STREAM OR SKIP? The 2021 K-Dramas That Divided Us
A number of the most highly anticipated titles in 2021 were surprisingly met with mixed reviews and ratings that didn’t quite live up to their massive hype. It didn’t matter that they were led by some of South Korea’s biggest and most bankable actors; the following k-dramas divided fans with confusing plots, slow-paced developments, or weak chemistry between the leads.
We marked them on our calendars. We raved over each new teaser and trailer. We told our friends about them and planned k-drama viewing nights. But after strong starts powered by hype, each of the titles below faltered, losing viewers with each confusing or boring or disappointing episode. Some powered through to the end, though, and proclaimed the quitters as the only real losers for failing to properly appreciate these shows. Which side of the divide are you on?
Jirisan had everything it needed to be a runaway hit: The long-awaited comeback of Jun Ji-hyun (Legend of the Blue Sea), a powerhouse cast including Ju Ji-hoon (Kingdom) and Oh Jung-se (It's Okay to Not Be Okay), a script by the same writer behind the Kingdom series, direction by Lee Eung-bok of Goblin and Mr Sunshine fame, the gorgeous landscapes of Mount Jiri as their backdrop, and a whopping 32 billion won ($27.5 million) budget (80 percent of which was covered by iQiyi when it acquired exclusive streaming rights).
In fact, all these powered it to a historic nationwide premiere rating of 9.1 percent for tvN weekend dramas. But it struggled to maintain its first weekend momentum, hitting its lowest rating of 7.5 percent after Christmas. While these numbers aren’t really low, they don’t quite scream the “massive hit” Jirisan was expected to be.
STREAMER’S TAKE: If you ask those who loved it, the suspense-mystery drama with a supernatural twist was a brilliant concept and a fresh take on the genre. The twists and turns as Jirisan’s mountain rangers tried to discover who was behind a series of mysterious deaths, aided by a wandering spirit, was a fascinating mystery for fans. And there was definitely strong chemistry between Jun Ji-hyun and Ju Ji-hoon—so strong that it left others disappointed there was no on-screen romance between the two.
SKIPPER’S TAKE: The signs of trouble came early, when viewers panned the poor use of green screen effects evident in the first episode (especially given the show’s budget). One Korean filmmaker also commented that Jirisan’s director somehow managed to make the show’s stellar cast “look like they cannot act”. But by the end of the series, much of the criticisms homed in on the weak writing that made for a slower-than-expected pace for a mystery thriller, which meant it failed to adequately sustain the suspense over its 16-episode run.
Now We Are Breaking Up
Hallyu queen Song Hye-kyo (Encounter, Descendants of the Sun) is often enough of a reason for viewers to tune in to whatever project she decides to grace her presence with. That this project is Jang Ki-yong’s (My Roommate Is a Gumiho, Search: WWW) last before his military enlistment fueled the hype further. Then when news came out that Now We Are Breaking Up would premiere with a 19+ rating to shield innocent minors from the steamy start to the pair’s affair, interest in the show only intensified.
It’s no surprise, then, that Now We Are Breaking Up reigned in its opening weekend, defeating rival The Red Sleeve in the 10 p.m. time slot in South Korea. But it soon lost viewers to the sageuk, reaching a series low of 4.2 percent on New Year’s Day.
STREAMER’S TAKE: The show’s director delivered on his promise of a realistic drama, according to fans who say women in their 30s would be able to relate to the struggles depicted in it. Song Hye-kyo’s character and her two friends are strong and independent in different ways, in the face of issues ranging from workplace failures and infidelity to a devastating cancer diagnosis. As one fan review stated: “Welcome to real life… don't hate it just because you haven't experienced it.”
SKIPPER’S TAKE: For a show that promised viewers something new, Now We Are Breaking Up turned out to be a typical melodrama that suffered from slow pacing and the heat that failed to emanate from Song Hye-kyo and Jang Ki-yong’s supposed steamy make-out sessions. Even the Hallyu queen’s stans said this would not be the drama they’d recommend for new fans. In fact, many viewers found the secondary couples and their side stories far more interesting than the leads. And while many started watching for Song Hye-kyo, toward the end comment boards were filled with fans saying EXO’s Sehun was the main reason they were still watching.
