“Answer Me 1988” (Quasi-Review)

(Editor’s note: Sorry for the January hiatus! I meant to publish my thoughts on Answer Me 1988 two weeks ago, but my computer’s motherboard failed catastrophically early in January. I’m up and running again, but won’t have time to post much this month while I’m busy paying off the new computer. Meanwhile, a few fighting words vis-a-vis Korea’s big winter hit.)

I don’t usually write about shows I don’t like. What’s the point? It’s more fun—and more constructive—to write about shows I love. I want to encourage K-drama writers and directors to make more of those shows.

But the runaway success of Answer Me 1988 (Reply 1988), which concluded in the middle of January, is so weird that I can’t get it out of my head. I have to write about it.

This nostalgic coming-of-age drama closely resembles its previous iterations, Answer Me 1997 (2012)and Answer Me 1994 (2013), right down to the mysterious animal noises that punctuate humorless jokes. So why did this series get insanely high ratings in Korea, and why did the editors at Dramabeans name it the best drama of 2015?

Answer Me 1988 dominated Friday and Saturday nights in Korea this winter, with staggeringly high ratings for a cable series. Despite being on cable network tvN, the series averaged 12% viewership, and the final episode reached an average of 18% of Korean televisions. By comparison, tvN’s biggest hit of 2014 was slice-of-life office drama Misaeng, which “only” averaged 5% (still qualifying it for “hit” status).

These ratings are unprecedented on a Korean cable channel. It helps that Answer Me builds on a previously successful formula. In 2013, tvN’s second edition of Answer MeAnswer Me 1994—also did very well (averaging 7% ratings).

answer me 1988

But 1988‘s popularity still surprises me. Answer Me 1988 recycles the same elements, right down its present-day frame story. There’s the nostalgic tone. There’s the reverse-harem love story, in which a plucky but emotionally immature heroine chooses which of her many attractive, sincere high school buddies she will someday marry. And there are those odd bleating sound effects. (Are they sheep? Or goats? Will someone please tell me?)

The repetitiveness of the material is less a problem than the slow pace. It takes most of the first ninety-minute episode to get through one typical evening in the neighborhood—an evening in which we learn very little about the characters besides what foods their mothers make for dinner. (Ah, the past, when women spent more time in the kitchen. Feeling nostalgic yet?)

So when Girlfriday at Dramabeans wrote of this show that the “emotions…were immediately accessible, no matter where you lived or how old you may have been in 1988,” I was confused and disoriented. Were we watching a totally different series? In what universe could Answer Me 1988 be the best show of the year? I felt like Two and a Half Men had just beat out Breaking Bad for the Emmy. It was an inexplicable triumph of predictability over creativity.

The folks at Dramabeans are thoughtful and smart, so I tried to understand. In arguing why Answer Me 1988 has the best writing of the year, Awcoconuts says “between the longer episodes and the backstories of several individuals, the pace could easily have been plodding, the plot humdrum. And yet each week the writing expertly weaves together the stories of the wonderful Ssangmun-dong residents, satisfying viewers on so many levels…”

“Plodding” and “humdrum” are right. I barely made it to episode three. I had to hit fast-forward a few times to make it that far. How long does it take to establish that the heroine doesn’t get along with her sister? Will anything ever happen?

go kyung pyo in answer me 1988
I really tried, for your sake, Go Kyung-Pyo…

I tried. I pride myself on my high tolerance for slow K-dramas. I like to watch a range of stuff to better understand what makes a story for television work—and not work.

I felt particularly motivated to keep going because the show features Go Kyung-Po and Park Bo-Geum—talented, likeable actors who know how to make the most of every scene. Despite being in secondary roles, Go Kyung-Pyo was arguably responsible for many of the most memorable moments in Flower Boys Next Door and Tomorrow’s Cantabile. And Park Bo-Geum—well, if you haven’t yet seen him as the innocent-looking but morally compromised defense lawyer in I Remember You, rush to watch it now. Answer Me 1988 was an opportunity for them to become household names, an opportunity they well deserve.

But the extra-long episodes (ninety minutes) and the slow pace (even for a slice-of-life show) make Answer Me 1988 a tough watch.

Usually when people have differing reactions to a show, I can chalk it up to one simple fact: tastes vary. And that’s a good thing. The world would be boring if we were all the same.

park bo geum answer me 1988
…and for you, Park Bo-Geum.

But the Korean praise for Answer Me 1988 is so enthusiastic, and I find the show so boring, that it’s making me ask deeper questions about nationalism and story-telling.

I wonder if I would share the Answer Me 1988 love if I, too, were Korean, or from a Korean background. If I were Korean, would the nostalgia for a simpler era—and the national excitement over the Seoul Olympics—sweep me up? Could they distract me from the painfully slow pacing?

