We’re having guest posts from the lovely folks on Patreon, to help us take stock of our drama years, kinda-sorta like what we had last year, woot! 🥳
If you missed our earlier posts, you can check them out as follows: phl1rxd, j3ffc, Uyen, Sean, Martina, David, Natalia, MC, Leslie, Reem, Elaine, Kun, lotusgirl.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that Trent is sharing his drama year! (Which means that, yes, it’s time for me to write my own year-end post too! 😅)
I’m so glad that Trent made time for this year-end wrap-up post, while also anchoring our Winter Sonata group watch with his brilliantly, hilariously snarky posts. It’s no mean feat that he’s managed to write this post AND this week’s Winter Sonata episode notes, on top of work and family commitments. Mad props to ya, Trent! 🤩
I’m always curious to know what Trent thinks of a particular show, because, even though our drama tastes aren’t identical (his taste accommodates more darkness and blood than mine, for one 😅), they overlap a great deal, so much so that if Trent says that he really likes a certain show, I’m more than likely to sit up with a bit of interest.
..Which is how I ended up watching My Name and Hellbound, for example, heh. So if your drama taste is like mine, you’d likely be pretty interested in Trent’s drama opinions too. 😁
Trent also writes about dramas on his own blog, which you can visit here.
I hope you guys enjoy!
Alright, howdy, y’all.
Let’s do a barebones introduction this time, what do you say? I grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado and I’ve lived in California for the last two decades.
I first started watching kdramas (along with the very occasional cdrama and jdorama) in May 2020; and I’ve been hanging around these parts— enjoying reviews, commenting on the mothership blog and KFG’s Patreon, and making a general nuisance of myself—for a couple years and change now.
I also did a “year end” post last year, which I kind of jokingly dubbed the “monster baby” (because it ended up so dang long), and when I sat down to do this year’s summation, I pretty much adopted the same template, with a couple tweaks.
Because I cut a couple of last year’s categories (Best OST; Definite Rewatch), I figured, hey, this will be a slimmed down monster baby, right?
Alas, no such luck… in fact, the bastard progeny of monster baby appears to have somehow mutated.
Maybe stock up on snacks and take a flashlight before you venture in, is what I’m saying.
I watched a total of 62 shows this year, two more than last year’s 60. I got a little more distracted by the shiny new stuff this year, so my current-year to previous-year ratio was tipped more towards shows that came out (or finished up, at least) in the last year (2022).
Last year the ratio was pretty evenly balanced—roughly half-half between current and previous shows—but this year I only watched a total of 20 shows that came out before 2022. BUT! That’s still enough to comfortably fill out my “Top 10 non-2022 Shows” category.
Just to keep me honest, and so everyone can check what was in the pool of shows from which I’m drawing (if you’re curious), here is the list I kept. Handwritten, of course, just because we’re kickin’ it old school here. As soon as I finish a show, I write it down on The List:
Anyway, enough preface. Let’s go, shall we?
Top 10 12 (okay, fine, baker’s dozen) Shows (2022)
Aaaand we’re already running into mutation problems.
See, I sat down to draw up a list of top ten shows that came out in 2022 and…found I had about eighteen shows on my list. Oops! Maybe I’m a bit too easy to please? 😥.
“No problem,” I said! “I’ll just shove a few shows onto the ‘honorable mention’ list and call it a day!” Then, well, I found that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on some of the shows, and as a result…I added a couple more slots to the list…then added a “tie” at the bottom position.
Now look, I know that many of you discerning dramaphiles are going to flat out reject the legitimacy of any “Best of” list that includes a high-school-centric zombie apocalypse while relegating a star-studded life-affirming slice-of-life show to the honorable mention pool. I get it!
Believe me, I hosted several heated internal arguments over the list. “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”
But what I ultimately kept coming back to as a touchstone is…what did I like (the most), what moved me (the most)? That’s how I constructed not only this list, but all the other categories as well.
And even now, as I’m wavering over sending this whole thing off, I’m still conflicted …let’s just say, I’m not all that firmly wedded to the ranking order here, alright? Just like they’re all good dogs…they’re all good shows! So. Onward…
Honorable mentions: Alice in Borderland, S.2; Extraordinary Attorney Woo; Yumi’s Cells, S.2; Reset; Our Blues.
12. (tie) Money Heist: Korea—Joint Economic Area.
This is a Korean remake of the highly successful Spanish show that ran on Netflix for five seasons. I have not seen the Spanish original; I am given to understand that this remake follows it fairly closely, at least as far as the plot goes.
I enjoyed this show rather a lot. It is slick, well-produced, and well-acted, and it keeps up a running meter of interesting plot developments and twists that keep tension and interest at a nicely elevated level all the way through the end of its twelve episode run.
Although it’s not a deep-dive into a cutting critique of corruption and the rot of inequality, it does nevertheless center those ideas with at least some plausibility, making this more than just a shiny heist show (not that there’s anything wrong with “just” shiny heist shows!).
The show is set in a near-future in which the two Koreas are in the process of unifying and have established a common currency, printed at a mint located in a “joint economic zone.”
A mastermind, “the Professor,” (and Yoo Ji-tae is nearly perfect for the role) gathers an eclectic mix of skilled operators to take over the mint and take everyone they find there hostage.
Is their goal a simple money heist, or do they have something else in mind? And will they ultimately succeed? It’s a lot of fun watching the show unfurl the answers to those questions.
12. (tie) All of Us Are Dead.
Look, if you don’t hold with zombies, this is not the show for you, okay? And these are not the (relatively speaking) warm, fuzzy, and (most importantly) redeemable “zombies” of Happiness, either.
No, these are the real deal: mindless, ravening, flesh-eating, fast and aggressive zombies, the merest bite of which is sufficient to infect and turn a healthy human into a zombie within a minute or less.
It’s also set in a high school, for the most part, which is ground zero of the outbreak. I’m not really a fan of high school dramas in general, but hey, it turns out if you pair them up with a good zombie apocalypse, well. Now we’re cooking with gas, my friends!
In this show, a core group of students manages to barricade themselves in a classroom while the fallen hordes rampage through the hallways outside, and it’s adrenaline-soaked thrills-n-chills as they first try to work out some sort of plan for what they’re going to do to get out of the frying pan without falling into the fire, and then proceed to execute on their plans.
There’s still a lot of angst – can’t hardly have a high school drama without angst, right? – but at least they have a darn good reason for it here, by golly!
I’ve heard it said that this goes on a little too long, but by and large I feel like this also maintains a pretty solid level of engagement all the way through.
It has thrills and excitement aplenty, while also exploring genuine emotions centered around loss and young romance and building new friendships and community in the cauldron of adversity.
This did well enough (number eleven on Netflix’s list of top shows, English and non-English language combined, based on hours viewed in the first 28 days of release) that it was renewed for a second season, and I will definitely be curious to see what they come up with.
An adaptation of (a portion of) the best-selling book of the same name by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, this tells a multigenerational story of a Korean young woman, Sun-ja, living under the Japanese occupation of Korea.
She ends up emigrating to Japan and raising her family there; decades later, her grandson goes to America for his high school and university education, before returning to Japan for business.
Beautifully shot with high production values, this show skillfully weaves narrative strands from two basic timelines–the 1920s & 30s and the 1980s–to show how people on the lower rungs of society do whatever they can to survive and try to build a better life for their children, even when that includes leaving their native land and moving to new soil to put down new roots.
And it traces how that legacy is reflected in the second and third generation.
Delivered in a packed eight episodes, this lays out a compelling story but leaves plenty left untold, with open narrative strands ready for a second season to continue weaving…so happily, a second season was in fact announced shortly after this one concluded.
10. Reborn Rich.
On paper, I’m not sure this looks like it would be all that great, but up on the screen, it somehow turns out to be very very watchable and very very entertaining.
The premise is that a mid-level corporate operator and fixer who has devoted his life to serving a particular chaebol is disposed of when he suddenly becomes inconvenient to his superiors.
The twist is that our protagonist awakens from his “disposal” event with his consciousness now inhabiting the body of the youngest grandson of the chaebol’s founder…a founder who is unexpectedly still alive, since in addition to the body-shift, our protagonist also finds himself back in 1987.
He then uses a combination of his adult brain and his fore-knowledge of what are now future, coming events to plot out a takeover of the chaebol that threw him away.
What makes this a gripping watch is at least a couple of factors: first, the writers have a deft touch with both pacing and plotting, giving us just enough detail of the schemes that are being spun out episode to episode to follow along and appreciate the payoff when it comes, without bogging us down in excessive procedural minutia to the point we get bored.
And then second, the plot itself is propelled along by some powerhouse performances. All of the core players making up our conniving, entitled, back-stabbing chaebol family are great, while Song Joong-ki, as usual, is eminently watchable as our lead.
What really makes it pop, though, is Lee Sung-min’s stellar turn as the protean founder of our chaebol, the (fictional) Soonyang Group.
The show has a lot of balls in the air by the time we approach the end stage, making it a particularly tricky plane to land, and if there’s a sustained criticism to be made, it’s that I don’t think it quite manages to bring it all together at the end.
