I suppose by now it’s no secret that I’m very in tune with many rom-com tropes, whether it be in the form of movie, show, fanfiction, you name it. But when you literally grow up watching romantic K-dramas meant for sappy ahjummas since childhood, you can’t really control your eye for these kinds of things. Because truly the Korean Drama genre of television content encompasses nearly every single rom-com trope you can think of, ups the ante tenfold, and then absolutely pummels each individual trope to death with excess. I haven’t seen many recent K-dramas and for about the last decade, my affinity for K-dramas has relatively diminished. However, the K-dramas that do end up sticking out to me will almost always gain a solid place in my heart and one in particular is the Reply series. The Reply series is actually three different K-dramas that are part of an anthology - think American Horror Story but not split up by season and rather into three different shows. Each successive addition to this series has left a different impression on me, all impactful, and, in my opinion, have shifted the course of Korean entertainment television.
Reply 1997 (2012)
The first in the series, Reply 1997 premiered in 2012 and was sort of the first of its kind and really set the stage for future additions to the series. The show follows Sung Shi-Won (Jung Eun-Ji), a high school teenager who is a hardcore ppasuni (aka a Kpop stan), bordering on sasaeng fan. To me, she is the most directly relatable protagonist of the three shows, minus the sasaeng part obviously. Shi-Won is obsessed with the BTS of the 1990’s, H.O.T., and they are truly the sole object of her affection, to the dismay of her childhood friend Yoon Yoon-Je (Seo In-Guk), who is smitten with her. The drama utilizes a frame narrative to show its main characters in the present time at a high school reunion reminiscing about the good old days while we, the audience, must distinguish who could possibly be the mystery man that Shi-Won is now married to. Is it going to be Tony, from H.O.T., the idol she was/is obsessed with? Is it going to be Yoon-Je, her best friend since diapers who suddenly is determined to woo her? Or is it actually going to be Tae-Woong, Yoon-Je’s older brother who was originally engaged to her older sister, who’s taken a sudden and very weird liking to Shi-Won? This is the question that drives the premise of all three series actually, the trope of Who Is The Husband? Spoiler: Reply 1997 only played with this trope in the slightest way because it was obvious that Yoon-Je would be the husband from the very beginning. It’s this great, innocent story of a girl who’s always dreaming of love (via H.O.T. fanfiction), but is too blinded to see the guy that’s been in front of her the whole time (and yes, she does like Yoon-Je back). And lucky for the show, both of the main actors portray such naturalistic acting and great chemistry as this odd couple duo from Busan.
And speaking of Busan, I think some of the most important parts of this particular drama are not actually the romance of the two main leads, but actually the world-building that Reply 1997 accomplished. Obviously it is set in 1997, and to really set the mood and setting of this specific year in Korean history, the drama placed a significant amount of importance on getting the world just right. From the distinct Busan dialect, harshly separate from South Korea’s epicenter that is Seoul, to the birth of K-pop with a hardcore stan at its center, to the fleeting naivete of high school innocence, Reply 1997 was at the forefront of a new kind of K-drama. I want to bring attention to the incorporation of Eun Ji-Won, a Korean entertainer who is a part of the K-pop group Sechskies (H.O.T.’s rival and still going strong today), who played one of the main supporting characters in the show. Ever since this drama premiered six years ago, South Korea experienced a sudden surge in retromaniac content that centered around nostalgia for the 1990s (and soon into the 1980s) that I believe really started with this storyline from the show around the rivalry between H.O.T. and Sechskies, and Shi-Won’s role in that as a hardcore teenage fan. It is a great example of a period piece that captures both the air of the time and the feels of coming-of-age relatability.
Reply 1994 (2013)
The second installment and set in the year 1994, Reply 1994 follows a very similar set-up to its predecessor. The drama also begins as a sort of friendship reunion between its main cast of characters, who in the present day, are in their 30s/40s. And at its core is Sung Na-Jung (Go Ara) while we watch the characters reminisce about her wedding some decade earlier and try to determine which of the men is her mystery husband. Immediately off the bat, the premise is the same as 1997, but the setting is wildly different. Na-Jung is slightly older as a college student, and her obsession is with basketball player Lee Sang-Min, back during the heyday of Korean professional basketball. She is also the daughter of home-stay parents and in her home is where we’re presented with all of her friends (as roommates) and the husband candidates. Though set in Seoul, each of the characters come from different regions of South Korea (the “countryside” but not really), and the various dialects and and friend dynamics are so fun to watch. And unlike 1997, we’re met with a true mystery as to who the husband (and really who the main male lead) is. A real toss up between “Trash” oppa (Jung Woo), who she grew up essentially as siblings with, or “Chilbong” (Yoo Yeon-Seok), a college baseball pro who’s in love with her. I won’t spoil who it is, but I’ll just say that I was really really upset.