Sisyphus: The Myth
The premise was more than just promising, it was new and exciting for a k-drama: A female elite warrior travels back in time to prevent a catastrophic future by finding the genius engineer who invented the time traveling machine. The lead actors—Cho Seung-woo (Stranger) and Park Shin-hye (Doctors, The Heirs)—are both heavyweights in the industry. The k-drama was even billed as a special to celebrate television network JTBC’s 10th anniversary.
After a respectable start in South Korea with nationwide ratings around 6 percent, however, the show never managed to recover, scoring just 3.4 percent right before its finale.
STREAMER’S TAKE: “Lara Croft meets Tony Stark” in this mind-boggling drama, according to one netizen who rated the show a 9 out of 10. The ambitious sci-fi / action / mystery / rom-com mash-up might be difficult to follow for some, but it will all make sense and reward patient viewers in the end. This is certainly a unique drama that requires a different level of appreciation.
SKIPPER’S TAKE: Keeping your disbelief in a permanent state of suspension—even as illogical science and confusing story developments scream at you—is required to fully enjoy this drama. And while the lead actors turn in good performances, especially Cho Seung-woo whose turn as an irreverent inventor is the complete opposite of his stoic Stranger role, the romance between the two fails to convince largely due to a weak build-up. Overall, it was a good premise that was poorly executed.
Doom At Your Service
An epic tale of a love that cannot be between a troubled woman and a powerful immortal. That was the beautifully tragic plot at the core of the globally successful k-drama Goblin: The Lonely and Great God (2017). And that is the same plot that writer Im Meari—who worked with and learned from Goblin’s award-winning writer Kim Eun-sook—tries to pull off in Doom At Your Service.
With the eternally charming Park Bo-young (Strong Woman: Do Bong-Soon) and the much-awaited comeback of Seo In-guk (Reply 1997) after a three-year absence, this fantasy drama could have been a massive hit. But after a mediocre start in ratings, its viewership was doomed, declining to its lowest point of 2.3% by the final two episodes.
STREAMER’S TAKE: With Park Bo-young’s moving portrayal of a perpetually unlucky dying woman, this was a deeply profound and thought-provoking drama. While Seo In-guk had the nearly impossible challenge of getting viewers to fall for his impossible-to-love God of Doom character, he managed to pull it off. And if you let it, the drama has meaningful messages to share about why bad things happen to good people.
SKIPPER’S TAKE: This drama had so much talent and potential wasted by weak writing, which made the story feel like it was going around in circles. The romance between the leads, in particular, proceeded too slowly for critics, with forums full of comments saying they found the stories of the second leads more interesting. If you have insomnia, according to one netizen who posted a scathing review, this show can be an effective solution.
At the press conference for Lost, renowned actress Jeon Do-yeon explained why she chose this drama for her long-awaited small-screen comeback: “I had decided that even if it took a long time to find a good project, I would avoid content that was too dark or heavy. But when I read this script, I decided that I would take it on, even if it was dark, because it was about trying to find the light.”
That certainly set expectations high for the JTBC drama that paired the actress with Ryu Joon-yeol (Reply 1988). But with the credentials of its award-winning writer and director consisting only of movies prior to the drama, were they able to make it work? After a 4.19 percent premiere rating, Lost appears to have continually lost its viewers, hitting a low of 1.16 percent midway through the series.
STREAMER’S TAKE: A deeply profound, highly relatable tale of two ordinary people who have lost their way, Lost has been called a “masterpiece” and “perfection”, akin to another k-drama praised for its gentle yet moving exploration of the pains of existence, My Mister (2018). In one k-drama forum where it has a 8.4 out of 10 overall score from viewers, fans proclaim it the most underrated show of 2021.
SKIPPER’S TAKE: It’s not for everyone. The mood is somber and depressed over the length of 16 episodes, which means perhaps only those who could truly relate or empathize with the characters would find the patience needed to plod through the darkness toward the light waiting at the end. As one fan of the genre puts it, it’s a beautiful tale that could have been told in fewer than four episodes.