by cityhunter, December 24, 2017

1. My Only Love Song

Even in Joseon men thought they were better drivers.

This show is really funny. That’s not hard to do when one of your characters is a sentient time-travelling VW bus with a talent for aegyo, but still, it’s appreciated.  

The moments of cringe are mostly eclipsed by the adorable grudging romance and the hilarious supporting cast. The story has some weak points (the end, for example, is poorly thought out) but overall this show was trying to be fun and it succeeded.

A big plus for this drama is the female lead. The character is well written and even when she’s getting rescued she doesn’t give off that damsel in distress vibe. She’s not always nice, but no one really is. Gong Seung Yeon plays her perfectly.

too much soju

2. Circle

Unpopular opinion: Korean TV does not do thrillers well from a storytelling perspective. This is why I put off watching Circle for so long. I wasn’t excited by the near certainty of illogical plots and writers that can keep a secret about as well as my mother (I’ve known what I’m getting for Christmas since August).

Circle, however, is easily one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen. I was very pleased to see it was only 12 episodes. That means the writers knew how many stories they had and refused to drag it out simply because 16-20 episodes are the norm. It also could have been due to budgetary constraints which I am behind too. Better to do 12 episodes in spectacular fashion than 20 with super sentai level production values.

The story was interesting and tightly plotted and in general, made a whole lot of sense. The connections between characters were logical and added tension as opposed to frustration. These linkages also allowed the show to give us a great, well thought out plot and still repeatedly deliver that emotional gut punch which so often on Korean TV takes precedence over all other aspects of storytelling. See, writer-nims, It can be done.

The writer doesn’t get all the credit for the emotional impact. We are treated to some fantastic performances. Yeah, you knew Kim Kang Woo and  Yeo Jin Goo were going to knock it out of the park, but did you expect the humour and intensity of Lee Gi Kwang's performance? Even the relatively less experienced Ahn Woo Yeon and  Gong Seung Yeon (it's been a great year for her) bring refreshing humanity to characters that could easily have been hollow cliches.  The possibility of a season 2 has been teased. I'm looking forward to it.

needless to say, I am offended at the lack of Circle merch.  I want this on a T-shirt dammit!

3. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

Wasted potential

This was where I got my first inkling of the crime genre trend for the year and I was not happy about it. The crime arc is poorly executed. We had to sit through hours of unfunny gangster plots and facepalm-inducing police work. Yes, the main villain was hella creepy but that doesn’t make any of it necessary to tell the story. A good story is like a good outfit. You should take off the last accessory you put on. Thoughtful plot development and a little restraint could have produced the same themes and climactic points by simply beefing up Park Hyung Shik’s stalker plot and the hilarious thruple dynamic. 

If you enjoy the weaker aspects of the drama, or if you can simply ignore them, like me, you will find yourself a genuinely funny, adorable rom-com which also boasts some heart-wrenching scenes that don’t feel out of place and an awesome female lead. She has super strength but she can still be quiet, nervous and self-conscious. In Bong Soon we find at once someone to aspire to and someone to relate to. The chemistry is great with both leads but Ji Soo’s standoffish character made it hard to really connect with him except when Park Hyung Shik pushed him off balance. Granted, that was probably sort of the point, but with so much of his screen time happening during story arcs that weren’t working that strategy backfired. 

You're welcome

4. Attention, love!

I am really of two minds about this show. I loved all the characters. The entire cast had chemistry individually and as a group.  Most of the time they felt very natural together. Attention, Love is a very sweet cohabitation/ friends-to-lovers story and it’s hard to argue with any one scene. The development is slow and frustrating at times but nothing that happens ever seems out of place. It’s never poorly done and each episode is enjoyable. This is a good drama, It’s just not as good as it could be. The story is hyper-focused on the leads and their complicated relationships. When outside problems arise they are handled quickly and with little impact so you never get outside that bubble.

The synopsis, the beginning of the first episode and even the ending credit sequence really hinted at a story that was going to span a much longer period of time with a lot of opportunity for personal growth.   The show actually only covers the end of high school and barely the first year of college. It might seem like that’s neither here nor there but I do think it’s a big part of the reason that the leads ended the show essentially the same people they were at episode 3 and that lack of growth causes a great deal of frustration in the second half. They keep dancing around the same things as if the point isn’t forward progress but rather to wear the characters down. Time passes and things happen, but not because anyone learned anything about themselves. You are watching a group of poorly supervised teenagers make questionable life choices. That is intrinsically frustrating so it’s no wonder even fans were annoyed with the second act.

5. School 2017

All those fresh faces about to be destroyed by teen angst.

Remember what I just said about poorly supervised teenagers and questionable life choices? School 2017 is how you do that without making people want to pull their hair out. You look around them, you give them context and when you pan back around to the kids you build on characterization so their actions don’t seem like little more than the whims of emotionally unstable adolescents.  

This show was so much fun.  They knew when to take themselves seriously and when to make us laugh. The pacing was great; the cast was great.  There were over the top moments that led to eye rolls everywhere but that was quickly reined in.  The writers left us with several loose ends. While that is never satisfying, one could look at it as being rather realistic. These are high schoolers, many of whom are getting ready to move forward to the next phase of their lives - they themselves are literally loose ends.

Pioneer Day?

6.  My Mr. Mermaid

Same, sister girl, same.

