Who else remembers their youth fondly? From bike rides in the blazing sun ruined by slamming your shins into the pedals to experiencing your first kiss – and subsequent break-up. The highs, lows, lulls and strange, quirky instances that form a patchwork of different memories – good and bad.
And then, finally, graduating from school or college and moving on, saying goodbye to your friends, family and childhood home, as you face a new chapter in your life.
Each person experiences their youth differently but undoubtedly can look back on parts with a wistful smile. It’s not always fun and games, sometimes it can be mundane, forgettable or even depressingly terrible – but it’ll always be a special time in your life.
Reply 1988 is one of the best Korean dramas – and the longest – for good reason. The third in a three-part trilogy (Reply 1997 and Reply 1994 coming before this), Reply 1988 is a funny, amusing, dramatic, romantic and bittersweet look at five families living on the same street as they go about their lives. This neighbourhood of Ssangmundong is made up of a thin stretch of pathway, separated by several houses that play host to the characters we follow across the 20 episodes.
Taking a nostalgic, authentic look at different Korean households, Reply 1988 is at its strongest when it combines its nostalgia with episodic segments that hone in on different families or individuals. Before we dive into that in more detail, it’s worth looking at the different families that make up this neighbourhood. First up is quiet kid Taek who happens to be a Go-game superstar, who lives with his loyal Father Moo-Sung.
Across the road from him is Dong-Ryong, the class clown who’s berated constantly by his Father Jae-Myung and Dong-Ryong’s mother Jo. Both of these parents are pretty non-existent though, leaving Dong-Ryong to spend his nights in need of attention and comradeship from his friends.
The more eccentric family on the block features our lead star Duk-Sun, who’s both comically inept and fashionably clumsy. Her big sister Bo-Ra constantly bullies her while younger brother No-Eul (who honestly looks about 40) can only listen in despair. Father Dong-Il has a kind heart but constantly gets himself into trouble when he brings home unnecessary items late at night while drunk. His wife, Il-Hwa, continues to despair over their precarious family situation.
You’ve also got Sun-Woo, the perfect child who does everything he can for his little sister Jin-Joo (who’s always eating or dancing) and Mum Sun-Young, especially after losing his Father a year prior to when this show takes place.
The final family is the most colourful, with a real “opposites attract” vibe going on between the adults. Quiet Mi-Ran tolerates her eccentric husband Sung-Kyung while her slow, older son Jung-Bong suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder (although we’re never told this) and struggles to study. Jung-Hwan is a quiet but thoughtful younger brother and takes a fancy to Duk-Sun very early on.
Around the episodic issues, the main enticing drama here comes in the form of a love triangle that stems between Duk-Sun, Jung-Hwan and Taek. While not an outright dramatic or intense endeavour, the slow, rhythmic dripping teases that the drama will go in one direction before gently switching to the other late on. I’m being careful not to divulge spoilers here but suffice to say, the fan-base will undoubtedly be split over who Duk-Sun ends up with by the end.
There are other, longer issues playing out here though and you’ll need a fair amount of patience to see these story arcs through to their eventual conclusion during episode 20. Bo-Ra and her Father have a strained relationship until late on, there’s a will they/won’t they relationship teased between Sun-Woo and Moo-Sung while the two main couples – Duk-Sun’s family and Jung-Hwan’s family – have marital problems that continue to crop up right the way through to the end.
These problems are largely window dressing for the main themes of the show which ultimately revolve around telling a complete tale of youth across this expansive season. And I say expansive because a lot of these episodes clock in at around 90 minutes or more. The final two are nearly 2 hours long as well, but the finale in particular does a great job looking back on this marathon and paying tribute to how far we’ve come during that time.
Along the way, each character grows and evolves, with lots of homages to home cooking and day to day busywork, showing the evolving nature of home cooked meals and different dishes. This helps to give a sense of place, and everything from old-style TVs to tape players and books feed back into that idea of this being set in the late 80’s.
It’s not all quiet melodrama though, and there’s some genuinely hilarious moments dotted throughout too. Whether it be Jung-Hwan’s shirt being ripped on the bus, Duk-Sun’s utterly hilarious make-up or the infamous “Aigoo Kim Sajang!” dance, these moments all feed into one shiny, honeypot of sweetness that makes this drama easy to watch – and difficult to forget.
When you do reach the final few episodes though, do be prepared to shed a fair amount of tears during these moments. Reflecting back on the journey we’ve all taken up until this point, reinforcing ideas of youth and the longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time, are perfectly showcased in a way very few other dramas have managed before – or since it aired in 2015.
This is ultimately the reason Reply 1988 works as well as it does. The characters are empathetic, well written and multifaceted while almost everyone gets a compelling send-off by the end. Without spoiling too much, there are two main players in particular who don’t (you’ll know who I mean after you watch) which is the only blemish in what’s otherwise an unforgettable drama
This Korean drama is easily one of the best – and most authentic – slice of life dramas out there. If you can take to the length, and watch a couple of episodes a week rather than attempting to binge through and burn yourself out, Reply 1988 serves up an excellent small screen treat.