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YumCha! Picks: Best TV Dramas of 2011

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

The year is almost over, which means it's time to start making a list and checking it twice. The YumCha! Editorial Team kicks off our 2011 year-end listamania with our picks for the Best Asian TV Dramas aired in 2011. Apparently, we watch too much TV.

BEST KOREAN DRAMAS


Can You Hear My Heart (MBC)
The year wouldn't feel complete without an addictive Korean ultra-melodrama, and this year we give the honor to Can You Hear My Heart. This drama has it all: evil parents, tragic deaths, birth secrets, changed identities, revenge schemes, brother falling in love with stepsister, corporate treachery, and three major characters with disabilities. Three! Yet, through all the soap opera backstory, it somehow retains that stubborn sheen of pure love and heartwarming family values. It's great to see Kim Jae Won working again and stretching his trademark smile as the hearing-impaired hero, but it's Nam Gung Min's fascinatingly opaque turn as the caring, hurtful, and perennially conflicted brother that hammers in the "can't stop watching no matter how ridiculous it gets" charm of the drama.



City Hunter (SBS)
Hojo Tsukasa's iconic manga transforms into a completely different beast in this Korean adaptation, but rest assured, it's no less amazing. There's no lecherous private eye to be found, but we do get Lee Min Ho in another studly, star-making performance as a vigilante looking for revenge. City Hunter delivers action, thrills, and beautiful people as expected of the genre and casting, and then it gets you in the heart with its strong sense of justice and harrowing father-son conflicts. As the father you never want to cross, Kim Sang Joong is absolutely riveting in one of the most unforgettable TV characters of the year.



Dream High (KBS)
Korean Wave powerhouses JYP and Yon-sama joined forces this year to produce the ultimate youth drama starring a who's who lineup of real-life idols as aspiring idols at a performing arts school. With such lofty credentials to its name, all Dream High needed to do to satisfy its target market was be a competent, cookie-cutter idol vehicle, but the production aimed higher and for that we're grateful. The young cast inevitably show their greenness as actors, but their sincerity shines through even stronger in likable performances. The inspirational underdog story about sticking together and overcoming hardships is bolstered by a catchy soundtrack and a surprisingly smart and self-aware script that even dares to address the ugly side of the entertainment industry. We also have Dream High to thank for introducing the world to the hilarious comedic acting of one Park Jin Young.



The Greatest Love (MBC)
Despite working in a very crowded genre, the Hong Sisters have managed to carve their own unique brand of cute and witty romantic comedy that has inspired a loyal following for good reason. Returning to the showbiz setting with The Greatest Love, the screenwriting duo are in top form with this thoroughly entertaining love story about a self-engrossed superstar confused by his heart-thumping feelings for a B-list talent. The Hong Sisters get their strongest leads yet in Cha Seung Won, Kong Hyo Jin, and Yoon Kye Sang, and ripe material for lampooning with former girl group idols and reality dating shows. Although awesomely named hero Dokko Jin falls into the overused K-Drama trope of the egotistical rich guy who falls for Cinderella, Cha Seung Won proves to be the manliest man-child of them all with an idiosyncratic, tour de force performance.



The Princess' Man (KBS)
Even those who don't usually watch Korean period dramas will be easily drawn into this picture-perfect, Romeo and Juliet-inspired sageuk. In 15th century Joseon, Prince Suyang seized the throne from the young king Danjong, killing many in his coup including vice-premier Kim Jong Seo. The drama brings two fictional star-crossed lovers into this historical conflict: the innocent daughter of Suyang and the lone surviving son of Kim Jong Seo. As the tragic scholar driven down a bloody path of revenge, Park Si Hoo does his thing and the audience naturally swoons, but the even more compelling character belongs to Moon Chae Won, as the reluctant princess who holds strong to her principles and refuses to be the damsel in distress. The tonal shifts are significant, from romantic encounters and mistaken identities in the early episodes to tragic deaths and sword-wielding revenge later, but the drama manages to keep you emotionally invested the whole way through.





