Midyear Roundup: Kdramas of 2016

The first half of 2016 is coming to an end, and so far so good in the land of dramas, bringing in a diverse set of solid productions. Some were comeback shows of our favorite actors, while others introduce us to new actors to watch out for.

While mega-hit Descendants of the Sun pretty much secured the limelight all to itself, there are other productions this year that are worth the attention (in one way or another). Here are some of the noteworthy dramas I followed that were completed between January 1st and June 30th, 2016.

Reply 1988

reply1988

The gist:

Set in the year 1988, the drama zooms in on the lives of neighbors and childhood friends living in Ssangmundong.

The good:

– Nostalgia. The show transports us back in time convincingly, thanks to the solid writing and attention to detail. Even if you not have lived in that same place or that same era, there’s something very heartwarming and relatable about the production. The OST also helped a lot in giving that fuzzy feeling to the audience.

– The cast. The Reply series has been known to catapult rookie actors into stardom. And this season we found a new set of gems, especially with the male leads Ryu Jun-yeol and Park Bo-gum. But what’s unique about this season is that it also shares the limelight to the extended cast, particularly the neighborhood parents. Some of the funniest and the most tearjerking scenes were brought to us by the ahjussis and ahjummas of the show. The whole cast worked on this project with so much passion and synergy, it’s not surprising how close they became offscreen.

The bad:

– If you ship the wrong pair, you’re in for a major heartbreak. Actually, even if you guessed correctly, you’re made of stone if you don’t shed at least one tear for the other team.

– I’m kinda bummed about the PPL (product placement), because being reminded that the show has to make money somehow ruins the mood. Yes, I’m looking at you, Ghana Chocolate.

The verdict:

The Reply team had seriously brought the magic for a third time. You know it’s one of the best dramas of the year, with its beautifully-written story and strong ensemble of actors. Each character is backed by a touching story, and will creep into your heart. To me this is arguably the best of the Reply series (surpassing my still-personal favorite Reply 1997), because it did not succumb to the pressure of its predecessors and gave us more than husband-hunting.

 

Cheese in the Trap

cheeseinthetrap2016

The gist:

A smart but awkward college student Hong Seol finds herself entangled with her senior Yoo Jung through an incident. While Yoo Jung is popular and admired by many, Hong Seol can’t shake the feeling that there’s something odd beneath his perfect exterior.

 The good:

– The acting. Kim Go-eun just nailed it in her first-ever TV series. She was so awkward and endearing as Hong Seol, her acting itself put haters in their place. Park Hae-jin did not disappoint in bringing Yoo Jung to life, not only with the physical resemblance, but with how he makes you intrigued and uneasy about him. Seo Kang Joon and Lee Sung Kyung as the Baek siblings were perfect in their roles, injecting a lot of spunk into the drama.

– Amazing start. The webtoon was so loved, there was so much hype about this drama. And the series began strongly, meeting (even exceeding?) expectations. The audience was instantly hooked, and people were already expecting another tvN hit. But…

The bad:

– It lost sizzle midway(?). For those who haven’t watched it yet, I’m gonna try not to give everything away. But basically, fans were disappointed at how the storyline went as the series progressed. For perspective, half of the series was pre-produced (meaning, the earlier episodes wrapped up filming & editing before the drama started), while the half were done in the usual “live-shoot” system (I’ll talk about that in a separate entry if you guys are interested). By the second half of the drama, fans quickly noticed the digression from the main plot, creating a shift in exposure for some characters. In addition, many were left confused and dissatisfied with how the show ended, not knowing if this was done intentionally to not preempt the unfinished webtoon.

And fans did not stay silent. The drama got so many criticisms, and several rumors about the show arose.

The verdict:

They had the right formula in delivering an exceptional drama, but the outcry of disappointment from fans was just undeniable. Personally, I did notice the shakiness of the plot towards the end, but I was already invested in the drama to actually mind. As they say, first impressions last. And to be fair to the actors, they did what they can with the material until the end.

 

Signal

 signal2016

The gist:

Criminal profiler Park Hae-young stumbles upon a walkie talkie that lets him communicate with a detective from the past. They use these transmissions to solve cold cases and uncover some disturbing truths.

