Bad Family (SBS 2006)

Bad Family is a thoroughly endearing and enjoyable drama. Strangely, it must defy reviewing, because I am having a terribly constipated time writing about it. The words just aren’t coming to me like they normally do. I’ll take this as a sign from the drama gods that this is a drama that needs to be watched instead of talk about.

I hear you, drama gods, loud and clear (now can you please remove that writer’s block cap you shoved on my noggin). Everyone, if you are curious about Bad Family, which is an oft-recommended but rarely discussed drama, please go watch it now because it’s a very good drama.

In sixteen brisk episodes, it will make you laugh a lot and tear up just a little. It also has a happy ending for everyone. Wow, that was ridiculously easy to write. But since I did start writing a proper review of this drama, I might as well try to finish it. This might end up being a stream-of-consciousness mess of a review, but feel free to keep reading. I invite you to spend some time with me and the members of the titular Bad Family.

What is love? (Oh baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more):

Thundie just wrote a magnificent review about one facet of love. Not love as an emotion that occurs all around us, in its various states and permutations. No, Thundie’s review of The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry is primarily about exploring what four different women think, feel, and approach the prospect of being in love.

I can grasp the emotion of being in love readily, because that is one emotion I’ve been dreaming about since I first picked up a book that had two people falling in love. But I have a hard time discussing love in a more grounded and less fantasy-oriented context – familial love.

Mine own family never said words like “I love you” or shared kisses and hugs aplenty. We were a family bound by a love that never spoke its name. As such, familial love existed in the periphery of my vision, always there but never front and center. I think it’s an Asian family thing, getting a root canal is preferable to being all touchy feely.

I know I love my parents and my siblings. But for us, even exchanging a goodbye hug is an exercise in awkwardness (much less a goodbye kiss – which involves lots of facial contortions, awkward face turns, and running away as fast as possible afterwards). I bemoan my tragic affection-deprived childhood, which is why I’m all about raining down the physical manifestations of love on my progeny, clearly making up for a childhood I longed to have.

The melodrama inherent in most trendy K-dramas typically revolve around the in love aspect of love as well, leaving the more stolid emotions of familial love to be explored by the family or daily dramas. While not every one of us can say with confidence that we have been in love before, we can all say that we have experienced familial love and are loved. It’s just that the latter is less glamorized in print and celluloid. The tendency of drama viewers is to gravitate towards the epic in love stories, while eschewing the examination of familial love.

K-dramas have a sub-genre that most non-Korean K-drama watchers have probably never or rarely watched – the daily drama. Daily dramas air for usually over a hundred episodes, each of a thirty-minute length. These dramas are not sleek or snazzy, dripping with atmosphere or intrigue. Most daily dramas invariably center around the lives of a group of people, consisting of families, neighbors, colleagues, and of course, the OTP at the center of this three-ring circus.

I have only ever completed one daily drama, but this is not a review of that drama (which shall remain nameless for the sake of preserving some mystery). This is a review of Bad Family, which is a standard sixteen-episode trendy K-drama that somehow condenses everything meaningful and moving in a daily family drama into an easily digestible length.

I still can’t quite grasp how this was done successfully (hence my reviewer roadblock), but I can try to illuminate what makes this Bad Family so very delightful to watch. For everyone who has aspired to watch a daily drama to understand the more realistic beats of the Korean family dynamic without all the sturm and drang of trendy melodramas, but have been scared away by its length, never fear, Bad Family is here.

A quick plot overview:

Bad Family is contradiction like it’s very name implies – a happy drama built upon the foundation of sadness and tragedy. A young girl loses her entire family in a car wreck, and her memory along with it. Her remaining relative hires a reformed gangster to assemble a pretend family, hoping the familial environment will trigger her lost memory, and also identify the culprit behind the not-so-accidental car wreck.

The reformed gangster finds a gang of misfits, losers, and wanderers who owe him money and strong arms them into playing a role in this charade. He also finds a girl whom he owes money to participate, telling her that if he can’t pull this off, he won’t be able to earn money to pay her back. The cobbled together fake family, through the course of daily bickering and unexpected growing affection, end up actually creating a real family (of sorts) together.