If 1997 set up the feels for a romance of high school innocence, 1994 sets up the feels for a slightly more mature, slightly more tragic*, romance. I’ve said this time and time again but my least favorite romantic trope is the Love Triangle. I hate them I hate them I hate them! Because nearly every time, the one I end up rooting for is never the one that ~gets the girl~. I just think it’s almost always a bad set-up for who-can-win-this-conquest-of-dicks-to-win-the-girl-who-never-has-a-say-in-it. But, that isn’t to say this drama isn’t filled with sweet, fluffy moments, because it definitely is. That being said, while I enjoyed the main couple in 1997 more, the supporting cast in 1994 really stole the stage here. From “Samcheonpo” (Kim Sung-Kyun) to “Haitai” (Son Ho-Jun) to Yoon-Jin (Min Do-Hee) to “Binggeurrae” (Baro), each character was fleshed out wholly and were all interesting in their own ways, setting up a great group dynamic and model for #friendship. Both 1997 and 1994 do something interesting and slightly off-putting with its incorporation of gay/questioning characters. Both dramas have one supporting male character that (in this case, it’s Binggeurae) is pining for the main male lead from the sidelines - and often, the question of whether they could actually get together is hinted or pushed but never enough to validate the actual potential of a gay couple winning on top. Unlike in American television, I don’t think this narrative move is necessarily queer-baiting so much as it’s the writers attempting to introduce and perhaps normalize a gay character, but falling short because of heteronormativity and social homophobia. It’s unfortunate and unfair because then it does move into the territory of queer-baiting simply out of lack of closure or actuality. And especially because by the end of both dramas, the gay characters up end up staying in the closet and getting with a girl (not to say they can’t be bi, of course).
*The music in 1994 is some of my favorite. Kim Kwang Seok has my life.
Reply 1988 (2015)
If 1997 was for romance, and 1994 was for friendship, then Reply 1988 was definitely for family. The differences between this installment and the two others are stark - from the year/decade to the world-building, from the romance to the family and friend dynamics, there is a significant shift. Set in 1988, the drama is tumultuous. There are political protests gone awry, poor and/or widowed families, and the beginning steps of bringing South Korea to the international zeitgeist with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. All three installments obviously have a friend group, but this one includes the parents of said friends as well. The Who’s The Husband plays a significant part of the narrative (because it has to) but the writers made sure to emphasize the real takeaway for this installment, which is the importance of family. The main character is Sung Deok-Sun (Lee Hyeri), a naive and cute high schooler who’s been selected to be a picket girl presenting for Madagascar in the Seoul Olympics - a great honor bestowed upon her and her family. As the middle child of her poor family, she often gets blindsided by her much more aggressive older sister and her younger brother who’s a boy. What I love most about 1988 is that the story has a focus on things like what it’s like to be the middle child, what it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to be the oldest and have to be a model for the younger siblings, etc. Some of the best episodes of this drama are the ones at the beginning because they prioritize these factors of family life, not just for Deok-Sun but for her other friends and for the parents. One of the husband candidates, and my personal favorite character out of the entire series, is Jung-Hwan (Ryu Jun Yeol) and his parents have been a shining standout in 1988. They started out poor, quickly became rich out of luck, but still have the remaining mentality of what it was like to try to survive being extremely poor. It’s a refreshing perspective, especially set in the 1980’s when South Korea was still shyly considered a third-world country.
But of course, I am still a sucker for romance, and despite there being an awful, awful set up for a Love Triangle here too, 1988 threw me into the deepest trenches of my heart and absolutely destroyed me. It made me never believe in love again and quickly eviscerated K-dramas for me with who turned out to the the husband at the end (spoilers ahead!). If there ever was a Love Triangle dynamic that threw me back to the Kataang/Zutara shipping wars of the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom circa 2008, it was this one. Because it was just so abundantly clear which couple should’ve ~won~ at the end, and it was so obvious the lack of chemistry between who became endgame while the other couple literally made the entire nation of South Korea trend a hashtag that prevailed for three months. The writers could say that they planned this outcome from the beginning, but everyone and their mother knew it was bullshit. Spoiler: For his first drama debut, Ryu Jun Yeol acted his ass off and stole the hearts of millions of people as the tsundere character of Jung-Hwan, who deeply pined for Deok-Sun from the sidelines, and the second he had a viable chance to get with the love of his life, he sacrificed it for the happiness of his friend Taek (Park Bo-Gum) who also had a crush on her, while simultaneously sacrificing his career to become a military pilot for his disabled older brother. A truly tragic character, and one that is so relatable. If To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has taught us anything, it is that love requires risk, and sadly, Jung-Hwan could only risk so much for the girl he loves, because he loved his friend more.
As much as 1988 destroyed me, it somehow simultaneously revived me because both Lee Hyeri and Ryu Jun Yeol, the main lead actors, wanted so badly for Deok-Sun and Jung-Hwan to get together, and when it didn’t, they were both so heartbroken. That is, until a couple months later when it was revealed that the two actors had begun dating in real life! My heart!
What I love the most about the Reply series is that the feels I get from it don’t solely stem from the fluffy romance (though it is significant). With 1997, the world-building and natural chemistry truly set the stage for a different kind of period piece that holistically catered to its setting while never forgetting the importance of story. The various characters in 1994 and the dynamics of friendship is one that I really enjoyed the most out of all three installments. With 1988, it’s had the biggest impact on me. Not just for the endgame feels but also because of the great balance of juggling family stories with friend stories with romantic stories. The decidedly different tone makes 1988 the best out of the three and is my recommendation for the Month of Feels.