Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Drama Themes of 2012: Who Did It Best?

One of the things I’ve noticed in the past year of of obsessive drama watching is Korean television’s penchant for repetition. Whether it was a common plot device like this year’s abundance of time traveling or a little detail like a prominently featured umbrella, 2012’s Kdramas have been nothing if not on trend.

The question is, who did it best?

Romantic umbrellas
Love Rain (first aired on March 26)
Big (June 4)
I Miss You (November 7)

Was it a rainy year in Korea or what? Everywhere you turned some couple was huddled under an umbrella, embarking on a grand love affair.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see the appeal of the umbrella—they’re common objects that represent safety, care, and protection. Meeting someone at the bus stop with forgotten rain gear has long been a common occurrence in Kdrama (a particularly memorable example is found in 2010’s Playful Kiss), but 2012’s constant fetishization of umbrellas took it a step further. From the Love Rain logo to Big’s bookend beginning and ending, this year’s umbrellas were more than just props—they were plot linchpins.

Winner: Big was a festival of suck that betrayed every single principle of good storytelling, but it did one thing right: it took a new perspective on the standard umbrella trope. Instead being the direct object of a cheesy and cliché gesture of love, Big’s umbrella was stolen from its heroine with winking glee by its male lead. The rest of the drama was summed up in this one act—Kyung Joon was the catalyst that threw Da Ran’s life into chaos and inspired her to abandon the safety of her longterm relationship for the stormy unpredictability of a new love.

Extraneous boy kisses
I Love Tae Ri (May 28)
Full House 2 (first aired October 22, but filming wrapped in April)

The shock value of two guys locking lips proved too tempting for these shows to pass up. Both kisses are played for laughs (and ratings) rather than romance, but they still just might be indicators that homosexuality is moving toward acceptance in Korea.

Winner: Full House 2. I saw heterosexual kisses this season that packed less heat than the one shared by this drama’s pretty boys.

The tragic fate of red dresses
History of a Salaryman (January 2)
Gentleman’s Dignity (May 26)

These two comedies don’t have much in common—one is a goofy workplace gagfest and the other is a grown-up romance. They do share one thing, though: knit dresses being slowly unraveled by a single loose thread. In both cases, the dresses are fire-engine red and the strings are held by the show’s male lead. Taking place in the dramas’ first episodes, these dress-demolishing scenes are silly good fun and also serve to develop the characters that are involved.

History of a Salaryman’s hopeless schulb of a male lead doesn’t always think about the consequences of his actions, so of course he would absently tug at a red thread he notices while sitting in a hotel lobby. And the female lead’s cartoony outrage when she realizes her dress is shrinking is further evidence of the nasty temper that this episode has already established for her.

The parallel scene in Gentleman’s Dignity is played out on a bigger scale—instead of the thread stretching across a single room, it trails for at least a city block before either character realizes what’s happened. Instead of being mad like Salaryman’s female lead, Yi Soo is paralyzed with impotent embarrassment and can’t even manage to cover herself without the male lead’s help. The male lead shows his character in the aftermath of the unwinding: suave, sophisticated, and take-no-prisoners, he barely bats an eyelash before appropriating a tablecloth and artistically folding it into a skirt replacement.

Winner: Although I disliked this show enough to drop it by episode 7, even I have to admit that Gentleman’s Dignity is beautifully filmed and does a great job with scene building. This segment in particular is flawlessly executed: everything about it works just right, from the bustling background of a walkable city neighborhood and the fabulous wardrobe to the dress’s slow, slow unraveling. Salaryman’s take on the scene is also fine, but lacking in epic scope.

Boys who can fly
Padam Padam (December 5, 2011)
To the Beautiful You (August 15)

Whether through a miracle or the miracle of hard work, two Kdrama characters really soared this year.

In his role as a self-professed angel, Kim Bum’s childlike grace was one of the many things that made Padam Padam such a pleasure to watch. Much like the rest of the show, his character was a study in light and dark—part wide-eyed innocent, part knife-wielding thug.

On the other hand, To the Beautiful You itself was something of a wide-eyed innocent, not quite fully formed but reasonably cute in spite of its half-baked nature. Its high-jumping male lead showed us just how much hard work goes into a competitive sport, all the while being juxtaposed with the show’s (arguably more compelling) second lead, whose athleticism is shown as innate and unearned.