This drama is part-sitcom, part-family drama, and all heart. Its concept is sketched out in broad strokes, the plot as subtle as getting run over by a stream roller, and the execution mediocre at best. But I loved it. Watching Bad Family, I was entertained, engrossed, and ultimately enchanted. It’s a drama that, on paper, seems like a colossally lame idea. But somehow the end product succeeds beyond my expectations.

The only way to experience the magic of Bad Family is to watch it. Unlike other dramas where reading a recap might be sufficient in enjoying the drama without needing to invest hours of your time, Bad Family is all about the chemistry of the characters and their rather ordinary interactions. The plot and the set up is wafer thin, and it is through the performances that make it meaningful and enriching. Nevertheless, as an appetizer course, I’m more than happy to take you on a written tour through this (not-so-bad) family.

Little girl lost:

Imagine if you will that it’s beautiful clear Autumn day. You are a young child of 7 or 8 years old, old enough to remember and understand most things, but still much too young to understand life and its trials and tribulations. On this crisp bright day, you are surrounded by everyone who means something important to you.

Your grandfather, the gruff family patriarch, and your grandmother, the kind caring emotional anchor. Your father, the smiling gentle businessman, and your mother, the loving solicitous housewife. Your uncle, the younger brother of your father, who dotes on you. Your oldest sister and your older brother, both much older than you, and who cares for you like a sibling and a parent.

You life is storybook perfect, and you deserve it. You are a sweet little girl, with a smile for everyone and a heart brimming with anticipation. Today, you are excited for a short road trip with the entire family. Now imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to you, and let’s say it does happen. In a blink of an eye, a car accident takes away every single person in your family, except for you.

Bad Family starts off with everything I just described in the first fifteen minutes of the drama. Horrifying isn’t it? And how could I even mention this drama being delightful to watch when it starts off with more tragedy than ten dramas combined. It is because of how this drama sets up and resolves this tragedy.

The little girl at the center of the story is Baek Na Rim, and she is precious beyond belief. For a drama tragedy of this magnitude to strike any person, much less a child of elementary school age, is quite frankly on its face an obscene plot device.

But the members of Na Rim’s family who are summarily dispatched never feel like anything more than cardboard cutouts. They are there to serve a function, introduce Na Rim as a child surrounded by a loving and large family. Each person gets a few lines of dialogue, and then bam, the accident happens and Na Rim becomes an orphan overnight.

Our sympathies remain with Na Rim. We mourn her loss, but we feel no sadness at the loss of characters we barely got to meet. Bad Family also gets away with offing this many characters in one fell swoop because it does so matter-of-factly and with nary a maudlin moment.

Na Rim is now an orphan, and one with amnesia to boot. For such a young child, this is both a blessing and a curse. She doesn’t need to deal with the emotional trauma of losing her family if she doesn’t even remember them. Conversely, she also cannot properly mourn her family because she doesn’t remember them.

Operation fake family:

What to do then, if you are Na Rim’s only remaining relative, the brother of Na Rim’s mother. You can take Na Rim in, but you suspect that Na Rim may have seen the person who caused the accident, and that the accident was no simple accident. You need Na Rim to regain her memory, and you need to ease her into this process so that she doesn’t become undone with grief.

Your brilliant mind, after consulting with the K-drama handbook of amnesia dos and donts, stumbles upon the perfect plan. Since Na Rim doesn’t remember her family, why not hire people to impersonate her family members? These people will serve to shelter Na Rim from the reality of her situation, and hopefully help trigger her lost memory of her real family and of the day of the accident.

You hire a man who agrees to take on the job, who promises that he has the perfect people lined up to play the roles. The man in question is Oh Dal Gun (played by Kim Myung Min), a former gangster who has been kicked out of the gang by his boss and is attempting a legitimate livelihood. Dal Gun takes on his first above board job to create a fictional family for Na Rim, and he cleverly combines this job with his former profession.