And what’s in today’s zeitgeist that made this series such a hit? Is it old memories of the Seoul Olympics, as the country prepares for next year’s PyeongChang Olympics? The cute heroes? K-pop star Hyeri, who surprised doubters with decent acting? The re-enactment of neighborhood life in the days before the internet?

Answer Me 1988’s biggest success is how well the sets, costuming and scripts capture a different era and place, from the old-fashioned kitchen appliances to the slower pace of life. If the era and place were familiar to me, would I forgive the show its slow pace amid the pleasures of nostalgia?

But nostalgia for what? To be this popular, the show’s audience probably includes fans who weren’t even alive in in 1988. So are viewers nostalgic for a time they remember, or for a time they don’t remember?

Nostalgia is a complicated emotion. When Mad Men became popular in the United States, it was popular with many people who never experienced the fifties and sixties. The sexist attitudes towards women, the racism, the three-martini lunches—these are things I’m happy we’ve left behind.

But Mad Men fans looked past the ugliness and saw glamour in the lives of misogynist ad executives. Meanwhile, my aunt who actually did work as a secretary in Mad Men-era Manhattan couldn’t bear to watch the show because it reminded her of everything she hated about the time. So nostalgia isn’t automatic with everyone who lived through a particular era. Maybe it’s easier to miss an era that you never experienced.

Granted, the year 1988 was a pretty good one in Korean history, not only because of the Olympics, but also because it was the first year of South Korea’s sixth republic—which brought democracy to the country after decades of military dictatorship.

But even if I were Korean, and even with 1988 being a good year, I probably wouldn’t be impressed by Answer Me 1988. The main reason I fail to enjoy the Answer Me series is the reason other people love it: the show prioritizes nostalgia over character development.

That’s not to say the shows don’t contain character development, just that nostalgia comes first. The frame stories, in which present-day characters reminisce about the good old days, wrap the past in a warm, fuzzy blanket. These shows require us to look through rose-colored glasses, making even hard times, death and heartache somehow part of a beautiful package called Youth.

The message of all this nostalgia is Panglossian: that it was all for the best, in this best of all possible worlds. Yet it feels sad and limited that from the beginning the heroine’s choices are limited to guys she went to high school with. In a show that successfully employs such a realistic, unscripted style, it’s hard to believe there’s a gaggle of young men longing for this oblivious, abrasive young woman.

I might be able to swallow this device in a show that felt less like a anthropological documentary, but not here. The show wants to feel like life. But the central contrivance is straight out of the K-drama cliché handbook.

answer me 1997

In 2012’s Answer Me 1997 (the only one of the three Answer Me series I’ve watched to the end), we eventually do get some good character development. The initially self-absorbed heroine (Jung Eun-Ji) learns to appreciate the love of her family and friends. She comes to distinguish between the different kinds of romantic love offered by her old friend Yoon-Jae (Seo In-Gook) and his big brother Teacher Yoon (played by Song Jong-Ho). A bittersweet side plot about her gay friend (Hoya) gets relatively little screen time but carries a lot of emotional punch. And I enjoy the irony of the fact that the heroine gets into college due to her skills in writing lurid “boys’ love” fan fiction.

But the emotions in Answer Me 1997 come only after several episodes loosely focused on the heroine’s passion for the boy band HOT. After watching the heroine stalk her favorite idol’s home, shriek hysterically in the audience at concerts, and fight (literally) with fans of rival bands, I was so bored—and sometimes downright repelled—that I almost didn’t finish the series. Seo In-Gook’s charisma as a leading man kept me going, but I started skipping the stuff about HOT.

In short, Answer Me 1997 had some likable characters and some memorable scenes, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had been half as long—and if it had focused more on family and friends than on K-pop.

Yet that would have made it a different show. Perhaps the long sequences about fangirl culture appealed to Korean audiences. The nostalgia and the frame story plot device might have been the keys to this series inspiring two wildly popular sequels.

So what’s the answer? Would I enjoy Answer Me 1988 more if I were Korean? I don’t know. Even if I were Korean, I think I’d still be put off by the sugar-coated view of the past. American television nostalgia irritates me too.

As soon as the first episodes of Answer Me 1988 were boring, I knew it was time to cut and run. Because whether the year was 1997, 1994 or 1988, I find it hard to believe things were better—or worse. Here in the USA, there was less traffic and road rage, true, but there was also more homophobia. Less pressure in college admissions but more discrimination against women.

