Thursday, April 4, 2013

Drama Review: Baker King Kim Tak Gu (2010)

Grade: B-

Underdog family melodrama

What it’s about
Two brothers—one illegitimate and raised in poverty, the other a pampered chaebol son—are at odds as they struggle to find their places in the world. (Think Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, if they had been long lost siblings and heirs to a baking empire instead of wannabe wizards.)

First impression
My grand tour through the CVs of the flower boys next door continues with this hugely popular melo starring Yoon Si Yoon, Mr. Enrique Geum himself. As Dramafever helpfully reminded me, I started Baker King once before, right after finishing Me Too, Flower. I didn’t even make it through the first episode back then—the cheap production values, cheesy script, and mediocre acting prompted me to drop it almost immediately. From a quality standpoint, its opening is probably the equivalent of an American daytime soap. Now that I’ve seen more dramas, though, I know you can’t really judge a show by its kid-centered opening sequence. But according to the preview pictures, it will be many, many episodes before my beloved Yoon Si Yoon even makes an appearance. Will I last that long? Maybe, maybe not.

Final Verdict
However slapdash and silly it may be, I find it hard to actively dislike Baker King Kim Tak Gu. It’s so cute and good-hearted that it’s easy to overlook the show’s many flaws, which include but are not limited to low production values, a makjang-tastic storyline with plot holes large enough to contain entire solar systems, and indifferent acting on the part of everyone but the leads.

Baker King was a huge smash in Korea, with its final episode reaching nearly 50 percent viewership ratings. In spite of its shortcomings, I can see why: unlike many melodramas, it doesn’t trowel on the misery. Baker King’s characters endure terrible things (and sometimes do them), but the tone of the show is fundamentally optimistic, full of shiny happiness and homespun charm in the face of adversity.

Also on this drama’s side is its three-part structure, which keeps things from going (too) stale. The first third explores the stormy childhoods of Kim Tak Gu and his brother Gu Ma Jun, the second pits them against each other as apprentice bakers, and the third focuses on corporate hijinks at their dad’s company. Throughout, Baker King’s focus deftly alternates between generic struggles against bad guys and a series of coming-of-age contests that find the boys trying to earn the respect of their distant-but-loving father.

Yoon Si Yoon’s performance as Kim Tak Gu is just what I’ve come to expect of him: goofy and cuddly, but shot through with compassion and deep insight. For my money, though, the show’s real standout is Joo Won. His take on tortured Gu Ma Jun somehow manages to make bratty and self-pitying both sexy and nuanced. I suspect I’m not the only one who felt this way—as the drama progressed he had more and more screen time, and when its happy ending finally arrived he ended up victorious over Kim Tak Gu in a way I never expected (but liked a lot).

So was Baker King Kim Tak Gu a great drama? Not particularly. But it was both pleasant and watchable, which can be just as good.

Random Thoughts
• Episode 2. I knew I could trust you, Drama Overlords. Even though it’s been a year since I watched most of Baker King’s first episode, I don’t need to rewatch the parts I’ve already seen—you gave me tons of helpful flashbacks. Thank you for being so wildly (and predictably) redundant.

Episode 2. This show is so incredibly schmaltzy that I wish I could say I’m hating every minute of it. And yet...I sort of eat this crap up. There’s zero nuance (everyone is either halo-wearingly good or mustache-twirlingly bad), the plot is a recycled, dumbed down version of a thousand other shows just like it, and the acting is so atrocious you don’t even need to understand Korean to know how horrible the line readings are. But there’s a certain degree of comfort-food appeal in those very failings. I may actually lose brain cells by watching this show, but I have a sinking suspicion that’s not going to stop me from doing it.

Episode 2. There are notoriously few employers of people in my line of work, so it’s essential to be on good terms with your coworkers all times; barring a change of profession, you’re going to be working with them in one capacity or another for the rest of your life. But however incestuous my field may be, being an actor in a Korean drama is clearly a thousand times worse—they end up working with the same people all the time. I’m only two episodes in but I’ve already spotted half the cast of I Miss You together again in this show. Seven degrees of Kdrama separation must be an easy game to play, once you get the hang of it.

• Episode 4. I love how breadmaking is presented as a kind of magic act, complete with sleight of hand and lots of theatrical pizazz. I wonder if Yoon Si Yoon actually learned how to bake bread for his role? Let’s all take a moment to daydream about lazy Sunday mornings reading in Yoon Si Yoon’s bed, followed by a breakfast of his handmade cinnamon rolls. Sigh. (Have I mentioned that the Internet is abuzz with how much he loves to read, and is frequently photographed on set with books? Double sigh.)

