Thursday, January 9, 2014

Drama Review: Answer Me 1994 (2013)

Grade: A-

Romantic comedy

What it’s about
A group of college students from the countryside move to Seoul, where they live in a homestay and share friendships, romances, and the pains and pleasures of growing up.

First impression
I’m a little torn going into this series. I loved its predecessor—the similar but largely unrelated drama Answer Me 1997—so much that I had to take a week off in the middle of watching it, and not just because sad things were happening on screen. I identified so completely with obsessed fangirl Shi Won that it was actually hard to watch. The scene at Tony oppa’s house nearly killed me because it so closely matched my own 1997-era fandom, which was probably the last thing I expected from a show about Kpop, a musical genre I wouldn’t know existed for more than a decade. But Kdrama sequels have a terrible reputation and I’ve heard lots of unhappy commentary about this show’s resolution. Plus, I hate all organized sports with a fiery passion. Can I possibly love a drama about a basketball fan, even if it’s the follow-up to one my favorite shows of all time?

Final verdict
This sweet, funny drama is full of nostalgic charm. Just don’t watch it expecting another Answer Me 1997—in spite of their many similarities, the two shows are fundamentally different in a lot of ways.

Although they feature different sets of youthful characters, both dramas revolve around a central question: Which guy in their group of friends will the female lead eventually marry? Their narrative structures are also similar, with each episode jumping back and forth in time. Segments set in the present day tease the husband’s identity while introducing storylines set in the 1990s. The parents of the female lead are the only actors with major roles in both dramas, playing amusing variations on the same characters in each show. (There are also wonderful cameos from the core AM1997 cast in AM1994.)

To me, the true distinction between these two shows arises from the ages of their characters. The reason I loved AM1997 so much was because it was an intensely personal take on being a teenager in the 1990s. It explored all the weird, wonderful experiences of falling in love with not only with a boy, but also with a band, with a group of friends, and with the very experience of living. The characters in Answer Me 1994 are a bit older, so their journey feels less internal. It’s a show about the beginning of adulthood, not the end of childhood.

Judged on its own merits, though, Answer Me 1994 is well worth watching. The stories it tells about growing up are universal: No matter how old you are or where you’re from, it will make you both laugh and cry. It explores not only how its characters come of age, but also how a group of country bumpkins become residents of big-city Seoul. And by the time you reach the finale, you will know this drama’s family of characters so well that they will start to feel like your own family. I’m also happy to report that while the show barely touches on the female lead’s basketball fandom after the first few episodes, it uses another character to reprise many of the music fangirl notes hit by AM1997.

As always, this series is not without flaws. The central love triangle is pretty weak; it only exists because of cheap fake-out tactics used in the 2013 sections. It also runs about six hours longer than it really should, and is sometimes cruel in mocking its characters countrified ways. Following in the footsteps of the two seasons of I Need Romance, Answer Me 1997 also abandons some of the edgier elements of its forebear. The show’s chronology has been simplified, and the rough edges have been buffed off a number of abrasive characters. Worst of all, the gay crush that was treated with such respect in AM1997 recedes into the background in 1994. Maybe this is a genuine attempt to reflect how attitudes toward such things changed in the few years between shows, but it mostly feels like an attempt to water down the source material.

This drama will keep you entertained in spite of its shortcomings. In truth, its biggest problem is that bar was set too high by what came before.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. There is one bad thing about my beloved Answer Me 1997: it made me feel incredibly old. I’m probably even closer in age to the 1994 set, so things aren’t looking bright here. How can I be an adult when I still feel 18 on the inside? Thanks for the reminder that I’m a failure at life, show.

Episode 1. Thank God for the Dramabeans recaps for this series—I’m pretty sure I’m missing lots of its jokes. It’s still a funny, engaging watch, though, and lots of universal experiences are fully relatable even for an American like me. Say, the poor country bumpkin desperately lost in the subway system. It reminds me of that time I visited New York and accidentally took an express subway a hundred blocks out of my way. . . twice.

Episode 2. I’m not quite as enamored with this youthful cast as I was with the kids from AM1997, but this drama sure is still funny. I like its dry, matter-of-fact sense of humor a lot more than the broad, cartoony comedy of most Korean dramas. And although I thought it was stupid at first, I swear the goat bleat is hard wired to my funny bone. I laugh every time I hear it.