(You could also make an argument for the inclusion of last winter’s Take Care of Us, Caption in this section, but as that show’s flight is entirely mundane I think it belongs elsewhere. Say, in a list of shows I didn’t care enough about to watch.)

Winner: Padam Padam’s unlikely angel would not only win the confrontation, he could probably also steal the TTBY kids’ wallets without anyone even noticing.

This gate
I Love Tae Ri (May 28)
I Miss You (November 7)

When you watch as much drama as I do, the locations can become just as familiar as the standard plot devices. Both I Love Tae Ri and I Miss You used this imposing stonework entryway as a backdrop to key scenes. A number of other locations popped up in both shows, which makes me wonder if they’re all part of the same property.

Why this gate all of a sudden? I have no idea—maybe the house it belongs to is up for sale, and the real estate agent thinks outside the box when it comes to marketing. Or maybe someone involved in the shows’ production owns the building. Heck, maybe it’s even a public space like a museum that rents itself out for extra cash on the side. (A friend from college went to a private Catholic school that did this—until their lobby suddenly popped up in the video for the Divinyls “I Touch Myself,” anyway.)

Winner: I Miss You, which thoughtfully added extra lighting so you could actually see what was happening.

Riding on motorcycles with younger men
I Do, I Do (May 30)
Big (June 4)
The Thousandth Man (August 17)

One of Korea’s favorite drama tropes is the noona romance—a love story between a woman and a younger man. And dramas dealing with this topic almost always feature their leads on at least one motorcycle ride.

With examples dating back to 2005’s Hello, My Teacher and 2006’s delightful What’s Up, Fox, this pairing works well for a number of reasons. The motorcycle represents the younger man’s devil-may-care freedom and gives him a chance to take the lead in spite of Korea’s age-based hierarchical structure. There’s also the issue of the associated helmets, which further liberate the lovers by obscuring their identities, super-hero style.

Winner: From the show’s sexy, motorcycle-riding promos to the bike’s starring role in its meet-cute, I Do, I Do uses its wheels to best effect.

Padam Padam (December 5, 2011)
Vampire Idol (December 5, 2011)
Shut Up!: Flower Boy Band (January 30)
Equator Man (March 21)
Rooftop Prince (March 21)
King 2 Hearts (March 21)
A Gentleman’s Dignity (May 26)

Shows about groups of female friends are a long-running trend in Korean drama, but this focus has shifted in the wake of 2009’s Boys over Flowers. In 2012, it was close male friendships that seemed to anchor every drama.

Whether they met in prison, high school, or the royal court (three places frequent drama watchers will realize aren't entirely dissimilar), this year’s men were always there for each other--except when they were throwing each other over cliffs. These modern-day Flower Fours looked to each other for camaraderie, support, and guidance, as well as the occasional nation-saving suicide mission.

Winner: The F44 from A Gentleman’s Dignity. Friendships don’t get much better than this epic bromance—having been friends for at least twenty years, these guys have seen and accepted each other at their best and at their worst.

Men pretending to be women
12 Men in a Year (February 15)
I Do, I Do (May 30)
To the Beautiful You (August 15)
Ma Boy (August 16)

Korea loves a girl dressed as a guy, but this year the trend was for exactly the opposite. Everywhere, male drama stars were disguised as girls. This is a tricky feat—especially when adults are involved, it requires a lot more than binding your chest and wearing baggy jeans the way most female cross-dressers do in Korean dramas.

Boys in girls’ clothes were generally used as a comedic element in 2012, with most of them briefly trying out femininity in hope of personal gain. But might this switch from the tradition of girls dressing as boys be evidence of women’s increasing power in Korean culture and society?

Winner: To the Beautiful You not only featured multiple examples of boys dressed as girls, it also took the whole thing to a head-spinning new level: Episode 6 saw a girl pretending to be a boy compete in a talent show as a boy pretending to be a girl. I get dizzy just thinking about this scene, but it was clearly a stroke of genius on the part of some Drama Overlord out there.

Time travel
Padam Padam (December 5, 2011)
Operation Proposal (February 8)
Rooftop Prince (March 21)
Queen In-hyun’s Man (April 18)
Dr. Jin (May 26)
Faith (August 13)

The most talked-about trend in Korean dramas this year, time travel was approached from practically every angle. Characters jumped forward and slipped backward, with some traveling into historical time and others delving into their own pasts.

