[One True Pairings] Initially undefined OTPs

[One True Pairings] Initially undefined OTPs


Answer Me 1988

By Last episode, I promise!

Since joining the drama world in 2013, I have learned not to make one mistake in particular—shipping the second leads with the mains. I did not even know what Second Lead Syndrome was until I started watching Korean dramas. Now, I find that not making the mistake of having Second Lead Syndrome is vital to my happiness (yes, I am being dramatic) and I intentionally filter out any possible connection of the main with the second ever since my first heartbreak in You’re Beautiful.

Even if I know the second lead is better for her, I decide to spare myself and be in sync with the writers. While this method works most of the time, some dramas surprise you out of the blue.

For instance, dramas in which the expected pair end up not together—I am left wondering, “How can you switch up on me like that? I had perfectly protected myself from heartbreak and now you betray me. Why, writer-nim?”


You’re Beautiful

However, the rare dramas where nothing is clear until the final episodes are the grey area in the world of coupling. There is no pairing foreseen and there is no switch-up on the intended couples. We the viewers just do not know and this gives the drama a layer of excitement. For a long time, reading the synopsis for dramas has been partially to find out who I have to ship, but what do I do when I don’t know who to ship?

The Answer Me series has been really successful in painting stories that are warm and family-oriented, but even more impressive is their ability to keep the mystery of the final partners up until the final episodes. However, the most recent Answer Me 1988 received a lot of mixed reviews on the final OTP, which is why I will dwell on it. This is not a criticism or praise of the drama, but a take on what may have been done differently.

As a viewer, I didn’t particularly think any of the guys was better than the other for Deok-sun. (Taek, though!!! Look how cute he is!!!! Arrrgh!!)


Answer Me 1988

So I was not disappointed at the outcome, but I did think there were some things that could have been done better or explained more.

For most of the series, Deok-sun treated Taek as a younger brother, and although their relationship changed after their kiss, I had hoped there would be little changes before that. She obviously knew he liked her after he kissed her and she was scared of their relationship changing, but we didn’t really see how that affected her while they were still in school. She didn’t show a gradual lean towards him. You really started to see her miss him when they already had jobs of their own. One could argue that she was always protective of him or there for him, but Taek has a childlike personality which made her take care of him more even when she liked others.

Also, we never got to see how they were able to convince their families about their relationship and eventually get married. This would have been a good way to show us the maturity of their relationship and how their love won over their families. She suggested hiding their relationship, but we never got to see how they finally came out and spoke up.


Answer Me 1988

I always thought Taek was cute and we saw a growth in his feelings, but we didn’t see that with Deok-sun. I guess this was what threw off a lot of viewers. It seemed like she liked one guy one second, and was kissing Taek the next. Even with these things, I actually loved their relationship. This is not to condemn shows with initially unidentified OTPs. If done well, when the final coupling is revealed, all the little clues dropped during the drama should finally click and let you see why the main chose that partner.

The relationships in Answer Me 1988 were amazing, but it seemed that in an effort to keep the mystery about her final choice alive, they missed showing us why she made that choice. Whether this is a mistake in the story, acting, or directing is a personal conclusion to be made.


Answer Me 1988

 
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[One True Pairings] When death would have been a happy ending

[One True Pairings] When death would have been a happy ending

By @Cloggie

There’s one type of OTP that’s my absolute catnip, and that’s couples where both parties are something special to the other that they would never be to anybody else. Like Min-kyu and Jia in I’m Not a Robot, where she’s the only one who could cure his allergy and he’s the only one who thinks she’s a great inventor. Seeing as that’s what I love in OTPs, you might be surprised to hear that in Black, I thought Reaper 444 and Ha-ram could be a great couple like that.

For those of you who didn’t watch Black, here’s what you need to know up to Episode 12: Humans who died but whose remains haven’t been found become special Reapers. They have no memory of who they used to be and are told that they are celestial beings. 444 is one of them. Ha-ram is a person who can see the shadows of Reapers and therefore knows when and how people are going to die. She hates this special power.