The past has its good moments—I often miss life before the internet, before social media and smartphones—but even Park Bo-Geum and Go Kyung-Pyo can’t persuade me to be nostalgic about 1988. ♥

Full disclosure: Though I’m not Korean or Korean-American, I have a ton of opinions about 1988. Perhaps American high schools were just better at inducing soul-crushing despair, but my memories of 1988 are pretty dismal. Every birthday, I give thanks that I’m leaving 1987 and 1988 further behind. This definitely affects my feelings about high school nostalgia shows! If you loved your high school years—and have a lot of patience—the Answer Me series may be for you.

12 thoughts on ““Answer Me 1988” (Quasi-Review)

  1. I was one of the ones who really enjoyed Answer Me 1988. I do think it got off to a slow start though–that’s a valid criticism. I enjoyed it initially, but I wasn’t waiting with bated breath each week for the episodes. And I didn’t see what all the hype was about. I was surprised by the massive ratings. I also think the animosity between the sisters and Bo-ra’s general meanness went on too long at first.

    But by the middle of the show I was fully onboard, and when it ended I realized I really enjoyed it. (AM97 still reigns as my fav though.) I loved the nostalgic feel. I loved the relationship between the parents and the communal vibe of the block in general. I did not mind the who’s-the-husband mystery this time around either because they didn’t do those stupid non-hints at the beginning and end of the episodes.

    Too bad you didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s just how it goes. I felt the same with Misaeng. Everyone was raving about it, and I found it dull as dirt. I kept watching because I was determined to see what everybody else saw in it, but I had to give up by episode 8. Just couldn’t take it anymore. But the thing is I’ve watched worse dramas and managed to get through them, and I’ve even enjoyed bad dramas before. No rhyme or reason it seems.

  2. Yay, glad you’re back Odessa! Your comments about Answer Me 1988 are timely, for me at least, because I was debating whether or not to start it. Like Elle, I’m a big fan of AM97; it was filled to the brim with insightful ruminations on the agony and the ecstasy of first love, on the mundane and profound truths of friendship, on the growing pains of growing up and growing apart, on the passion and obsession of fandom, and on the family ties that wrap around us to succor or suffocate us. And Seo In Guk! It was love at first sight for me ; ) Still, I completely agree that the bleating was unbelievably annoying, as was the over the top (no pun intended) fangirl madness of the female lead. I overlooked these things because I was so engaged with the characters; each was unique, complex, and interesting; all were humanely depicted and wonderfully acted; and their relationships were genuinely involving at a gut-wrenching level—especially the story of the best friends who learn that love, like life, isn’t always easy. So I started AM94, anticipating an equally awesome drama … and dropped it after episode 4. It was such a struggle wading through the meandering, self-indulgent mess of nostalgia vomit. I hardly ever drop dramas and I usually have a high threshold for tolerating slow pacing and shoddy writing in the first few episodes, so long as the drama seems promising enough to deliver on character development and story further down the road. But this was such a disappointment, I consigned it to the we-were-never-meant-to-be bin in my brain. Based on your review, it seems AM88 may have more in common with the latter than with the first installment, so I may just give it a pass.

    Funnily, I was talking to a Korean friend of mine last week, who’s also drama mad, and she told me to steer clear of the Answer Me series, mainly because it’s so rooted in the Korean zeitgeist of that era and all the pop culture references therein that only someone who’s lived it or has some knowledge of it can fully enjoy and immerse themselves in the experience of watching it. But … Park Bo Gum … very tempting. So, the debate rage on : )

  3. Thanks for taking the time to give us this quasi review. I really appreciate it especially as I sort of surface from my own period of intense work. I have not been drawn to the Answer Me shows but after seeing the DB ranking I was wondering if I should reconsider. But after reading your comments I suspect it is really not for me and I will invest my time elsewhere. Well unless I get some time in the future with nothing else in my to watch list.

    As Elle rightly points out we all have watched and enjoyed shows that were not “good”. Mood and expectation really play a big role in how much we enjoy a show. So even knowing about ones that are not perfect or only half watched is valuable. Thanks again for everything.

  4. Thanks for the review. I have only ever seen am97. It was a fun ride, and while I haven’t been boy band crazy, the hysteria was around me that time, I think it was the backstreet boys. The other anchor for me was seo in gook. I think I will be skipping this one based on your review.
    I have seen mad men too and it annoys me to no end. I dislike sexist behaviour being condoned under the guise that it reflects the era. For that same reason I stopped watching game of thrones.

  5. Hey Odessa how are you?

    Talking about AM, I dont really like AM97, so I dropped it after ep1. I am tempted since I do like Park Bo Gum, back when he’s in Cantabile. I think Eunji’s great in her role, but perhaps I dont have the same pop culture while growing up. I like noir and Crime, but loads of other people wont like it either.

