Pandemic Diary December: Getting Out of 2020

While the pandemic is far from over and our lives are not going to magically change as the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2020, there is still something deeply satisfying with putting 2020 behind us.

Maybe a mix of the vaccine news and just this turning the page has buoyed my spirits a bit.

I also got super emotional over the announcement that Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin are dating. I think it has less to do with them personally and more to do with how much they got me through the early pandemic.

I’m still not fully ready to write about it…but I leaned on Crash Landing to survive March 2020. It was my lifeline and those performances mean a lot to me. I have returned to it many times over the year whenever I needed a little boost. I owe it a better piece of writing than this.

But no matter, I am feeling grateful as we head into 2021.


Descendants of the Sun 

I was glad to finally see Descendants of the Sun in December. I get why this is a fan favorite. It’s got crackling flirtatious and sexual energy, delightful romantic banter, and DRAMA.

Yes, situations are ridiculous. Yes, English-speaking characters are baaad actors. Yes, there is a war, a world leader nearly dying, an earthquake, a virus, child sex trafficking, and a rogue arms dealer. It’s a lot for one couple to juggle and also find time for romance.

The show focuses on two soldiers, Captain Yoo Si-jin (Song Joong-ki) and Sergeant Seo Dae-young who are in the special forces and always being sent at a moment’s notice to deal with some life-or-death situation.

With an instant attraction, Captain Yoo meets Dr. Kang Mo-yeon (Song Hye-Kyo) and they try to start dating but he keeps getting called away on assignments. She gets sent to a foreign field hospital to do some humanitarian work only to find herself stationed with Captain Yoo and his forces.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Seo is in a love with a high-ranking military doctor Yoon Myung-ju but her father, his commander, is against the match.

DOTS is fully aware of its mega-dramaz and if you give into it, you’ll have fun. A reoccurring trope is the women in the medical unit watching the shirtless soldiers do their daily exercise. The show fully acknowledges the thirst within the show which is refreshing. While a serious setting, the entire set-up has a playful energy to it.

Don’t spend as much time as I did thinking about why Dr. Kang, who is working in a war zone, packed so many short skirts to wear to work. Not shaming her. It just seems highly impractical for the situations she keeps finding herself in. When she ended up in dangerous circumstances at one point, I was relieved that she had sensible shoes on. That was not always the case.

This show works because of the chemistry of the leads more than anything else (after this show, they married in a real-life and then divorced a few years later). Sure, he’s such a goofball playboy and it’s hard to totally buy he’s a tough-as-nails soldier. And her reasons for resisting the romance don’t always make complete sense. But they are just so damn fun to watch.  You really cannot fight the chemistry and the well-executed banter. 

And it might jump the shark at least once, if not twice. But I just embraced it for what it is. Giddy, sexy melodrama with high questionable dramaturgy.


My Country 

I should have known better than to start a historic drama, because you cannot go a chapter in Korean history without it being deeply sad.

Building off the real history of the founding of the Kingdom of Joseon (and the end of Goreyo) this also gets into the squabbles over who will be the next King. The show covers both the palace battles as well as how this impacts the people of the country. It has kind of a rock n’ roll war vibe to it, with some deeply felt relationships at stake in the midst of sword-fighting and bloodshed. A lot of stabbings, patching each other up, anger, forgiveness, rinse, repeat.

Two life-long friends of different classes finding themselves competing with each other only to end up in different situations when the country goes to war. Seo Hwi (Yang Se-jong) is the most tender-hearted, but kickass swordsman of Joseon. His father was the greatest swordsman of Goreyo, but was put to death in mysterious shameful circumstances and Hwi had to raise his sister Yeon on his own. He is poor and because of his father’s death has no class standing. His bff, Nam Sun-ho (Woo Do-hwan) is the illegitimate son of a powerful official, Nam Jeon. Sun-ho can never seem to live up to his father’s expectations, but he's always trying to please him even if that means going against his best friend. They all meet Han Hee-jae (Kim Seol-hyun) who is being raised by giseangs. She has feelings for Hwi, but is fiercely independent and has her own past to reckon with.

You can still fulfill the mandatory drama shower scene in a waterfall

The show covers the deep inequities in this society, corruption, and the absolute mess of nation building. Here, the equivalent of evil chaebol dads are evil civil servants. The King of Joseon, who killed and deposed the leader of Goreyo to found a new kingdom, cannot relinquish that power. His sons end up in a murderous power struggle, led by his most powerful and most reliable war-like son Bang-won (Jang Hyuk). For years, Bang-won did his father’s bidding thinking he would be rewarded by being made Crown Prince only to have his father pass him over for his youngest son (a child at the time).
Deliciously devious Bang-won 4-eva

The machinations between the King and his son become an interesting layer of the show. Bang-won is such a glorious asshole. He’s imperious but willing to get his hands dirty. He’s loyal-ish, but expects 200% fealty back. He calls out his father’s shenanigans, but it does not make him beloved. He cannot win, but he refuses to lose. And this is the squeeze father and son put on each other.  I enjoyed Bang-won's contradictions and his role as evil gadfly.