They meet after 444 possesses the dead body of Moo-gang and becomes Black. Moo-gang was the brother of Joon, Ha-ram’s childhood crush, who’s also dead but whose body has never been found. I think you get where this is going. Initially, Ha-ram doesn’t know either person has died and thinks that Moo-gang is Joon because he wears Joon’s bracelet that she’d given to him. Enough evidence for anybody.

There are some problematic elements to this relationship. I found Ha-ram’s cutesy behavior around Black irritating but hey, if that floats his boat, then who am I to judge? Ha-ram seems to ignore that her childhood crush has had a total personality transplant (literally, as he’s now possessed by a Reaper) but she accepts his behavior because he looks really hot. We’ve all been there before.

No, the main problem with this pairing was that Ha-ram is alive and Black is very much dead. To me, this seemed a significant obstacle to having a meaningful relationship. Seriously, falling in love with someone who’s already dead is going to end in tears.

So for the first 11 episodes, I was intrigued by the plot, but I looked at this pairing askance. Not just that I didn’t see the chemistry between the actors, but more that I didn’t want this living person to love a dead person. This way madness lies!

And then came the end of Episode 12—the moment of what-could-have-been—because Ha-ram was murdered by the baddie. Unmistakably killed. We were shown that her life bauble was shattered by the Reapers; we were told that so much of her blood had been found that she couldn’t have survived. She was dead. End of episode.

I sat in front of my screen slack-jawed. This was a moment of sheer brilliance that I hadn’t seen coming. Normally, I would have thought: “No way she’s dead. We know how this works, no main character dies in Episode 12. This is a total con and I’m not falling for it.” But this time it was different. Because a dead Ha-ram would solve the problem that I had with the OTP. Now it wasn’t a living person loving a dead person. Now the couple was… two dead people. Wasn’t this perfect?

It was the even-numbered episode, so I had a whole week to ponder this fantastic twist. I could see how this was going to play out. Ha-ram died and her body would not be found so… she was going to become a Reaper too! This was obviously what was going to fill the final third of this drama. Ha-ram was going to be part of Black’s Reaper Scooby Gang with Hip-Hop and Joseon.


There’s room for one more in the Reaper Scooby Gang. There’s an empty chair right there!

As a Reaper herself, Ha-ram would come to terms with that part of her that she’d hated before: her ability to see how people were going to die. She would understand that death wasn’t something to fear but a part of the circle of life. And more importantly, they were going to be that special OTP, where they were things to each other that nobody else could ever be. Because who other than Black would have seen Ha-ram both before and after she died? And who other than Ha-ram would make Black ultimately realize who he really was? He’d now seen someone die and become a Reaper. This would make him question his own origins.

I even saw the perfect ending: together they would ensure that the other’s remains were found. Both Ha-ram and Joon’s bodies would be discovered and they would stop being Reapers. I didn’t know what was going to happen at that point, maybe they would dissolve or go up to heaven, but after the stroke of brilliance that was Ha-ram’s death, I trusted the writer to get this right. It would be poignant. This was going to be an epic OTP. Handkerchiefs at the ready.


How awesome would it be if they were both Reapers together? Ice creams optional.

For a whole week I believed this. For seven days I gave the drama much more credit than was due. Because what did we get in Episode 13? We got: Ha ha, fooled you, she wasn’t dead after all. After that it only went downhill. We got ridiculousness and we got a stupid ending that left even the biggest of fans scratching their heads.

And I was left sad at the wonderful “happy” ending that could have been, if only Ha-ram had died. In my head this version exists. It will have to do. As I said earlier, we’ve all been there before.

 
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[One True Pairings] The best OTP is a NOTP

[One True Pairings] The best OTP is a NOTP


Forest of Secrets

By ChinguMode

Soon after I discovered K-drama, I watched Boys Before Flowers. This classic is on Netflix and introduced me to the K-drama tropes I was only just starting to recognize. The second male lead syndrome. The dead fish kiss. The chaebol jerk. The insane mother-in-law. The wealthy asshole male lead won over by impoverished-but-good-hearted female lead. The wealthy asshole male lead fixed by impoverished-but-good-hearted female lead.

And, of course, the OTP. The great, fated romance this month’s theme is all about.