But given the degree of difficulty and the overall quality of the production, that’s actually a somewhat minor complaint, believe it or not. The conclusion is satisfying enough, and the story that gets us there is itself compelling enough to make this well worth the watch.
9. Soundtrack #1.
Ah, I love this little gem of a show so much! I’ve seen it three times now, which, granted, is easier when it’s short—this weighs in at only four episodes of 45-55 minutes each.
Often we find (or make) comments that a particular show would have been better were it tighter, had it just slimmed its episode count down to maybe ten or twelve episodes.
This show is the opposite; stretching it to eight episodes, say, would have allowed more backstory, more relationship development, more time spent with these characters.
That said, this is still an almost perfect little exemplar of a warm, cozy, happy-making friends-to-lovers story.
Park Hyung-sik, who probably does smoldery unrequited love as well or better than anyone, is great as our steadfast ML, while Han So-hee (a long-time favorite!) is absolutely delightful as the ingenuous, unaffected FL.
Best friends for close to two decades, they have a solid, comfortable, mutually-supporting relationship…will they be willing to risk losing the great friendship they have by trying to expand it so that it encompasses a romantic element?
(Spoiler: Yes. I might in some circumstances recommend a show that doesn’t have a “happy ending,” but not one belonging to this type and genre. And I do recommend it, unreservedly. It only recently became available to U.S.-based Disney+ subscribers (without the aid of a VPN), so go! Check it out!)
8. My Liberation Diary (Notes).
There are shows that are relatively straightforward and easy to follow and that construct their narrative flow and character progression and dynamics more or less on the surface and out in the open.
And then there are shows that work in a sort of narrative chiaroscuro, limning their characters’ relationships and evolutions via implication, misdirection, and what isn’t said or shown, as much as what is.
This is a show that inclines much more toward the second type than the first. It’s not as opaque as last year’s Lost (to me, at least; as I said in last year’s EOY post, if you are attuned to Lost’s wavelength, it no doubt makes perfect sense), but it is a show that inclines toward the implied and the subliminal to do much of its work.
And that’s great, actually! I really liked this show.
It took me a bit to get dialed into its vibe, but I determined early on not to fight it, but just go with its flow, and that ended up working really well, for the most part.
Before too long, I was really looking forward to tuning in every weekend to see what those quirky Yeom siblings and the inscrutable Mr. Gu were up to.
I do feel like the ending it left us with was a little more open-ended, a bit more unresolved, than I generally prefer, but that’s a quibble, not enough of a flaw to mar the overall quality of the show.
What’s it about? Oh yeah, probably oughta drop a sentence or two about that, right?
So, there’s three adult siblings, a brother and two sisters, and they all live with their parents on the farm they grew up on some way outside Seoul, and commute into the city for their jobs.
They are all thirty-somethings trying to figure out their lives, which currently seem kind of stalled in various ways.
Then there’s the mysterious Mr. Gu, who shows up more or less out of the blue and starts working in the cabinet shop of the siblings’ father…while eventually also getting caught up in an unconventional, very subtextual romance with the youngest daughter.
With this core four being acted by Lee El, Kim Min-ki, Kim Ji-won, and Son Seok-ku, and with the script by the writer of My Mister, this is in really solid hands, and is definitely worth the time.
7. Under the Queen’s Umbrella.
This is such a good sageuk. It tells a fresh story, and tells it very well (fresh to me, at least; I’m not a broadly-experienced connoisseur of sageuk, I’m afraid).
It focuses on the sitting queen in an unspecified (fictional) king’s reign during the Joseon dynasty.
Queen Im has been on the throne for a couple of decades, long enough to have five sons, the oldest of which, the crown prince, is himself married and father of a young son.
When vicious and deadly plotting (is there any other kind in sageuk?) gets started in a way that directly threatens the lives and safety of her sons (and by extension, her), the Queen has to muster all of her intelligence and resolve to protect them. Fortunately, she’s got loads of both.
This is smartly plotted and just flat out interesting and fun to watch.
Kim Hye-soo as our titular queen inhabits the role with such depth and intensity that it’s clear that she was made to play this part.
It’s thrilling to watch her plot, strategize, and pull the levers on every little advantage she can come up with in order to thwart her enemies and any who would seek to harm her and hers.
And watching her face off with veteran actress Kim Hae-sook as the treacherous Queen Dowager, or the various ministers in the King’s court, is pure drama crack.
Trust me, if you haven’t seen this yet, it definitely belongs on your list.
6. Little Women.
Okay, first things first. This is not a modern-day remake, reboot, or adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel, only set in a Korean context (although that might be an interesting show). It is at best a drama “inspired by” LMA’s famous novel.
It has three sisters (originally four, although unlike the novel, the fourth died young, before the show starts), and they were raised in poverty and are still striving and struggling when we first meet them. After that…well, it definitely goes its own way.
You may hear it said that this is a show that has makjang leanings, and that’s a fair observation.
Here’s my take on makjang, although I haven’t devoted a whole lot of my viewing time overall to watching makjang shows.
I think makjang can be fun and entertaining, if it’s done well, which is to say, if the over-the-top plot twists and developments are well-executed and doled out in service of amped-up dramatic tension and propulsive forward momentum in the plot.
I think it’s mostly barking up the wrong tree to be overly critical of logic lapses in makjang; they’re going to happen, they’re basically unavoidable, and as long as they aren’t too gaping, and things are moving quickly enough and smoothly enough that you don’t get thrown off the rollercoaster ride, well, the show is doing its job. Which is to entertain you…again, with a wild’n’woolly rollercoaster ride.
And this show pretty much does its job.
It’s very pretty, with high production values that make it a pleasure to watch (including a somewhat gratuitous but nevertheless enjoyable trip to Singapore).
It’s got a top-notch cast, anchored by perennial favorite Kim Go-eun, that really makes the script pop and crackle. The plotting is twisty and fast-paced, with mysteries and revelations that keep us jumping eagerly to the next installment.
Are there inconsistencies and plot holes and logic lapses? I mean, sure.
Unsurprisingly, they get a bit bigger and harder to ignore as our narrative gallops towards its conclusion, but whether you find that conclusion satisfying is going to be an individual judgment call. I found it mostly acceptable, even if I’d quibble with things at the margin.
This is a tale about three plucky but poor sisters that get swept up in events involving an ill-gotten stash of (a lot of) money, a malevolent secret society, and a wealthy, ambitious, and ruthless family with a lot of secrets.
Watching them unwind the various mysteries lurking like landmines in the drama terrain, while trying to keep body and soul together, not to mention all their parts intact, is the central strand of our show, and I found it to be a very entertaining journey.
It’s one of those shows where I was definitely looking forward to new episodes each week.
5. Bloody Heart.
This may well be my favorite palace sageuk. Granted, I haven’t seen a ton of sageuk, but I have seen a few, and this one is certainly in the running for ones that I’ve found the most absorbing.
First and foremost, it’s absolutely beautiful. Numerous times I found myself exclaiming that the cinematographer or director of photography should be winning awards, along with the costume director and set designer. Some of the scenes and the shot compositions are breathtaking.
And then there’s the plotting, which is twisty and propulsive and almost never draggy or boring.
This may be one of the first, if not the first, sageuk where the political maneuvering was actually interesting, even exciting. Probably because it was so personal, and tied to the vital and lively personalities locked in conflict.
This was, as said elsewhere, about as far as you can get from dusty, bloodless old bearded gentleman standing in rows and mumbling at each other over obscure policies.
Instead, we get Jang Hyuk and Heo Sung-tae, both of whom look ready and able to throw down at any given moment, even when they’re, yes, plotting. It lends a welcome immediacy of tone to the proceedings.
There is a romance, but what you need to understand is it is merely serviceable, not truly central. It does what it needs to do to support the movement of the plot.
This is not The Red Sleeve, a show that is all about the central relationship between the king and his court lady.
This show is really, in the end, a meditation on and examination of power and how to construct the proper balance in a monarchy to avoid tyranny while still enabling effective governance.
(Right now, those who have seen this are furrowing their brows and muttering “what the hell is he going on about?” Stay with me, here).
It just puts that underlying, central theme in a really really attractive, fast-moving package.
The actors and the performances they turn in here are top quality. Lee Joon as the king is fine, but the role he’s playing is not particularly heroic. This king is definitely gray, morally ambiguous…probably out of necessity, but maybe also inclination.
The real standouts here are Jang Hyuk as the head minister and power behind the throne; Kang Han-na as (initially at least) the forgotten daughter of an executed leader of a losing faction; and Park Ji-yeon as the frustrated but potentially dangerous Queen Dowager.
The shifting balance of power between these players as the alliances and antagonisms ebb and flow is really quite delicious. Highly recommend checking it out if you have the chance.
A show about coming of age in a time of turmoil and uncertainty (the Asian IMF financial crisis of ‘97-’98), this uses a framing story in which the present-day FL, Na Hee-do, sends her disaffected teenage daughter off to grandma’s house for the summer, where daughter discovers and starts reading mom’s journals from back when mom was in high school.