• Episode 5. This show is the television equivalent of wrapping up in a leopard-print Snuggie and eating frosting right out of the tub with your finger—it’s so wrong it’s almost right.

• Episode 5. Why is it that whenever someone is injured or collapses in a Kdrama, the first person to finds them always jerks them around and slaps them for a good long while before going for help? That’s a great way to make a head injury worse.

• Episode 7. Korean dramas are always casual about anachronisms, but I can’t even figure out when this show is supposed to be taking place. Did the drab colors in the kids’ wardrobes mean it was set in the 1950s? But then what about the butterfly-ish collars on the men? And the boxy little cars? Now that there’s been the time skip, it might be the 1980s? [Finale note: Some helpful hints—like the New Kids on the Block song played in episode 27—lead me to believe the later segment is indeed set in the late 80s.]

• Episode 7. Well, Yoon Si Yoon’s introduction was sufficiently grandiose. Unfortunately, I worry that the show is actually going to go downhill from here—and that’s saying something, considering that the previous episodes were flirting with sea level as it was. Kim Tak Gu is even more of a cardboard cutout as an adult than he was as a kid, and after only one scene Lee Young Ah’s cutesy, aeygo-means-I-don’t-have-to-act performance as Mi Sun makes me want to pack it in. It’s interesting to see Yoon Si Yoon in such a non-Enrique role so soon after watching Flower Boy Next Door. I think that role is going to color my response to him forever—even as he’s doing Lee Jun Ki-esque fight scenes, I keep waiting for him to whip out a panda hat and say he’s a pacifist. A girl can dream, right?

Episode 9. What a thoughtful piece of advice you just offered that abused little girl, Kim Tak Gu. I’m sure “don’t get beat up” never occurred to her.

• Episode 10. I started watching this show for Yoon Si Yoon, but at this point I’m sticking around for Joo Won. I had no idea how hot he is—still photos don’t do him justice. Gaksital, here I come...

• Episode 11. I never expected that this cheeseball family melo would include a subplot about political dissidents. It doesn’t quite explain just what the female lead was crusading for (or against), but it does show just how scared people were of the government as recently as the 1980s. Korea and America seem similar in so many ways that it’s easy to forget just how different our recent histories have been—it’s been a long time since speaking out against the government here was punishable by imprisonment.

• Episode 11. Yoon Si Yoon, you are truly the king of on-screen kisses. Another A+ effort...and we’re only a third of the way through this drama!

• Episode 13. I really hope that Joo Won’s character gets redeemed instead of turning into an uber-villain. He has a decent streak, and he’s way too pretty for prison.

• Episode 13. These Kdramas really do love blindness, don’t they? It looks as if Baker King is even going to be a twofer. Especially amazing is the fact that one of the sighted actors dealing with blindness in it already played a blind character in the middling sageuk Hwang Jin Yi. I guess she must have put an ability to stare vacantly into the middle distance on her résumé.

• Episode 16. This episode brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “brotherly bonding.” And that meaning is: bondage. Baker King has definitely reached guilty pleasure status for me. On the one hand, I know it’s awful in most every way. On the other hand, it’s so sincere and simplistic that it’s downright cozy. How can you not enjoy the television equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich made with Wonder bread and Kraft American cheese?

• Episode 21. I’ve been wondering about mom’s relationship with Dr. Yoon for a while now: Boy toy? Employee? Optometrist? But a scene in this episode just answered my question in a way I wouldn’t have understood a year ago. Mom and Dr. Yoon are shown sitting across from each other at a low desk, with Mom’s back to the wall and Dr. Yoon’s back to the rest of the room. After watching an insane amount of Korean drama, I can read the unspoken signals here—because of her position, mom is the one of higher social rank. If Dr. Yoon were the man of the house or even her doctor, I’m pretty sure their spots would be reversed. Employee it is!

• Episode 21. At least based on this show, it looks as if bread in Korea usually contains fillings—some buns are filled with cream cheese, while others look like their centers are bean paste. (And whole loaves hardly ever appear; most of the bakery’s output seems more like pastries than what Americans would call bread.) I’d be game for trying filled bread, but chocolate croissants are the closest thing I’ve ever come across. They’re okay. You’ve really got to eat them when they’re hot with melty filling, though—once the chocolate cools down and gets all clotted they’re kind of gross.

• Episode 21. Not that I’m complaining (too much) but most of the food intrigue in this show was borrowed from 2004 sageuk Jewel in the Palace. He can’t taste anything? Gee…where have I come across that problem before?

• Episode 21. Also, doesn’t anyone at this bakery ever bake anything with the express intent of selling it to a customer? Based on the last ten episodes, it seems not. They’re all Iron Baker competitions, all the time.