Episode 2. So far Answer Me 1994 is cute and funny, but it’s missing one of the most important aspects in AM1997—a strong female friendship. Shi Won’s relationship with her best friend was every bit as important as any man in her life. Really, all of that show’s characters were always entwined in a complicated web of shared history and friendship, which just doesn’t come across as strongly here. This show is a lot longer than the original, so it makes sense that they would take time establishing relationships instead of jumping right in the thick of things. I still miss the bonds between the AM1997 characters, though. (I’m starting this show already knowing who Na Jung marries in the end. And at this point, I’m amazed that there was any surprise at how the love triangle turned out. They might as well have tattooed “I’m the husband” on the husband’s face.)

Episode 2. I actually really like that this show made its lead characters a bit older than the kids in AM1997. In a lot of ways, we’re picking up with this cast just where we left off with the earlier crew: in the first installment of this series, they went from high school to adulthood, skipping over the emerging adult years of college. In contrast, figuring out how to be a grown-up and live as your own person is at the heart of the sequel.

Episode 2. Interesting how closely city life seems to be related to Westernization. Residents of Seoul grew up with American things like biscuits from Kentucky Fried Chicken, while they’re completely foreign to the country boys. There must have been big parts of Korea where Western fast food wasn’t that common (and maybe there still are?). For me, it’s hard to imagine a life without French fries being worth living. But whole civilizations managed it for millennia so I guess I’m just being overly sensitive.

Episode 2. I was a little skeptical about the hotness of the actor playing Trash before I started watching, but I already love him. He’s like Lee Sun Gyun’s geekier younger brother, but he’s incredibly cute with the female lead. Even if their relationship of heckling and tickle fights is brother and sister territory, I can see them working out as a romantic couple. Kdrama characters really have the right idea when it comes to acquiring a significant other. If you date your brother, there’s no need for bars, matchmaking sites, or setups—you just look across the breakfast table and there he is. How convenient!

Episode 2. More than just being about young lives in flux, this show is about a nation in flux. All the old expectations and ways of life are changing—people outside of Seoul live in apartments and have desk jobs as Korea becomes an urban nation; women stop being housewives to take on professions, giving them the ability to divorce and remarry; and an entire boarding house worth of kids leaves their rural homes to live in the city and be computer science majors, a field of study that probably didn’t even exist ten years before. But Answer Me 1994 ultimately recognizes that underneath all these changes, people are just people, the same as they always have been and always will be.

Episode 4. I’ve been to some boring parties in my day, but this housewarming is ridiculous. Nobody seems happy to see each other, and the hostess is forcing them to sit around and watch her wedding video. That’s not party planning at its best, my friends.

Episode 4. These extra long episodes are pretty flabby and uncalled for. (An hour and a half? What do you think this is, Taiwan?) 1994 is also lacking the quiet intimacy of 1997, which really felt like a girl’s personal coming of age story. This sequel is less an internal exploration of the female lead, and more a regular Kdrama. Which is okay, too, but it’s just not the same. I don’t mind the teasing about the identity of the husband, unlike many viewers. I think it’s cute, even if I’m spoiled rotten about his identity.

Episode 5. An abbreviated list of the cute things in this episode:
—The ajummas rocking out to their old-people music
—The look of sheer, unadulterated happiness on Na Jung’s face when Trash puts his shirt over her head.
—Trash. Always and forever, Trash. With the little kids, with the freshman at his homestay, and (most of all) with Na Jung, who’s never far from his thoughts, no matter what he’s doing or whey he is.

Episode 6. Na Jung has spent 90 percent of this series in rumpled pajamas with crazy hair. I think we may have been separated at birth.

Episode 6. Chilbong is cute and all, but I’m definitely a Trash shipper. I love that his his stoic nature hides a smart, thoughtful guy, and the way he treats Na Jung is a rare treat when comes to skinship-phobic Korean drama. They’re so familiar and intimate with each other that he casually gives her an amazing looking backrub with no hesitation—he touches her body as if it’s his own. (But not in a creepy Kim Tan way. In a tender, “You’re part of me” way.) I’m sure it’s meant to indicate that he thinks of her as a sister, not a woman, but it’s still damn hot.