The high school version of Hee-do (around whom the large majority of the story is centered) turns out to be an endearingly frenetic chaos muppet.
She has a fraught relationship with her own mom, who is focused on succeeding and moving up in her job as a news anchor (her husband, Hee-do’s father, has passed away).
Hee-do, who has dreams of becoming a fencing star, idolizes a fencing prodigy her age, Ko Yu-rim, who has already won medals at major competitions.
So one of the journeys the show takes us on is the growth of the friendship between Hee-do and Yu-rim, as well as a couple of their classmates.
Another is the seemingly unlikely friendship between Hee-do and a guy several years older, Baek Yi-jin.
Yi-jin’s previously well-off family was bankrupted by the financial crisis, forcing him to drop out of college and struggle to find a job to make ends meet. Their mutually supportive friendship eventually takes an unsurprising turn towards the romantic.
This is just a really enjoyable show, for the bright energy it exudes from characters who, even when they are down or struggling, convey the feeling that they are still giving it their all and living life to the fullest.
There is a fair divergence of views over the ending, and although I certainly understand those who have issues with it, I am not one of them. I found its ending, minor quibbles aside, both believable and appropriate.
This is a conjoined narrative told in two timelines, and it may well have the most seamless interweaving of timelines that I can recall seeing in a show.
The earlier frame centers on two high school students up in snowy, rural Hokkaido, as they first become acquainted and then become each other’s “first love.”
Nearly twenty years later, no longer a couple, they run across each other again in circumstances vastly different than when they first met.
This is really quite a beautiful, moving story, one that proceeds with a calm, measured pace that sinks its hooks into you almost without you noticing it.
It traces a connection forged in the early days of youth, through dormancy due to adverse circumstances, and on to the potential for revival and reforging.
It’s a lovely, gently compelling show, and I would have been sad to have missed out on seeing it.
This is that rarest of creatures, a Korean-inflected secondary world fantasy.
The fictional nation it constructs has an imperial court, but the real action is in the powerful magical schools and magic-wielding families that reside in the capital city.
The story kicks off when a ruthless assassin is cornered by a posse of mages, and in extremis, she casts a spell that is supposed to transfer her soul into another body (which it does, although as we eventually learn, not as flawlessly or without complication as it first appears).
The body the soul of the assassin transfers to is to all appearances a lowly transient beggar. She’s taken in as a servant by one of the leading houses.
That house is headed by a young master who is desperately searching for someone who can teach him magic on the sly. When he figures out who the new servant girl actually is, he makes a pact with her to teach him what she knows.
And from there, adventures and various hijinks commence.
I found this vastly entertaining as it twisted and wound its way through its narrative channels.
It does have an occasional ad hoc feel to its plotting, as problems and solutions pop up without a lot of foreshadowing or forewarning.
But overall, it actually holds together pretty well, the characters are easy to get attached to, the fantasy setting and other trappings were well done, and I was quite well entertained all the way to the end (although I do have to note that the finale is quite…tumultuous, and there would have been rioting in the streets if there had not already been announced a second installment to continue the story and resolve the situation we are left with at the end).
A show that hits on pretty much all cylinders for me.
Our central couple is introduced when a documentary film crew gets the bright idea to stick the top student and the bottom student in a high school class together for a month and film their interactions.
Of course, with that premise, it’s almost a given that sparks are going to fly when tightly-wound, grade-chasing Kuk Yeon-su is paired up with laid-back, laissez-faire Choi Ung, but by the end of the month, they’ve warmed up and opened up and are well on the way to sliding into a romantic entanglement that lasts into their college years.
Until Yeon-su abruptly breaks it off and they go their separate ways.
Ten years after the original documentary, it enjoys something of an online revival, and the film company gets the bright idea of doing a “where are they now?” sort of sequel.
They manage to somehow manipulate Ung and Yeon-su into agreeing to film an update, and we’re off, with a second round of antagonism and the open question of whether they’ll be able to confront and work through what pulled them apart the first time, and move forward with a renewed relationship of some sort.
I just enjoyed pretty much all facets of this show (okay, Park Jin-ju is criminally mis/under used, and the attempted humor centered around Ung’s manager is pretty “bleh,” but other than that…).
The set-up, the plot, the writing, the characterizations, the chemistry between the leads. I happily tuned in every week, first to last, to follow these crazy kids’ journey.
Top 10 Shows (pre-2022)
Honorable mentions: The Queen & I (aka Queen In-hyun’s Man); Just Between Lovers (aka Rain or Shine); Do You Like Brahms; Autumn in My Heart.
10. The Princess’s Man.
This show was one of our recent group watches.
It has a lot going on under the hood in its 24 episodes: factional struggles (of course!); a coup d’etat, followed by an attempted counter-coup; a sort of prison break mini-adventure; and of course, star-crossed lovers stuck in opposing political camps.
Our princess is an inquisitive and spirited young lady, who starts out as the daughter of a mere “grand prince,” one of the younger sons of recently deceased King Sejong.
Turns out daddy has designs on the throne when his sickly older brother passes away; in the meantime, daughter has managed to fall for the son of the faction leader opposing daddy’s ambitions, and vice-versa.
Lots of conflict and heartbreak ensue, but it’s an interesting story, reasonably well told, and it’s not all sadness and suffering, so don’t be scared away (unless you’re totally into sadness and suffering, I guess?).
9. 18 Again.
An entry in the perennially popular (or so it seems) sub-genre of “what if” shows, this is based on the 2009 American movie 17 Again (or so I’m told; I haven’t seen the movie).
And by “what if,” I’m referring to the conceit that the show’s protagonist, via some sort of magical or totally implausible science-fiction-like mechanism, gets transposed into an earlier or parallel version of themself, to test out or examine what different life choices would have meant to where they ended up.
I can certainly see the attraction; who among us hasn’t on occasion wondered something along the lines of “where would I have ended up if I hadn’t accepted that job offer?” Which is no doubt why this type of show continues to pop up now and again.
In this particular examination of “what if,” our protagonist started out as a star high school basketball player who was hoping to turn professional eventually, until he learns that his girlfriend is pregnant.
They get married, have twins, and settle down to raise them as young parents.
Almost twenty years later, their kids are in high school, he’s struggling at work, their relationship has broken down, and his wife is ready to file for divorce.
Through the good offices(?) of magical wizard dude, the ML is turned back into a copy of himself at 18, just with his 37-year-old brain and experiences still intact.
He enrolls at the old high school to see if he can at least tutor his kids through some rough times, and Life Lessons Are Learned all around.
So this is a pretty good show, definitely worth watching, I would say. I didn’t 100% love it, I think mostly because I struggled a bit to completely integrate with the ML’s journey and some of his choices.
But it does have plenty of heartwarming moments and it does depict a good journey in which our characters learn important things about themselves and their relationships with those who are closest and most precious to them.
An enjoyable show with a great cast of characters up and down the line and a nice story.
Its main focus is on the FL’s obstacle-strewn efforts to get back into the professional arena after a number of years spent as a wife and mother.
Although she has a college degree and an accomplished resumé from before she left the workforce, she soon finds that the professional world is actively hostile to people in her position attempting to return.
She’s eventually able to find a spot as an intern at the small publishing company at which her best friend from way back is a founder and top editor (and author; he can do it all!).
There is eventually a noona romance that comes into play between the two leads, although I have to be honest, I had close to zero interest in the romance itself. I was never able to really switch from “best friends” mode into “this is now a viable romance.”
But it’s fine! You don’t have to love the romance element to find both the “professional woman gets back into the swing of things” and the “quirky fun characters hanging out at small publisher” threads interesting and absorbing all on their own.
7. Because This is My First Life.
An almost paradigmatic example of the contract relationship trope, this show gets underway when the FL leaves her job as an assistant drama script writer to strike out on her own, and quickly finds herself short of funds and in need of a place to stay.
Happily, the ML has his own two bedroom place, but can’t keep a roommate who can meet his minimal but exacting standards–keep things neat, and take care of his beloved cat while he’s away.
Before long, they’ve entered into a landlord tenant contract, but because neither has sufficiently reckoned with the nosy parents factor, they inevitably find themselves entering into an actual-but-fake marriage.
Will their relationship deepen into something resembling real feelings and…love? Uhhh…what do you think?
So this is a very pleasant, serviceable little contract relationship romance, which ends up actually having a few interesting things to say about societal and familial expectations of relationships and marriage and what a couple is supposed to do to fit in with those expectations.
6. Tree With Deep Roots.
As sageuk go, this is a pretty good one. It’s like eating your vegetables, except vegetables prepared in a decent recipe with some good spices and all.
What I mean is, it’s actually pretty educational, as it’s focused on Sejong the Great, and in particular, his effort to perfect the newly created Hangul writing system and launch it out into the world.