Everyone likes a good time travel story—they’re intriguing intellectual exercises and invite us to imagine how different our lives could be in another time. But why this trope is so popular right now is another question. Other bloggers have noted that it offers the best of both worlds to makers of television: they can capitalize on the longterm popularity of sageuks, while also raking in money from the product placements in their contemporary scenes. (I guess that explains the starring role of that Sony cell phone in the finale of Queen In-hyun’s Man.)

Winner: Queen In-hyun’s Man. Arguably this year’s most powerful love story, Queen In-hyun’s Man is also 2012’s finest time travel drama. It takes the practical aspects of time travel into consideration and incorporates them into its plot without sacrificing the character-based storytelling that Korean drama does so well.


  1. I was a little tipsy by the end of Full House 2's first episode. It's probably the only reason why I kept on watching. ;) Wish the rest the rest of the show had given us at least Half the intensity as that particular bit of fanservice did (and cut out Bong Uri's re-casting in a drama - seriously, I could forgive her the hair, the bulging eyes!).

    I think Padam Padam needs to get on my soon-to-watch list. Just a hunch I have..

    Happy New Year! May there be plenty of amazing dramas still to see :)

    1. The kiss scene was literally the only part of Full House 2 I watched—I hated the first Full House so much I couldn't even make it past the first fifteen minutes, so I figured its progeny would be even worse. (Of course, my hatred may have had something to do with recently buying a condo, which was a three-month-long ordeal packed with melodrama and red tape. I couldn't suspend disbelief enough to buy that her friends were able to casually sell her house while she was out of town for a day—and I was actually a touch jealous. How come I couldn't have bought from *them*?) The original at least had attractive leads, even if they had unfortunate hair and bad clothes.

      I loved Padam Padam so much, it was even worth figuring out how to put a heart in this comment. (See? ----> ❤ ) It did have its flaws (most of which appeared in the final few episodes), but overall it was wonderful.

      And happy New Year to you...I've got my fingers crossed that Flower Boy Next Door will be the first amazing drama of the year. I all but lapse into a coma from the cute every time I see the leads.

  2. What a great way to do a year-end review type thing without all the lists and stuff! Phew. Worn out by year end lists.

    1. I'm sort of a junkie for year-end lists =X I've been essentially writing a year end list all year, though, compared to blogs like yours that write in such depth about shows. It seems like a waste of time for me to write a more traditional one, too.

      I'll be interested to see if next year's trends will be the same...

  3. I agree with Ladida. This was a fun way to remember and compare some of the year's best without feeling so much like work to read. Thanks!

    1. And taking so much work to write! I can't believe how long some people's year-end lists are—they'll literally approaching novel length. I wish I had that kind of dedication (or insight), but I definitely don't.

  4. This post was awesome! Remembering Gook Soo the sexiest angel ever made my year :-) I have to say though Padam Padam was my favorite time traveling drama. But I'm one of the few who wasn't so crazy about Queen Inhyun's Man, in fact I never finished it.

    1. Thanks :)

      As dramas go, I liked Padam, Padam better that QIhM, too. The time traveling was such a small part of that show (if it even was time traveling), that it seemed like cheating to let it win the category.

      I'm psyched for the new Kim Bum melo that's starting up soon. It's interesting that he's not really taking a lot of leads, in contrast with Lee Min Ho who does nothing else (and who isn't as good an actor, I think).

    2. I'd like to see Kim Bum in a lead role soon, though. I think he's deserved one by now. And, going a bit off-topic here, Kim Bum probably has the best smiles I've ever seen.

    3. I completely agree on both fronts. The wattage of Kim Bum's smile is seriously capable of lighting up a midsize city for a month.

      I kind of like that he's keeping to smaller roles in better projects, though—he's paying his dues and learning his craft instead of cashing in on easy, post-BoF money. Like someone else who shall remain nameless. (LEE MIN HO, I'M TALKING ABOUT YOU!)

    4. Kim Bum is definitely a better actor and better looking in my opinion, but I think being the lead in BoF and it being so popular solidified Lee Min Ho as a lead, not necessarily his actual acting ability.

