Best in Show: K-dramas of 2014
Amazingly enough, we only have a a few days left in 2014 which means we’ve had almost a full year of K-dramas to lift our spirits, move our hearts, make us laugh, inspire fear in us, as well as admiration, and generally entertain us.
Some dramas came with hype and buzz of big-name actors and actresses, others re-teamed leads in the hope of capitalizing on the chemistry of days gone by, others looked for outside inspiration, taking notes from webtoons and manhwas, and some went way outside the box to create an out-of-this-world experience. Some crumbled under the demands of the live shoot and the weight of expectations, while other dramas soared through great writing, good acting, and the electric chemistry of their leads.
The K-drama world of 2014 was, on the whole, stuck in a rut. A big, slumpy rut. And yet the beginning and end of 2014 saw its brightest stars, bookending a year of dramas that largely under performed. It is hard to say if this was a fluke, or if audiences are changing and maturing in a way that the industry has yet to recognize. If the first, then we can expect the K-drama world to right itself next year, if the latter, then things look a little more interesting in the new year.
Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself.
That being said, there were certainly gems to be found this year, and while this list is by no means exhaustive of 2014, since it obviously pulls from the dramas that I watched and, try as I might, I couldn’t watch them all.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, these are my picks of the best K-dramas 2014 had to offer.
“My Love from the Stars”
Okay, technically this drama premiered in 2013, but with only 2 weeks’ worth of episodes broadcasted by the time we said goodbye to 2013, I feel that it’s more than appropriate to categorize “My Love from the Stars” as a drama from this year. So that’s what I’m going to do.
What is there to say about this drama that hasn’t already been said, at length, by so many people more eloquent than I? When you try to describe the premise of this drama to someone, it’s definitely a hard sell. I mean, an alien trapped on Earth who is neighbors with a down-on-her-luck actress? And it’s a romance? But it’s also really funny, although not in a green-martian kind of way? Yeah, it still sounds a little wonky to me, and I loved watching this drama.
And yes, it had some big names attached to it, which might have peaked our interest initially, but “My Love from the Stars” wasn’t just about the hype. It delivered and surprised audiences with its knack for keen observation that revealed all our follies and drew out of us what was most essential.
The sizzling chemistry between leads Kim Soo Hyun and Jun Ji Hyun was potent and definitely a driving force behind the popularity of the drama, but the story and conflict was also gripping, if not a little flawed, and the writers and director knew how to balance drama and comedy, knew when to have things slow down to really highlight the emotions between characters. They gave us a drama that spoke to everything that is essentially human. And, for me, that’s the greatest appeal for “My Love from the Stars.” By viewing humanity on this macro scale, we explore, find, and learn so much about what makes human – for all the good and bad that it entails.
Not the mention, Jun Ji Hyun’s Cheon Song Yi remains one of the most refreshingly flawed characters of recent memory. Song Yi is my spirit animal, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s Okay, That’s Love”
Jo In Sung. Jo In Sung. Jo In Sung. What a charmer.
He gave such an incredible performance as charismatic, candid, and deeply troubled author, Jang Jae Yul in the mid-year drama, “It’s Okay, That’s Love.” Jo In Sung was vulnerable and tortured, and also honest in a way that so few people or characters are. While he was the highlight of the drama for me, that doesn’t diminish Gong Hyo Jin‘s turn as the capable yet flawed psychiatrist Han Soo, nor the performances of the supporting cast rounding out a group of colorful characters. I had a love-hate relationship with Han Soo, because I couldn’t quite reconcile the two disparate aspects of her personality, the brilliant and the childish, which was unfortunate because I so wanted to celebrate all she was. I think this was an issue with the writing, as the writers clearly gave more focus to Jae Yul at the expense of Han Soo, and overall I think she deserved better. Writing, that is.
Because I loved the chemistry between Jo In Sung and Gong Hyo Jin. There was something so natural in their interactions, so honest in their expressions, that when things were good between them I felt it as deeply as I did when things were not so good between them. Not to mention the fact that they gave us some of the most beautiful scenes of all 2014. “It’s Okay, That’s Love” is such a looker.
Without a doubt, full of gorgeous and atmospheric moments, what sets this drama apart is that is wasn’t afraid to talk about mental illness in a forthright, sensitive, and respectable manner. Mental disorders are seen not as weaknesses, as things people ought to hide and be ashamed of, but rather things courageous folk deal with everyday. The drama was committed to not only bring the taboo subject of mental illness to the forefront, but also to do it right. It highlights and celebrates the lives and loves of characters who are not defined by their illnesses.
Certainly not a perfect drama, but there is more to commend than to criticize, and overall we walk away with memorable performances and stunning visuals.
“Marriage Without Love”
(Marriage Not Dating)
Arranged marriages are a tried and true convention in K-dramas, to be sure, but they are admittedly one of my favorite to tune into. I enjoy watching the leads warm to each other, I love to see the missteps and miscommunication that happen naturally in such a circumstance, and I feel such a sense of giddiness when our leads realize their feelings and overcome everything. That is, if all goes to plan. And, unfortunately, in the K-dramaland, arranged-marriage dramas so rarely go according to plan. They suffer from trying to make their show stand out from the bunch, and that can get lead to some creative ideas, and not always in the best way.