It seems kind of hard to understand at this remove why anyone would be against such an obviously efficient and useful writing reform, but the show does a pretty decent job of laying out what a life and death struggle it was for the opposing factions, a struggle that went deeper than just a new writing system (although that was a big deal), to implicate really strong views on the shape of the (relatively new) monarchy and the systems of laws and regulations that would govern the country.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have King Sejong played by Han Suk-kyu, who brings more nuance and feeling to portraying the monarch than I at least am accustomed to seeing in your garden variety sageuk.
And he’s ably assisted by the Shin Se-kyung’s palace maid with a photographic memory, and Jang Hyuk’s firebrand of a guard who eventually becomes a convert to the cause.
It is very occasionally a struggle to keep up with the factional arguments, but overall show makes it more evident than usual just what the stakes are and why the sides are so committed to their positions. All things considered, definitely a worthwhile watch.
5. Familiar Wife.
Another entry in the “what if” sweepstakes, this one takes the form of a beleaguered husband, stuck in a career rut, with a couple young kids and a wife who seems angry–at him and at life–all the time.
He gets catapulted back in time (with aid of a magic toll booth) to a certain inflection point during his college days where he makes a different choice…which leads to him marrying someone else.
And then he’s back in his job as a loan officer at the bank, and he slowly starts to realize that his beautiful new wife is…unbelievably spoiled, shallow, and controlling. Just as his previous (“familiar”) wife shows up at his branch as an attractive, competent, unmarried transfer employee.
I really liked this show.
It has a few tangents and extraneous subplots that I’m not in love with, but the core story, about the choices we make, and how the timing of when things happen to us can exert such a strong effect on the course we take, and the genuine bond between the protagonist and his familiar wife, is powerful and pretty moving stuff.
And of course it really pops because it has Ji Sung and Han Ji-min as the leads, and they really make that core story work. Very glad to have watched this one.
4. Heard it Through the Grapevine.
This was another group watch, and it was sold to us as being in some senses sui generis for a kdrama, and I think there’s something to that, because it’s a sort of off-the-wall but at the same time fairly subtle satire that is doing its own thing in a way that I just don’t think you see all that often in dramaland.
It’s…actually kind of hard to describe in a way that does it justice?
So the privileged eldest son of a wealthy and powerful family—father is a big-name attorney at a prestigious law firm—meets a very intelligent young lady from a very poor family at a summer language study camp that she’s attending on a scholarship.
They…hit it off, and she gets pregnant. And with that, we are off to the races, as she gives birth (on his parents’ bed, no less–don’t ask, you have to see it to believe it), they get very quietly married, and she moves in to his family’s mansion to start studying with him and their private tutor, in order to eventually take the bar exam (while a nanny more or less raises the baby).
So of course, this is a send-up of wealth and privilege, and a muted but often vicious clash between disparate social classes, and a story about a couple of young kids who really are in love and just trying to get themselves and their baby through to the other side with sanity intact.
It is tonally almost impossible to describe, often very very subversively funny, and absolutely worth the time to watch, if you just have the patience to get attuned to its wavelength. (Don’t believe me? It won Best Drama at the 2015 Baeksang Arts Awards….)
3. Radiant, (aka The Light in Your Eyes).
I have a little bit of a loose attitude about spoilers, in the sense that although I don’t want the big shocking plot twists revealed to me, I generally don’t care all that much about knowing little details, and whether a story actually has a “plot twist” embedded somewhere.
That said, this is one of the rare shows that I honestly believe really does benefit from knowing as little as possible about where it’s headed when you start it.
I went into this strongly suspecting that there was going to be some twist that gets sprung on us at some point, but I give show a lot of credit because it completely outsmarted me.
I had a notion of what was likely to happen, and I was wrong, and then I got blindsided, and it was glorious.
Anyway, after talking around it like that…this is a story about a young woman who is studying to become a broadcast announcer, and kind of likes a guy who is a seonbae from her department, and has a magic watch that she found on the beach one day, that if she sets back the hands, it will turn back time for her.
She soon discovers that turning back time prematurely ages her, so she sets the watch aside, until one day she is forced to use it to prevent her father from being in a fatal accident.
She wakes up the next day to discover that she has aged from a young twenty-something to a seventy year old, and she and her family and friends have to confront and learn to deal with this momentous change.
This is very good, and in the end deeply moving, and it’s beautifully acted by (among others) Kim Hye-ja (who won the Daesang (grand prize) at the 2019 Baeksang Arts Awards) as the elder version of the main character; Han Ji-min, as the younger version; and Lee Jung-eun, as her mother.
Absolutely worth watching…just make sure to go into it knowing no more than I’ve outlined here (which is stuff you’ll learn within the first couple episodes).
2. One Spring Night.
Hey, it’s a veritable Han Ji-min festival up in this list; I came late to the Han Ji-min stan train, but I jumped on with a will once I discovered her awesomeness.
I just love this show, which is absorbing and complicated and tackles some weighty and important issues, and amidst all that still manages to put on one of the best romances I’ve seen during my time in dramaland.
Jung Hae-in and Han Ji-min have some sort of amazing thespian alchemy whereby they convey a growing mutual attraction without ever really doing anything overt.
To crib from my own initial writeup of the show:
“I honestly can’t quite put my finger on just how they do it, but on an almost subliminal level, these are two characters who you can really feel the intensity of how they’re drawn to each other and how they yearn for each other…. somewhere along in the fourth or fifth episode, I found myself thinking…good heavens, these two are like magnets, they want each other, with an almost wholly interior fire.”
Still, this is a grown up romance, and that means that both of our leads have obstacles and concerns that prevent this from being just a carefree, summery sort of union.
And their obstacles feel like they carry an added quantum of unique cultural gloss that makes them alternately a wee bit baffling, and that much more interesting.
He’s a single father whose partner (not wife) disappeared shortly after giving birth, while she’s in a staid long-term relationship that’s coasting towards engagement and marriage, except she’s looking for a graceful exit ramp.
I was really absorbed in this, pretty much from start to finish, and when I finally looked up from the last episode, I felt that special sense of mixed loss and awakening from dramaworld back into reality that only the best shows give you.
1. The Red Sleeve.
What to say about this that hasn’t already been said, right?
This is a palace romance that somehow manages to rise significantly above the usual run-of-the-mill palace romances through some combination of outstanding chemistry between the leads; a good, interesting script; and a willingness to take a relatively unflinching look at the reality of the power imbalance between the king and his potential concubines.
One of the things that makes the story so compelling is its readiness to give time and attention to the lives of the palace maids who devote themselves to service of the royal family–and in this story specifically, the crown prince and later king–and to treat their concerns and friendships and inter-relational dynamics as things important and worthy and valuable in their own right.
And more than that, there’s the script’s willingness to treat with respect the FL’s quest to retain as much of her agency as possible, to carve out as much of a space for independence as possible (which, admittedly isn’t much) in the face of not only the all-consuming nature of duty as a court lady, but the all-consuming nature of the king’s fond regard.
That she reciprocates the king’s desire and affection is never really in doubt, in spite of her every attempt to equivocate, but she still consistently strives to hold him at an arm’s length, maintaining a tension almost to the very end that serves only to heighten the intensity of feeling.
That high-wire act, threading the needle between the need for union and the need for some measure of personal autonomy, allows the show to build toward a genuinely powerful ending.
I was back visiting my parents when I watched the final episode–sitting with my laptop in the bed in their guest room after midnight, having a big ol’ ugly cry and stuffing the pillow in my mouth so I didn’t wake anyone else up. That’s the kind of reaction that this drama was able to construct.
A very impressive bit of work.
Best Female Lead
The nominees. (the mutation really got out of control in this category…I started going through my list of shows and in no time I had a bunch of FL performances that I really liked, and then when I started trying to cull the list down to say a manageable five names or so, I was all, but I can’t cut her…no, no, can’t cut her, what are you thinking?…which is how I ended up with eleven nominees. Oh well, ride the wave, right?):
Kim Ji-won (My Liberation Diary).
As the youngest of the three siblings in MLD, I feel like Kim Ji-won in some ways has the hardest job, not only because her character is the most introverted and inward-looking of the three, but also because she’s in a very unconventional romance with the mysterious Mr. Gu.
And she pulls it off really well.
In a role that calls for a lot of nuance and subtlety, both in terms of her own character progression, as well as in the development of her relationship with another introverted and inward-looking character, she acquits herself well, and makes little sister Yeom Mi-jeong a real and believable focal point of the story.
Jung So-min (Alchemy of Souls, pt. 1).
Now tell me this wasn’t a challenging role: the soul of a ruthless and wanted assassin, inhabiting the body of a lowly servant girl.
You have to play the seeming servant to your young master in front of the world, while secretly acting as his teacher and master–at his beseeching request–in order to train him in the use of magic. And then you have to believably fall in love with him.
Jung So-min carries it all off with fantastic aplomb, mixing great comic timing with wholly believable dramatic weight.
She has such a light but undeniable charisma here that it is somehow totally believable that all these magically gifted, socially and politically powerful people are just naturally and organically interacting with her–a nominal servant–as a near peer or equal.
She was one of the indispensable elements that made this such a scintillating and successful show.
Park Eun-bin (Extraordinary Attorney Woo).
