Ordinarily, I’d be the first to agree with the age-old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – or, as the case may be, “Don’t judge a drama by its promos.”
After all, sometimes, the watch experience of a show really doesn’t jive with its promo material. Some shows have uninteresting promo material but turn out to be excellent watches (I mean, just think about the old-fashioned, ugly poster that belongs to the fantastic Healer), while other shows have amazing promos but turn out to be duds in the watching (Joseon Gunman comes to mind, among many others).
In this instance, though, I really should’ve paid (much more) heed to this show’s low-rent bad wigs and cheesy posters. On hindsight, I think they were trying to warn me that this show wouldn’t be worth spending hours of my life on, and – silly, foolish me – I didn’t listen. Which is how I ended up wasting 13 hours of my life trying to make the best of this show, before I realized that Show’s best really, really wasn’t doing it for me.
THE SOMEWHAT PROMISING EARLY STRETCH
Those of you who read my 2016 Year In Review would know that I actually had decent hopes for this show. And truth be told, I actually even rather liked this one, in its early episodes. I mean, yes, the production values weren’t great, stuff looked cheap, and the bad wigs were really quite awful, but underneath it all, I thought I found seedlings of a heartfelt story peopled by engaging, intriguing characters.
Here’s a quick list of the things that worked for me – at least in the beginning.
1. The epically bromantic context-setting
Lee Kwang Soo made a killer of a cameo in episodes 1 & 2, and the bromantic connection between his Mak Moon and Park Seo Joon’s Moo Myung was pretty darn epic in my books. These two friends literally cared for and loved each other more than life itself, and I found that heartfelt connection stirring and quite moving indeed.
2. Both male lead characters are intriguing
From the get-go, I found both male lead characters interesting, and wanted to know more about what they were about, and where they would be going, and how they would get there. Even though part of me was eager for Show to get its band of Hwarang together, I largely wasn’t fussed about Show taking the time to build its context.
On the one hand, I found Moo Myung’s arc engaging and poignant, and rather enjoyed the more personal touch of exploring his individual story than jumping straight into Hwarang stuff. At the same time, I found our hidden king rather intriguing in his angsty hidden existence, and was curious to find out why he was hidden to begin with. Of course, it totally helped that I already had a big soft spot for Park Seo Joon, and a growing appreciation for Park Hyung Sik as well.
3. Ah Ro is promisingly spunky & strong
In the early episodes, Ah Ro (Go Ara) comes across as pretty independent, strong and resourceful, which I liked a lot. I also loved that she told stories basically made up of classic kdrama makjang tropes. I found that very amusing, and wanted to see more of how our quirky heroine’s creative mind worked.
4. The growing bond between Sun Woo & Ah Ro is rather sweet [MINOR SPOILERS]
I thought it was an interesting choice to make our leads faux-siblings, and in my head, this added an unexpected layer of conflict to their future romantic connection, which I found intriguing.
It’s true that later on, this faux-sibling thing got problematic, but in the beginning, I actually enjoyed seeing the bond grow between Sun Woo and Ah Ro. In episode 5, we see her finally opening her heart to this Orabeoni, who had risked his life to save hers. Watching that process, of her letting down her guard to embrace him, was touching.
That scene, where Sun Woo tells her that she’s not alone anymore, is one of my favorites of the episode. They are officially starting to protect and depend on each other, and since both of them feel so alone in the world, this feels extra significant. I would’ve honestly been happy to see them stay – and grow – in a sibling-esque relationship, because the idea of found family really appeals to me.
5. Hints of potential bromance
I love me a good bromance, so when Show hinted at a potential bromance between hidden king Sam Maek Jong (Park Hyung Sik) and Sun Woo, my interest was piqued. I found their reluctant partnership in episode 5 nicely amusing, and looked forward to more bromantic action between these two.
THE DOWNHILL STRETCH [MODERATE SPOILERS]
Essentially, I feel that Show is better at building its context than actually telling its story, because once Hwarang was set up, everything started slipping downhill for me.
Here’s the quick run-down, in no particular order of blame, of how things stopped working for me.
1. All the manhandling
In serving up hidden king Sam Maek Jong / Ji Dwi as a viable contender for Ah Ro’s affections, Show allows Ji Dwi to manhandle Ah Ro a whole lot. I found this really uncool. From treating her as a sleeping aid, to forcing a kiss on her, everything about the way he handles himself around Ah Ro bemuses me.
The silver lining is that Ah Ro is firmly and clearly not interested in his “romantic” advances, but I still didn’t care for the large amount of manhandling going on, on my screen.
