high-octane thrill ride that promises a wealth of soap-opera-style pleasures. Murder! Intrigue! Evil stepmothers, shrewish young women and manipulative young heroes-disguised-as-villains! Seriously...what’s not to like?

Midterm exam

Final verdict
No matter how much I love Korean drama, it’s a rare thing to come across a show that I would feel safe recommending to anyone, no matter what their personal interests. Nice Guy is one of the few shows that fit this bill—it does most everything right, and the things it does wrong are easy to overlook. It’s a near-perfect mix of the things Kdramas do so incredibly well: romance, intrigue, and melodrama. And unlike most television shows (whatever their continent of origin), it even rewards thoughtful viewing and deep consideration.

With its carefully structured plot full of subtle reveals, exciting reversals, and ambiguous, nuanced antiheroes, Nice Guy’s script takes what might have been a vehicle for soap-opera makjang and gives it real emotional heft. On the surface, its story contains the same old hoary elements that come up in all melodramas: miserable childhoods, tragic illnesses, and chaebol power struggles. (Amnesia, every drama writer’s magic-bullet plot device, makes a few fortuitous appearances, too.) But these things are just window dressing: this show’s true soul is found in its characters and their journeys. On the voyage from degradation and desperation to strength and wisdom, they clash again and again, nearly destroying themselves and each other.

It’s the viewers’ good luck that this deeply flawed group of characters is brought to life by a stellar cast that delivers almost universally spectacular performances. From Song Joong Ki’s steely-eyed “nice guy” to Moon Chae Won’s fiery heiress and Park Si Yeon’s beautifully damaged, ruthless social climber, its actors regularly say more with a single look than could be contained in a thousand pages of dialogue.

Nonetheless, Nice Guy is not perfect. Its first half was dragged down by dissonant, cartoony elements in the Choco/Jae Gil storyline. And by the last stretch of episodes, the complicated plot started to feel more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. The finale also left a little something to be desired, as far as I’m concerned. It didn’t really resolve the workplace storyline (I guess the winner was the person driving the nicest car in the coda?), and for a show that’s all about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions, the male lead got off the hook awfully easily. (For more involved, spoilery discussion of the coda, scroll down to the cut line at the bottom of this post.)

While it might not be my favorite show ever, Nice Guy is still one of the finest examples of its species: dark and drawn to the things that break us, it explores the horrible things people will do to save themselves, and the precarious ways they can earn redemption for them.

Random Thoughts
Episode 3. Kudos to this show’s makeup department for using Ma Ru’s wounds as an excuse to lovingly highlight Song Joong Ki’s delicate, finely wrought features. That’s the kind of craftsmanship I can get behind.

Episode 8. So they made a huge deal about her leaving with nothing in the previous episode—and now she has a car all of a sudden? What? It was even specifically mentioned that she left her car keys behind at home...did she carjack some poor ajumma?

Episode 12. The harmonica. LOL. The harmonica...did Ma Ru pick up some mad mouth harp skills in the pokey, or what?

Episode 14. I appreciate that narrative demands that the good guys don’t win until the last minute, but must they always be such idiots along the way? How could Ma Ru not be smart enough to have someone physically verify the person they were meeting? This bumbling might turn me team Jae Hee after all.

Episode 14. I’m in mourning for poor Eun Gi, who started out a spitfire and has since lost every iota of personal agency. On the bright side, at least she’s still allowed to speak, which is sort of more than you can say for the heroine of Will It Snow at Christmas, an earlier drama written by Nice Guy’s screenwriter.

Episode 15. Only in Kdrama fandom would knowing that someone opened their eyes during a kiss be a spoiler of a Dumbledore-dies level of awfulness. And yet, they included this very moment in the next episode’s preview.

Episode 16. In life and in television I’m all for people getting what they want most, but I can’t even consider the possibility of Choco and Jae Gil ending up together. They have cute, sibling-style chemistry, but he seems way too old for her and they’re a terrible physical fit. The thought of them really kissing makes my skin crawl a little...but I still suspect the show might be headed that way.