One of our repeat appearances on this list (she showed up last year for her role in The King’s Affection), Park Eun-bin wowed audiences around the world with her turn as a rookie attorney on the autism spectrum, striking out on her own in the professional world for the very first time.
It’s an interesting question whether the script itself treats autism and representation of autistic people accurately and respectfully. To my eye, it seems like a respectful treatment, but I’m not really in the best position to judge.
What seems beyond dispute, though, is that Park Eun-bin really shines in the role. She creates a characterization that seems to breath authenticity, and is admirably consistent with it all the way through.
The result of her efforts are a delight to watch, and a real clinic in how a skilled thespian does her thing.
Kim Tae-ri (Twenty-five, Twenty-one).
Twenty-five, Twenty-one is a great ensemble show and I don’t want to take anything away from its core group, because they and the relationships they form are all great. But for me at least, first and last this show is anchored by Kim Tae-ri.
It’s her infectious, ingenuous, all-out, teenager-who-wears-every-emotion-on-her-sleeve energy that powers the narrative into the stratosphere.
Her Na Hee-do seems to feel everything with an intensity that I can only dimly remember from my own high school years, and turn right around and reflect those feelings back out into the world.
It’s an impressive bit of work, the more so since she is a good decade-plus older than the character she is playing for most of the show, yet still seems (to my eyes, at least) entirely believable as a high school junior/senior.
Kim Go-eun (Yumi’s Cells, S.2; Little Women).
Another of our repeat listees, Kim Go-eun is always a pleasure to watch in a show. We were lucky to see her twice this last year.
Of course she stepped up to the plate again in a continuation of her role as Yumi, exploring a new relationship and striking out in a new professional direction in her second season.
It was her leading role as the oldest sister in Little Women that really captivated me, however…I recall remarking after one particularly intense scene (and there were many such scenes in this twisty and intense show) that I could watch KGE monologue all day long on literally any subject and it would make me happy.
She’s that good.
Kim Da-mi (Our Beloved Summer).
Kim Da-mi made her mark early with a splashy turn as the mouthy, abrasive wannabe girlfriend in Itaewon Class (I liked her character there, unlike many, I gather), and then as the eponymous “witch” in the spooky, gripping action thriller The Witch: Pt. 1. The Subversion.
Here, she demonstrates that early success was no fluke, as she brings a ton of nuance and depth to the fierce but wounded Yeon-su. I loved her in this role, and can’t see anyone else doing it with the same mix of ruthless strength and tender hope.
Mitsushima Hikari (First Love: Hatsukoi).
This is a lovely little bit of restrained work that Mitsushima Hikari does here as the adult version of our female lead.
Her character has been through some things, been shaken up by life’s various vicissitudes, but she still retains a gentle kindness and optimism, along with a lingering sense of wonder at what life has to offer.
It’s hard not to fall at least a little bit in love with her muted but still shining presence, and just cheer for good things to happen to her.
Kim Hye-soo (Under the Queen’s Umbrella).
I feel like you kind of know what you’re going to get when you get Kim Hye-soo in a role: high level acting mixed with live-wire intensity. She’s really at the top of the game.
Paradoxically, that was one reason that I wasn’t that effusive about her role in Juvenile Justice, because it just seemed all smoldering intensity all throughout…almost too much of a good thing, if that makes sense.
But! It works out perfectly here.
It’s like this role as Queen Im was tailored for someone with the skill, magnetism, and range of Kim Hye-soo, and she absolutely sinks her teeth in and then hits it out of the park (how’s that for an incoherently mixed metaphor?).
She is absolutely mesmerizing as the smart, calculating, politically savvy, but ultimately good-hearted queen and mother who just pours her all into sheltering her boys and giving them a clear path to being their best selves.
A wonderful role in which she acquits herself wonderfully well.
Han So-hee (Soundtrack #1)
Our third repeater, and another one of those actresses who always make me perk up when I see her name attached to a new project.
This particular role is about as far as you can get from last year’s feral revenge-obsessed undercover gang member and police mole in My Name…which is great! What range, right?
Seriously though, Han So-hee is a delight as the outgoing, ingenuous, seemingly-oblivious budding song lyricist who is determined to maintain the close friendship with her guy friend of many years, even if it requires eschewing all thought of potential romance.
Until, well, the progression of events forces her to reconsider the wisdom and desirability of that “no romance” stance. She’s so fun to watch in this, y’all, not even joking.
Kang Hae-lim (Somebody)
So do a search on Kang Hae-lim’s name, and you’ll inevitably run across headlines saying something like “The Second Kim Go-eun.”
And the reason for that is the obvious parallels: young, relatively (completely, in KGE’s case) unknown actress, “discovered” by director Jung Ji-woo and cast in an edgy, artistic production in which, oh yeah, young actress has to get nekkid and make with some on-screen sexytimes.
Presumably another parallel is the skill of their performance in their first big role (KGE was indeed impressive in Eungyo, aka A Muse).
We can hope that another parallel will eventually turn out to be a string of impressive performances across an extended body of work, because I would like to see what KHL can do in…a better show?
Because the thing is, even for those who are really into gritty psychological serial killer thriller type shows, I don’t think I’d really recommend Somebody. It has too many flaws.
That said, Kang Hae-lim has an impressive turn as the protagonist, a young genius computer programmer with Asperger syndrome.
She manages to give the sense of someone with an existing interior life, even if she has difficulty expressing it, or communicating in the sort of way that most people might expect. Her character is something of a puzzle, in other words, but believably so.
I think the script lets her down, particularly near the end, but I don’t think that’s her fault. I’ll be keeping an eye out to see whether she’s able to get picked up for decent projects and roles in the future. Fingers crossed!
Kang Han-na (Bloody Heart)
Kang Han-na has been on my list of favorites ever since I first saw her playing Suzy’s estranged older sister in Start-up.
Here, much to my delight, she finally gets to be the FL in a quality prime time production, and oh does she shine.
I love her character in Bloody Heart rather a lot, and she really does it justice.
As the daughter of a defeated political faction leader, secretly loved by the embattled king, she is smart, loyal, courageous, willing to sacrifice herself when necessary, and ultimately good-hearted…or at least as good-hearted as the constraints of the ruthless viper-pit that is the palace environment will allow her to be.
More great roles for our Queen, please and thank you!
Tough, tough category, for me to pick a winner, at least. At the end of the day, I’m going to weasel out just a bit, with dual winners.
Congratulations to our two queens: Kim Hye-soo and Kang Han-na, both of whom demonstrated how to use intelligence and courage, along with a powerful will and a good heart, to push forward and achieve their goals.
Best Male Lead
Lee Jae-wook (Alchemy of Souls, pt. 1).
So Lee Jae-wook kind of jumped onto everyone’s radar with what felt to me like a relatively minor role in a mostly disappointing show (Memories of the Alhambra); he got his first leading role in chipper noona romance DoDoSolSolLaLaSol, in which he was basically fine, until he got done dirty (like the rest of the cast) by a script that spun totally out of control.
Still, the lad had potential.
So I’m very happy to see that he really starts to grow into that potential as the ML in Alchemy of Souls, one of my top favorites from last year (and no doubt this year, with the second installment that recently aired).
He starts off as a callow youth, artificially restricted from the same use of magic that all his friends enjoy, and from that starting point goes on quite a journey of personal growth and discovery.
Lee Jae-wook handles the various facets of that journey believably and well—humor, romance, dramatic badassery—and in tandem with his partner and foil (Jung So-min), is an essential element in making Alchemy such a success.
Choi Woo-sik (Our Beloved Summer).
There’s a certain common sort of male lead that we occasionally encounter in romance dramas: confident, self-assertive, subconsciously imposing his presence on any space he inhabits.
Choi Woo-sik’s ML in Our Beloved Summer is like, the opposite of that particular type of lead, and he’s perfectly fine with that! And so are we (or at least, we should be!).
He’s like the epitome of the dude who is more than happy to just march to the beat of his own drummer, and the great thing is, it really seems to work for him.
He seems largely happy in his own skin and he’s carved out a niche as a successful artist, although he has lingering traumas in his past that our show investigates and unwinds.
Choi Woo-sik really makes all these strands come together into a complex and interesting lead. Who needs all those assertive, imposing leads, anyway?
Sato Takeru (First Love: Hatsukoi).
As the adult incarnation of our male lead, Sato Takeru brings such a cool, understated charisma to the part of a guy who has loved and lost and been through a lot of interesting experiences besides—most obviously, flight training and serving as a pilot in the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
Watching his laid-back, competent aplomb is somehow very soothing, and actually prompted me to go check out his Meiji-era swordsman in Rurouni Kenshin, which, if you’re into the whole “bad-ass dudes with swords slicin’ and dicin’” thing is pretty cool.
Park Hyung-sik (Soundtrack #1).
In some ways, Park Hyung-sik in this show is just playing another variation on the character archetype he gives us in Happiness (and, I am given to understand, in Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, although I haven’t seen that one):
the strong, sensitive dude who is deeply smitten with his outgoing, take-charge lady friend, but is more than happy to support her on whatever level she feels comfortable with until she works through whatever is preventing her from recognizing his devotion and reciprocating his feelings.
