Recommending: must-watch 2014 Korean dramas

In the ceaseless stream that is Asian dramas, there is a stockpile to sort through from 2014. (But isn’t there every year? Yeah.) Between finding time to dedicate to my binge-a-thons and getting so far as to even choose which drama to watch, I feel like I missed out on too many: Bad Guys (on episode two!), Witch’s Romance, It’s Okay, That’s Love, and N no Tame Ni—to drop some names. From what I did manage to get through, not all were great *cough*trotlovers*cough* but several managed to meet my entertainment needs, if not wiggle into my heart completely.

pnbPlus Nine Boys
Episode count: 14
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Plus Nine Boys comes from the fictitious superstition that anything “plus nine,” or ending in nine, brings misfortune. How unlucky for the Kang brothers and their uncle, Kwang-soo, whose ages all currently end in nine. Popular child actor Dong-goo, age nine, suffers when his acting becomes strained and robotic. He’s accused of undergoing a Macaulay Culkin, as in, he just isn’t cute anymore. But the final blow comes when girlfriend Baek-ji dumps him for the boy now outshining Dong-goo in the acting world. Meanwhile, Min-goo—nineteen—struggles to live down an embarrassing incident during his judo match while chasing after his dream girl. At twenty-nine, however, eldest brother Jin-goo seems to have his life in perfect order. Upon further inspection, we find he’s harboring a secret love for co-worker and friend Se-young. The two have an emotionally complex history, and should he confess, it could mean losing Se-young. And being with her—even if he’s not “with” her—is more bearable than not having her at all. But the brothers aren’t the only ones with love problems. Thirty-nine year old Kwang-soo hasn’t dated since his college sweetheart dumped him out of the blue and vanished. Since then, his primary motivation and focus has been his work as a PD, and even that disappears when a live show goes awry, and Kwang-soo is demoted.

As my favorite underrated gem, PNB keeps pace—never dragging or jumping, backed by solid acting and writing. When looking at the premise alone, it’s easy to see how the show could spin out of control. Add the superstition factor, I pegged this as silly-cute, but would it be believable? This is Dramaland, after all. The first episode proved itself to be much more than anything I’d imagined. It maintains appropriate balance between humor and drama, and it’s never short on wit. Despite the show’s basis of a “plus nine curse,” it blends into everyday occurrences that happen to very relatable characters. And, really, these are things that happen to us all. I walked in expecting a perky rom-com and couldn’t have been happier to find a sweet, introspective show about relationships instead. It’s rare—super rare (can I stress this enough?)—for me to feel wholly gratified by a show, least of all a rom-com. If I’m honest, I haven’t felt this satisfied with a rom-com since My Name is Kim Sam-soon: my Queen of Romantic Comedies, because for what others do wrong, Sam-soon does right. The writing is bullet-proof. (Never mind that it’s been years since I’ve seen it, but shh.) PNB marks the first time I’ve seen an equally sturdy and genuinely satisfying rom-com as Sam-soon, and for that alone I recommend checking this out.

Episode count: 20
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Misaeng is a show I have unwittingly placed on an unreachable gold throne packaged in a state of perfection. I dare you to find something better! If given well-layered characters livened by good acting, it’s difficult for me not to invest—even when the script is duller than a butter knife. Once caught, I’m stuck until the end. (More often than not.) For better or worse, I form emotional ties with these characters that prove strong enough to make me cry even in in the silliest of rom-coms. Yet Misaeng is the sharpest show around, and it’s far from silly. Never have I bawled so much through a show as I have with Misaeng, and how could I not? This show earned it—deserved it—because every episode threw a direct punch at my chest. No way did I think I’d ever find a drama so meticulously put that it’d win every ounce of my love. Hardly, if at all, can I criticize this show. From the script, casting, acting, directing, editing… There remain a number of aspects that allow Misaeng to shine, and I only hope that others will see what makes it remarkably brilliant.