Episode 16. The only other show I’ve seen by this screenwriter is Will It Snow at Christmas, which I also really liked. It’s interesting that the two dramas have similar plot structures—each has three separate, nearly self-contained story arcs, as if someone hit the reset button mid-drama. This show’s beginning was all about Ma Ru’s obsessive love for Jae Hee, its middle was about Eun Gi’s struggle with amnesia...and now we have to wonder what the final four episodes will hold. Lots of twisty-turny betrayals and a happy ending, I hope.

Episode 16. So I just realized what the combination of Song Joon Ki’s little, girlie face and his rough man hands reminds me of. The cover of Tiny Fey’s Bossypants

Episode 17. The icing on the Nice Guy cake? Seo Eun Gi having a nervous breakdown as she wanders around in her wedding dress, like Miss Havisham’s long lost Korean granddaughter. Well played, show.

• Episode 19. All the acting in this show is good, but the bench scene in this episode is actually stunning. For that one moment, we see the true Ma Ru, with all his flaws and graces etched right into Song Joon Ki’s suddenly not-so-handsome face.

Episode 20. The cherry on the icing on the Nice Guy cake? The fact that the finale’s opening credits have a different ending than the ones for the rest of the episodes. It’s like every single thing about the drama has evolved during its run.

Episode 20. I think the coda is filmed in one of the (gorgeous) spots prominently featured Padam Padam—the bakery and vet’s office are in the very same building, even.

Watch it

You might also like
Screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee’s other dark melodramas, including Will It Snow at Christmas?; I’m Sorry, I Love You; and A Love to Kill

The sexily twisted psychological drama of Que Sera Sera 

The end. 

I like a happy ending as much as the next hopeless romantic, but the Nice Guy coda left me feeling cheated on behalf of the lead characters. Throughout the show, I wasn’t even really sure what might constitute a happy ending in the world of Nice Guy: Ma Ru and Eun Gi happily married? Ma Ru finding some way to die with dignity? All the principal players moving to foreign countries and never seeing each other again?

While nominally happy, what we ended up with wasn’t what Ma Ru and Eun Gi deserved. They were robbed of the true fruits of their twenty episodes of suffering: happiness that is hard earned, not granted, and the acquired wisdom to mature beyond their personal issues and relationship roadblocks. All of their misery was for nothing, because amnesia acted as a deus ex machina to solve their problems. It was a magic pill that took away everything bad and hard and replaced it with lollipops and sunshine. That’s lovely and all, but what’s a life without both good and bad? (For a dark drama that did a better job with similar concerns, watch the wonderful Que Sera Sera.)

There’s also the issue of Eun Gi. Although the writer worked hard to make it clear that Ma Ru was still Ma Ru—he lost his memories, not his knowledge, and even without them his voiceover was an eerie repetition of what had gone before. But what about Eun Gi? She was once in a similar situation herself—how could watching the person she loved lose his past fit into this shiny, happy finale? Ma Ru had never indicated to her that he was ready to leave his old self behind, even though he shared that fact with the viewers. Wouldn’t a truthful ending to this story at least involve Eun Gi trying to help him remember his life and bring him back to himself? She had felt betrayed when she realized all the details the people around her withheld about her old life, once her own memories returned. How could she turn around and presumably do the same thing Ma Ru? With this fast-forward, treacly finale, we’re led to believe that Eun Gi just accepted the new version of Ma Ru as he was, his personality sanded down to uniformity to remove his sharp edges and prevent splinters.

That, to me, seems like the greatest betrayal of all.


  1. Bravo - and I think you put your finger on the spot with this drama. The gripping point of this story is the nuanced, layered, broken, blazing characters brought to life and conflict by brilliant actors. That middle stretch of episodes - from around episode 8 to 14, I think - made me actually hold my breath. (Let's not talk about the flimsy corporate plot scaffolding that the writer totally ignored in the end).

    And my I please shamelessly plug History of the Salaryman? It's one of the year's best written, best directed, and best acted dramas, with a sense of humor that's sardonic and witty and very visual. And it's actually based on the famous Chinese Chu-Han Contention, which makes the modern parallel so much more cheeky and clever.