As much as I love the vast landscape of new television opened to me by K-drama, I have to admit I very quickly tired of many of these tropes. I’m not sure what my limit is for watching a Fated and Destined couple overcome obstacles to fulfill their ordained romantic pairing — all the while shipping the female lead with the second male lead and hating the second female lead on account of her being batshit crazy — but that limit was reached within a year.


Boys Before Flowers

I have a K-drama list devoted entirely to shows ruined by an over-emphasis on romance. Black was genius until they awkwardly plastered a weird nonsensical “happy” ending on it. Big was a morally complex gem until the Hong sisters threw their central conceit out the window and made everybody happy — offscreen. Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, which admittedly has one of the best OTPs in dramaland, was struggling with difficult themes of female strength, misogyny, and paternalism only to discard them at the halfway point in lieu of romance.

Was every K-drama just a Boys Before Flowers redux? Were we really just watching the same show over and over again? Was romance going to be the entire point of every drama I watched?

Looking at the most critically-acclaimed shows from recent years, I’m going to answer this question with a resounding “no.” Ask people what they think are the best shows from the last few years and chances are high their answer will include Forest of Secrets, Circle, and Signal.


Circle

And what sets these shows apart? Little romance and no OTP.

Goblin may have been the most-watched show of 2017 but Forest of Secrets had far greater critical acclaim and regularly tops viewers’ Top Drama of 2017 lists. In fact, Dramabeans Editors voted Forest of Secrets the best drama of 2017 and Circle the best action or thriller, while Signal got the Editor’s Pick for Best Drama in 2016.

What sets Forest of Secrets apart from other shows is its lack of a romance plotline. Not that it didn’t have a female lead; it did. Bae Doo-na did an amazing job portraying the smart, quirky, kind Han Yeo-jin and her strong personal and professional relationship with prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok. But their relationship was built on mutual respect, trust and a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company.


Signal

You could argue that there was romantic possibility in both Circle and Signal. But while that may be the case, there was definitely no defined OTP plotline.

So it seems that K-drama audiences don’t need an epic One True Pairing to appreciate a television show. In fact, they regularly choose shows without an overt romance plotline to top their best drama lists.

Why were these shows without a romance plotline more acclaimed than ones with the obligatory will-they-won’t-they, destined OTP? Is it because the writers spent more time on plotting? Is it because the relationships portrayed felt more organic than ones that emphasize the fairy-tale concept of “finding the one”? Or could it be as simple as wanting to watch something fresh and original? Is the OTP trope simply too tropey?


I Remember You

One of my favorite underrated little dramas is the 2015 Seo In-gook drama I Remember You. Ratings-wise, this show barely made 5% but it is a surprisingly gripping psychological thriller. Or most of it is. There is a halfhearted romance plotline in this show: It even ends with an OTP kiss. But while the rest of the show is fascinating and original, every time the show opted for romance it became a mess of clichés and bad K-pop.

So maybe the problem is not romance, per se. Maybe the problem is not an OTP. Maybe the problem is that K-drama writers are still writing the same romance over and over again.

Whatever the reason, for now it seems the best OTP is the NOTP.


Forest of Secrets

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[One True Pairings] Because I’m relieved

[One True Pairings] Because I’m relieved

By @azzo

When I read about this month’s theme I knew right away who I wanted to talk about, and no, I don’t mean Oppa and me, a thousand words are just not enough. I almost always love the main pairings of the dramas I watch. There is just something so sweet about two people meeting and falling in love, whether it’s them being drawn to each other from the very first encounter or butting heads and bickering their way into love. They all have their special stories, they are all different, and I’m sure I’ll always remember them fondly.

But if I am to choose only one couple to call my ultimate OTP from my ten years of drama-watching experience, it would be the most recent one: the couple that crept into my heart, clung to it hard until it took over it, the couple that cannot and will not be replaced, our Ice-cream couple from Just Between Lovers, our Gang-doo and Moon-soo!

I never rooted for anyone like this before. My heart never ached for anyone like this before. Those two were just so broken, their souls scarred and their dreams lost, trying to deal with the aftermath of tragedy. Gang-doo spending his days with no hopes and no aspirations, still enduring so much pain from the past, tormented with nightmares in his sleep and voices in his head when he’s awake. And Moon-soo, living with survivor’s guilt, suppressing her feelings, suffocating, haunted by that one scene, locking eyes with her sister then having her disappear.