Dal Gun approaches a motley crew of folks who owe him money and have none to pay. He strikes a deal with each of them: they will perform the part of a specific Na Rim relative, and in return their paycheck will go to Dal Gun as repayment for their debt to him. Using this methodology, Dal Gun rounds up the actors to play the grandfather, the grandmother, the father, the mother, and the older brother. Dal Gun himself takes on the role of the uncle.

But who can play the role of the older sister? The is where Kim Yang Ah (played by Nam Sang Mi) comes into the picture. Yang Ah is the sole caregiver of her three younger brothers after the death of their parents, and their only valuable possession is a rickety old fishing boat. When Dal Gun hijacks Yang Ah’s boat to escape a rival gang, and accidentally causes the uninsured boat to get burned down, Yang Ah comes to Dal Gun to collect what he owes her.

Dal Gun tells Yang Ah that she will have to play the role of Na Rim’s older sister (and Dal Gun’s niece in this fictional family), because she fits the part, and because Na Rim has accidentally assumed that Yang Ah is her older sister. Once this role is filled, the fictional family endeavor can commence. Without Yang Ah’s involvement, no one will get paid, and Dal Gun cannot repay Yang Ah for the loss of her boat. Yang Ah agrees, and we’ve got our titular Bad Family.

A spotlight on each family member:

Once Project Fake Family gets underway, the drama moves deftly through the family members one by one, unearthing and exorcising each of their demons, finding underneath is a diamond in the rough (or at least some cubic zirconia). The pleasures in watching Bad Family rests wholeheartedly on the wonderful chemistry between the family members, each of whom bring their characters to life in ways that connects with the viewers and each other.

Each family member has their own sorry state of affairs prior to getting coerced or recruited into this endeavor. Through a connection forged by spending time together and growing to love and care for one another, everyone learns that they are not doomed to spend their lives as lonely as they were before.

The Grandparents – In my mind, Na Rim’s real grandfather was likely a taciturn man who nonetheless melted in the presence of his beloved granddaughter. In our Bad Family, Na Rim’s grandfather is an old, slightly lecherous ballroom dancing instructor named Jang Hang Gu (played by Im Hyun Sik). Grandpa runs an old-school and dilapidated ballroom studio located in the second floor of the ramshackle open air Beautiful Market.

Grandpa is a solitary man, with no family of his own, and his journey entering the sunset of his life. He immediately assumes the role of the jaunty Grandpa, cooing to his granddaughter Na Rim, admonishing his sons, and bickering with his wife. Grandpa’s sole asset in life is his dancing studio and dancing ability, and both come under fire when the Beautiful Market is threatened to be shut down.

A routine health check up drops the bombshell that Grandpa has cancer and needs treatment. Rather than allow him to slink away, the family comes together to take care of him and help pay for his medical bills. Jang Hang Gu gives a comical twist to the haraboji character in a family drama, portraying him as a flirt, an old man who has never fully accepted maturity and responsibility in his life.

The real grandmother was undoubtedly a soft-spoken and gentle old lady who adored her sons and grandchildren. In our Bad Family, Na Rim’s grandmother is a crass, ill-mannered old mandoo (dumpling) seller with a stall in the Beautiful Market. Park Bok Nyu (played by Yeo Woon Kye) has got a filthy mouth to go along with her filthy hygiene habits, and she’s a grizzled old bat who doesn’t hesitate to say exactly what is on her mind.

Foulmouthed and unsanitary mandoo-maker Grandma turns out to have been a discard first wife, who picked herself up after being thrown over for another woman and managed to support herself. Her prickly nature hides her anger and bitterness, which finds its release when her former husband asks to see her to make amends.

He is at death’s door, and his ill-treatment of Grandma is one regret he cannot rectify. When Grandma is lured to meet him, the entire family shows up to proudly stand beside her, living proof that she went on to live a happy and fulfilling life (even if at that time this is a pretense for her benefit).

Grandpa and Grandma’s story is of course as realistic as a sitcom bickering couple, but both actors interject good humor and compassion into their roles. So in the end, we are whimsically giddy when they find the culmination of their journey filled with people who care about them, and that they find companionship with each other.