    1. In a universe where perfection is impossible, I'll take the vestigial corporate shenanigans over all the other things that could have gone terribly wrong with this show ;) Like the other dramas I've seen by this screenwriter, it's the characters that really matter anyway. The actual plot is the least important piece of the puzzle.

      And thanks for the encouragement to get back on the History of the Salaryman wagon train. Everyone has such high praise for this show, but something about it just isn't pulling me in. I guess I should give it a fair shot, though...which is more than one measly episode :b

    2. True.. that it's the characters that mattered. :)
      I would comment more, but I think my brain is NGed out.

      I'm thinking of doing a midway report on Spring Waltz sometime tomorrow.. usually I love these things to death at the midway point, and it's only after that the hate starts to flow.. hoping Spring Watlz won't do that to me.. but I felt it might be good to review it now, before I get potentially cynical. :)

    3. Reading your Spring Waltz midway report would make my day ::crosses fingers::

      I'm planning to update my top ten list sometime soon, and Spring Waltz is definitely finding a home there, however cheesy and ridiculous it may be =X

    4. >>doh!<< And then I got distracted by Pasta. Never fear.. I've been taking notes on Spring Waltz. Don't want to rush anything with a clumsy entry that will Amanda cringe in fear.. (How Could I do such a thing to her beloved Spring Waltz??) XD Spoiler: I like it so far.. a lot!

  2. I actually think I am going to watch this one. I may as well since I seem to be on the melodrama train recently. I am surviving Missing You and actually loving it so I think I can survive Nice Guy too lol.

    1. You've certainly changed your tune! From someone who doesn't match melos to love of I Miss You is quite a voyage of personal discovery ;)

      I do recommend Nice Guy, though, if only for the wonderfulness that is Song Joon Ki. And I'm also all about I Miss You these days. I love that it's shaping up to be a murder mystery. (My money is on Harry as the killer.)

    2. I know I don't know what's wrong with me lately lol. I Miss You doesn't feel as ridiculous and cheesy as a lot of the melos I've attempted to watch. Depressing and over the top yes, but somehow they make it feel more real, at least so far anyway. Well, in most of the synopsis I've read they describe Harry as "cold and calculating" so I'm betting you're correct on that hypothesis. I am totally impressed with Yoochun so far. He's really getting way more into it than usual. I just finished Panda and Hedgehog, and the lead male actor was so adorable, but I swear he wore one of two facial expressions throughout the entire show. Talk about robotic!!

    3. I think you're right about I Miss You: As of episode 6, at least, it feels less cheesy and more naturalistic than most melos, which we both tend to like. And while the story is brutal it's still lovely in a lot ways. (Although it better get a move on, as far as I'm concerned. If things don't start coming together soon, it will get boring.)

      Yoonchun is better than I expected, but it's Yo Seung Ho that's really doing it for me at this point—broken and beautiful are two of my favorite character traits in a male lead ;)

      Panda and Hedgehog is on my list to watch, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will turn up on Dramafever sometime soon, so I don't have to watch commercials.

  3. You did a better job than I did at reviewing this drama.

    Nice Guy is the perfect example of a melodrama done right. I haven't really come across a drama where the characters were suffering but I was willing to push forward and see the path they take. Mostly I just go oh hell with this, I'd rather watch Sungkyunkwan Scandal anyday (Geollim shippers holler!). Then again I don't watch dramas as often as I'd like, mostly because I get easily bored and distracted. It's disturbing. But I'm so glad I watched this one because it was worth the heartbreak.

    I think episode 20 is the "worst" episode of them all and curiously it's the finale. Finales are a sensitive subject. You either nail it or just give up entirely. It does suck that they had to resort to the 7 year time jump. So many unaswered questions. I'm starting to think that extra 2 episodes might do them good. But maybe it was better that they ended it quickly. Or maybe not?

    Secretly I wish the whole drama is all about Ma-ru and Eun-gi making googly eyes to each other but that's not nearly as interesting.