Episode 6. As usually seems to be the case with Kdrama sequels, this show isn’t a continuation of its predecessor. It has a similar soul, though, and carries over a number of details, such as the dead sibling and the mom who cooks too much food. This new series is like a different recipe made with the same ingredients, which makes it both cozy and familiar and compelling and new. A lot is still different, including the female lead and her dad. In the original they were both abrasive and self-centered, but in 1994 they’re pretty standard for Kdrama characters. It’s more pleasant to spend this time with their kinder, gentler selves, but it feels a little like a betrayal.

Episode 7. Chilbong, you dirty, dirty boy—you need to take lots more on-screen showers. Maybe you should even think about giving up shirts altogether. They’re just constricting your lovely torso, which can’t be good for you. (Or the show’s ratings.)

Episode 9. I was actually in high school in 1994, but things were pretty different in rural Vermont and urban Seoul. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pager in person. In my school people wore red-tab Levis and Champion sweatshirts. The rebellious among us ventured into flannel and Doc Martens, and by that time were already exploring the exciting world of facial piercing and Manic Panic hair dye. That was the year My So-called Life aired, and it has had my heart ever since. I loved the Counting Crows and thought I would die of suspense between installments of The Stand miniseries, which we discussed every day in my biology class. I had a school-bus yellow Sony Walkman and was still using it to furtively listen to Hanging Tough by the New Kids on the Block. Every day at lunch I drank a blackberry flavored Clearly Canadian and then threw the glass bottle in the trash, because recycling hadn’t made its way to Northern New England yet. My best friend and I were obsessed with Christopher Pike books. (Remember Me was my favorite because it had a character with my name. I think she was even the killer, which made it all the cooler.) At the time I didn’t care, but Kurt Cobain’s suicide would go on to define my generation. And that is literally every single thing I remember about 1994. Good thing I’m not the one writing this drama.

Episode 10. I heard Answer Me 1994 was notorious for trolling about the husband’s identity, but I didn’t expect this: Na Jung and Chilbong seem all simpatico, while Trash and his puppy Binggeure are cuddled up on the sofa like a pair of mandarin ducks.That would be an awesome outcome, but I don’t believe it for a second.

Episode 11. I would feel a lot worse about Trash not responding to Na Jung if she wasn’t doing the exact same thing to Chilbong. It’s cruel to let someone hope like that. (Although I have to say that I wouldn’t be against a Fringe/Sliding Doors-style plot twist that allowed Na Jung to end up with both them. I can barely contain my inner fangirl, they’re so cute.)

Episode 11. So the goat has a wolf friend this season, which seems appropriate as the characters are so much older. Now if only this guy wasn’t planning on taking advantage of a seriously drunk girl…

Episode 12. Korean cable really is the best—an ongoing discussion of breast size anchors this episode. This may sound kind of awful, but it’s such a delight to hear the characters admit that such considerations exist. It transforms them into human beings instead of the sexless Kdrama unicorns that populate most network TV.

Episode 11. The pixie-sized female lead is sitting on a bus seat that’s barely big enough for her. I bet I couldn’t get a single butt cheek on it—which is another reason why it’s a good thing I’ll never go to Korea. They’re just not prepared for people of my American girth.

Episode 12. There’s a lot I love about this show, and I’m happy to have a chance to marathon it over winter break. The characters, tone, and cuteness all hit me right in the sweet spot, but the plotting is pretty ragtag. A character says he’ll speak up rather than loose the girl he has a crush on to another suitor, yet he waits for months to do it. Another character’s mom is in the hospital, but there’s no real follow through because the event exists only to provide an opportunity for two other characters to interact. She’s important only as a catalyst, not as a person. And although the female lead is supposed to be in college, this episode is the first time we’ve ever seen her do anything even vaguely academic. There’s also the issue of these mammoth episodes, which require loads of filler. Some scenes go on for so long that I find myself waiting for a big, dramatic moment to justify them—a car crash, an unexpected confession, a runaway train. Something! But there’s nothing.

Episode 12. Na Jung actually reminds me a little bit of Eun Chan, the heroine of Coffee Prince. She’s not as delightfully pure of spirit, but her dress and mannerisms are just as effortlessly casual and free of feminine affectation. Something about her voice reminds me of Eun Chan, too. Her relationship with Trash is even a bit reminiscent of Eun Chan and Han Gyul—he’s a kind older man who likes looking out for her and thinks she’s fun to be around.