      Amanda, I just wrote probably my longest drama review ever on What's Up?. I was Coffee Prince levels of blown away by this drama. I even just rewatched the ending again so I could cry and bask in my overwhelming emotions all over again. This was a totally unexpected for me, I honestly expected it to just be mildly entertaining, not soulful and moving. I literally can't stop gushing about it. I think I'm driving my husband. nuts talking about it lol. it's funny because the only commonality it really had with Coffee Prince is that it spends a lot of time developing the individual stories and relationships between the characters, but I think I love it almost equally as much and I never thought that would happen. I have been temporarily obsessed with dramas but none of them have really touched me the way this one did except for Coffee Prince. The ending is so absolutely perfect! I cannot get over it!

    5. HaHaha!! I just went back and found your review of What's Up and saw that you hated the ending. So funny how that works!! I loved the ending, no matter how cheesy and have watched it several times now and cried every time. And the funny thing is that I could never get into Shut Up Flower Boy Band, but absolutely loved everything about What's Up. But I think that fact that I'm a teacher colors my view of it because it focused around their education and them finding what's important in life. That cracks me up though, because it literally has one of my favorite kdrama endings ever. I loved that for once everyone wasn't like wailing at the top of their lungs, but they turned into something happy.

    6. Okay, sorry I am totally blowing up your blog, but I have a lot more time on my hands than normal because of Christmas break. This may be old news to you, but it's new news to me, the drama Triple was done by the same directing/writing team as Coffee Prince and it is starring Lee Syun Gun. What!! Guess what I'm watching next...

    7. I'm still on Christmas break, too, and devoting unhealthy amounts of time and energy to Korean drama ;)

      We flip-flopped on What's Up. I loved the first three quarters, but to me the ending felt uncomfortably cliche. This might have had something to do with watching Padam Padam right before I started that show, though—they had almost the same unsurprising "surprise" ending.

      Did you hear that after they finalized them each episode of What's Up was edited down to fit in the 45-minute blocks that cable channels air? They started off as over an hour each, so I wonder if I would have liked the whole thing a lot more if this hadn't happened. Maybe someday the director's cut version will be available, like it is for Tamra, the Island. (Poor Im Joo Hwan—he was in both of them.)

      I actually had heard that Triple was made by the Coffee Prince people, but I ending up dropping it halfway through the first episode. The female lead got on my nerves too much, even though her character was fairly Eun-Chan-ish. I'll look forward to hearing what you think of it. If you like it, I'll have to give it another try!

  5. I have yet to see a number of the dramas you mention here, but give me time. I can only say that I was so disappointed in Big that I don't even remember the umbrella scene(s) at all. I love how I Miss You is using the umbrella. The fact that he held onto it all those years is so touching. About the male kisses, haven't seen either of these dramas as yet but will get to them. So far for me the kiss in Secret Garden between Kim Joo Won and Oska was a complete surprise. Not necessarily all that well done, but a surprise nonetheless. Can't comment on the angels yet. As for the red dress, I've only seen the one in A Gentleman's Dignity. It was cute but definitely a trope. The bike scene in I Do I Do I loved. But then I loved absolutely everything about that drama. Had my beloved Kim Sun Ah and now beloved Lee Jang Woo in it. Loved the bromance in A Gentleman's Dignity, Rooftop Prince and King 2 Hearts. I'd say Gentleman's Dignity wins out. Haven't seen the other dramas yet.

    Wishiwasasian, I hope you Like Triple. It's one I couldn't finish. I was watching because of Lee Syn Gun as well, but it wasn't worth it to me.

    I'm currently catching up on the award shows from the 3 networks. They are really entertaining in themselves. MBC had a skit with the young male actor from Moon Embraces the Sun and I Miss You where he is caught by his 2 co-stars in each of these dramas. It was really cute. All 3 of those young people will go far. Will enjoy seeing how they mature.

    Great work, as usual, Amanda!

  6. Hi! I really like this post and I was wondering if you alloweded re-posts? I want to share this on Omona. Everything will be properly credited don't worry, they have strict rules about that.

    1. Thanks!

      Reposts are fine with me, as long as they include source information. I'd be tickled pink if you wanted to repost, but just FYI the article also appeared on Soompi.

      I'm an Omona follower, too. :)

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