Hey, I am reliably informed that his smoldery, knee-melting glances are world-class, so why jettison what’s working for you, right?
Son Seok-ku (My Liberation Diary).
As the mysterious Mr. Gu, who just pops into town one day, rents a vacant house, and starts working as a hired hand for the family patriarch in My Liberation Diary, Son Seok-ku practically oozes charisma and a sort of lazy, sleepy intensity.
Of course, the “mysterious” part implies at least the possibility of some shady or questionable antecedents, and sure enough, when the past comes calling, it’s about as seedy and disreputable as you might expect…and naturally, our boy navigates those dangerous currents with the same insouciant aplomb with which he made cabinets or worked the fields with the family Yeom.
This guy is just entertaining to watch, can’t deny it.
Song Joong-ki (Reborn Rich).
Our only repeat appearance on the men’s side of the ledger, you always know what you’re going to get with Song Joong-ki: stylish star power with a smooth, understated charisma that goes down easy.
First as the buttoned-down, tightly-strung corporate cog who is done wrong by his corporate masters, and then as the smooth, relaxed, preternaturally aware young chaebol heir and strategist, he capably pushes the fast-moving narrative forward as he plots and schemes to undermine the entrenched powers-that-be within the family and take over the whole enterprise right out from under their noses.
Kim Young-kwang (Somebody)
As I mentioned when discussing his FL counterpart, I don’t think I could sincerely recommend this show itself, but I have to concede that Kim Young-kwang is fairly impressive portraying a normal-seeming white-collar architect who nevertheless manages to emit a subtle but deeply creepy vibe the more the camera focuses on him.
Which, you know, is entirely in keeping with his hidden serial killer identity.
Props also to his workout ethic, dietary devotion, and personal trainer, because dude is cut to within an inch of his life, and we basically get to see pretty much all of him—not quite the Full Monty, but close.
One testament to the quality of the work he puts into this role is that not too long after seeing Somebody, I had occasion to watch On Your Wedding Day, a rom-com in which Kim Young-Kwang plays the male lead.
I was a little bit worried that the strong impression from this show might bleed over and influence my reaction to the movie, but I needn’t have worried, as he is entirely believable as a very very different person–outgoing, good-hearted, not a whiff of creepy vibe anywhere.
I’m actually kind of curious to see how he does in the upcoming Call It Love.
I think the crown here goes to current “it” boy, Son Seok-ku. He really is charismatic as the mysterious Mr. Gu, and I for one am absolutely looking forward to seeing what future projects he has on his plate.
Best Supporting Actor (Female)
Seol In-ah (A Business Proposal).
Playing a 2FL that was perhaps a bit off the beaten path for the standard issue rom-com 2FL, only in that she wasn’t any sort of competition for the FL—rather the opposite in this case, in fact––for a good portion of the show, Seol In-ah’s character was actually kind of my favorite.
Playing the born-into-riches best friend of our hard-working career girl FL, it was her efforts to escape the serial dating wheel that thrust our FL into the spotlight and started her entanglement with the ML.
And her character has her own fun romance arc with the 2ML—yes, as has been rightly pointed out, there are consent issues with their drunken hookup; and she does descend into a regrettable bout of the screechies as the story moves into its latter stages—but overall, it’s a decent role and Seol In-ah does it justice.
Lee El (My Liberation Diary).
As the oldest child of the Yeom siblings, Lee El’s character, just like her brother and sister, is still trying to figure herself out.
She’s fairly lacking in filters, which means she often blurts out injudicious or undiplomatic observations, but she’s still hasn’t given up on romance and the chance to find someone, and Lee El really makes the facets of her personality—the yearning, the unfiltered honesty—sparkle.
Bona (Twenty-five, Twenty-one)
An indispensable element of Twenty-five, Twenty-one, Bona’s character is the FL’s idol, antagonist, foil, competitor, and eventually, best friend.
She’s great in this, teasing out the pressure her character feels to succeed so that her economically-stressed family’s investment in her training will pay off and justify the sacrifice they are making for her.
And in spite of that pressure, or alongside of it, she still has space for good friends and some romance.
Lee Ju-yeon (Love is for Suckers).
I didn’t love the show itself, to say the least, but I did pick up a bad case of second lead syndrome, which is not usually a problem I run into.
I really liked Lee Ju-yeon’s smart, kind, ingenuous art professor…more than Lee Da-hee’s FL, in fact.
Unfortunately for her, she was smitten with the ML, and the second lead just doesn’t get to slip into the lead spot and snag the guy, even when maybe they should.
I kept hoping that she could escape this trashy reality show-within-a-show and make it into a narrative more worthy of her…a hope that I will nurture for Lee Ju-yeon the actress—that she’ll get picked up for a juicy role where she doesn’t have to suffer from unrequited love, at least.
Park Ji-yeon (Bloody Heart, A Model Family).
Park Ji-yeon actually got her start in musical theater, of all things (there’s a YT clip of her doing a bang up job with Eponine’s “On My Own” from Les Miz), so it feels a bit like she came out of nowhere when she exploded on the screen as the young, repressed Queen Dowager who finally decides she has had quite enough, thank you, in Bloody Heart.
She’s such a seething cauldron of repressed feeling here—thwarted love, impotent fury, deferred or denied ambition—and Park Ji-yeon deploys her top-notch voice—throaty, quiet-but-intense—to excellent effect to make sure those feelings are impossible to overlook.
It’s the sort of performance that makes you sit up and take notice, and nestled as it is amongst the other powerhouse performers in this show, that’s no small praise.
This one goes to Park Ji-yeon, whose wild-card of a Queen Dowager was an unexpected pleasure. Really hope she’s managed to catch the attention of a few casting directors and PDs, and that they’ve started throwing juicy scripts at her.
Best Supporting Actor (Male)
Hwang Min-hyun (Alchemy of Souls, pt. 1).
Okay, okay, so it’s not the most demanding role. I get it.
I nevertheless enjoyed Hwang Min-hyun’s turn as a highly skilled, upright young mage and swordsman who is a loyal friend to our protagonists and spends just enough time pining for his adolescent lost love to shade in some depth without becoming overly tedious about it.
Kang Ki-young (Extraordinary Attorney Woo).
Yes, we’ve seen Kang Ki-young in various supporting roles, but this may be his most impressive role yet.
He’s genuinely enjoyable as the workaholic but kind and understanding mentor to young rookie attorney Woo Young-woo.
He brings a very warm, stabilizing vibe to the show, which helps it stay on an even keel as the FL and her confederates occasionally go haring off on a wild quest or questionable stratagem.
Lee Sung-min (Reborn Rich).
Lee Sung-min is an absolute revelation here as the founder and unquestioned leader of the chaebol that he has personally built into one of the country’s leading commercial firms.
He essentially steals the whole goldurned show whenever he sweeps onto the screen, doing a very creditable imitation of a force of nature.
Which is just about what you’d expect of your founding generation chaebol leader, right?
Jang Hyuk (Bloody Heart).
I mean, c’mon, it’s Jang Hyuk. And thank goodness for that, as we finally have someone who can bring some intensity and physicality to one of the king’s ministers. No more of these dusty old bearded dudes muttering and smirking at each other while they bloodlessly plot bloody ruin.
Jang Hyuk’s prime minister is immediately believable as someone who toppled a tyrant in a previous generation, and now holds a firm grip on the levers of power in the current court.
Lee Min-ki (My Liberation Diary).
Only son and middle child of the Yeom siblings, Lee Min-ki is great at teasing out the nuances of his character—conflicted, unsure, endlessly questioning the vagaries and vicissitudes of life when he’s among family, friends, and associates, but meticulous, caring, and responsible in a professional capacity.
There’s not a lot of room for doubt here, as this one goes straight to Lee Sung-min, who is such a powerful presence as Grandpa Chaebol in Reborn Rich.
Best OTP (One True Pair)
Jeon Yeo-bin & Nana (Glitch).
Okay, maybe a bit unconventional, but this pairing absolutely deserves to be on the list of great OTPs from this year’s crop of dramas.
Here are two characters that start off with the totally traditional childhood connection; they are just starting to forge a solid friendship through their mutual alienation, hanging out as young teens in an abandoned-van fortress out in a vacant lot, when the friendship’s progression is cut short through…one character (Jeon Yeo-bin)’s extraterrestrial encounter?
Reunited fifteen or so years later, Jeon Yeo-bin, who believes she can see aliens, and suspects her boyfriend may have been abducted by them, very reluctantly teams up with Nana, who is initially hostile due to their past shared history, and is now working as a free-spirited gonzo internet “journalist” in pursuit of…rumors of alien sightings.
It’s a sheer delight how these two work through their past issues on the way to once again becoming besties, all while doing their amateur, untutored best to investigate and penetrate a secretive cult that believes in alien encounters as its central dogma.
It’s a quirky show, to be sure, but these two are pure unfiltered entertainment.
Kim Ji-won & Son Seok-ku (My Liberation Diary).