2. All the Hwarang stuff feels random
By the middle section of the show, it became clear that there was no real logic behind the various Events at Hwarang.
The Hwarang milestones all feel very random, as if they are completely at the mercy of We Hwa’s (Sung Dong Il) whims and fancies. One moment, everyone’s fussing over an overhyped dance performance, and the next, suddenly all the Hwarang are assigned assistants. This all just worked together to make the storytelling feel clunky, and plot developments, jerky and abrupt.
At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering at all the Big Drama around each event. During the season of the dance performance, there was so much anxiety around it, that it felt disproportionate to the Bigger Things that Hwarang had been set up to accomplish. During the whole Dance Thing, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Surely there are more important things that the show can focus on..?”
3. Go Ara isn’t great in this
I really loved Go Ara in Answer Me 1994, so I am sad to say that I was disappointed by her performance in this. I found her very natural in AM1994, but she feels rather flat here, like she’s almost just going through the motions and isn’t really feeling it. For example, when Sun Woo takes Ah Ro to Mak Moon’s grave, it is his guilt and sadness that I feel; Ah Ro’s tears just don’t feel real to me, and I have to put it down to Go Ara’s delivery of the scene.
On the other hand, I also felt rather meh towards the writing around Ah Ro’s character. For example, in episode 13, I thought she jumped to conclusions in a very illogical way. When she sees Sun Woo holding a hyperventilating princess (Seo Ye Ji), instead of jumping forward as a physician, she sinks into jealousy and rejection instead. That didn’t make sense to me. Especially since the hyperventilating scene didn’t even look romantic.
Overall, I just didn’t feel Ah Ro as a character, and this was a problem.
4. I didn’t feel the OTP
For the record, I wasn’t as squicked out as some other viewers, by the fact that Ah Ro is supposed to think of Sun Woo as her brother.
I think partly because she saw and was attracted to him early on, before she was told he was her brother. Plus, she seemed really hesitant to acknowledge him as her brother at first, and I’d like to think that it had something to do with an instinct that just kept surfacing, that this guy didn’t look or feel like the brother she used to know, way back when.
Even when she’s all “Orabeoni” with him like in episode 6, I think she’s still in the process of figuring it out, but is forcing herself to accept the sibling relationship, at least on the surface, while her instinct still niggles at her. Plus, the shades of faux-cest can be pretty heady, as I’ve experienced in That Winter. On a side note, it’s been proven that siblings separated for a long time can be attracted to each other, so on that side of things, it’s not too unbelievable either.
The thing is, though, once we move away from building a sibling-esque relationship between Sun Woo and Ah Ro, and start moving into romantic territory, the OTP connection kinda started to feel like a slowly deflating balloon, to me. The cute sibling connection was replaced by a whole lot of awkward angst, and I personally just didn’t find their romantic feelings for each other very believable.
5. There is no bromance after all
To make matters worse, I didn’t find a very believable bromance between Sun Woo and Ji Dwi either.
There are a few hints at a growing bond between the two in the middle episodes, but I didn’t find any of the hints believable nor organic. For example, the water fight between the two boys in episode 11 was cute and splashy, but felt quite random and sudden. Ji Dwi suddenly declaring that he considered Sun Woo a friend, when he’d all along treated him more as a frenemy, also felt weird. And Ji Dwi saying in episode 13, that he’d rather be Sun Woo’s friend than be king, also felt out of place.
The most important thing is, through all the episodes that I watched (since I can’t vouch for the rest of the show), it didn’t seem to me that Sun Woo reciprocated this affection in any way. And so, bromantic hopes were a bust, at least from where I was standing.
DECIDING ON GOODBYE
Overall, I wouldn’t say that this show did One Very Bad Thing, which caused me to drop it like a hot potato. Rather, it just sort of.. fizzled for me with each episode, in growing degrees.
By episode 13, it finally dawned on me that it didn’t feel like the story was going anywhere. I also realized that by this stage in the show, I no longer felt like I understood why characters were behaving the way they were. The writing also felt extremely bemusing. Just as an example, I thought the fight-to-the-death sparring thing in episode 12 was incredibly stupid and completely unbelievable.
I realized that by this point in the show, I’d lost interest in the OTP, the non-existent bromance, and the mystery around our hidden king. In addition, with the Intended Funny falling flat for me more often than not, and everything tending on the low-rent side of things to boot, I realized that there really wasn’t any compelling reason for me to spend seven more hours of my life on this show – nekkid group showers or no. (Hey! That actually rhymes! Ha.)