A former Baduk player, 26 year old Jang Geu-rae finds himself wandering without aim. After a period of part-time jobs, it is by luck (and through connections) that he finds himself as an intern at One International. With nothing more than his GED, Geu-rae is left to fend for himself in a pack of vicious trainees and survive office politics—a journey more difficult than he could have imagined. The webcomic by Yoon Tae-ho, which the show is based on, maintains a cult following, and its popularity stems from its ability to identify with its audience. The same can be said for the drama, only with a larger, vaster, assembly of die-hard fans. There is a reason this show speaks to such a variety of people, and that’s because Misaeng isn’t just about finding your footing—or even about the anguish of office politics and surviving it. At it’s core, Misaeng is about Jang Geu-rae hanging on the edge by a finger and desperately wishing to be part of society. More than anything else, he wants to belong. And if that doesn’t choke you up, I don’t know what will.

There are a couple reasons Misaeng can appear off-putting. Its first episode clocks in at an hour and a half, and you’ll scarcely find clips that offer settings outside of One International’s cubicles. Not to mention that most episodes run extra, ending between an hour and five minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. But if you think these are reasons to back away, I promise: those cubicles offer much more than typical mundaneness of office culture. Refreshingly, the show lacks elements that remind you this is Dramaland and kicks aside cliche tropes and plot twists. It gives a flavor so addicting that you’ll be thankful for those extra minutes, and when it’s over? You will miss it like crazy. (If you’d like to see more of my foaming-at-the-mouth praise, my thoughts on the first four episodes can be found here.)

liar game Liar Game
Episode count: 10
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Welcome to Liar Game: a reality show where contestants are expected (and encouraged) to lie and cheat their way toward the grand prize—a massive sum of money, which only grows as a narrowing batch of participants move on to new rounds. Based on the manga of the same name, Liar Game questions to what lengths people stoop when large sums of money are not only offered, but are at stake. The answer: pretty damn low. A few honest faces struggle to survive the high-stakes game, but how can they fare in a cesspool of two-faced cheats? Willing participant Nam Da-jung—naïve but honest and sympathetic—works with former psych prof and acquitted ex-con Ha Woo-jin, as the duo aim to come out victors.

The show struck me as mediocre at best when I handed my two cents on the first four episodes. The Korean adaption presents extreme changes to its central setting in comparison to the original, yet—at the time—still followed the manga’s timeline of events. (Or, it did to the best of my knowledge.) Granted, this offers up its own twists and tricks, and while Matsuda owns it in the J-drama adaptation, I find there’s much to like about the K-version’s cast. That said, Shin Sung-rok’s villainous Kang Do-young adds new dimensions. The questions is: will fans buy it? Speaking for myself, it took a while to warm up to, but I grew to accept it as an equally enjoyable but separate entity from the J-drama. It is by no means a personal favorite, but the show earns its worth in entertainment value.

my love from another starMy Love from the Stars / My Love from Another Star
Episode count: 21
>>Watch: DramaFever, SoompiTV, Viki

It’s easy to mistake Do Min-joon as human, for he looks no different. But his keen senses and special abilities to defy gravity and stop time are proof of his alien nature. Most of all are his longevity and youthful appearance, outlasting the average human by centuries. Arriving during the Joseon Dynasty, Min-joon becomes stranded, although he’s not alone. His first true human interaction is through a young girl named Yi-hwa, but her fate seems destined for tragedy. The event deeply affects Min-joon, as does her companionship, but with a long life of solitude ahead, he grows into a cynical being with no interest in forming relationships. Now in the present day, his life of quiet seclusion is flipped when the arrogant next door neighbor—favored actress Cheon Young-si—makes her intrusion.

You can consider this a 2013 drama, as it started in mid-December of last year, but the bulk finished during 2014. If you’re at all familiar with the drama scene, there’s no doubt that My Love from the Stars crossed your radar. The show shot to insane popularity levels where not only does every drama fan know about it, non-drama fans know as well. With six episodes under my belt, my current opinion might be insignificant yet it’d feel absurd not to name-drop this.