The good:

– Excellent writing and execution. Time paradoxes are prone to confusion and plot loopholes. And while the show is not completely devoid of minor weak points, it has delivered well-produced episodes from start to finish. While a crime drama, the story did not simply drag the audience from one case to another, as each episode is tied to a bigger hurdle that the protagonists have to face.

– The cast. And speaking of protagonists, a show like this can only be pulled off with impressive acting chops. No less than movie veterans Jo Jin-woong and Kim Hye-soo can bring charismatic performances like nobody’s business. Lee Je-hoon also held his own as the young cop with a dark past Park Hae-young, who has a strong sense of justice despite the seeming jadedness.

The bad:

– Again with the PPLs! I can forgive product intrusions in romcoms, and even melodramas. But when you’re totally invested in a crime drama, you really don’t want Subway messing with you.

– If you need to feel good at the end of every episode, you may slightly have a hard time finishing the series. Not that the show ultimately ends on a sad note, but the road to justice is full of hurdles. While it keeps the audience hooked, others like me just could get frustrated at the powerplays. My advice though is to stick around. It’s worth it.

The verdict:

Hands down my favorite show of the year so far. I’m not exactly a fan of the genre, so I only watched it after the drama ended with rave reviews. But this show was just so gripping and compelling; I totally get what the buzz was all about. It deserved its nominations and wins at the Baeksang Arts Awards, and I hope it continues to gain recognition.

While the premise of breaking the barrier of time is something we might have seen before, it’s the perfect trio of writer-director-actors that makes this production a rare gem. Not often do we see a drama that is nail-biting and thrilling until the very end – as in the very last minute of the show (and this is coming from someone who drops out of a drama once I start losing interest). While the tone was quite dark with all the crime and mystery, I loved how it consistently gives a message of hope through its characters.

 

Come Back Ahjussi

comebackahjussi2016.jpg

The gist:

A middle-aged employee dies from overworking himself. Not being able to accept his untimely fate, he was given a chance to go back to the world of the living, but in another body.

The good:

– The comedy. Body transfers are a goldmine for hijinks and slapstick comedy. And surely we can’t complain if it involves Rain’s chiseled abs. Body gags, exagerrated actions, and witty lines make up most of the episode. But this drama can also deliver some heart-wrenching moments if it wants to. You have been warned.

– Strong cast. The actors were a perfect fit to their roles, and showed great onscreen chemistry – from the veterans to the rookies. But I must say, Oh Yeon-seo was the standout for me in this drama, as she pulled off playing a male gangster in a woman’s body. It was my first time to see her acting, and I was impressed by how she immersed herself into the role, and her talent for comedy.

The bad:

– Slightly predictable. The theme alone has been done before in several ways – as a melodrama or comedy. Most of the characters are also drama tropes, and you expect them to fall into a certain pattern in due course. While the drama pulls off some twists, avid drama viewers may not be so surprised.

– UNDERRATED. The drama’s ratings were abysmal, as it went head to head with megahit Descendants of the Sun. Which was really too bad because Come Back Ahjusshi deserved as much attention, in my opinion.

The verdict:

If you are a Rain fan and were disappointed with My Lovely Girl, just consider this drama to be Rain’s real post-military comeback. Despite ratings, it was a strong production from beginning to end. It was not perfect, and you’d have to let go of some bumps in the plot, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. It’s a good story about interconnectedness and the meaning of a life well-lived.

 

Descendants of the Sun

dots2016

The gist:

A captain of the special forces meets and falls in love with a beautiful surgeon, but their respective occupations hinder their romance. They meet again in a fictional country Uruk, where their relationship blossoms amidst the turmoil.

The good:

– Fresh storyline. As repeated by Song Joong-ki in all of his many interviews, a drama about a soldier has never been done before. DotS also had a refreshing take on the romance part. For one, they did not drag out the lead couple’s loveline, and established the attraction right from the get-go. There were no nasty mothers, jealous second leads, or birth secrets that break them apart. It’s purely the unique circumstances around them and the duty that comes before their personal lives that come into play.

