Best k-dramas of 2021

Having watched around 30 k-dramas in 2021, and started about 20 more, the only way to possibly redeem myself is to share a little of what I’ve learned.

Among the dramas (which by the way, is just the Korean word for TV show and doesn’t concern the genre) were some delightfully old-school romantic comedies, lots of interchangeable crime thrillers (I still can’t tell the difference between Beyond Evil and Mouse), the new crop of for-Netflix made shows, some very disappointing sci-fi (I cannot forgive Sisyphus for ruining Cho Seung-woo for me), and one horror (because Im Siwan was in it of course).

I’ll go through some favorites because that’s the easiest way to organize my thoughts about them, though I think it’s more interesting to consider the overall trends and what I’ve learned about life/love/art, but that’ll be for another post.

Run On One of the most thoughtful and mature romantic dramas I’ve seen, Run on is what Koreans classify as a melo, which is quite different from a melodrama. It’s basically a slow moving love story that shares some elements of romantic comedy (fate brings two people together, something keeps them apart, eventually they overcome it all to be together) but is closer to slice of life. 

In Run On, a professional athlete and an independent subtitle translator meet and form a relationship over the course of career bumps, family trouble, and some class issues. There is a second couple—the CEO of the agency that representes the athlete and a student artist—that I found less interesting. 

What makes Run On so great is that central couple in the story, Ki Son-gyom and Oh Mi-ju, are fully fleshed out characters who exist outside of their relationship with each other. Mi-ju has fought her whole life to become the independent woman that she is, though she’s not satisfied with where she is in her career, while Son-gyom has has always followed his tyrannical father’s wishes, and thus never really developed a real idea of who he is. While Mi-ju is unapologetic about putting herself first, Son-gyom copes by letting life happen—until his values are truly tested. Over the course of the story, Son-gyom blossoms into his own person with Mi-ju’s guidance, while Mi-ju allows herself to lean on someone. 

The show is far from perfect, and the plot drags for the second half of the show. And while it has some of the beset female characters in k-drama land, Mi-ju doesn’t really have much of a storyline at all. Which is such a shame, because the setup is all there. We meet her at a film festival where she’s humiliated by an old teacher, and meets an ex who has surpassed her in her career. But then nothing happens… she just keeps taking part time jobs as they come. I would have loved to see her go to Cannes and show up the dude in the beginning, or learn that her true satisfaction is from the work itself — whatever, just giver her a story. 

Vincenzo – This was so much fun. Vincenzo is about a Korean-born mafioso who returns to Korea to search for missing gold, but gets roped into protecting a motly group of tenants from evil new landlords, because the gold is buried in the basement of their building. In other words, it combines the best of what Korean cinema is known for: mixed genres and creative brutality.

The show is as absurd as it sounds and essentially revels in all of its excesses: the villains are unapologeticaly ruthless, the tenants get up to the most ridiculous antics, and the entire thing is led by a hero who is only masking his search for gold with a moral crusade.

The show’s non subtle message is that it takes a villain to defeat a villain, but honestly, it hardly matters. The real point is that it’s stupendously fun to watch Song Joong-ki run around in tailored Italian suits destroying his enemies and enjoying it tremendously, occasionally getting saved by a bird, and sharing the joys of being an evil mafioso with his new partner in crime Jeon Yeo-been.

D.P. – A limited series based on a webtoon by the same name,  D.P. follows An Jun-ho, a private who is assigned to a small unit that’s charged with bringing back military deserters. Ostensibly a buddy cop show, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s really about the bullying and  abuse embedded in the military. While the show is extremely heavy at times, there’s levity to balance it out (in the form of Jun-ho’s partner), and Jung Hae-in’s performance as the resigned but moral An Jun-ho is stellar. 

The webtoon came out after the death of private Yoon Seung-joo at the hands of bullies in 2014, an incident that rattled Korea and led to some changes in the military, such as allowing privates to have cellphones. Far from being shunned as totally exaggerated, the D.P. series seems to have restarted the conversation within Korea about bullying in the military—though most seemed to claim that things had changed since the case of Yoon Seung-joo. While I have zero personal knowledge, I’m basing this on articles by Koreans for Koreans. What I most commonly heard was Korean men saying that while they didn’t personally know someone who experienced the bullying depicted in the show, it wouldn’t surprise then in the least to hear of it. 

I think the show did a great ob of showing how in a system that’s corrupt to it’s core, there are no good guys. Sure, individual compassion can patch things here and there, but as long as the system exists to protect itself and not the people in its care, it will perpetuate itself.

Coffee prince – Of the old school shows I watched, I think this is one of the few that I would recommend, even though it’s one of the oldest of the bunch. The leads had great chemistry, and for a 15-year-old show, it addressed some of the issues of gender that come up way better than expected. And Gong Yoo. Basically, that’s the reason. And the “Japanese” bartender.

Worst show?

Probably The Devil Judge, or My Roommate is a Gumiho.

I don’t know what it is with Korean dramas and supernatural beings that fall in love with helpless or quirky damsels, but creepiness doesn’t go away if the guy you love/loves you is an alien/gumiho/goblin/angle of death or doom itself. I watched My Love From the Star, attempted to watch My Roommate is a Gumiho, Tale of the Nine Tailed, and Doom at Your Service, and to my everlasting shame, finished Goblin. I’m not about watching shows to decide whether or not they’re “problematic,” but it’s just not entertaining for me to watch a 40-year-old man (who is almost 1,000 years old in the show) fall for a high schooler, or even a college student, particularly when he holds her life in his hands!

/endrant

In fairness, some of those shows are just bad, it has nothing to do with the power dynamics. It’s just interesting that it’s such a recurring theme, though I guess that’s a staple of non-superntaural dramas too: many seguks, and any of the shows with a chaebol male lead (ahem, Heirs) or bosses (My Shy Boss, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim,  She Was Pretty), so all of them?

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