Review: Answer Me (Reply) 1988 is a stellar piece of heartwarming television

Sometimes you watch a television drama series and feel your heart beating and blood running in your veins. This is what Answer Me (Reply)1988, the hit 2015 K-Drama does, in the span of 20 episodes.

There’s quite a lot to unpack in the series, that finishing it feels like an intense, heavy catharsis quite unlike any I’ve experienced in many other Korean dramas, and writing about it in itself feels like such an arduous undertaking — how does one give justice to a thirty-five hour long story, covering the lives of at least sixteen characters, spanning over exactly twenty episodes? It feels next to impossible, but the emotional trek and depth the plot takes us on deserves as much.

The story picks up in a lone, quiet street in Seoul. The year is 1988, and the neighborhood, we soon learn, is Ssangmundong, and its habitants are a mix of five tightly-knit families: there is the Sung family, with husband and wife Dong-Il and Il-Hwa and their three children, Bo-Ra (Ryu Hye Young), No-Eul (Choi Sung Won), and Duk-Seon (Lee Hyeri), who, by all means and purposes is our heroine — and it’s clear from the get-go she isn’t your typical K-Drama darling. Duk-Seon is brash, loud, and youthful, and the sole female in her crew — but she’s also in every aspect a teenage girl navigating her emotions, desperate to love and be loved. K-Pop idol Hyeri from Girl’s Day does her best with the role, and delivers on the character’s comedic aspects, and although her emotional depth comes short at times, her chemistry with the rest of the cast more than makes up for it.

Above the Sung family, quite literally, are the Kims — Sung-Kyun and Mi-Ran, and their two sons, Jung-Bong (Ahn Jae Hong) and Jung-Hwan (Ryu Jun Yeol). Single mother Sun-Young lives with her son Sun-Woo (Go Kyung Pyo) and young daughter Jin-Joo (Kim Seul), while Dong-Ryong (Lee Dong Hwi) lives with his father, the school dean, and career-oriented mother. Rounding them off is the genius Go (baduk) player Choi Taek (Park Bo Gum), and his single father Choi Moo-Sung (It’s also worthy to note that like its Answer Me predecessors, Answer Me 1988’s adult characters share the names of their respective actors).

There is much to elaborate on, but much of the story revolves around the relationships between and among each of the characters, from Duk-Seon and her crew’s teenage antics, to the family dynamics in each distinctly different household, to the female friendships fostered between the three older women.

However, in retrospect, it is the entire cast as an ensemble that truly carries the series, much like how the community is at its strongest when all its members come together. There is a scene near the very end of the series when this happens — it is a few years after 1988, and the teenagers have all but grown up and built their own lives away from Ssangmundong, when they converge back in Dong-Ryong’s restaurant for a final time. One by one, each family troupes in, and there is a mock wedding for the Kim parents, and we realize this is the first time that the entire cast comes together — only it feels less a television ensemble cast than a real, actual community coming together in their own kind of celebration. By the time the scene ended, I felt less a viewer of a television series, and more a member of a one-of-a-kind community I was privileged enough to take part in.

And if there is one thing that marks all of the Answer Me series, or indeed, anything produced by its writer Lee Woo-jung, it is the innate presence of human morality all throughout the series, and sure enough, there is some moral-baiting present at times, but it never crosses the line to preachiness — every emotion or sentiment expressed by the characters feels one hundred percent real and human, and this is a credit to the excellent mix of veteran and young actors as much as it is to the screenwriters. The characters are inviting me into their lives, to witness their tribulations and triumphs and lessons learned, without ever telling me how to live mine.

And then there is of course, the overarching question of who actually is the husband that Duk-Seon ends up with. Interwoven throughout the series are meta-interviews of a grown-up Duk-Seon, clearly in her forties, along with her husband — and the narrative trickery the writers pull is letting the audience figure out who he is by going back and forth between past and present, a device previously used in both previous Answer Me installments. Of course, eventually, we realize (spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the series) she ends up with Park Bo-Gum’s Taek, the genius baduk player, and it would be a lie not to admit this came as a surprise, particularly when so much time was spent in earlier episodes setting up Jung-Hwan as another — and seemingly more viable — suitor, and with Taek largely a vague character, drifting in and out of the neighborhood between his matches.

It also doesn’t help that Duk-Seon and Jung-Hwan’s romantic arc is so well-written and well-acted (Lee Hyeri and Ryu Jun-Yeol’s chemistry is electric) that their scenes together are at times a joy and heartache to watch, and the ending twist feels more than a little like a spiteful jab at viewers. This is also why the show’s final moments feel like a massive disservice of sorts, as it struggles to develop a credible romantic plotline between Duk-Seon and Taek in the span of two episodes, thereby sacrificing some of the major characters’ arcs in the process — Dong-Ryong’s and Jung-Hwan’s, to name a few.

Despite all this, however, Reply 1988 still remains a stellar piece of heartwarming television. It may be over four years old now, but in an age of intense, thriller-driven, high-stakes entertainment, Reply 1988 is more than a breath of fresh air — it’s a full, deep, cleansing breath of pure warmth and unbridled humanity.

All screenshots are taken from tvN.

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