BEST JAPANESE DRAMAS


11 Nin mo Iru! (TV Asahi)
Kudo Kankuro's works tend to be hit-and-miss with many due to his use of nonsensical - and often digressive - humor. However, it's exactly that wacky sense of humor that makes 11 Nin mo Iru such a comic delight that stands far above other family dramas. Featuring Hirosue Ryoko as an alcoholic ghost, Kamiki Ryunosuke as an 18-year-old host in a gay bar (named Pony), a grandparent with gender confusion, and ten-year-old Kato Seishiro (Ninja Kids) as a breast-obsessed adolescent, 11 Nin mo Iru! is not a drama for everyone. However, those who can keep up with Kudo's endless barrage of rapid-fire dialogue and pop culture references - ranging from Lee Byung Hun impressions to Eric Clapton's "Layla" - will find it one of the funniest, genre-bending family sitcoms America never made.



Diplomat Kuroda Kosaku (Fuji TV)
When we watched Amalfi, we thought the idea of Oda Yuji as a serious, globetrotting foreign diplomat with a secret agenda would make a great television drama. Half of that wish came true with Diplomat Kuroda Kosaku, which offers ten more hours of the coolest Japanese foreign diplomat ever. After spending the first episode in San Francisco (budget!), Kuroda returns to Japan to solve a criminal conspiracy that in turn reveals yet another criminal conspiracy committed by the government. A murder mystery disguised as a conspiracy thriller, the plot may be needlessly complicated and the story pacing too slow due to the liberal use of monologues, but Oda oozes coolness as Kuroda, Shibasaki Kou charms as a map-loving cop, and Korean superstar Lee Byung Hun steals the spotlight with an English-speaking cameo as a burger-loving CIA operative. Kuroda also gets extra points for stirring the anger of the Mexico consulate in Japan and having a story so critical of the government that a prominent disclaimer has to be shown at the end of each episode.



Kaseifu no Mita (NTV)
While continuing shows like Jin and Aibou attracted plenty of viewers, 2011 has been a fairly weak year in the ratings for original television dramas. Leave it to Matsushima Nanako to turn things around in the final drama season of 2011 with rating sensation Kaseifu no Mita. A darker-than-coal dramedy about a cold housekeeper (think the total opposite of Mary Poppins) who will literally do anything her masters order. Exploring issues like bullying, infidelity, suicide, and everything else happening in the dark side of Japanese suburban life, writer Yukawa Kazuhiko ups the stakes each episode with new subversive, anti-social behaviors for his anti-heroine to indulge in. Matsushima gives the performance of her career, taking charge of every scene without showing an iota of emotion. Her four-minute monologue about her past in episode eight is already enough for her to sweep the acting awards for the next year. Besides, any television drama that dares to have a heroine who tries to choke, stab, and set fire to minors in primetime is a very special one in our book.



Soredemo, Ikite Yuku (Fuji TV)
In the summer of 1996, a middle school boy inexplicably killed his friend's little sister. 15 years later, both the victim's family and the killer's family are still silently carrying the pain that has never gone away. When the victim's brother (Eita, adding another role to his "best man ever" resume) and the killer's sister (Mitsushima Hikari, quirky as usual) cross paths again, they develop an unexpected bond and find the courage to seek difficult answers together. This powerful drama from the writer of Mother tackles a tough topic, and the emotionally devastating journey for closure is not an easy one. At one point, a woman who has been investigating her mother's murder case for five years asks the protagonists if things don't get better, even after 15 years. Indeed they don't, but even so everyone lives on. In the end, Soredemo uses an inhumane crime to bring out the humanity of its victims, even down to the inscrutable killer himself, played by Kazama Shunsuke.



Zenkai Girl (Fuji TV)
Though Aragaki Yui has been in many series before, Zenkai Girl was pitched as her first main leading role, and much of the drama boils down to how much you buy into her stubborn, speed-talking, Gokusen tracksuit-wearing charm. Gakki gives it her striving best as an ambitious rookie lawyer intent on fulfilling her penthouse dreams. But first, she has to baby-sit her boss's princess daughter and deal with her pesky feelings for a Mr. Nice Guy (Nishikido Ryo, playing father for the second time this year), who doesn't fit into her vision for the future. Zenkai Girl is never earth-shattering but it is enjoyable, and it successfully frames the heroine's dilemma as not a choice between love or money, but rather heart or mind for a woman who wants more from life. Yakushimaru Hiroko does even more to bring out this point in a wonderful supporting outing as a successful lawyer and mother, with a hint of misgiving. It's easy to dismiss Zenkai as typical (the tidy ending certainly does not help its cause), but there's a spunky energy to it that lives up to its "all-out" title.