    Try Signal btw. Its really good/

  6. It’s nice to hear your opinion, I think AM (Answer Me) Series garner lots of nostalgia element for Korean but it’s can be totally different with International audience.

    As someone who has the liberty to watch AM 1997 and immensely involve in the more furious international shipping war in AM 1994, I don’t have much energy to feel AM 1988.
    I like the series but I felt so tired with the length. It’s like I’ve seen that before, still touching, it’s good but it just that.

    AM Series can feel different if you only watch KDrama and overly tired of all the chaebol and overly makjang situation but Idk if it because I still watch lots of Western Series, J-Drama and Chinese series now, I can’t said it’s nothing special but I don’t feel I have to watch the entire show to know what the series about (especially if you feel both guys already the winner in this series). You can watch each not on schedule and it’s okay.

    What really take the cake in AM is having both good guy going for love and the immense support for this guy is what driven the series to be headline.
    I don’t know if I supposed to said this but I don’t think love is something to choose between evil and good, it’s somehow also a compatibility, loosing love doesn’t mean someone isn’t a good person like the other who gets the love .
    I am really sad for the fans that blow out of proportion, I remember early on the series when Taek (Park Bo Gum) supporter is take down by Junghwan (Ryeo Jun Yeol) supporter so they can’t really dream more. A lot of people in Taek is the remnant of Chilbong in AM 1994 so no one wants to really take the situation too far.
    But at the end when Taek got the girl, Junghwan supporter scream so bad that they insult the actor involve. So it’s all about love triangle?
    I think this part always need to be included in AM discussion because if people out of knowledge read the comment, it seems that Junghwan is the most pitiful person just because he doesn’t get the love, which only one part of his life, he is good. He lost his moment and that’s happen.

    The other thing is THE CAST! especially leading lady. The director have more liberty to choose anyone they like because of the support from the previous series. They really reshaped lots of actor/actress image into better path.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think I can trust Hyeri like I can trust Eunji and Najung as leading lady, it feels like Hyeri only good when she is younger, the later act wasn’t that good. The best act is actually all on the parents generation because they all seasoned actor/actress that overall just better.

    For me personally, I like the series but I never re-watched it, I only re-watch AM 1997 for the laugh, it’s fun, short and the kids look like kid.

    and last, for everyone : Happy Chinese New Year!!!

  7. My apologies for posting this here, but has anyone caught up with Descendents of the Sun? It is cheesy as hell but is a feast for the eyes! For a change I like the lead female character, she is falliable but that doesnt stop her from speaking her mind.
    Really sorry Odessa, I am just very glad that this drama brought me back to Kdramas

    • here!,
      I am watching Descendant of the sun, as a huge fans of Onew make the drama a must watch . Now I love the story and character development.
      I don’t care about no premise or no conflict in up front but all of the character and their story just really good,
      not to mention the background and the actor/actress also really good,
      Song Jong Ki is really attractive (it’s undeniable)

    • OK, we are roughly one third of the show in. All the players of interest have been introduced. The core conflicts have been established. As is typical of KES dramas, we have a seemingly perfect male lead and an (initially) sassy female lead. This initial setup wasn’t different from the innumerable korean dramas we had already seen. I will admit I had mentally braced myself for this show, low expectations and all.

      But then a glimmer of hope, when KMY apologized in the most matter of fact way for jumping to conclusions about YSJ. There was no hate at first sight and there was no love at first sight. They go on a date like normal people who are interested in each other do. Their ambitions and principles are hardened by now and play a big part in the decisions they take. Such a portrayal was very fresh.

      Being the popular writer she is, she doesn’t fail to check all the major tropes. Fated meetings, forced separation, hero saving his girl, “I like you but I can’t be with you”, parental opposition, and so on. But the writer shrewedly has created two couples, the leads, with their refreshing plotline, and the supporting cast with the typical rich girl poor boy opposing dad storyline. Pick what suits your palette.

      So far what I’ve liked is mostly about the main leads. They talk things out. The girl admits she is confused, the guy admits he was out of line. She is someone with immense self-respect (sadly some posters confuse that with selfishness) and he is someone who has no time to dilly dally wondering if his feelings are genuine.

      SJK, pretty boy looks notwithstanding, has brought forth all the acting chops at his disposal. As for SHK, I think her character complements her real personality of being understated. I wish she’d emote more at times, but at the same time I don’t want her to become a HJE from Kill me Heal me.

      As for the disaster and war torn country, thats just the backdrop and not the main story. So if you are looking for a war drama, this is not it. Neither is it a thriller, since the cheese is overflowing in this one. But who said cheese is bad?

      @Odessa, hope to see you back to posting stuff on the blog!

It's okay, it's a comment. Leave a note!