Seeing those two find their way to each other, fall for each other, learn to depend on each other, and heal each other was so heartwarming. They didn’t need anything else when they had each other’s company; they didn’t ask a lot of questions but they understood each other, their conversations flowed naturally, there was never an awkward moment and there was never a forced smile.

What I love the most about them is that their love was never loud. They were never about grand, sweeping gestures. They were never about screeching chemistry and hot kisses. Their relationship was built on little moments that showed how much they cared for each other: warm hugs, tender pats on the back, and encouraging words. It was created when they found comfort even in their silences; it was all about missing buses because they wanted to spend that bit more with each other, about quiet long walks and gentle handholds!

Another thing that sets those two on a different league for me is how persistent they were with their love for each other. Even when one was being a noble idiot (for all the right reasons, I swear), the other never gave up and just let them be. When Gang-doo started pushing Moon-soo away because he thought he was too damaged for her, that he could never make her happy, and that she deserved better, she didn’t just sit around and accept that, she confronted him. She told him he had no right to choose for her, that it was her decision to make and she decided on him.

She was just as stubborn as he was, and knew him too well to believe the façade. She could see the cracks in his pretense and through that, she could get to him. She showed him that what she needed wasn’t someone who had everything, who she would hide behind and cover her scars. She needed someone who would understand what she’s been through, who’d help her carry those scars proudly and still make her feel beautiful. She needed him, and once Gang-doo understood that, once he took her hand, he never let go of her, even when later she pushed him away (she had good reasons, too).

What makes them so perfect for me is how much they worried for each other. Even when they tried to keep their distance, they didn’t do it to hurt each other. They did it because they were hurt for each other, because they wanted nothing but to give happiness to the other. And that thought, that desire of theirs, is what brought it to them. I think they were each other’s miracle. They learned that forgiving themselves didn’t mean forgetting, how to open up and show their emotions, and that they were good people and surviving shouldn’t make them guilty. They learned that they deserved happiness and they deserved each other.

 
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[One True Pairings] That weren’t set up by Fate

[One True Pairings] That weren’t set up by Fate


Fight My Way

By @rinny

I think we could all agree that in the land of dramas, the most common reason for a One True Pair to come together is the magic wand of Fate. In recent dramas, you could argue Moon-ho and Gang-do in Just Between Lovers, Jia and Min-kyu in I’m Not a Robot, and Sun-mi and Oh-gong in Hwayugi were all drawn together by Fate.

But what about the couples that are just a good match? The couples brought together by a more realistic reason? Where are they? They exist, but they can be a little more difficult to spot in dramaland. They are commonly found in friends-to-lovers or slice-of-life dramas, where they come across much more organically. Fight My Way had a great couple in Ae-ra and Dong-man, who kept coming back to each other not because of the magic of fate but because they were such an integral part of each other’s lives they were less of themselves without the other.


Fight My Way

When you compare all the “fated” pairings to more organic pairs, they feel hollow to me because they take away from the autonomy of the characters. This is especially true when the characters go from enemies to lovers, where often, circumstances outside their control keep pushing them together.

But of all the non-fated couples, there is a specific set that stands out to me. The Answer Me series revolves around several stories of ultimate One True Pairings. If I were to write a list of my favorite couples, all the Answer Me couples would rank among the best. And the reason for their relationships being so great? Fate is not the driving force. Instead, it is because the characters made and acted on choices that followed behavior already set up earlier in the drama.


Answer Me 1988

The reasons the stories were so well loved and drew so many angry tears, particularly in Answer Me 1988, was because the stories could have gone differently if the characters did not actually take authorship in their own stories.

So I would like to nominate the One True Pairing that is the truest of them all, Sung Shi-won and Yoon Yoon-jae of Answer Me 1997, because their characters were brought together by the choices they made. Sure they ran into each other in a coffee shop after years of separation, but one coincidence is not fate. And in the end, they both chose to act on their feelings and try for a relationship, rather than wait for fate to give them a sign that it was guaranteed to work out.