– Beautiful leads. Their acting was superb, yes. But there’s no denying it’s their flawless visuals that drew the audience. The Song-Song and Goo-Won couples are so easy on the eyes, it’s hard to believe they’re in a war-torn setting. Chemistry. Plus bromance. Nuff said.

– Portrayal of women. I personally loved how Kang Mo-yeon and Yoon Myeong-ju were written as strong women who know what they want. I get tired of seeing the” loser-girl-catching-the-eye-of-a-perfect-chaebol” scenario in dramaland. The two main female characters in DotS are equally capable in their own fields, and their straightforward no-nonsense attitude is a rare sight in dramas.

The bad:

*Getting ready for some backlash from DotS fans*

 – Little character and story progression. I found the characters are painted so perfect since the beginning, that there’s little room for them to actually grow in the course of the series. And while everything in this drama was done in such a grand scale (in terms of production value), the leads are often presented with crises that are solvable within the broadcast week. And so I felt like I was just watching them jump from one task to another, without fully appreciating the gravity of the situation from a bigger perspective. Even the Argus storyline (where the show was building on since the earlier episodes) felt a little small to me, because it became a 1-on-1 battle, rather than fighting a large underground force that can manipulate nations.  There were interesting areas where the drama could’ve explored further, and yet it chose to dedicate screentime to flirting, and topless men jogging. And fans ate it up.

– The cheesy ending. Without saying too much to those who haven’t seen it yet, I just wish the final scene did not happen. Period. While the screenwriter has produced masterpieces, I find that writing endings is one of her weaknesses. Trivia: DotS writer also brought us some of the popular dramas of the past decade – Lovers in Paris, Secret Garden, A Gentleman’s Dignity, and The Heirs.

The verdict:

Descendants of the Sun has gained an insane amount of success in South Korea and overseas. It almost broke 40% in terms of ratings, brought billions into the South Korean economy, and made its stars the most popular people in Korea and China today. But strip away the breathtaking Greek scenery and the big-budget production, and you’re left with a glossy love story. Nothing wrong with that per se, but for me it missed the potential to be so much more, in exchange for fan service. While I acknowledge the hard work put into the production (and boy, it went through a lot), I do believe this drama is overrated. There. I said it.

 

Page Turner

pageturner2016

The gist:

A coming-of-age story about three youths brought together by an accident, and connected through their passion for music.

The good:

– The rising stars of Kdramas. If you’re a fan of Kim So Hyun and/or Ji Soo, this drama is a quick fix for you while waiting for their next productions.

– Short, sweet, well-executed. It somehow reminds me of Japanese youth dramas that are powerful despite the simple storyline. Thank teenage hormones for amplifying events into life-changing moments. Who thought that playing the piano can be so life-changing?

The bad:

– If you’re looking for a loveline with any of the characters, well… there are other things to appreciate.

The verdict:

Overall it was a nice miniseries which makes you think about your own youth. We often feel imprisoned by the decisions made for us and the pressures adults impose upon us (unknowingly or otherwise), that it’s hard to create a path of our own. And sometimes you find your source of strength in the most unlikely situations.

 

Entertainer

entertainer2016

The gist:

A successful director of a top entertainment company decides to build his own independent agency. But a turn of events makes him lose everything before he could even start. As he attempts to start over from scratch, he meets and recruits a talented student who convinces him to form a band.

The good:

– Ji Sung with fresh cast. This show generated buzz as soon as castings were made. Many were especially anticipating Ji Sung’s comeback after Kill Me Heal Me, and Hyeri’s make-or-break follow-up to her success in Reply 1988. Along with fresh-faced supporting cast, it was expected to be a show full of energy and talent. Ji Sung never fails to deliver, and was able to bounce off his acting with the younger cast members as the show went along. Other standouts for me were Lee Tae-sun and Gong Myung, who were charming onscreen in their own ways.