As a loving Kim Soo-hyun fan, he did serve as the hook (as did the AMAZING shots seen in episode one), but Jun Ji-hyun has me stunned—and I mean that in the best way possible. Although the script deserves credit, as it’s what leads every episode’s direction and shows us character depths, but what good is the writing if the actor doesn’t add dimension? Ji-hyun’s done well in capturing not just my sympathy, but my love, and the banter Young-si and Min-joon share easily become some of my favorite scenes in the show. That said, my belief that this was K-drama royalty crumbled upon watching it. Shin Sung-rok, my Villain King, you know I love him in Liar Game… but as much as I love this man, his role here disappoints me. It’s a reminder of both outrageous and typical ploys that dramas incorporate. If you want to impress me, stay fresh. Be like Misaeng.

ftlyFated to Love You
Episode count: 20
>>Watch: DramaFever, SoompiTV, Viki

Although his elders fuss about marriage and producing a new heir to the family-run company, president Lee Gun is in no rush. He’s in a committed relationship with long-time girlfriend Se-ra, and now that she’s returned from an overseas life as a ballerina, he believes now is the perfect opportunity to propose. Meanwhile, the humble Kim Mi-young goes about her days as a secretary for a law firm. Known as “Post-It” among her co-workers, Mi-young claims it’s no bother, although the nick-name is an insult labeling her a pushover—and her colleagues are glad to take advantage without apology. But for ordinary Mi-young, the extraordinary happens when she wins a resort vacation through her work. As it happens, it’s the same location Gun intends to make Se-ra his fiance. When their special days don’t go as planned, the two cross paths in the most unexpected of ways. After having a one-night stand, Gun and Mi-young part on cordial terms, but their lives entwine once more as Mi-young’s pregnancy steers them down an unforeseen path.

FTLY fans spread faster than wildfire, but perhaps not in the same way My Love from the Stars did. I hesitated in starting this one, but even so, I was quick to jump in. The high ratings and gushing weren’t for nothing—FTLY kicks off with a lot of laughs and a great serving of tender moments. I laughed—I laughed a lot—but I cried even harder, and it’s largely due to the actors. If it hadn’t been Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-ra or their chemistry, this show wouldn’t have pulled on my heartstrings the way it did. It’s too bad that even the leads couldn’t keep me past episode 15, which is where I chose to drop FTLY. I wouldn’t say that my dropping of the show implies anything terribly wrong, but rather: my patience ran dry. It’s a drama worth checking out, and it did well in pacifying my needs as a viewer and exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately for the show (or for me), Gun’s and Mi-young’s relationship was weighed down with SO MUCH DRAMA and dragged out BECAUSE OF SO MUCH DRAMA that I called it quits.

old goodbyeOld Goodbye
Episode count: 1
>>Watch: SoompiTV

Do yourself a favor and keep tissues on standby, because this one’s a tear-jerker ready to punch you in the chest every ten minutes. Ah, no. More like every five minutes. Or am I the only one with a mountain of Kleenex at her side? For just one episode, it’s an emotional overload but so good. (I promise.) Old Goodbye tells the fated love story of boxer Soo-hyuk and Chae-hee with a time-travelling twist. It’s present day, and when Soo-hyuk discovers that ex-wife Chae-hee is dying from a terminal illness, he struggles in grief to save her. Just as Soo-hyuk submissively resigns to his and Chae-hee’s misfortune, he discovers a way to travel back in time… Can he save Chae-hee, or is fate set in stone?

Part of MBC’s drama festival, Old Goodbye reunites Fated to Love You leading costars Jang Na-ra and Jang Hyuk—so if the premise sounds stale, you can can count on their chemistry to charm your pants off. I’m a huge Jang Na-ra fan, as I find that I can enjoy her in almost anything, but after seeing her share screen time with Jang Hyuk twice, I’m convinced they can make anything sell with their pizzazz. This isn’t a display for fresh storylines or unique plot twists, but it shouldn’t be dismissed for those reasons. The general layout is an antique, but the script moves the story forward by relying on the characters’ pure emotions, and—ultimately—allowing that to resonate with the audience.