Answer Me 1997

 
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[One True Pairings] One true partnership

[One True Pairings] One true partnership


Strong Woman Do Bong-soon

By @ChinguMode

Relationships are a partnership. We all know this; we even repeat it like a mantra in comments sections. But television is still replete with relationships portrayed as “romantic” despite a power imbalance that can sometimes verge on the disturbing.

From Strong Woman Do Bong-soon to I’m Not a Robot, dramaland is full of romances that are notable for true partnership, mutual respect, and consideration. And yet for every Min-min and Bong-bong, there are another five Goblin child brides or Playful Kiss’ domestic slaves.

These relationships are imbalanced, disturbing, and in some cases abusive but they continue to be portrayed as romantic. In 2018, it seems women are still being told that a controlling partner who infantilizes and demeans you is not only acceptable but desirable, especially if he’s wealthy and good-looking.


Witch’s Romance

But before we condemn television with a wave of our judgemental hand, we should take the time to celebrate those relationships that really are a true OTP: a One True Partnership.

In the beginning of Witch’s Romance, 39-year-old Ji-yeon is constantly harassed by her frantic mother to marry quickly. She’s berated for still being single when she’s nearly 40. The message seems to be clear — a woman must get married and she must do it before she’s too old to be desirable. Already on the cusp of middle age, she’s asked to compromise her supposedly too-high standards and tie the knot quickly.

Later in the show, however, her mother clarifies her position. She wants her daughter married not for marriage’s sake but because she wants her to face life with a partner. Life is easier, she says, when you don’t walk it alone. But that doesn’t mean you marry anybody. She would rather her daughter be single than married badly and so she cautions her against rushing into marriage if she’s uncertain of the man she’s engaged to.


Witch’s Romance

It’s this emphasis on partnership that underpins many of the female lead’s relationships with the men in her life. Faced with a choice between a socially acceptable mate and a true life partner, she eventually has the courage to choose the latter, even with the large age difference. While this show has definite flaws, the underpinning message is that coupling up is less important than finding a true partnership.

So much of television is concerned with portraying cold, wealthy jerks saved by the love of a good woman. But just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Strong Woman’s Bong-soon and Min-hyuk were such a popular pairing, not because of the way in which they embodied this trope but because of the way in which they subverted it. She was as damaged by feelings of difference and isolation as he was, and while she was able to give him the family he lacked, he was able to give her the confidence to be herself and to embrace her abilities.


Strong Woman Do Bong-soon

Who can forget watching I’m Not a Robot and realizing that Min-kyu knew and loved Jia in four different ways before realizing she was the same person? And those ways were for her brains, her abilities, her loyalty, and her heart. And while she originally thought he was a nasty jerk and possibly insane, she eventually fell for his kindness, vulnerability, and emotional honesty.

Most importantly, these two gave each other strength. For her, it was strength to be herself and pursue her dreams, and for him it was the strength to face the world and participate in it fully. They were better together, not just as a couple but as individuals as well.


I’m Not a Robot

This couple’s portrayal as a relationship of equal partners was implied, not just in the overt dialogue and plotting of the show but in the way in which their interactions were framed by the director. While Min-kyu and Aji-3 were constantly framed with him in a dominant position to her, Min-kyu and Jia in comparison were framed on the same level, despite Yoo Seung-ho being taller than Chae Soo-bin.

It’s no surprise that this OTP is one of the most popular among recent dramaland shows, and is a reminder that OTP should stand for One True Partnership.


I’m Not a Robot

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[One True Pairings] Rainy days, dreamy knights

[One True Pairings] Rainy days, dreamy knights


Dream High

By @yjgclone

OTPs are hard to measure for me, but they should leave that mark like, “Ah… I love that series because the main couple really stood out.” Even if the drama direction was bad or the writing was less than excellent, an outstanding OTP will use every resource it has, even if it is just chemistry, to lure the viewers into a romance.

Flashback to 2005, when I was just a grade-schooler, and our local television was invaded by dramas from Korea. There was this one drama that totally hooked my attention and eventually become my classic favorite—Full House. It was about a quirky young lady who signed a marriage contract with a Hallyu star to get her own house back. I can still remember the nights we stopped everything we were doing just to tune into the drama. My family enjoyed every laugh, and our hearts fluttered for the chemistry between the actors.