• Episode 21. And by the way, is it my imagination or are three unrelated middle-aged men sharing a single bedroom in this show? Awkward.

• Episode 24. I’m officially team Ma Jun. Kim Tak Gu is cute and all, but his brother’s tortured passion is way sexier.

• Episode 24. Practically everyone in this family knows what really happened to Grandma, yet they did nothing about it for 14 years. The show is shrugging off how unsavory that is, but come on. (Also, Kim Tak Gu has know his mother’s kidnapper for years, but it never once occurred to him to wonder why he might have done it. Really?)

• Episode 26. I genuinely believe that you’re a good actor, Yoon Si Yoon, but you seem to have lost your way for the past few episodes. Yelling does not necessarily mean acting.

Episode 30. Will this show every end? I swear whenever I look away another episode is added to the list.

• Episode 30. Only in Kdrama could the expression “Get on my back” seem noble.

Episode 31. The only special episode I’ve actually made it all the way through was the one for Coffee Prince, which included lots of behind-the-scenes footage and thoughtful commentary, not silly interview segments like today’s specials. I just don’t find it all that interesting to watch the actors sit around and shoot the breeze—or, in the case of this episode, awkwardly sing mercenary ballads intended for the show’s soundtrack. Seeing adorable Yoon Si Yoon warble uncomfortably doesn’t send me into fits of fannish glee; it just makes me embarrassed for him.

You might also like
Can You Hear My Heart, a similarly sudsy melo (that was even more terribly done)


  1. I love that you said this: "unlike many melodramas, it doesn’t trowel on the misery. Baker King’s characters endure terrible things (and sometimes do them), but the tone of the show is fundamentally optimistic, full of shiny happiness and homespun charm in the face of adversity." That's exactly why I liked Baker King when I actively dislike so many makjang/melos. The angst and misery is not the point of the show, just a bunch of junk to overcome instead, and so I liked it despite its flaws. And it had YSY who I would happily watch read a phonebook (actually, since I find his voice incredibly sexy, I'd love that).

    1. If you haven't watched Can You Hear My Heart, you might want to give it a try, too—it's another cheerful melo. But I hated the female lead so much I couldn't even make it through the whole thing, so maybe not.

      I'm sad that YSY is going to be on a variety show next :( I'd rather watch him in dramas (which may or may not have something to do with the likelihood of kissing scenes. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.)

  2. I think I've overloaded on the makjang recently - I can barely handle anything melo-ish these days (I think my Kdrama phases are seriously bipolar at times). And at 30 episodes this one seems epically impossible for me..

    1. I never get tired of melo, but this Mars show I'm watching now is such a makjang bomb even I'm giving it the side eye. It's cute, but all the suicide, rape, tragic ailments, creepy mothers, and school bullies make for heavy watching. And I'm on episode 5!

    2. Hahaha.. there were times where I never thought I could make it through Mars.. somehow though I was too engrossed to ever stop, and it became one of my alltime favs. I watch it for the couple, and I love how the drama weaves their love line throughout all of that makjang (where most makjangs totally fail).

  3. I've been meaning to watch this for Joo Won, but I simply can't get pass the 1st scene of that mother giving birth... It just screams soap opera for me...

    I'll probably pick this up again after reading this. Maybe I should just skip episode 1...


    1. You really could skip the first episode—it's all birth secret backstory and doesn't include the leads at all.

      I dropped Gaksital after one episode, but I liked Joo Won in Baker King so much that I'm going to have to give it another try. What we do for our Korean actors...

    2. I dropped Gaksital around the halfway point and stuck to reading the recaps instead. It had a lot of potential at the beginning, but I think the writer kinda took the easy way out as far as morality was concerned. It also had one of the worst cases of chickification I've seen, and possibly because of that, is one of the very very few dramas I know of where the majority of the viewers shipped the secondary female lead with the hero XD

      Given all that, I think you should watch the first 6 eps at the very least. Those set up the plot pretty well and was when the show was the most intriguing, imo.

  4. Maybe it's because this was one of the first dramas I ever watched, but I was totally caught up in it. Didn't notice the plot holes either. I think I was 13-ish when I watched it, so it was mind-blowingly awesome to me. All this stuff that had never been touched on in American television. Birth secrets? Kidnapping? Blindness? It was intriguing and entertaining. I was too young to understand that it having "everyone... either halo-wearingly good or mustache-twirlingly bad" wasn't a good thing. The characters have no depth this way.

    I feel like I should watch this again, now that understand a lot more about Korean society and writing and acting as a whole. And maybe I'll root for Joo Won's character Ma Jun. I used to think he was awful and should get what (I thought) was coming to him. What's the saying? With age comes wisdom. For once, I think it might be a good thing.

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