3 thoughts on “Recommending: must-watch 2014 Korean dramas

  1. lillianccc

    I’m currently a little more than halfway through Misaeng and I only lament the fact that it seems unlikely I can finish it today before I have to go back to work tomorrow because then I’m going to be distracted all day and just waiting until I can go home to watch it. But you’re absolutely right in that it’s basically perfect (and I’m saying this when I still have about 8 eps to go). I didn’t even realize the episodes were going over an hour (hence me being shocked whenever I chanced a look at the clock) because nearly every second kept me riveted.
    Witch’s Romance, which is a remake of a Taiwanese drama, was really fantastic if only for the two leads who managed to be not only convincing but have so much chemistry that I’m surprised sparks didn’t fly out of my screen. I actually thought they did a better job than the original Taiwanese actors (though they were also pretty good as far as TW actors go…. I won’t go into how disappointing most young TW actors are). Plot-wise, it wasn’t really anything new but like I said, the actors managed to pull it off and make something old feel refreshingly new. Park Seo-joon has definitely earned a place in my fickle heart. 🙂
    And FTLY….. sigh. I was hoping it wouldn’t fall into the same trap as the original did (which funny enough, starred the same TW actor as the drama Witch’s Romance was based off of). Like you, my patience wore out around the 14 or 15 ep mark and it was only because I wanted complete closure that I sat through the last episode. Jang Hyuk and Jang Nara are enormously talented to be able to sell the show that well because if it were anyone else, I would’ve jumped ship a long time ago.

    1. Raya Post author

      I know that feeling. if I can’t finish marathoning a show, it’s at the front of my mind every waking second until I’m back at home. I’m so happy that you’re watching it AND enjoying it! a lot of people comment how it’s uncomfortable to watch since it’s so realistic (more than any drama I’ve seen, at least) and it hits home, but it’s also bleak at times. but that’s what kept me watching, if I’m honest. I was so invested in all these characters — I mean when Geu-rae does the intern presentation with Suk-yool? my heart was pounding, like the possibility Geu-rae’s failure would be my own. and you know when you’re hooked on a show and instantly start missing it once the episode finishes… I usually linger on that feeling for a few days, right? I missed Misaeng ALL WEEK. ugh, this show is great.

      oooh, really?! I knew FTLY was based on a TW drama, but I didn’t realize that Witch’s Romance was, too. after I finish Bad Guys and My Love From the Stars, I’ll have to start Witch’s Romance. (and speaking of our favorite space alien and hallyu star, I’m now on episode nine and I swear I love this show even more with every episode. it can’t rival a show like Misaeng, obviously, but the characters are growing on me. I’m also starting to see the range of Sung-rok’s villainous role here. I was almost worried it’d be a close copy of what I saw in Liar Game, but thank god it’s not.)

      are Taiwanese dramas pretty good? I’ve never watched one! I tried the first ten minutes of Meteor Garden a long time ago, but I’m guessing that’s probably a bad choice to make as your first impression.

      1. lillianccc

        I completely agree with you about Misaeng. It may be uncomfortable at times but I think it’s ultimately what’s drawn me to the characters. When Manager Ma (darn him) started poking Young-Yi’s forehead and belittling her, I actually had tears in my eyes because I was so angry (and because it reminded me of how much it hurt to be so helpless in the face of an oppressive boss blegh). I think I might just wait until I’m free this weekend to finish the rest of the eps back-to-back so I’m not doing this painful one-ep-a-night-because-I-have-work-the-next-day watching lol.

        Oh dear….Meteor Garden. That’s EXACTLY what happened to me (ten minutes in and I was hating everything about it) and so after it, I kind of lost my taste for TW dramas. I don’t know if its because I know the language that it all tends to sound so….acted, or because the idol-actors are often so ridiculously bad but I definitely don’t have very fond feelings for them. That being said, the ones from recent years have gotten better if you know WHO to look for. I really recommend In Time With You (which Korea is also remaking!) or The Fierce Wife. I haven’t watched the latter but it stars non-idol actors and was hugely successful so you can check that one out too.

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