This drama starts off strong; it’s cute and funny with likeable characters and a great message. Like so many dramas though, it suffers in the second half. Storylines are abandoned, the OTP’s screen time dwindles and when you do get to see them together there is something significantly less fun about it. Yun Duo (Tan Song Yun) becomes little more than something for Tang Yi Bai (Xiong Dylan) to look adorable standing next to. Development is slow and in a lot of instances, there isn’t a satisfying payoff for your patience. The final stretch is frustrating. They are also guilty of one of my personal pet peeves, which is purposely styling a woman to be less attractive. This poor girl is given such ugly hair, clothes and makeup that when I saw her in Fox’s Summer I was surprised at how gorgeous she was.

You are absolutely adorable but if I have to hear "Tang Yi Bai" ever again I will scream. Seriously, someone should go back and count how many times it's said. Not me, though.  I can't take it.

7.  My Secret Romance

Baby looks skeptical.

It's not all bad.  They have some really great kiss scenes and a scene. The chemistry was definitely there. The OTP  were both self-conscious and awkward which is very endearing.  The story was solid if a little pained for the first five or so episodes. After that, it was like watching someone get drunker and drunker but through their writing. The drama started out a beautiful Agasshi having a drink by some fashionable spot along the Han River.  By the end, it was an incoherent Ahjussi snoring in a puddle of his own sick at a taxi stand. But yeah, Sung Hoon is HOT and the fact of the matter is if he's in it I will watch.

8. Bride of Habaek

This adaptation strayed greatly from the source material Bride of the Water God, a manhwa by Yun Mi Kyung.  The drama entices us with snippets of the opulent realm of the gods. We see sumptuous costumes, visually intriguing architecture and gorgeous CGI.  All of those things cost money. Lots of it. And I suspect that is where the problem started.  They simply could not afford to do the story as it was written.  Fantasy is not an easy genre to write and it's clear that the team tasked with reworking this did not have the experience necessary to pull it together. 

Then you get to the drama itself.   I finished this out of spite and because I liked the second leads. Their story is cute, has a definite arc and made the most sense.  The OTP is a different story. 

Nam Joo Hyuk just drifts from one beautifully arranged set after another looking damp and constipated, dressed in clothes so unflattering you wonder if the wardrobe department really didn't like him. Ha Baek is very different from characters Nam Joo Hyuk has played in the past. Are we seeing his limitations or is this the product of bad directing?

Shin Se Kyung is able to hit all of her emotional notes just fine but her performance does nothing to make sense of the fuzzy plot which even the writer abandons at roughly the halfway mark. There’s so much that connects to nothing and serves no purpose. At some point, the romance becomes the driving force of the episode to episode action. Even that is lackadaisical. They both come off slightly sedated. 

It left many drams fans asking how did it get this bad and no one noticed. 

9.  Fox’s Summer

What this drama lacks in consistency it makes up for in cute. I had never seen Jiang Chao previously and I was unsure at first: was it the actor or the character that I didn't like?  Both grew on me.  Both Chao and Tan Son Yun turn in funny and refreshing performances on a show that is bogged down in some seriously tired tropes. The romance is a very slow burn throughout the first season. It picks up in the second but all the happiness and hilarity is sucked out by dramaland’s version of dementors: middle-aged rich ladies.  Proceed with caution.  

Good skin care doesn't keep you looking like that.  Stealing joy does.

10.  My Father is Strange

When you and your siblings are like "Don't tell them nothing they can't ground us all!" and then The Parents hit you with " Wanna bet?"

So often in dramas, sibling relationships are black and white. They either adore each other or they hate each other and that is not how siblings work. I should know; I have four. MFIS captures the ebb and flow of these relationships very well. I also liked all the imperfect less-than-holy parents. Young adults with relative autonomy are pretty rare in any drama,  especially so in family dramas, so these “kids” were refreshing.  The cast all did great jobs. This was my first Lee Joon drama and I was impressed by his ability to pull off a complex character with such sincerity.  Another first. It’s the first time I’d seen a good performance and a likeable character from Jung So Min. So yay. It’s been a good year for her, too.  The other siblings and their significant others all shone in their own ways ensuring that this drama never stopped being fun and interesting.

The makjang plots were present and there was a fair amount of agony, but it was balanced well with surprisingly relatable if exaggerated characters.  Parts of the plot dragged on too long for my taste but it’s a family drama and that’s to be expected.

11.  Ms. Perfect

This drama was something of an odd duck. There was a great deal of tension and not always the enjoyable kind but I came back week after week. there was also a fair amount of comedy which was hit or miss. Go So Young and Jo Yeo Jung  nail their performances even if the writers lost their nerve and turned what should have been a much darker story into a young adult novel: compelling, but never really giving us what we want, which is to see one or both of these women go completely bats in the belfry. Don’t get me wrong, they had their moments but Sarah Paulson is not impressed.

Sung Joon finally didn’t disappoint me and even managed to have chemistry - the realistic heartwarming kind - with Go So Young.  I was less impressed with Yoon Sang Hyun's  Goo Jung Hee.  He was just pathetic and uncomfortable to watch like so many of  Yoon Sang Hyun's characters. His work always just makes me itch. It’s not that he’s a bad actor but all his characters are just so off-putting. Like an incorrectly buttoned shirt personified.

Let me know your thoughts on these dramas in the comments below.

Make sure you stay tuned for the third and final instalment of my year in review series which should be up sometime after the holidays.

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