What it’s about
After his girlfriend dies, a hotshot surgeon gives up his career and relocates to the countryside, where he meets a hardworking single mom who’s weighed down by the responsibility of supporting both her senile grandfather and her young daughter. He rents a room in her house and slowly becomes part of the family, bickering all the while, but their burgeoning love story is complicated by an unexpected bit of shared history—his girlfriend accidentally infected the little girl with HIV while giving her a blood transfusion.
After the cotton-candy insubstantialness of Cheongdamdong Alice, I’m in the mood for something meaty and melodramatic. This show ought to be just thing: it’s written by Lee Kyung Hee, screenwriter of both Nice Guy and I’m Sorry, I Love You. She specializes in gritty tragedies with horrible male leads who end up spectacularly redeemed (and dead) by the closing scene. Based on this show’s summary, it will be more of the same. I’m clearly in for a world of hurt. (Yipee!)
I don’t ask for a lot in a drama—I’m quite content to watch cute love stories revolving around dreamy boys even if they’re not especially well made. But every once in a while something like Thank You comes along and reminds me just how wonderful Kdrama can really be when it has the right script, production team, and cast. This is not a showy, wish-fullfilment drama designed for maximum razzle-dazzle. It asks serious questions about life and death, and gives no cheesy answers or showy resolutions. It’s a thoughtful meditation on community, responsibility, and family that happens to be told with the voice of a love story.
Thank You has all the hallmarks of old-school Korean melodramas: birth secrets, serious illnesses, tragic deaths, and a wrenching love triangle. But instead of being bombastic and over the top, it’s homey and immediate and low-key. Its characters are finely drawn and believably flawed, and as the show progresses they each find all we could ask for them—redemption and respect and love.
The story moves effortlessly between thoughtful, character-based scenes and briskly plotted narrative momentum. And although it does earn its reputation as a tear jerker, Thank You is actually the most optimistic (and least icky) of the Lee Kyung Hee dramas I’ve seen. It includes its fair share of sorrow and heartbreak, but in the end it finds the perfect balance between the world’s unhappinesses and its delights.
But what I loved most about this show is that it demands a careful viewing. Otherwise, you’ll miss all the tiny details that add up to its fully imagined, beautifully complex universe: The word “nature” is worked into the pattern of the little girl’s pillowcase, but it’s always shown upside down. During the lead couple’s first true kiss, a lone shooting star streaks across the sky behind them—there’s no fanfare, no hokey sound effects. It’s just there, a lovely, hidden gift meant for only the most attentive of viewers. When her “cold” mothering techniques are criticized by her childhood sweetheart, the female lead has brilliant red lipstick circles on her cheeks, as if she were the bride in a traditional wedding. In one sense, there is a wedding in this scene—by remaining silent about both her daughter’s parentage and her illness, the female lead is choosing her daughter above everyone else, even the man she’s loved for most of her life.
Thank You isn’t discussed all that often in the online Kdrama community. I guess I can see why—it’s not slick. It’s not particularly funny. Lots of incredibly terrible things happen in the course of its 16 episodes, and they will almost certainly make you cry, probably more than once. But the next time you want to be reminded what dramas can really be, how much power character-based storytelling can really have, you should watch it anyway.
• Episode 2. This sort of naturalistic, rural setting has all but disappeared from today’s Kdramas. That’s a pity, and I hope it’s not a permanent development: Korea doesn’t begin and end at Seoul’s boundaries, just as life doesn’t begin and end at the boardroom door.
• Episode 2. I didn’t go to medical school or anything, but I always thought that if you ended up drenched in blood you were going about this whole doctoring thing wrong. Guess not, if this drama is to be trusted.
Episode 2. It’s funny how differently Korean and American shows approach medical jargon. On American TV, you're just expected to bear with all the fancy doctor talk, trusting that the rest of the dialogue will tell you what you really need to know. In Korea, they’re always including little glossary boxes with explanations.
• Episode 2. Hot dog! More Kdramas could use a gory tractor accident to liven things up. See what you’re missing, all you corporate-shenanigan-obsessed screenwriters?
• Episode 4. “My Darling Clementine” had a few big years in Korean drama, first showing up in Spring Waltz in 2006 and then this show in 2007. With the entire Western canon to chose from, I’m not sure why that song is such a big winner. Kdrama auteurs love a tragedy, I guess.
• Episode 4. I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness watching this show—it’s a nuanced, perfectly presented exploration of its characters’ lives. The heartbreaking scenes come fast and furious—first, a surgeon prepares to operate on his fiancee, then a mother has to stand back and watch her HIV-infected daughter bleed without doing a single thing to help her, and then a grandfather with dementia draws a childish bridal mask on his granddaughter’s face with a broken tube of lipstick. Wonderful. And horrible.
• Episode 8. Out of all of the work I've seen from this screenwriter, Thank You and I’m Sorry, I Love You seem to share the most DNA. They’re companion pieces, really, exploring how heavily our minds rely on our bodies. Thank You is the brighter of the two—in it, communities and relationships take root because of the characters’ physical limitations. I'm Sorry, I Love You is its miserable twin. Its physical bodies are ticking time bombs that preclude real connection.
• Episode 10. The great thing about ignorance is that it’s a treatable disease. Time for a town meeting. The topic? Living with HIV. It’s frustrating that, being a drama, they’re not going to arrive at this conclusion for five more episodes when it would so obviously fix so many of their problems.
• Episode 14. Having watched Coffee Prince so early in my drama obsession, everything about it seemed totally innovative and fresh. The more dramas I see, though, the more antecedents I find. Take this show's big confession, which aired several months before the one from Coffee Prince: “I decided to give it a try...I don’t care if you’re an inanimate object or a stone or a desk. Can I be your man from now on?” How wonderfully Han Gyulian!
• Episode 16. Will I ever see another Ring Ding without wanting to weep? I think not.
• Episode 16. Looking back on this writer’s body of work, it’s kind of amazing to see how much influence current trends have. In the early 2000s, everybody loved a fauxcest drama that ended with dead leads. So that’s what she wrote. (Only she took it a step further—it was actualcest.) And now that every drama has to include chaebols wrangling for corporate power, she’s written Nice Guy. But throughout all the fads all, she’s maintained her signature antiheroes, compassionate storytelling, and taste for tragedy.
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