The veteran actors who play Grandpa and Grandma are comically manic OTT one minute when the scene calls for it, then measured and resigned the next minute when they transition to the solemn and serious moments. While many K-drama elder statesman merely serve as a purpose in most dramas (to act as the obstacle, the catalyst, or the wise sage, etc.), the grandparents in Bad Family are given their own humanity and shortcomings. Their stories were memorable in and of itself, a rare feat indeed.

The Parents– Na Rim’s real father was the president of the family-owned Senara department store. Na Rim’s fake father is an unassuming telephone debt collector who shrinks at every confrontation and balks at every challenge. Jo Gi Dong (played by Kang Nam Gil) is gentle and soft-spoken, and lacking in self-confidence and self-respect.

One would expect that Na Rim’s mother is a woman of kindness, generosity, and heaps of loving virtue. Na Rim’s fake mother is everything her real mother is not: small-minded, selfish, and self-absorbed. Uhm Ji Sook (played by Geum Bo Ra) sells coffee from her moving cart at the Beautiful Market, and she is not above using feminine wiles to charm her way in life.

Dad and Mom, in a drunken one-night stand, conceive a baby together, and discover along the way that they may be perfect for each other, and for Na Rim. Dad sheds the shackles of his beta-male existence and stands up to take care of the family. Mom learns that she is not just capable of loving herself, but loving others as well.

This couple is a stark contrast in personalities – he is meek and giving, she is shrill and self-centered. But each absorb the other’s strengths and temper each other’s shortcomings, and create a sweet older coupling that never feels false or forced.

As the saying goes, a person is never too old to fall in love. Kang Nam Gil and Uhm Ji Sook play their roles with aplomb and a wink-wink nudge-nudge deftness. They are neither too cartoonish to seem real, yet always a tad self-aware so that they bring chuckles at their plight because we know they will get a happy ending.

The Uncle – Whatever Na Rim’s real uncle is like, it’s likely the man would run away at the sight of Oh Dal Gun. Dal Gun is a gangster, not just as a chosen profession, but its part and parcel of his personality. He is gruff, he is tough, he is incapable to mincing words or actions. He has never known a life outside of his gang family, until he is thrown out and told to make it as a legitimate citizen on his own. He creates a fictional family for Na Rim, and reluctantly takes on an active role in the charade.

Kim Myung Min is utterly charming as the brusque and bellowing Dal Gun, all bluster and no pain. It’s ridiculous for me to critique his performance. It’s perfect, need I say more. But I do need to say that Kim Myung Min is so adorably cute in this drama, it’s almost like this is his sabbatical project in between his heavy-weight roles.

While not a completely fluffy performance (Dal Gun has his moments of emotional introspection), Kim Myung Min delivers yet another effortless turn as he transforms into a low-brow gangster. His catch phrase “do you want to smell dirt” will likely become your favorite way to threaten your kid brother who won’t get up to bring you as glass of water. Most of the comedy in Bad Family stems from Dal Gun being unable to express affection, much to his chagrin since he finds himself increasingly caring for the fate of the people all around him.

The Older Sister – Hardworking, sincere, and down-to-earth Kim Yang Ah is likely the closest in personality to Na Rim’s real sister. And Yang Ah has three younger brothers of her own to rear, so she understands how to take care of a younger sibling. Without a fishing boat to sustain her livelihood, Yang Ah manages to land a job at the Senara department store owned by Na Rim’s deceased family, which is now run by a long-time family friend, who we find out is responsible for the death of Na Rim’s family (and is the drama’s sole villain).

Of course, our uncle and older sister fall in love, and have the cutest and most faux fauxcest in the history of K-drama. Dal Gun and Yang Ah are not opposites attract (though they respectively attract their own opposites in a secondary love story which I actually adored as well), but are actually quite similar. They are both outwardly gruff but inwardly giant marshmallows, who protect and care for the people around them.

Nam Sang Mi is charming even with a pinch of rubbery-face syndrome in this performance (you know, when the actor’s face contorts into a myriad of over-emphasized expressions). She’s not yet shed her girl-next-door image in this role, but she gives it a new twist by making Yang Ah a total tomboy. However, her natural radiance shines through, and I quite forgave her lack of acting subtlety.

As the central OTP in this drama, she and Kim Myung Min have a lovely chemistry (though not sensual and romantic – it was more along the lines of comraderie and friendship). I totally bought into their relationship borne out of bickering affection, and could actually see a successful marriage in real life.

The Older Brother – Like Yang Ah, Gong Min (played by Kim Hee Chul) did not borrow any money from Dal Gun. Dal Gun found Gong Min one night in a trash heap and took him home, and roped him into playing the part of the older brother in this fictional family construct. Gong Min has bright blond hair and is an easygoing, rather amiable young man. He gets along with everyone in the family, happy to participate in whatever project the family undertakes to get Na Rim to regain her memory.

Initially lurking in the background, laid back older brother turns out to be the rich grandson of a chaebol who has run away from home after learning that he was adopted. Being a member of the fake family allows him to appreciate the meaning of family (a unit where love trumps blood), and propels his growth from a frivolous young man to an enterprising business maven. Older brother helps turn Grandma’s mandoo stand into a factory-made mail order business, with the proceeds used to help Grandpa pay for his surgery.

I absolutely wanted to pet Gong Min each time he was onscreen. In case most of you don’t know (I sure didn’t until I Googled him), Hee Chul is a member of Super Junior and a K-pop idol. Like his fellow SuJu member Choi Si Won, Hee Chul has a natural and understated connection with the camera. He was truly a joy to watch in Bad Family. It was nothing to crow about, but nevertheless he delivered a darling and genuinely sweet performance. He even had his own noona-love story, which was lightly sketched out but the interactions were cute and the pay-off delivered nicely.

Na Rim – How remiss would I be to not give Na Rim her moment under the sun. K-dramas continuously amaze me by producing one exceptional child actor after another. These young actors lack the self-awareness that would mar their performances, instead delivering performances that feel natural in front of the camera.

Lee Young Yoo, who plays Na Rim, is really the glue at the center of this drama, and she rises up to the acting challenge time and again. From a girl who is clueless about her fake family, to grieving for her perished real family, to finally becoming a real kid who can move on to live the rest of her life, Lee Young Yoo shined from the first to the last frame.

Simplicity is a thing of beauty:

Watching a drama like Bad Family, I am reminded intimately of mine own failings. I take my family too much for granted, rarely expressing the overt sentiment of love, gratitude, and appreciation. Rather, I assume that it’s all implicit in everything I do. That may be true, but would saying “I love you” more often kill me? It wouldn’t, I promise to say it more.

For Na Rim, she cannot even say “I love you” to her family members, because they are no longer in her life. Her love for them is but a cherished and treasured memory. But that does not mean that her ability and opportunity for love is at an end. Hardly, for when one door closes, another one does open. In this case, a bunch of rag-tag strangers have formed an agreement to act as her loving family, and in the end, this agreement has become a reality, they are in fact her loving family.

Another failing of mine is my snobbery, thinking of something as not worth my time because it isn’t up to my standards. When watching Bad Family, I am reminded that my standards about preferences in life are mine only, hardly objective and definitely never to be bandied about like gospel.

The drama is set in three major locales: the house where the family plays pretend, the Senara department store, and the dilapidated open air Beautiful Market. I concede that if I were a discerning shopper in this day and age, I would never step food in an open air market, preferring the clean, organized, and antiseptic air of a department store food hall for my needs.

But watching the Beautiful Market subplot was really very humbling, seeing people work hard and feel pride in their life’s work, whether it be a fishmonger (Yang Ah), a mandoo seller (Grandma), or a ballroom dancing instructor (Grandpa). In reality, that there is always a place in this world for people and things of any shape, size, or construct. Bad Family reminds us so gently that what seems old, outdated, and unsuitable may have a purpose in this world, and a right to exist.

The sole villain in this drama, the president of the Senara department store who caused the accident, is also responsible for orchestrating the other overarching storyline in Bad Family: the ousting of the few remaining tenants in the Beautiful Market so that it can be acquired and turned into another department store.

These two major plotlines converge and diverge in each episode, as the fake family members either already work at the market, or end up working there. They don’t take kindly to being thrown out like yesterday’s trash, and they fight tooth and nail for their right to ply their trade in what had become their refuge.

I like how the drama actually mirrors reality in staging its conflicts. The villain is a soulless businessman, someone who may be a decent human being but for being corrupted by greed and power. He doesn’t set out to murder Na Rim’s family, but he does cause the accident. Rather than taking responsibility, he plunges even deeper into the abyss, continuing to cover up his culpability and orchestrating more bad deeds, especially as the noose tightens around him.

With the news so fresh in our minds of corporations choosing profit over decency, having a villain be a corporate shark hits closer to reality than the myriad of villains who have no discernable reason for their villainy (the evil for the sake of evil cartoon villain). Many of the other oft-used Korean drama tropes also feel credible when used in Bad Family, and not constructed solely to create plot development.

It’s highly probable that a man of Grandpa’s age would be faced with a health crisis. It’s completely believable that older brother Gong Min is a prototypical rebellious and aimless young adult, without a goal in life until he finds his interest and talent through experience and experimentation. It’s theoretically plausible that Na Rim could have short-term amnesia after being in a devastating car accident where her entire family perished.

I especially appreciated how no one had a miraculous change of personality at the end of the drama. Rather, people remain the same, learning only to move on from things that cannot be changed, or finding new direction or purpose in their lives through their newly forged relationships.

It’s all about the chemistry:

There are actually four couples that come out of this drama: Grandpa and Grandma find that they enjoy being with each other as companions, Mom and Dad get married and have their newborn baby (and presumably takes care of Na Rim), Gong Min ends up with a noona girlfriend (Yang Ah’s friend from the Beautiful Market), and Yang Ah and Dal Gun.

This is not a melodrama so the coupling up of everyone doesn’t have any cathartic emotional pay-off. Rather, it’s produces a feeling a of contentment and relief that everyone gets a happy ending. Too bad the secondary love interests for Dal Gun and Yang Ah were cousins of each other, because I loved their characters so much I would have been happy if they got together in the end (since they couldn’t be with their crushes).

Ha Bu Kyung is the niece of the department store president, and is a very feminine and romantic professional woman. She instantly falls for Dal Gun when he protects her against the Beautiful Market stall owners protesting against the redevelopment plans. Rather than being a bitch or a stalker character, Bu Kyung is kind, admiring, and solicitous of this ex-gangster and his fake family members.

Bu Kyung is played by Hyun Young, an actress I had actually seen once before in Fashion 70’s but did not make an impression until now. I don’t think she’s been in any drama since Bad Family, but every time she was onscreen she made me giggle and grin at her antics and good-natured pursuit of Dal Gun. She’s capable yet exceedingly girly, he’s an ex-gangster and a lout. Yet their interactions are infused with charm and care, a contrast of the extra feminine with the uber masculine.

Ha Tae Kyung is the son of the department store president, and initially a grade-A ass. He and Yang Ah have a total meet cute over some squid, and Yang Ah ends up working for him in the department store market section. Tae Kyung is played by Park Jin Woo, and from the second he showed up onscreen I sat up straight and went “who is THAT guy?”

Don’t get me wrong, Park Jin Woo was not a great actor in this drama, nor was he so hot I viewed him as eye candy. For whatever reason, he really captivated my interest and I got a kick out of how his character went from hating Yang Ah to crushing after her like mad.

Unfortunately, Bu Kyung and Tae Kyung didn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked, because their interactions with Dal Gun and Yang Ah, respectively, were always hilarious and delivered with a tender undertone. It’s rare to have both rival love interests to the OTP be likeable, and Bad Family certainly keeps giving us decent character twists.

What makes a family a family:

Bad Family is a family drama wearing the clothes of a sitcom and masquerading as a trendy drama. And you know what? Like a fashionista who cleverly pulls together clothes that appear wholly mismatched, yet looks completely appropriate and even really cool once combined, Bad Family is really a sum of its parts. There is not a single element of stellar creativity or execution, yet combined together the result is a delicious and nutritious production.

If I take this analogy a step further and apply it to the construct of the Bad Family itself, it’s an apt description as well. I’ve laid out all the key members of Project Na Rim’s Family, and for the most part it’s comprised of losers (Dad), shrews (Grandma, Mom), oddities (Sister, Uncle), and goofballs (Grandpa, Older Brother).

These are people who are either failures at life or continuously struggling to make ends meet. They’ve lived the hard knock life, and now they are asked to create the ideal perfect family for a little girl who has been given the hardest knock of all. It’s an irony and a blessing that through a twist in fate and K-drama antics, this band of misfits becomes something that not only resembles a family, but perhaps is stronger than any family any of them individually have experienced.

Our first assumption of a family unit is one created by born relations. In our modern age, we have come to accept that family can mean a group bound by more than birth and blood. Bad Family explores the meaning, purpose, and ultimately, the satisfaction of what makes a family. It does so in an adroitly funny, poignant, and gentle way.

The drama takes a group of lost souls, lonely folks, and worn-out individuals, who through a pretense regain hope in their own lives as they are trying to shelter and care for a little girl who seemingly hope has deserted. Yes, Bad Family is a fantasy drama more fantastical than if dragons attacked Korea, because only in a fairy tale so utterly preposterous can we buy that a group of strangers, some of whom hate each other, can somehow form a fictional family more genuine and bonds more meaningful than that of a real family.

The existence of a drama like Bad Family, a genuine ensemble drama without any glittering stars, expensive set pieces, or flashy camera work, validates the age old adage that if something is good, people will appreciate it (otherwise known as “If you build it, they will come”).

I appreciated the sincerity, kindness, and positive spirit of Bad Family, a drama so at odds with its set-up and title. It’s like the early horrors of what happens to Na Rim’s real family, and the dysfunction of each individual comprising Na Rim’s fake family, is solely so that we can watch something beautiful grow out of the ashes of a seemingly barren plot of land.

Bad Family is not an after-school special, a drama aimed at delivering a feel good message and an uplifting story to sell some drippy sentiments such a love thy family and be a good person. The drama is an often wacky, usually silly piece of entertainment that nevertheless delivers a smile to your face and warmth to your heart because it doesn’t try to force feed you lessons about life. It simply treats itself with a self-effacing jokester attitude, and allows you to understand that the sweetness of finding a family (and appreciating the one you have) is in the eye of the beholder.

My verdict – Exceeds Expectations (if I may borrow from J.K. Rowling):

Bad Family succeeds by not trying very hard. The story and characters are presented very matter-of-factly, never taking the big sticks of sadness, pathos, and angst and beating us over the head with it. Similarly, in making misfit and oddball characters endearing and believable, the performances and the characters constructs are not terribly emphasized.

The drama is assembled quite like an ink brush painting from an older era, where each stroke appears broad and rather messy, but you watch in wonder as each successive stroke unearths a cohesive picture in the end, to be viewed from an appropriate distance.

Bad Family strikes a nice balance between the laughter and the tears, the tragedy and the happy endings for all. Yes, Na Rim loses her entire family. In the end, she is given the canvas to grieve and come to terms to with the loss without it being dragged out ad nauseum. When evil department store president gets his just desserts, his innocent son and niece do not get swept up into the maelstrom and suffer for his crimes.

What Bad Family is as an entertainment product reminds me of an amateur magician performing at a wedding. Yes, his skills are rather low-rent and his audience is already high on happy juice, but he does have lots of elementary but fun tricks up his sleeve, and his audience enjoys the performance wholeheartedly.

This drama gives more happiness to the viewer than some dramas produced with ten times the budget and a dozen bigger name stars. Many big-budget dramas end up feeling slick and rather empty, all sound and fury, signifying nothing in the end. We consume them like junk food. Bad Family, like a home cooked meal, will likely reside in your heart for a long time.

You might forget its simplistic plot elements, the character’s names or their quirks, but you’ll likely not forget the feeling of satisfaction you got when Grandpa thought everyone forgot his birthday only to be surprised by the entire gang with a party, a brand-spanking new sequined dance suit, and his “children” bowing to him in honor. You won’t forget feeling touched when everyone continued the family pretense for Grandma, and went with her to meet her ex-husband to show him that she went on to love a happy and fulfilling life.

Bad Family doesn’t have any production values or execution skills to critique. It’s more or less sticking a camera in front of the gang and telling them to emote. To be frank, Bad Family actually has some pretty shoddy and abrupt editing on top of its rudimentary camera work. It also lacks the typical eye candy associated with most trendy dramas, like pretty wardrobes and fancy locales.

Nor does it have a soundtrack worth mentioning, other than one song that will forever stick in your brain like super glue, which involve such subtle lyrics as “I love my father, I love my mother, I love my brother, I love my sister….” It does have a peppy soundtrack that complements the mood of the scenes and doesn’t try to use music to wring out any underlying emotion.

But what Bad Family does is transcend its thoroughly middle-of-the-road production to create a top-of-the-heap ensemble drama.

A drama for all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors:

Of all the reviews I’ve written, Bad Family is the most accessible drama to recommend. I don’t need any caveats (like the first few episode suck and then it gets better), warnings (that said drama is not for the faint of heart or people with tender dispositions), or any such qualifier. This is one drama you can watch and enjoy with your ten year old kid, and your ninety year old grandfather and his two humidifiers.

It has no pretentious airs, setting out only to reconcile the concepts of Bad and Family with humor and a breezy spirit. Once you watch Bad Family, it’ll be like your favorite raggedly old blanket. When in doubt, you can always dig up an episode to watch and be entertained. But it’s not anything that will inspire you to write rhapsodies about it (which explains why most folks love Bad Family, but hardly anyone ever talks about it).  

After I watched Bad Family for the second time (and enjoying it even more), I decided that enough is enough (or a blurb is not enough). It’s time someone did a proper full length review of this sweet little gem, and give it the proper spotlight it deserves. While Bad Family doesn’t make it into my top ten, that’s beside the point. I love this drama a lot, and I think you will, too.

There are a lot of dramas with Bad in its title, so make sure you pick the right one. In fact, Bad Family is the second drama in the Bad Trilogy (the first being Bad Housewife, and the last being Bad Couple). If you accidentally watch Bad Guy (which isn’t even related to the other Bad-named dramas) instead of Bad Family, you’ll be in for a world of surprise.

Remember how I mentioned before that I love cake (see my Personal Taste review). Bad Family is a delicious homey cupcake baked by a mother with love. It doesn’t look all that glossy and perfectly put together, but it’s delicious and warms your cockles as it fills your belly. In conclusion, go have a Bad Family cupcake!

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Categorised in: Guest bloggers, K-dramas, Reviews

30 Responses »

  1. What a wonderful, wonderful review! I teared up reading it, because you encapsulate so eloquently in your words and images EVERYTHING that I love about this drama. You remind me again why I love every single member of this fake family and why this will always be one of my all-time favorites. Thank you for giving all the characters the spotlight that they deserve, from the hilarious grandparents to our sweet little Na-rim. Thank you for sharing about your own family, too. *muahh!*

  2. i have to dig my copy of Bad Family…. your post makes me want to rewatch it! thanks~

  3. Lovely review! Straight from your heart. I’m sold!

    Bad Family has totally slipped my drama-radar, probably for the reasons you articulate so well. But I have it firmly in my sights now! No more confusion with Bad Couple, or worse, Bad Love, haha!

  4. Bad Family was one of WITHS2’s early projects. Complete English subs can be found here:

  5. Omo, I’ve been marathoning this these past few weekends (have only 2 more episodes to go) and I ADORE it, so wholeheartedly . It’s a real gem. I don’t know why I kept putting it off for so long.
    As much as I loved everyone, yes even Oh Dal-gun’s mob boss (who is nowhere near his badass self in Bad Guy) and Bu Kyung (I agree, ockoala, she was lulzville) — Na Rim and her fake family were true love, but even as much as I loved them all, a lot, I have my favourites: Mandu Ahjumma (though I’ll never eat her dumplings) and Oh Dal Gun-sshi.
    While Mandu Ahjumma made me very happy everytime she was on screen – the golden (as in my fave) scene with her is when she sets Greasy Trot Dancer Grandpops up with a date but his date stomps out calling him ