Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Return of Playing Favorites

It’s hard for me to believe, but as of August my obsession with Korean drama will be two years old. I went looking for something to watch during the summer dead zone between American television seasons, but I came away with a whole new continent worth of dramas, culture, and history. That’s pretty impressive considering that my gateway drug was Boys over Flowers, a show so ridiculous that my attempts to recapture the magic of first love by rewatching it always fail about halfway through the first episode.

Since the fateful day we first met, I’ve watched an insane number of Asian dramas—short and long, new and old, funny and serious. Many of them have been mediocre and some have been outright bad, but I’ve also found shows that were so wonderful they were actually painful to watch.

As my list of favorite dramas was posted last July, it seems time for an update. Here are the shows I’ve loved watching most this year.

1. Answer Me 1997 (2012)
After you’ve watched a few (dozen) Korean romantic comedies, they can start to feel repetitive: they all star the same characters in the same relationships reenacting the same Drama Overlord-approved clichés—a piggyback ride by episode 4, a chaste, closed-mouth kiss by episode 14. But Answer Me 1997 is something altogether different, and never feels canned or recycled. It weaves together genuine and refreshingly original stories about friendship, family, love, celebrity, and growing up, all tinged with a rosy nostalgic glow. Based on its premise, you’d probably never guess how special this drama really is: Starting in the titular year, it traces the friendships and romances of a group of high schoolers from Busan as they grow into adulthood. But Answer Me 1997’s greatest charm is its execution. It’s cleverly written, emphatically directed, and beautifully acted. Even its voice is fresh and compelling, thanks to the dual timelines it explores. Part of each episode is a sly mystery that takes place as its characters attend their high school reunion in 2012, and the rest is dedicated to their school years in the 1990s. We’re blessed with the opportunity to join in on the time they spend following Korean boybands, fighting with their parents, crushing on people they probably shouldn’t have been crushing on, and being best friends. Each of its characters is distinct and utterly individual: from plucky, pushy fangirl Shi Won to Joon Hee with his secret love, you won’t soon forget any of them.

More about Answer Me 1997

2. In Time with You (2011)
Okay. You caught me on this one—In Time with You is not a Korean drama. It was made in Taiwan. But no matter what language its dialogue is spoken in, it’s a moving story of another kind of coming of age. Its characters have already earned all the complicated, scary merit badges that adolescence has to offer, and are now coming to terms with the results of all that growing up. They’ve become capable adults with careers, convoluted romantic histories, and a wide network of friends and family that play key roles in their lives. On the eve of her 30th birthday, its tightly wound female lead makes a bet with her closest friend, a laid-back guy she’s known since high school: whoever gets married last has to pay the other an exorbitant amount of money. The rest of the drama follows the pair’s romantic exploits, which naturally lead them back to each other, where they belonged all along. In Time with You admittedly has a number of third act flaws, but I love its gentle wisdom, slow pace, and everyday storytelling. Its cozy world, magnetic leads, and zingy chemistry are so wonderful they actually remind me of Coffee Prince, the ne plus ultra of Korean drama.

More about In Time with You

3. Spring Waltz (2006)
The last in the Endless Love series of dramas, Spring Waltz tells the story of a scrappy poor girl and her adopted brother. Separated as children, they rediscover each other as adults and fall into passionate Kdrama love to a lovely classical score. The English language is lacking words strong enough to express just how cheesy this show is—or how much I loved it. I’m a sucker for pretty melodramas about star-crossed childhood loves, and this is the perfect example of the species. It’s lousy with tragic birth secrets, dramatic miscommunications, and fated love. Everything about Spring Waltz is gorgeous, from the fairytale European vistas of the first few episodes to the riotously yellow canola fields of the finale. (Also, the boys could not possibly be hotter.)

More abut Spring Waltz

4. Flower Boy Next Door (2013)
You shouldn’t watch this show for its plot, which is silly and not without useless cul-de-sacs. You should watch for its charming, indelible characters and central romance, which is nothing short of ovary-exploding. Especially wonderful is goofy man-child Enrique, who somehow manages to be the most emotionally mature Kdrama character of all time, in spite of a propensity toward panda hats. Unlike so many male leads, he’s a sweet and supportive foil to his love interest, the introverted, damaged Dok Mi. He encourages her without belittling her, loves her without dominating her, and makes her happy without ignoring the darker parts of her personality. Like all the entries in tvN’s flower boy series, its lead couple is surrounded by a constellation of secondary characters, all of whom are gloriously quirky. A thoughtful character study disguised as a lighthearted rom-com, Flower Boy Next Door has surprising depths.

More about Flower Boy Next Door

5. Thank You (2007)
Beyond the two sets of Hong sisters, Kdrama screenwriters aren’t that well known around the English dramaweb. But as far as I’m concerned Lee Kyung Hee is the one who’s really worth keeping an eye on: her writing is textured and nuanced and smartly conceived from beginning to end. She specializes in gritty dramas about life’s darker, unsavory aspects, but none of them exceed Thank You in their tragic power. Its male lead—a cocky, devil-may-care surgeon—is a classic Lee Kyung Hee antihero. When his fiance dies of cancer in spite of his best efforts to save her, he gives up everything and heads to the countryside. There he slowly falls into bickering love with a kind-hearted native, a single mom who’s solely responsible for both her HIV-infected daughter and her senile grandfather. The ensuing 15 episodes manage to be both life-affirming and wonderful, even though they’re filled with hurt, sadness, and the many failings of the human body and mind.

More about Thank You

6. Wife’s Credentials (2012)
This sophisticated, realistic drama feels more like an art house movie than a Kdrama romance. Wife’s Credentials explores the realities of everyday married life and parenthood in upper-middle-class Seoul, a place where desperation for prestige and success can get in the way of happiness. Told with subdued restraint, it follows an unhappily married housewife into what some descriptions of the drama call as an “inappropriate relationship.” But as you watch the show, the inevitable conclusion is that the relationship that best fits this name is the one she has with her husband, a preening, self-absorbed newscaster who wants her to fall in line with the demanding mothers of their son’s classmates. All this makes the show sound serious and boring, but that’s not at all the case—its fast-moving plot finds as much time for humor and delight as it finds for sadness and anger.

More about Wife’s Credentials

7. Autumn’s Concerto (2009)
When I first started watching Korean dramas, I said that I’d never watch shows from other Asian countries: there was already more than enough television for me catch to up on. I’m glad I changed my mind. Like In Time with You, this Taiwanese drama was one of my favorite series this year. It’s a deliciously over-the-top melodrama with a setup familiar to any watcher of Kdrama—a hardworking poor girl clashes with a rich playboy before falling into crazy love with him. But unlike most Kdramas, Autumn’s Concerto isn’t afraid of sex, violence, or the kind of poverty that makes your family dependent on someone who hurts you. Buried in all this gritty darkness is one of the most fiery and irresistible relationships I’ve ever seen on screen.

More about Autumn’s Concerto

8. Pasta (2010)
I’m no great fan of workplace dramas—They tend to get bogged down in things that I don’t really care about, like office politics and never-ending wrangling for power, and ignore the human beings behind the employees. Pasta escapes this fate by working interesting characters into the professional intrigue, thanks in no small part to the work of the always charming Lee Sun Gyun and Gong Hyo Jin. He’s the demanding (and sexist!) new executive chef at the upscale Italian restaurant where she’s the lowest-ranking employee, and the two have some of the most adorable chemistry ever seen in a Korean drama. But their budding romance is only a small part of this drama’s appeal—its cute ensemble cast and speedy plot of foodie challenges make its 20 episodes (regrettably) fly by.

Learned from the list:
• Although list items often come in groups of ten, it felt right to stop with eight here. I liked lots of other dramas last year, but these were the true standouts. Slots 9 and 10 might as well be shared by five or six shows each—or none at all.

• The three network programs on this list aired in 2010 or before; all the more recent shows originally aired on cable networks. Just like in America, cable is now where it’s at for Korean television. Its programming is innovative, brave, and targeted to a specific audience, so it doesn’t suffer from having to please all the people all the time.

• My two favorite drama genres are coming of age stories and melodramatic romances with lots of angst (but ultimately happy endings). I burned through a lot of the classics in these fields during my first year of obsession, so was left watching current releases last year. And most of those current releases weren’t fit for this favorites list, which is another reason why it’s so short. I’m pretty sure next year’s version of this post will include Monstar, and am hopeful that both I Can Hear Your Voice and Cruel City will join it when I finally get around to watching them.


  1. A good list, I have to say. I've always wanted to check out Pasta and Thank You and because I trust your taste in dramas I might watch them sooner than expected.
    I'm still waiting for the right moment to watch Wife’s Credentials, thouch. I think I need to be in a certain mood to watch it.

    1. Pasta isn't the greatest romance, but it's incredibly cute. (Weirdly both Pasta and Thank You star Gong Hyo Jin, even though they're totally different kinds of dramas.)

      And to really enjoy Wife's Credentials I think you need to be in a pretty serious mood—it's a fun watch, but it's not really lighthearted.

  2. I'm still ridiculously jealous that you've seen Wife's Credentials. I just haven't found a good enough time to cough up the subscription money for that site.

    Love the 2 Twdramas! I should review them sometimes.. I'm just too intimidated because you always do such a great job with these fantastic dramas.

    I was browsing around Spring Waltz the other looking for specific screencaps, and ended up watching huge chunks of it again. I really should just do a rewatch. xD

    1. I bet you could watch Wife's Credentials on other sites by now. ::cough::gooddrama::cough::

      You should totally review Tdramas. My reviews are always so short they're barely worth reading, while you actually take time to give the shows the consideration they deserve. (How novel!)

      I rewatched the first episodes of a few of the shows in this list to get me in the mood to write, and Spring Waltz was the only one it was hard to turn off at the end. I just love those cheesy melodramas =X

    2. Regarding the T Dramas, I am loving your Random Thoughts on Meteor Garden. On your Epi 14 comment, you'll be surprised with what they do with Si. If you can manage to get through a painfully long Season 2. That's the challenge.

  3. I've started Wife's Credentials. I am on episode 5. So far, it's ok. Hasn't really grabbed me as such, but it is still ok.

    On your list, I have only seen 2 of them, Answer me 1997 (absolutely loved it) and Thank You (finished this last week on your recommendation, and for me it ranks in my top 3 of all time, wonderful drama and it is one I will definitely rewatch). However, I do have Spring Waltz and Pasta still to watch, whenever I get the chance.

    A drama I am currently watching is Nine. I started it 3 days ago, and I am on episode 18 already!! This has got to be one of the best Korean dramas I have seen so far, I just hope the ending lives up to all that has gone before. I am tempted to try and persuade my best friend to watch it (she is about as interested in Korean Drama as I am in 0il Rig Maintenance) as she does love a good time travel drama. Maybe I can turn her into a devotee like the rest of us!!

    1. If I had continued this list, Nine would definitely have filled one of the remaining slots—probably number 10, because I like to be difficult like that. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed such a plot-y drama so much. I can see why you're watching it so quickly; it's hard not to just keep going when you get to one of the episode cliffhangers.

      Good luck converting your friend. No matter how many times I try that, I meet with resounding failure. Sigh. Have to make some cooler friends...

    2. Well, I finished Nine. Wonderful drama, in my top 3 of all time favourites (the others being Coffee Prince and Thank You). However, I did think the ending was a little bit disappointing. I really don't like open ended, vague or make your own ending finales. Though to be fair, the clues were all there, you just had to work it out a bit. Never the less, I just like my endings definite, with no room for confusion.

  4. Thanks for your drama list and short synopsis. I like the short reviews you included that gave me a feel for the pacing of the dramas. I have seen some on your list. Those I have not seen yet I will hopefully find time to watch later.

  5. I had already seen Pasta because the lead actors had been in previous dramas and I like them a lot. The others I haven't seen. I only watch K-Dramas because I have to limit myself or I'll become a zombie tied to my computer. Thanks for the list. So far this year I have enjoyed Sweet 18, That Winter the Wind Blows and I am currently enjoying You're the Best Lee Soon Shin and Monstar.

  6. Wife's Credentials is one of my all time favorites. Every character was so tightly written and the music added to the viewing experience. So many dramas have the soap operaish violin music. Glad this fantastic drama made your list. I watched In Time With You- because of your recommendation, but I do admit to lots of fast forwarding. However, the family scenes were fantastic. I actually think I've started every other drama you have listed. Maybe I'll try again. Thanks for your blog.

  7. You should totally watch Bridal Mask (aka Gaksital). It tied with Answer Me 1997 as the best drama I've watched in the last 12 months.

  8. Same with you, I also enjoyed Answer Me 1997 and In Time With You. I think i should start to watch Autumn's Concerto because you favorited that one over Summer Desire :p Oh, btw, you must watch Heartless City/ Cruel City. I want to know your opinion about Cruel City because most of kdrama fans giving a good review to that drama :D

  9. I've only seen the top two but i agree wholeheartedly. I don't tend to watch serious or sad dramas or dramas about a married couple (which is stupid, i know) so I haven't seen the others. Pasta gets such mixed reviews that i'm not sure whether I want to watch it or not. I liked Flower Boy Next Door, it was so damn cute, but it fell apart at the end. Monstar is better than I thought it would be. It took me a bit to get into it, but halfway through, i found it was a show I was waiting for each weekend. Last weekend, it wasn't subbed til the Sunday. I was literally checking gooddrama every hour willing it to appear!

  10. Wow this is a pretty neat blog :D i never knew im a such a big korean addict till i read your post on signs of it :3 nonetheless i'm glad i found your blog as it help to keep me updated on the drama and show. My list has exploded (NO..just kidding) :D

    im doing reviews on such relate stuffs for a sch project and this blog would help me greatly :D (of course credits will be credits when used) :D

    Pretty please could you help by supporting it :3

  11. my list would probably also start with the first two on your list! because gaah, i will always have a soft spot for the bestfriends-turned-lovers story! :)

  12. I highly recommend I can hear your voice and Queen's classroom. Excellent writings and acting!

  13. Our lists are almost similar... I adore In Time With You and Autumn's Concerto - the best dramas EVER, there are a bit of maturity in t-dramas wich is lacking in k-dramas... Your nr.1 is my nr.1 also... 8 is in my top-dramas because of charismatic main actor, omg, he's smoking hot. I have not watched 5 i 6. They are next a "must watch" dramas on my list (starting today)...

  14. Honestly I have been a drama addict for about 10 years now and have seen everything...and I mean EVERYTHING you can possibly think of..japanese,korean taiwanese, and even hk dramas.
    Reply 1997, hands down has got to be one the best dramas I have seen in a very long time.
    Made me super happy to see that as your number one.

  15. Really enjoy your writing and analysis. Allow me to highly recommend "Shut Up Family/Family" (2012), I think you will seriously enjoy it. It's one of the few dramas that gets better as it goes along. Has one of the sweetest and most surprising romances I've ever seen. So much laughter and angst. The characters are so well-cast and well-written. Before Dramacrazy - my favorite drama site - shut down without warning, I had a great list of dramas stored on there I could share with you. A few K-drama must-see's that I can remember are "City Hall" (the male lead is such a great actor, such a pleasure to watch, and the chemistry with the female lead is great), and "Queen of Housewives" (great female lead, she really steals the show with her acting skills and looks). And there are tons of great dramas that I left out, and there are some really fantastic ones in J-drama category as well. If you check out my youtube account, I dabbled in some subbing for what I consider to be Taiwan's best dramas written by its queen of romance, Qiong Yao. Ghost Husband and Wan Jun were filmed in the early 90's, but they have not been surpassed in quality since then.

  16. The good and the great K & J dramas that haven't been mentioned yet (for the drama connoisseur)

    Shut Up Family
    Queen of Housewives
    City Hall
    Get Karl! Oh Soo Jung
    What Star Are You From?
    Smile, You
    Last Scandal
    Magerarenai Onna
    Hotaru no Hikari
    Mop Girl
    Shinya no Shokudo
    Kodoku no Gurume
    Share House no Koibito
    Yume wo Kanaeru Zo
    Zettai Kareshi
    Haken no Hinkaku
    Ruri no Shima

  17. Back again! How could I forget how good "My Husband Got A Family" was? Must must watch!!! It's up there with "Shut Up Family". In fact, I'd recommend these two dramas first. They are really well-written and acted.

  18. I highly recommend Heartless City and Nine Times Time Travel for 2013! :)

  19. Hi Amanda!
    I've been following your blog for a while now- love your posts!
    I was wondering if you finished Heartless City, and what you thought of it.

  20. In Time With You!

    oh my your taste is pretty similar with me.
    i am so going to download Wife’s Credentials & Spring Waltz (only these from above that i have not watched yet)
    now i am going to check your blog often :))

  21. I'm actually surprised that 'Flower Boy Next Door' is on the list. I could not get through episode two, I just fast forwarded through the whole series. I genuinely felt that there was nothing gripping about the story, nothing to anchor it-it was those terrible shojou mangas you read waiting for the story to start only to get to chapter 20 to realize that, 'oh, there is no decent story here'. Ack, I just could not with this one.
    Though I do cosign with Reply 1997, still watching it but loooving it so far!!!

  22. Just found your blog while watching I Need Romance 3. I actually liked that show. I was a bit unbelievable but that is one of the reasons I like dramas. Your list above matches all but one of my favorites. I still have not watched Wife's Credentials, just have not been in the mood but is is on my list. I Love you is the drama that drew me to Kdramas. Still one of my very favorites. Your reasons for liking each drama pretty much matches mine, cool. You are now saved to my favorites!

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