Episode 14. I like a girl who likes being kissed, and Na Jung definitely falls into that category. Good for you, even if the recovery period requires hyperventilating.

Episode 14. Why don’t American recorded messages as sound as lovely as the voicemail lady in this show? She’s so chipper and delighted for you to have a message, but also super efficient, as if she could whip your life into shape in five seconds or less. It’s like the Mary Poppins of automated services.

Episode 15. In the fifteen hours of this show that I’ve watched, each character has drunk approximately 300 times as much alcohol as I’ve consumed in my entire life.

Episode 15. I’m glad they finally let Yoo Jin explain her relationship with Seo Taiji in this episode. The show was giving us nothing but snark the topic, making jokes about things she did in his honor without having any appreciation of why she did them or how they made her feel. In the end her fan story was really sweet, and I suspect I’m not the only one who can relate to it.

Episode 16. In the best “time passes” device in recorded history, this drama fast-forwards through a year by showing month after month of the family sitting around the TV, dancing to a music chart show. Best of all, a pair of dog statues at the edge of the frame change with each time jump—in a summer clip, they’re kissing, while in a winter clip they’re wearing little doggie scarves. Also wonderful is that it’s now 1997, which means the cameo from the original seasons cast is coming up.

Episode 17. I’m torn about the resolution of the boy-crush storyline. Unlike Answer Me 1997, none of the characters every explicitly discussed Binggeure’s feelings for another man. But the fact that the show allows us to meet his significant other in the flesh is practically confirmation that Joon Hee was indeed gay in Answer Me 1997, which is cool. It’s true that sexuality is a fluid thing—just because you have feelings for a person of your own gender doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of being attracted to someone of the opposite sex. But it’s frustrating for Korean dramas to be so coy about homosexuality. It’s time for a character to be truly, unapologetically gay. And if a cable show like this doesn’t dare to take the first step in that direction, who will?

Episode 17. Dear Sung family:

Can I please come live with you? I’m currently living in 2014 but am considering a relocation, as I really miss the 90s. Yes, I’m not a student. No, I don’t speak Korean. I still think we can make it work, though.


Episode 17. The first appearance by the Answer Me 1997 kids was kind of lame, but the second one was perfect—getting to see Shi Won’s house in 2013 was like the best of domesticity fic come to life. And the two dads! I love how they reconciled the universes of the two seasons. (Now how about doing an Answer Me 1990 that includes cameos from everybody?)

Episode 18. Wouldn’t it be great if—after twenty long hours of drama on the subject—the big reveal in the finale was that Na Jung didn’t marry either Trash or Chilbong? She could have hooked up with some hot Australian, after all.

Episode 19. No wonder I’m single: I’ve been going about this whole relationship thing the wrong way. To make a man fall eternally in love with you, at least according to this show, you’ve got to be a thoughtless bitch to him at all times. (Or maybe that only works for skinny girls?)

Episode 19. Gratifying. If you’re old enough to get married, you should be old enough to know that bank books > rings. Also, my heart bleeds for Chilbong. (Another reason she should choose him over Trash? Whenever I type his name, my phone suggests “cunnilingus.” Just saying.)

Episode 21. Although this drama was a lot longer than it needed to be, I’m still sad to have reached the final episode. Both Answer Me installments have been excellent exercises in immersive world building, and I feel like it’s actual people I’m saying goodbye to, not a show. I saw on Tumblr today that our road together might not be quite over yet—an epilogue episode was recently released, although it sounds like the standard behind-the-scenes footage, not new narrative material.

Episode 21. It’s cute that this show thinks it can make any interior space feel like a foreign country by hanging a few maps on the wall, which it did in both the Australian and U.S. scenes. When it comes right down to it, it’s not so easy for any of us to step away from where we’re from. Even when an office scene was supposedly set in Australia, it was set up like a Korean workplace, with everyone sitting around one central table without any sort of partitions.

Episode 21. They should do a bachelor/bachelorette thing with this series.The next installment could be about the loser of Answer Me 1994’s love triangle.

You might also like
The better original, Answer Me 1997

 The real-world vibe of Coffee Prince, my favorite drama of all time


  1. "Judged on its own merits, though, Answer Me 1994 is well worth watching."