Happily, “Marriage Without Love” avoids several of the pitfalls that others of the genre seem to readily succumb to. The chemistry between the leads, newcomers Han Groo and Yun Woo Jin, kept a nice dynamic throughout the drama, the pace didn’t let up too much in the later episodes, and while we got one of the most challenging love pentagons/hexagons of recent memory, it never felt too convoluted. The pettiness of the characters was kept at a minimum, thankfully, and even of the stock characters of the meddling mothers and charismatic second leads came off nicely in the end. And even though “Marriage Without Love” shown on a cable network, it wasn’t afraid to tackle relationship issues that largely go ignored in rom-coms of the broadcast variety.
It was daring when it needed to be, sincere when it counted, was funny and playful, and stayed true to the heart of what makes this genre so entertaining. It’s a drama that knew what it was from the beginning, knew how have fun, yet never lost sight of where the story was going.
A battle of brains, of trust and betrayal on an unparalleled stage. Ideas of redemption, deceit, corruption, and innocence all take turns being deconstructed in this high-stakes reality game show where the prize is more than monetary, and the more sinister and corrupt you are, the more you are rewarded.
The casting of “Liar Game” couldn’t have been more spot on: Kim So Eun was perfect as the naive Nam Da Jung who finds herself in over her head until aided by our (literal) hero, Ha Woo Jin (Lee Sang Yoon). And I swear it felt like the air crackled every time Woo Jin faced off against the truly despicable antagonist, Kang Do Young (Shin Sung Rok). The character of Do Young and the dedication that Shin Sung Rok brought to the role was a magical match made in K-drama heaven. I hated Do Young, but I also pitied him by the end of the drama; I felt sympathetic towards this character that had once thought was beyond appeal. Beyond redemption. That didn’t merit pity, or sympathy, or salvation. And yet I felt and wanted those things for Do Young by the finale.
And that’s a sign of great character development.
“Liar Game” is one of those dramas that I gave up on trying to figure out or predict what would happen. The twists and turns of its plot left me confused and scratching my head on more than one occasion, but the writing was simultaneously so incredibly intriguing, every scene fused with tension, that I hardly cared that I didn’t understand what I didn’t understand. Most of the time anyway. In between episodes, I found myself contemplating the games, the loopholes, trying to piece it all together, and I did this when I ate breakfast, during my morning commute, at night just before bed, basically any time I had a free moment… that’s how addictive and alluring this drama was.
Another remake in a year full of remakes, what sets “Liar Game” apart was its commitment to bringing what was so intriguing about the original, but setting it in a context that appealed to its audience. And the result was a drama the felt new, dark and twisted as it may have been.
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the drama that is currently ruling, and ruining, my life right now. “Misaeng” is, for me, the standout drama of 2014. It is such an unexpected surprise, as I don’t think anyone thought an office drama would be so captivating, could be what “Misaeng” is. And for it to be so widely popular, for it to mean so much to people reveals a lot about its audience. Whether or not you’ve worked in a company before is beside the point because the drama’s appeal extends beyond what happens at One International.
“Misaeng” is not about the company, although that’s important. It’s not about “Go” although that is also clearly important. It’s about second chances, about surviving, about learning new things about yourself, it is about the relationships you forge through this terrible and beautiful thing of life.
It is wholly relatable, often painfully so. It is wonderfully metaphoric, poignant, and evocative. Toss in stellar performances from a solid and varied ensemble cast (has Lee Sung Min been better?), writing that is clean and focused, truly layered and dynamic characters, and masterful directing that never forgets itself, and you’ve got a recipe for a K-drama that not only captures the attention of a nation but also one that gets under the skin of its viewers, that makes them reflect on their own lives. It is a drama that hits home, and that isn’t a bad thing.
I can’t say enough about “Misaeng,” but I will stop here because any more and I will make everyone embarrassed by my deep and eternal love for this drama.
“Valid Love,” which is currently airing and still early in its run, but is, at least to me, unexpectedly good, complex, and sensitive in its storytelling.
I know people are widely divided in their opinions of “Tomorrow Cantabile,” but having not seen the original (eep!), I found this drama full of whimsy and heart.
Roughly the first half of “Fated to Love You.” I will only acknowledge half of this drama’s run and no one can convince me to do otherwise! It was cute, fun, had a great tone, and all the warm and fuzzy craziness of a romantic comedy done so so right… and that’s how I like to remember it.
And a confession:
I wish that I was further along in “Pinocchio,” so that I could include it. But I’m only a couple episodes in, which is too early to tell, but what I’ve seen I’ve really liked. Lee Jong Suk has been so wonderful to watch this year and the chemistry between him and Park Shin Hye is undeniable.
Do you think “Pinocchio” should have mad the cut? Think I’m forgetting a drama? Weigh in on your standout dramas of 2014 in the comments!