If you’ve been able to catch up or start new dramas this week, what have you been watching? What’s keeping you engaged these days?
Here’s what we started, finished, dropped, or kept watching this week.
(Note: We’ll mention some plot details, but will try to keep major spoilers to minimum/clearly mark them.)
The King: Eternal Monarch [1-8]
I feel like I spoke a little too soon on Lee Min-ho’s performance in The King. I’ve just passed the halfway mark and FINALLY the man is king-ing it up and really bringing that royally dark edge to his performance. It even makes the romance better!
I’m lukewarm on the romance as a process (we skipped from “who are you” to “I love you” without due process, lols), but if I put that aside, I find I really like the actual dynamic of them as a couple, and the feelings that exist between them—flowing and stoppered and flowing again.
Let me be clear: I am ENGROSSED by this show. The plot is so intriguing and there are always ten things going on at any given time. I like puzzles that form a show-long arc, and these puzzles are SHOCKING and EXCITING and build up to some really effective reveals—actually, it’s not even the moment of the reveal, it’s the moment when you figure it out yourself that’s a big GAAASSSPPP moment. And the cliffhanger game is on point. And my poor baby Shin-jae!!!!! *screamsob*
Plus: Woo Do-hwan meets Woo Do-hwan? I mean, this would always be funny in any actor’s hands but it’s been a while since we had this situation and IT IS GREAT. There’s something so bone-ticklingly funny about Eun-seobie acting like Yeongie even when he looks exactly like him, hahaha.
I have thought about it more and my conclusion is this show doesn’t really need a romance. It’s perfect as a supernatural mystery thing.
Speed: 1.0. SHOCK, I am watching this at NORMAL SPEED as of episode 6. But I admit that in its draggy, laggy, slow-music moment earlier on, I went as fast as 1.4. Oops.
Alex Rider [1-8]
A little sideways from K-drama, but I promise there’s a tie-in.
This story starts with tiny teen Saya. Okay, I mean, not that tiny, but shockingly actually a teen. Back in those old days when the internet was still new and flash drives were yet to be invented, British children’s writer Anthony Horowitz penned an immensely popular series about Alex Rider, teen-spy. It was such a success that it practically birthed the teen-spy genre (in the UK at least)—we’re talking pre-Twilight, pre-YA as the genre we know it as today. Anyway, that’s the books.
There was a film of the first book, Stormbreaker, back in the early 2000s (I think? Aha, 2006, thanks IMDB)—a family-friendly tweenish affair, which I admit I enjoyed—but this thing now? This is completely different, and truer to the spirit of the book. An 8-episode series produced by Amazon Prime, its concept is much darker than its previous screen interpretation and my goodness, it WORKS.
Alex is recruited by a shadowy intelligence division to investigate the death of his uncle by infiltrating an elite boarding school in the remote French Alps. As a person driven away from western TV by the problematic portrayal of law enforcement and related authorities, especially in how they treat marginalised characters, it was excellently refreshing not to be asked to believe these were the good guys. They’re not. They’re people who cross lines without losing any sleep, and within them lurks occasional humanity. Alex has no love for the establishment, and no faith in them. They’re not allies: he’s forced to be a tool for a ruthless system. It turns the whole thing moodily noir, and put me a great deal in mind of my old favourite, White Christmas (KBS, 2011). They have that same vibe.
Unlike the film, the series picks up from book 2, Point Blanc. A teen book repurposed for an adult audience that grew up with it, it’s dark and dubious and delicious. Remarkably, it stays unerringly true to its teen/YA roots (Alex is 15), remaining completely watchable by a younger audience, while simultaneously providing a morally complex thriller for a critical adult audience. And the way it deals with all that ambiguity really suits our moment right now. Add to that the promise of future seasons and I’m all in.
Speed: 1.0. You can’t speed this up!! It’s already fast!
Once Again [25-26]
I’ve dropped this one. My fear that the misogynistic tropes we saw earlier would disappear without being resolved was borne out, and I’m weary of the way this show, especially in Mom and Dad’s generation, makes women the petty/backstabbing/shallow/hysterical ones, whereas the men are logical, calm, have a view to the long term, allergic to gossip… you know the drill. Nothing about this show’s writing gives me confidence it’s setting this up for social critique, and that makes me feel tired. Add that to the fact that there has not been a single plot point (or even line of dialogue) that I can’t see coming like a distant meteor, and I’m done. It’s a shame, because the dissolution of Lee Min-jung and Lee Sang-yeob’s marriage was movingly portrayed, and I love the youngest sister’s chemistry with her ex-brother-in-law’s brother, but that’s not enough when everything else about this drama is both dead obvious and moves at a glacial pace.
My Unfamiliar Family [1-3.5]
In contrast with Once Again‘s hard lean into the most obvious version of every possible trope, and the constant and literal verbalization of characters’ thoughts, this show is a breath of fresh air. The rate that this show hits its audience with hard truths honestly leaves me breathless. Here is a real family, in all its fraught silences, angry outbursts where characters say what they don’t mean and then guiltily try to make up for it, their suppressed resentments and secret worries, their regrets about the past and fear of the future. The parents in this show are facing a variety of crises that thankfully my parents are not, but they’re a similar age to mine and their interactions with their kids sometimes hit home in poignant and almost painful ways. Halfway through Episode 4, the show is really showing its melodrama DNA, but the writing and acting have been so assured and on point so far that I have faith the show can pull off some of the more makjang elements it’s brought in.