    Absolutely agree. From reading reactions/comments on various sites, it seemed like people were ruining their own enjoyment of 1994 because they kept comparing it to 1997.

  2. Since I haven't seen either 1994 or 1997, I'm not sure which one to watch first. Because of my interest in Jaebangsa Ajussi (my nickname for the actor of Trash), I'm thinking of pushing aside my interest in Seo In Guk just...'cause.

  3. Yeah, R94 and R97 were nothing alike, and it became pretty hard to even compare them when there wasn't anything to compare, lol. It was great seeing the cameos though.

    It basically just killed itself with the show length. Or at least, the quality suffered. They still got the ratings, which, i'm happy for them but I feel like the ratings should've dropped a bit just to show them that you can't drag it on so ridiculously.

  4. I agree about the length of the drama, way too long! But what made all the watching worth it for me is the scene in the finale when Na Jung's husband says, I love you. In my opinion, it was one of the most emotional confessions ever in a kdrama.

  5. For all it's faults I loved this show. Maybe because I haven't seen 1997 yet?
    I know that a lot of people felt that the husband mystery was lame and it did cause the craziest fanwar I've ever seen. But for me, the spice of not knowing for sure who the endgame was made the experience more exciting. When you already know who and who are going to end up together, after a certain point everything starts to feel like filler. And also the 2013 scenes showed me that all the characters had a happy ending so I didn't really feel that bad for Chilbongie either.
    I think the writer and PD did a great job but after listening to the actors' interviews I realized that a lot of the stuff that I loved were improvisations by the actors themselves. Which makes me suspect that some of the decline in quality might have been prevented if the actors and staff weren't so sleep deprived. I guess you could say that about a lot of dramas though.

  6. AM 1997 is one of my top 5 dramas of all time…but somehow, AM 1994 touched my heart deeper somewhere. It was long, and even though in the beginning it didn't bug me, towards the middle of its run I felt bogged down by the length. I felt the opposite than you though, when you described the friendship to be more genuine in 1997. Maybe there is something about sharing food and people, but I felt 1994 characters had a better and more solid relationships with each other. Including friends to the parents. And 1997 just had wayyyy too many scenes of people hitting and screaming at each other.

    Chilbong…I've never loved a second lead as much as I love this guy. It's not about him not being the end game. I just wish the writer would flesh him out more, and show us how this guy managed to move on and eventually love again. To this day, I feel betrayed for not given that. I have no problem Trash ended up with Na Jeung, after all, he was the one she always loved. But I want to understand CB more, that's all.

    Anyway, thank you for your review!!

  7. AM 97 is also a favorite of mine, and I would agree with you with the recommendation to watch AM94 for its own merits and find that you'll enjoy it anyway. I have never felt this passionate about a show since, well, my first Kdrama watching of Coffee Prince and Kim Sam Soon which are my forever favorites! Although I'd have to say that this is the ONLY Kdrama that I have ever felt bipolar during its run, going between love and hate but now leaning more towards love because of the characters and how I've grown attached to them, lame husband mystery notwithstanding. It's interesting to me that you compared this to Coffee Prince, coz I remember having the same feelings that I had with CP while watching this. Too bad it went on too long for its own good. At 20 episodes running 90 minutes long, there was really no excuse not to show key moments between our OTP - I felt that they could've done that, and create a much better story arc for the other guy outside the love triangle but they chose to keep the non mystery alive until the very end.

    Reading your recaps on tumblr, I know now that it was probably better for my sanity to have waited knowing who endgame was versus live watching it. Plus you avoided the ugly fan wars that erupted and that sort of soured the overall experience for me. The DB Am94 threads were not immune to that, and usually DB commenters are pretty civil and agree to disagree but it was so NOT the case with this show! I love Trash too, but I have to say Chilbong stole my heart! *SPOILER ISH* It was weird feeling happy for endgame while feeling so sad for the other guy, but that's how I felt. I held off watching the final episodes for a good 2 weeks knowing the endgame but I manned up and felt that it ended on a good note anyway. I'm with you though - would have been GREAT if Najung ended up with both of them so everyone can be happy!

  8. i was sooo sad that najeong didn't end up with chilbong. :(

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