Full House

Years after, during college, I tried to rewatch the series again for old time’s sake. As an engineering university student whose degree relied on math and logic (or maybe, just as an adult), I felt that the plot challenged my intellectuality. I was actually surprised as to how this series was able to become a rom-com classic. But I came to understand that the secret to the series’ success truly lies in its OTP. It was its bread and butter, its backbone and the reason for its existence. The couple’s bickering moments defined the standard for how romantic comedies should be made.


Full House

Their comedic timing was also more than impressive. Who can forget how Song Hye-gyo’s character performed the “Three Bears Song” for her in-laws? Years later when I saw behind-the-scenes clips, I cracked up at how Rain couldn’t help but laugh at Song Hye-gyo’s joyous dance. Their bed scene was also worth mentioning. Every time there is a scene in a movie or drama where someone dares to kiss another for the sake of getting something, I still remember this couple fighting for their bed. Full House was just a pioneer of the genre of contract relationships and they delivered so well, but without the “psychotic” and “bird brain,” I very much doubt they would’ve been able to reach that status.


Dream High

Fast-forward to 2011, when a new series became crack to teenagers and catered to my Korean drama needs. Dream High managed to redefine its genre and somehow changed people’s views on K-pop stars being a part of dramaland. The musical journey of Go Hye-mi (Suzy) finding emotions (and acting skills) plus the beautiful and tragic success of Song Sam-dong (Kim Soo-hyun) and their endgame were some of the reasons they are one of my favorite OTPs. While fans were divided between Taecyon and Kim Soo-hyun, I was rooting all the way for Sam-dong.

The series presented an innocent love-at-first-sight and hate-at-first-sight setup, and their opposite characterizations complemented each other. I also thank the drama gods that despite the childhood connection between Hye-mi and Jin-gook, Sam-dong’s ship sailed at the end even with the vagueness of its future. It was really a huge struggle to fight a long history of childhood sweethearts, but the relationship and connection between Hye-mi and Sam-dong was so profound, despite the series having to cater to a lot of plotlines going on for each character.


Dream High

Sam-dong’s affection for Hye-mi was limitless. He did not get angry with her even when she was throwing a fit at him. He was more than willing to save Hye-mi when everyone was bullying her, and I felt so sad when Sam-dong had to witness the ferris wheel scene between Jin-gook and Hye-mi. Even though there was a lot of pain and misery for him, he still followed and protected Hye-mi at all times.

And episodes later, Hye-mi did not give up on him when Sam-dong lost his sense of hearing onstage. I swear, my face was so tearfully messy while watching that scene. For me, Sam-dong was a swoony knight in shining armor in an innocent young teenager, while Hye-mi was a damsel in distress who refused any saving. And if I may add, Hye-mi and Baek-hee’s friends-turned-enemies-turned-friends relationship was also a powerful all-girl OTP. It was not a romance, but their rivalry was compelling and relatable.


Dream High

How can a series be so cheesy and compelling, yet not intellectually absurd? This was my reaction after watching Queen In-hyun’s Man. Props to the writer for making the male lead as scholarly as he should be. The female lead also had a brain, unlike some drama heroines (and she was hilariously manipulative).

The plot setup was so plain, yet it was not empty. Sixteen episodes were filled by an uncountable number of smooches (another breakthrough for a K-drama). There were also no big romantic conflicts from the third-wheeling characters. They played as accessory to the couple’s love story instead. While the couple’s chemistry was off the charts, the show capitalized on it sufficiently but did not abusively milk it.


Queen In-hyun’s Man

Instead, the moving plotline filled this need. When sudden amnesia for everyone occurs due to the bending of time and reality, their short onscreen separations cost the couple’s lingering feelings to look like a hundred years of waiting. The show was intentionally cheesy, but that doesn’t mean that someone has to turn off their brain in order to enjoy it.

While defining the best OTP is a difficult thing to do, one thing is sure—it does not need to be a love against all odds. An OTP can simply be a spark that ignites the flames to warm the audience’s hearts.


Queen In-hyun’s Man

 
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