(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 Me—Answer Me 1994—also did very well (averaging 7% ratings).
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?
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.
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.
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.