For me, Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri), Eun-joo (Choo Ja-hyun) and Chan-hyuk (Kim Ji-suk) are the standout characters in this ensemble, but everyone is so relatable, even though none of them can really be called “good”. There are a lot of questionable decisions being made by pretty much everyone in this story, but you understand why they do what they do, and you can’t stop watching. Except Chan-hyuk, who is a gift to everyone he knows. And to me.
I love the way the way Eun-hee and Chan-hyuk’s dynamic is set up: the rift, the way it heals, the emotion that lives between them, everything about their friendship. *heart eyes* I’m not sure if this is heading for a romance (yes please, VP Player-ssi is trash and she needs to dump him STAT), but I just want to see more of them together.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar [1-2]
I know y’all are probably tired of me dumping on The King by now, but since I’ve watched just the first two episodes of both, let me just say this: Here is a fantasy setup done right, with a simple but well-done backstory, clear rules for the supernatural stuff, stakes that matter and make sense, intros to all the relevant characters, and our main trio teaming up and working together—all in two episodes. By the end of the first hour, I knew exactly what I was getting and itched to see what was coming next, which is… not how I felt at the end of The King‘s premiere.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar is quirky, funny, smart, creepy, and well-paced. I wasn’t sure what to make of the unconventional combo of Hwang Jung-eum, Choi Won-young, and Yook Sung-jae, but they actually have great, crackling chemistry. Refreshingly, there’s no hint of romantic tension between any of the three, but they’re hilarious together as the staff of the ghostly pocha that resolves people’s grudges. Protagonist Weol-ju is smart, sharp-tongued, and tough, though her cynicism hides a vulnerability that she’s too world-weary and distrustful to allow others to easily see. Hwang Jung-eum brings her trademark energy to the role, but with an edge of bitterness under that manic brightness that makes this one of her more interesting performances for me. And also, thank God, she has FINALLY been released from the Bowl Cut of Doom! Her clothes in this are to die for. I want every dress.
The King: Eternal Monarch [15-16]
A few good things I can honestly say about this drama:
Its pace never lagged, the second half moved just as quickly as the first and is actually better, with its many action scenes and the steady unveiling of answers.
The villain was smart and menacing enough to be interesting, and the decks were stacked enough in his favour to keep the dramatic tension of the penultimate episode relatively high.
Writer Kim Eun-suk remembered and addressed the fates of all the side characters she’d set up, which was satisfying to watch. Even though some fates got undone entirely and fatal illnesses were magically cured through the powers of better parenting.
Everything and everyone was constantly gorgeous.
The writer and PD managed to tap into an international craze for a lush fantasy spanning time and space so well that their domestic ratings barely mattered.
I would confidently recommend this drama to someone specifically looking for a K-Drama Fantasy that’s a treat to the eyes and relaxing to the brain. With one passably epic soundtrack and multiple bromances in the background, The King: Eternal Monarch will make some viewers a very good one-time watch. But for more discerning drama watchers, I would offer up Goblin or Queen In-hyun’s Man or even the much-maligned Faith.
I honestly think the only reason I got through the last few weeks of this Lee Min-ho fan-vid is because my cousin got really into it and kept pelting me with bewildered questions after each new episode, and I’m just enough of a know-it-all to want to be able to answer them.
K-Drama is my thing and I’ll be damned if she got her answers from anyone else.
Also, they were such tantalizing questions.
“But Piyu, how is he alive now if he was dead then?!”
“But why don’t they have the scar, when he does?”
“How are they all just guessing his plan, and they’re all guessing correctly??”
“Wait, so he was wrong about which doppelganger this was, but he still killed him?”
“But why would changing the past affect that person’s life at all?”
“How does he have the time to twirl in the middle of a sword fight? And where are the guns?!”
So, you see. I had to keep watching.
I will admit though that I enjoyed some parts of it. Yes, I was often frustrated by this drama. It emphasized aesthetics and cinematic appeal over good storytelling or logic, but there were just enough questions about how it all gets resolved till the end that you had some fun waiting for the answers.
Were the answers worth waiting for? Eh. But they did try their best to tie up as many loose ends as possible. And we have to be grateful it didn’t hand us an open-ended finale with a thousand new questions that the writer clearly has no answer for. (See: Memories of the Alhambra)
Also, I really enjoyed most of the side characters. I was grateful to see the snapshots of their unlikely but happy lives in the end.
Now, I do have a few major concerns about the fate of this world but they involve a MAJOR SPOILER, so beware the following paragraph!
If they are confused about which year they end up at and have to take guesses by the design of a phone booth, HOW ARE THEY FINDING THEIR WAY BACK TO THEIR OWN TIMES EVERY TIME?! Also, they try to avoid people and times they know, but if they accidentally change some events in the past that impacts someone they know, then it was the Dragon King who sent them there??! How many times have these irresponsible time-travellers changed the future by tossing someone a ball or just walking down the street and delaying another pedestrian just long enough for their future to alter completely? And are you telling me the Dragon King is to be blamed for all of these changes? When the choice to go holidaying in the past is theirs? Gah.
There’s a lot more to unpack, and I think I’ll wait for Saya to finish watching and then get it all out in the Long Yak in a week. See you there, folks!