Not gonna lie, I think your average viewer (which includes me, more or less) is going to scratch their heads a bit about this romance, which doesn’t really have a conventional beginning, middle, or climax.
It is, nevertheless, a really meaningful relationship, that, in keeping with the very subtextual nature of the show in which it is embedded, seems to function and progress more on subliminal vibes and verbal misdirection than on straightforward communication of intent.
I mean, look, it kicks off, more or less, with Kim Ji-won’s request/command that Son Seok-ku “worship her.” Which, say what? But again, exercise patience, and this turns out to be a really interesting relationship as it grows and evolves.
Kim Da-mi & Choi Woo-sik (Our Beloved Summer).
I just love these two kids, who play so well off of each other, from the first fresh shoots of young love in high school, to the scabbed-over but never quite healed wounds of a messy break-up, and then the tentative steps toward reconciliation and reconnection.
Some relationships just get their hooks into you, draw you in and make you care about them, you know? This was one of those for me.
Lee Jae-wook & Jung So-min (Alchemy of Souls, pt. 1).
Significant complexity to this relationship, which starts off as a relatively conventional master-servant connection (he’s the master, she’s the servant), before inverting the roles once he discovers her secret disguise and that she has the knowledge and experience to teach him what he’s desperate to learn.
From that beginning, they very gradually grow into a deeper mutual care and regard. It’s fairly skillfully done, both by the script and in its execution by our players.
Han So-hee & Park Hyung-sik (Soundtrack #1).
These two are so much fun to watch together; it is immediately clear that he is smitten but manfully suppressing it, while she is wilfully oblivious, taking their long-standing friendship as a bedrock of their mutual emotional landscapes.
Her evolution into a, shall we say, higher state of awareness, is organic and believable and packs a wonderful payoff when she’s ultimately ready to meet him on different ground.
Mitsushima Hikari & Satoh Takeru (First Love: Hatsukoi).
This is such a lovely, meaningful relationship, and its genesis, existence, persistence, and resolution is the central narrative strand of this lovely little show.
We see these two connecting in two different timelines, first as teenagers in high school, and again, later, as adults with some significant mileage under their tires and experiences under their respective belts.
Loved watching the evolution of their connection across the years.
Another tough pick among several worthy contenders, but I think I have to go with Kim Da-mi & Choi Woo-sik from Our Beloved Summer, who I enjoyed watching together so much week-to-week, through all the ups and downs of their relationship.
(“worst show, OR the show that promised so much but delivered so little”)
This sounds like a potentially really cool fun drama on paper, and it’s anchored by Oh Jung-se in the title role, which should be like money in the bank, right? Unfortunately, this show just never quite manages to hit its stride.
As the eponymous uncle, Oh Jung-se goes to live with his sister and her young son.
A washed up former sort-of pop star, he’s been estranged from his sister for a few years, but she’s just managed to escape and go into hiding from her controlling, abusive, very rich husband and mother-in-law, and could really use his help for a bit.
This does best when it hews closest to its core promise–the growth of the bond between uncle and nephew, with a bit of brother-sister reconciliation on the side.
But then show can’t resist throwing in various wacky subplots, and our hostess (KFG) has show’s number in her review when she observes that it wants to maintain an overall Disney-Hallmark vibe, but just can’t resist feinting towards some makjang stylings. And Disneyfied makjang is…not good.
By the closing stretch, I was pretty bored and just gutting it out to finish. Oops.
One of those shows that seemingly has it all: top of the line production values, a great cast anchored by a really A-list star (Son Ye-jin), and a promising-sounding concept (three friends about to hit 40 take stock of their lives and friendship).
In execution it turns into “Son Ye-jin and her two friends, one of whom has a terminal illness, struggle through boyfriend issues and a long goodbye.”
It’s not so much that this is actively bad—I finished it and didn’t hate it—as that it doesn’t really feel like it came close to living up to its potential.
It feels like it could have made other choices—balance the time and focus between the main three characters a bit better; maybe dispense with the terminal illness plot (it’s a worthy subject, but I’m not sure it fit this drama so well); exhibit a defter touch with the boyfriend subplots—that would have served it better and made it into a stronger, more compelling show.
Bulgasal: Immortal Souls.
Again, another show that was not actually bad, per se. I even ended up with mildly positive feelings towards it, on balance.
It makes the list because it opened with a couple of truly interesting, compelling episodes…and then just never really lived up to the rich, dark, complicated and mysterious folkloric tone of those episodes, instead devolving into a fairly pedestrian supernaturally-inflected quasi-mystery, with a lot of monster-of-the-week episodes in the middle that ultimately felt like filler.
Not terrible, but a real let down from the promise of the first couple episodes.
So, I was really looking forward to this show.
The promos looked quite exciting, showing Seo Hyun-jin turned out as sleek and stylish as I’d ever seen her, made up as a top-echelon power lawyer.
The first couple of episodes seemed to be delivering quite well on that premise, as Seo Hyun-jin cut a ruthless swath through lesser, and less-prepared, opponents, while Heo Jun-ho circled ominously in the background as the amoral, profit-and-power obsessed head of the firm.
And then, it all started to fall apart in a slow-motion train wreck that only accelerated the closer we got to the end.
I didn’t see True Beauty, but Hwang In-yeop was fine in a minor role in 18 Again, and although I was indifferent to his presence in The Sound of Magic, I didn’t hate it.
But I swear, he’s going to have to be amazing in future roles to wash away the taint of this one. I’d like to cut him a break and say it’s the script that did him wrong, and there’s truth to that, sure, but still.
The show centered a noona romance that it really really wanted us to take seriously and treat as not just deeply meaningful but almost fated (strong prior connection, etc.). And it just really really wasn’t any of that.
It was, frankly, a mess—boundary trespassing, and not in a good way (is there a good way to trespass boundaries?); transgressive in a power differential sense (student-professor); and just devoid of spark or chemistry—and by the time we hit the big romantic sunrise-on-the-beach scene around episode 12 or so, I was so bored I was literally fast-forwarding through it.
And then! Show had to veer toward increasingly makjang stylings as it headed to its conclusion––birth secrets, oh noes!––that were just dumb, and not capitalized on to make the crazy worthwhile or interesting! If you’re gonna take a walk on the makjang side, do it well, please?
Very very disappointing.
Not gonna lie, Kwon Yuri showcasing good genes and a decade-plus of hard work in the premiere 2nd-gen girls group (SNSD) by filling out this hot pink ensemble (see above pic) is pretty much the high point of this show. And it comes in the second episode, alas.
So this show is pretty clearly an attempt to capitalize on the great chemistry between Jung Il-woo and Kwon Yuri in Bossam: Steal the Fate. And sad to say, it totally fails to do anything of the sort.
It has a potentially cool premise: rich chaebol dilettante goes undercover to solve crimes, with the help of an eager-beaver regular girl who has a secret superpower (extremely long-range vision).
It just squanders it all on unfunny hijinks, a boring plot, and unfortunately, approximately zero chemistry between the leads. No bueno!
This one’s an easy choice. None of the other nominees can even come close to the magnitude of the gap between shiny potential and wretched execution that we see in Why Her? And even worse, it’s actually a bad show, overall.
So, congratulations, Why Her? Everyone involved with putting this turkey together: DO BETTER!
Best Original Song
(Quick note on this category. I have decreed that Alchemy of Souls, pt. 2: Light and Shadow belongs to 2023, rather than 2022, otherwise these two songs from its OST would show up in the following nominee list, because I think they’re both quite beautiful.
Expect to see them on next year’s list: “I’m Sorry,” –Ailee & “Blue Flower,” –Lia).
“Leave”—4Men (Bulgasal: Immortal Souls)
I really like the moody, yearning tone of this ballad that seems to paint so well the wounded immortal warrior, wandering through time as those tied to him by fate are bound to a cycle of continuous reincarnation.
Then the show itself didn’t quite live up to that promise. Oh well. Still a great song.
“Annarasumanara”—Ji Chang-wook & Choi Sung-eun (The Sound of Magic)
Yes, it wasn’t a particularly distinguished show; it gets marks for being an actual attempt at a musical-type production, but it wasn’t a very good musical by any stretch. And the musical numbers themselves for the most part aren’t real show-stoppers or all that memorable.
That said, I found that I did like this duet between Choi Sung-eun and Ji Chang-wook quite well. It’s got a nice wistful opening that builds to a very serviceable, soaring harmony. It’s a pleasant little song, in other words.
“Home”—Janet Suh (Our Beloved Summer)
Wistful and lovely, this slow beautiful ballad almost perfectly captures its title sentiment, “home.” Comforted by it, yearning for it, drawn to it by those who inhabit it.
The big splashy OST number for this show was of course V’s “Christmas Tree,” and yes, it’s a great song. I just like this one better.
“First Love”—Utada Hikaru (First Love: Hatsukoi)
This is a wee bit of a cheat, since this is not an original song created specifically for the show.
It was released back in 1999 by Utada Hikaru (until this show came out, I had never heard of her, but she’s a huge star in Japan), and the song was actually the writer’s inspiration for the show (along with Utada’s 2018 song “Hatsukoi”—which is the Japanese word for “first love”).
How cool is that? And this song does punctuate significant moments in the show, so of course it’s allowed to make the list!
“Dimly”—RIO (Bloody Heart)
Another slow lovely ballad (gee, wonder what kind of songs catch my interest?), this seems to me the standout of an OST that actually has several really good songs on it.
Love how it starts out so slow and contemplative, gradually building to a still-restrained climax.
For the longest time, I had “Home” firmly at the head of the list, but you know, I’ve been listening to “Dimly” a lot in the rotation lately, and…I think it might have nipped into the top spot in a squeaker.
I’m going to interpret “gem” fairly loosely here. Some of these are really good shows on the merits (Reset, Yumi 2); others are off the beaten path but still maybe worth a look if you like the sort of thing they’re doing or looking for something a bit different.
This is a peppy little cdrama time-loop pleaser that seemingly swept out of nowhere and got everyone all hot and bothered. And with good reason!
It’s eminently bingeable (and I did in fact binge it, in three or four days) at only fifteen episodes (small, by cdrama standards), and it keeps up interest and excitement for almost the whole way (it wilts somewhat at the very end).
Two young strangers start out as passengers on a bus, which blows up, killing everyone aboard.
They somehow find themselves thrown into a time-loop, where with each explosion, they reawaken back on the bus, a few minutes before the climactic event, and slowly have to figure out what the hell is going on, and then see if they can somehow stop it.
It’s a nifty bit of storytelling, as their detective work branches out, and they run through multiple iterations where they have a good idea what’s coming but, for instance, the police they interact with don’t. Definitely worth the time to check it out.
A Model Family.
This is a Netflix Original (the kind where Netflix produces it and drops all the episodes at once) with ten episodes, and I think it’s interesting, even if not exactly great or super-compelling.
It also isn’t particularly uplifting (read: not at all) and doesn’t come to a nice happy touchy-feely ending (although…I suppose the “bad guy”—one of them, at least—does get their comeuppance?).
What we have here is a family that is kind of teetering on the edge.
Dad is scraping by as an adjunct college instructor, but can’t get a tenured job as an actual professor. Mom helps make ends meet doing translation jobs, but is also having an affair on the side. Their teen daughter is rebellious, while the younger son has a potentially fatal heart condition.
One day dad serendipitously stumbles across a couple of drug couriers who appear to have killed each other, leaving a huge pot of money just sitting there.
Dad sneaks the loot to his garage until he can figure out how to use it, and…that does not go nearly as well as he was hoping, as both drug gang members and undercover cops are soon sniffing around the area.
So yeah, if you’ve got a taste for a more, shall we say, noirish sort of production, this may be what you’re looking for? Like I said, interesting, if not amazing or anything.
Another Netflix Original, this time with only six episodes, this one boasts a glitzy South American location (Suriname, although I think they actually filmed in the Dominican Republic) and a very high octane cast—Hwang Jung-min and Ha Jung-woo, who are both big-name movie stars who have done very little as far dramas go, as well as Park Hae-soo and Yoo Yeon-seok.
So basically, a somewhat down on their luck couple of strivers and buddies concoct a scheme to head off to Suriname to buy skates (seafood) on the cheap and ship to Korea to make a killing.
Of course, they end up totally out of their depth; one is killed and the other sent to prison, where he’s rescued by a Korean NIS agent who needs him to infiltrate the operation of another Korean expat who is posing as a pastor as a front for his thriving drug-running business.
So if you like wild and wacky drug gang shenanigans, well, this is the show for you.
It goes without saying that Hwang (as the ruthless drug lord cum pastor) and Ha (as the out of his depth, but crafty and quick on his feet businessman) are great. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for romance or uplifting messages…not so much.
Third Netflix Original in a row…hmmm. This little show might just be what you see cross-referenced when you look up “quirky” in the dictionary.
I mean, the protagonist thinks she can see aliens, and that her boyfriend may have been abducted by aliens. Then she hooks up with her old former friend—who’s now kind of antagonistic—in order to go hunting for “the truth” that “they” don’t want you to know or find out.
This leads them into an extended semi-farcical investigation of a secretive, dangerous cult devoted to the promise of contact or communication from aliens (the extraterrestrial kind).
So honestly, it took me two or three episodes to lock in on the show’s vibe and where it’s coming from; Jeon Yeo-bin, for instance, is initially playing her character–intentionally, I think–with very little affect, so she’s hard to get a handle on at first.
But! If you do manage to get tuned into what the show is up to, it’s actually really subversively hilarious, and has quite a lovely little character dynamic going between the two leads (Nana and Jeon Yeo-bin).
This is definitely one of those “check it out if you’re looking for something off the beaten path” shows.
The second season of last year’s outstanding Yumi’s Cells, this continues the life journey of eponymous heroine Yumi, as she moves on from the first stanza’s season-ending break-up and plunges into a new professional adventure (full-time writer) as well as a new romance.
Of course, we get lots more philosophizing, equivocating, arguing, and all around antics from the anthropomorphized cells inhabiting Yumi’s head and overseeing her actions and choices.
Good fun that seems like it shouldn’t work as well as it somehow does.
A much praised historical drama set in the Northern Song dynasty (ca. 960 – 1279 CE), this show in a lot of ways epitomizes the difficulty I have getting into cdramas.
I mean, it’s quite beautiful–the set design and costuming is top-notch, and really gives a feeling that you are right there in a well-defined historical setting.
The theme of sisterhood and mutual support among the three main female characters is a laudable and worthwhile topic (although the youngest member is kind of flaky, and I’m not sure I’d have welcomed her back with open arms quite so quickly). Liu Yifei as the main FL is of course fantastic.
And yet…there were long stretches where I just struggled to stay engaged, as the narrative seemed to meander hither and yon without a lot of, well, focus. I find this kind of frustrating.
Anyway. I don’t want to just complain; I do have this in the “Hidden Gem” category, after all, and it is a worthy show. And I would recommend it, just because it does look so good, and it does have some good story nuggets embedded throughout.
I just wish cdrama scriptwriters and I were more in tune…
All of Us Are Dead.
This is at its core a story about a plucky band of survivors doing their teeth-bared, scream-into-the-void best to actually stay survivors in the face of a mindless horde that just wants to eat them.
So yeah, the ensemble is kind of important to carrying that whole vibe off.
Fortunately, our young crew is up to the task…there are a lot of really strong performances from our group, who gel as a believable gang of beleaguered but ultimately capable comrades-in-arms.
Early promos focused on the “omnibus” nature of this drama, and how it would gather a double handful of top-notch performers, each of whom would have a unique bit of story to contribute to the overall mosaic.
And then, darned if the show didn’t turn out to more or less fulfill that template, just as promised.
I mean, there’s almost too many A-listers to reel off here: Lee Byung-hun; Shin Min-ah; Kim Woo-bin; Han Ji-min; Lee Jung-eun; Kim Hye-ja; Go Doo-shim…and then the “supporting” cast—veteran character actors and fresh-faced newcomers alike—jump into the breach and give great performances as well. Good stuff.
A sprawling cast of characters fills out this fantasy world. Good fantasy needs a good crew to populate the world and make it believable to the audience, and fortunately we are well-served by the cast here.
They navigate duels with magic swords and spells and so forth with aplomb; much of the humor is delightful, and the bits that are overdone or try-hard, well, I don’t hold that against the actors.
Everybody seems to be having fun and emoting their hearts out, and their efforts really help the story to land with proper force and intensity.
Lots of great performances in this show, which is almost a requirement to make the crazier touches come off without the whole thing flying out of control. Makjang works a lot better if you’ve got quality actors who can really sell it, you know?
Of course there’s our three sisters (Kim Go-eun, Nam Ji-hyun, and Park Ji-hu), but then throw in Wi Ha-jun as a free agent with ambiguous motives and loyalties, and Um Ki-jun and Um Ji-won as our rich and powerful antagonists, and you have a great mix on all sides of the ledger.
A narrative told across two timelines and dealing with significant and weighty issues of place and belonging and integration into a foreign environment is going to need some heavyweight performances across the board, and fortunately, that’s what we get.
Of course, Youn Yuh-jung is the most decorated name in the cast, but Lee Min-ho (not generally on many actor of the year lists, that I’ve observed) turns in a quality performance as an up-from-the-mud successful businessman, while Jin Ha brings great intensity to the role of a tri-lingual descendant trying to figure out where he really belongs.
Maybe the most impressive performance, however, is Kim Min-ha, showing up essentially out of nowhere in her first major role, and absolutely wowing everyone with her turn as the younger incarnation of our FL.
So there are a handful of really fine ensembles represented here, but in the end, this category also has a pretty clear choice. Our Blues is just chock full of quality veteran actors and stars (and some fresh new up-and-comers who are more than pulling their weight, like Noh Yun-seo) who each have a compelling story to tell or contribute to, and who all do a great job.
There you have it!
Thank you for joining us on this 2022 drama retrospective journey! If you made it this far, you are either a true drama fan, or a stone masochist…😁