– The OST. For a drama about music and the entertainment business, it’s a given to have an awesome soundtrack to go with it. Popular names such as Gary, Ailee, Jung Eunji, among others, lend their talents for the show’s OST. My favorite though has to be “Go Ahead, Cry”, which boasts impressive vocals and touching lyrics. I almost forgave them for overusing it in an episode.

The bad:

– It had a rough start. I first thought I was the only one who had some issues on the first two episodes, only to find out that the internet was not too kind with the show. Some cry out the very predictable and mundane premise, while others blame the editing. My initial reaction on the pilot was how loaded it felt with all the events that were set in motion, when I thought the genre didn’t require it to feel so rushed. Then it had episodes drags with nothing much happening. It took time before the drama settled to a better pace.

– The romance(?). Early on, many have raised eyebrows with the large age gap between the two lead actors Ji Sung (39) and Hyeri (22). The second lead wasn’t much of a choice either because while Min-hyuk (25) is just around Hyeri’s real age, he plays the role of Hyeri’s younger brother. Sort of. They’re not technically related in any way but they’ve lived together as brother and sister long enough to make romance between them a bit uncomfortable to many. You can sense the show going back and forth on how much the romance will develop, and it came to a decision in the end. As for me, I really didn’t mind the age gap so much, as long as the loveline is tied in smoothly with the rest of the story. But it’s not.

*emotionally getting ready for Hyeri fans*

– Geu Rin. It may be the writing or the acting or both, but Geu Rin may well be relegated to supporting character in the show. At first she’s the overprotective breadwinner noona who cries at everything related to Ha-neul, then after the time skip she turned into cutesy manager who learned how to drive. To me it felt like the writer doesn’t know what to do with the character. The show may have prioritized the bromance over her but Hyeri’s interpretation of her character did not help either.

The verdict:

First, let me say that the show does redeem itself towards the end, with a very satisfying finale. Entertainer got a 2-episode extension to buy time for the drama to succeed it, and those two episodes to me were well-used to tie all loose ends. I really liked how everything went back to the theme of second chances and new beginnings, with the characters being enablers to each other. However, if you haven’t started on this drama yet I suggest you find alternatives, unless you’re in it for Ji Sung. The show had the makings for a hit heartwarming drama, but it fell short of expectations right from the get-go. It was a long wait before the show got its groove, but by that time people have already dropped out.

 

Another Oh Hae Young

ohhaeyoung2016

The gist:

A man begins to see visions of a woman he hasn’t met before. The woman turns out to be Oh Hae-young, who bears the same name as his ex-fiancée who left him on the day of their wedding.

The good:

– The spunky characters. All characters in this show seem to have a touch of crazy in them, main and supporting ones alike. Each have their own unique set of charms that makes you want to root for them and punch them at the same time. There are characters you’d love to hate, and those you’re drawn to even though they might be emotionally exhausting in real life.

– The world of sounds. Yep, sounds. Not soundtrack (although the OST’s pretty good too). Leading man Park Do Kyung is a sound director who lets us take a peek at the world of sound editing. The opening scene was enough to pique interest in the trade, and it was such a treat whenever they go out and record. It brought attention and appreciation to an otherwise neglected craft. I find myself paying more attention to sound effects now.

The bad:

Some uncomfortable gray areas. Sure there are things that you do when you’re crazy in love, but love alone can’t quite make everything acceptable. I sometimes raise an eyebrow at some actions and lines, and question the logic of our characters. And it’s not just with the main characters. The show has stepped on some boundaries that even netizens voiced out their concern.

The verdict:

tvN is really on fire this year with its successful productions; this show is one of them, even earning a two-episode extension. It had a sweet balance of humor and misery, making its audience crazy with the highs and lows. The mystery of the visions was both intriguing and wearisome, as knowing the future isn’t really reassuring. For those who need a big dose of romance and lovey-dovey scenes, this is definitely right up your alley. Admittedly though, the plot is not as rich in terms of potential for further development. I did feel some slowdown towards the end, as the scenes were not as tight as before, yet it was able to deliver an ending that was able to satisfy its viewers. This drama goes high up the list of best dramas this year.

————————–

What did you think of the 2016 dramas so far? Which one is your favorite? Any drama you want to be included on the list?

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