Best Theme Songs
1. FUNKY MONKEY BABYS - "Soredemo Shinjiteru" (Asuko March) / 2. Koda Kumi - "Love Me Back" (Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de) / 3. NICO Touches the Walls - "Bicycle" (11 Nin mo Iru!) / 4. Shibasaki Kou - "Mukei Spirit" (Lady ~ Saigo no Hanzai Profile) / 5. Spitz - "Time Travel" (Boku to Star no 99 Nichi)



BEST CHINESE DRAMAS


Bu Bu Jing Xin (Hunan TV)
Through a blip of time, a modern woman wakes up as a teenage girl in the Qing Dynasty. A member of the extended royal family, she soon attracts the attention of Emperor Kangxi's sons. Though she hopes to stay out of the princes' contention for the throne, love and fate pull her in different directions over the next two decades in the Forbidden City. Knowing everyone's ending but her own, she struggles to stay true to her heart as the historical rivalry between the 8th Prince and the 4th Prince takes its inevitable course. Director Lee Kwok Lap and the Tangren studio are old hands at making period dramas with trendy mania drama appeal and Bu Bu Jing Xin is their most representative and absorbing effort yet. The superb adaptation of Tong Hua's best-selling novel tugs the heart every which way with the wrenching love story behind the tragic fallout of Kangxi's princes, and an emotionally draining climax that stays long with the audience. Liu Shishi is radiant as heroine Ruo Xi, and Nicky Wu, Kevin Cheng, Yuan Hong, and Lin Gengxin will keep their Bu Bu princely monikers and fan factions for years to come.



Ghetto Justice (TVB)
When Kevin Cheng let go of his princely idol charm and bared his raging rear end, he proved himself to be a legitimate actor with an arguably career-defining performance that would stay long in audiences' memory. Of course, the success of the acclaimed TVB drama shouldn't be attributed entirely to the maverick lawyer; he is but a key player in a cast that shows enormous chemistry, largely a result of the subversive and inspired casting choices. No less importantly, a populist story that dares to break norms with dialogue that sound genuine are also what made Ghetto Justice the year's Hong Kong TV drama revelation it is.



In Time With You (FTV/GTV)
In Time with You is supposedly idol drama queen Ariel Lin's last TV series. It's hard to believe she won't ever do television again, but if this is true, she is at least bowing out with her best modern drama since It Started with a Kiss. Wilson Chen, meanwhile, returns to television for his first Taiwan idol drama in almost a decade. Locally, this is without a doubt his most memorable role since Blue Gate Crossing. The two stars make a very believable couple as longtime best friends who coulda, shoulda, woulda been something more if they just 'fessed up to their feelings. As they pass the Big Three-O and jump into new romances, the ambiguous buddies reach a turning point in their relationship. One too hardheaded and one too reticent, the leading pair do frustrate at times with their personality flaws and inability to address their issues - but it's only because they've succeeded so well at worming their way into the audience's hearts. As idol dramas go, In Time with You really stands out with its beautiful cinematography, thoughtful script, and natural performances from Ariel Lin and Wilson Chen.



Naked Wedding (Sichuan TV)
After 2009's Dwelling Narrowness, director Teng Huatao and star Wen Zhang teamed up again to create another on-topic series about contemporary life and values and the post-80s urban generation. The title refers to marrying with nothing, or at least without the middle-class securities of house and car. One of China's most talked about dramas of the year, Naked Wedding hits close to home with its trivial bickering, henpecked husbands, parental and in-law clashes, money troubles, and belated realization that the little things can unravel a marriage. Leading man Wen Zhang is also the screenwriter and though the script may get too talky and tiringly argumentative at times, he gets in many zingers about life and marriage in modern China that audiences can very much identify and commiserate with.



Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir! (TVB)
Never mind that the undercover-cop-in-school premise sounds too familiar. Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir! is wholesome, charming, and thoroughly entertaining, a testament to TVB's ability to do youth dramas right - even though it doesn't really focus on its young talents. In what is easily his best comic role to date, Moses Chan hits all the right notes with his multi-faceted character, a dutiful teacher/cop torn between two women in his covert mission to bring down a triad gang. Another winning performance comes from second female lead Linda Chung, and word has it that TVB is developing a spin-off series for her character.


BEST SOUNDTRACKS
1. All Men Are Brothers / 2. In Time With You / 3. Love You / 4. Fierce Wife / 5. Material Queen




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Published December 21, 2011


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