    1. I think I could have handled twenty episodes of googly eyes, myself. The romance aspect of Nice Guy sort of got snowed under with all the tragic ailments and corporate wrangling, which was a pity when the show had so much to offer in the hot lead department.

      Also, I just read your review (how is it possible that I haven't found your blog before now?!?!), and I think you had a lot of valuable insights into Nice Guy—especially the part about all the characters starting off and ending up as pretty much the same thing: a goodish person. On the bright side, by the end they're at least all wiser than they started out.

      I've seen three dramas by Nice Guy's screenwriter, and I think they all had endings that were fairly lame. I'm just grateful Nice Guy didn't turn into a bloodbath like some of her other shows :b

    2. My question should be how come I haven't found your blog til now?! Your stuff is awesome.

      It does suck that the main conflict ended up being corporate crap which ended up disappearing right at the last moment. It's like okay so... now what... I think it might be a bit overwhelming though if they ended up bringing out the romance too much. K-dramas like to be a bit ADD with their conflicts overall. Is it too much to ask for a non-romantic drama? That might be cool. But I guess it's not a K-drama without romance.

  4. hi amanda!

    can i just say how happy i am to have found your blog? i have soooo much in common with you, it's crazy...

    it all started 7 months ago when i realized that netflix had korean dramas. being asian (filipino) and living in chicago, i was aware of them, but never really watched one all the way through. i must say that it was lie to me that got me hooked. but in retrospect (and after watching 45 or so dramas to date) i realized how much more k-dramas can offer! still love YEH, though.

    before long, netflix wasn't enough and i had to subscribe to dramafever to feed my addiction. it's like i became this crazy person who would recognize koreans in public whenever i hear words like unnie, omo, aigoo, etc. i tasted soju, ate korean bbq, wished my hubby would style his hair like korean men do, and taught my toddler how to say hi and thank you in korean.

    i literally beamed with pride when the gangnam style craze began and I would tell everyone, "See, I'm not alone in riding the Korean wave!" i'm currently saving up for a trip to seoul (and maybe jeju also) this may with my classmates in k-drama 101. hehe

    keep those posts coming! this is one page i'll regularly check (besides dramabeans, soompi, and allkpop).

    oh, and cannot agree with you more about nice guy! i also think it's safe to recommend it to anyone. it's that good. and SJK is phenomenal! :)

  5. oh, and didn't ma ru remember eun gi? i think he was just teasing her about not remembering...he gave her the couple rings he initially bought before they were supposed to get married. :)

  6. I really liked Nice Guy. The twists and turns were wonderful. I agree there could have been more romance.

    As for I Miss You, I am up to episode 13 and it's really good. The only thing is I have to keep emptying the buckets of tears the characters fill up. It will be great if this has a happy ending where there is no more need for tears. I also heard it might have some extended episodes.

    I am also watching King of Dramas, which is really, really good. The lead male is as cold as ice. Already up to episode 14 and he's finally starting to thaw a little. I heard this show might have some extended episodes as well.

    Amanda, because of you I've gotten roped into watching Smile Dong Hae, mainly because I saw it has Lee Jang Woo from I Do I Do and Ji Chang Wook from Five Fingers. Now I find out it runs 159 episodes! At least they only run about 30 minutes each.

  7. it will be aired soon, here in the Philippines. Also BIG, Padam Padam & more!!

  8. Just watched the 2012 KBS Drama Awards. Nice Guy won big time!

  9. Know I am a year and a half late on this kdrama...but WOW. Sooooo good, who would want to watch Ancient Aliens or Swamp People when you have a kdrama? Looking for a blog that could help me remember about the ring set MaRu gave EunGi at the end....he had put it in the drawer beside his bed after the wedding disaster, I think. For me this fills in all the blanks... he knew her, she had taken care and waited for him like he had that year of her amnesia-remember him taking to the doctor in the hospital room b4 his surgery? What the voice over was in the closing scene was a continuation of what he was saying b4 he passed out from the stab wounds. She knew him....he knew her...they "played like " they didn't know one another just the have that great experience of First Love.

  10. Watch the BTS if you still haven't------> that contains ALL the google eyed moments.. LOL