Despite all these compelling elements, I struggled to finish My Country because Hwi’s suffering was overwhelming to me. With sadness in my voice, would sigh “Oh Hwi” about 1000 times an episode. I actually had to start watching another show (see Seventeen But Thirty below) with Yang-Se-jong, just to soften some of this misery. Hwi has three friends who he fights with who always have his back and he is loved. But, at every turn, bad things happen to his precious little heart and I could barely handle it.

The show can also get a little bogged down by character and political intentions which are fuzzy to us following along at home. For quite a while I could not follow what Nam Sun-ho wanted—he seemed to switch sides so often I could not keep up. Is he good? Is he evil? Just why?

And they assume we know more Korean history than I personally know. I wrote in my notes “Who the fuck is Sambong. Who the fuck is Poeun.” I ended up on Wikipedia to answer some of these questions while watching.

It’s a show that starts out strong and gets a little overwhelmed with its own ambitions and can feel a bit repetitive. I mean how many double-crosses, betrayals, and back-stabbing can one small group of people truly manage? A lot it turns out.

Yet, I pressed forward for my darling Hwi/Yang Se-jong and some quality scenery chewing from Jang Hyuk.


Thirty but Seventeen (aka Still 17) 

This was my pain management show while watching My Country.

With 32 30-minute episodes, Thirty but Seventeen is a pretty breezy situational romance. Yeah, everyone’s got some trauma, but it’s not too heavy an approach. And there are some lovey life lessons meted out as well. 

Woo Seo-ri (Shin Hye-sun) has been in a coma for 13 years after a bus accident and wakes up to discover she’s 30 and not 17 anymore. She leaves her rehabilitation facility and goes looking for the aunt and uncle who raised her only to find a different family living in her old house.

Gong Woo-jin (Yang Se-jong) is a 30-year-old uncle and he’s watching over his 19-year-old nephew while the nephew’s parents are abroad. They are living in the house that Seo-ri's family once owned. They let Seo-ri stay for one month to see if she can sort out her situation. Although the facts of her past only dribble out over time. Woo-jin has a traumatic past as well and fear not there’s mutual healing in store for all.

An emotive dog in this show

One of the stronger elements of the show is the careful handling of Woo-jin’s PTSD. They use sound to communicate his panic attacks, so bear this in mind if you have auditory sensitivity.

Thankfully they don’t make Seo-ri too babyish. I think there’s a tendency to overplay the “youthful but not” angle in some of these shows (yes weirdly this is a genre). Woo-jin is distanced and gruff, but comes around suddenly. He’s quite sweet even if he can’t quite express himself.

There’s a little paternalism floating around. But it’s looks like its borne of her coma and accident and not because she’s a woman. Or at least not 100% because she’s a woman.

There’s an undercurrent of found families and all the ways we grow-up. Even adults are putting on a face of being "grown-up" and faking it until they make it. There’s a flummoxed and flailing 17-year-old who lives inside of all of us.

Thirty But Seventeen is not a deep text, but it is heart-felt and I liked how the characters helped each other but also had to find their own way to healing. One size does not fit all.

Yang Se-jong had to be sad a lot of the time in My Country and it was nice to see he could also be playful, awkward, and passionate here without buckets of blood being spilled. 

He’s off to do his military service now so they’ll be a wait for more work from him. But he’s a charmer and I’m charmed.


My Sassy Girl

Shout out to these actors who appear to be acting next to fucking frozen lake. 

I watched My Sassy Girl, but a day later I cannot remember much about My Sassy Girl. In a bit of a gender reversal from Rookie Historian, here a princess sneaks out of the palace for reasons and a male scholar befriends her. Quite unexpected, the princess character starts out boorish and obnoxious, but then has a bit of a personality transplant as she falls in love. Sassy seemed like the wrong word to described her all along.

It was an innocuous palace mystery-romance that was easy enough to watch but equally forgettable.


Where Stars Land 

I quickly got into this show set at Incheon airport with a girl who can’t quite do anything right despite being really hard-working and dedicated and her uptight, quiet co-worker with a secret. But I ended up quitting the show half-way through.

The narrative logic of the show started to get more and more wacky and I could no longer suspend my disbelief.

Worse, I struggled to understand what the show wanted to say about disability. There were moments staged to specifically point out the fact that people with disabilities live full, rich lives and that Korean society did not make this easy. But then there was a lot of self-hatred and denial about disability. Also, the universe of the show creates an exaggerated antagonism around the character’s disability and the demonization of his disability was hard to understand. I turned it off without finishing it.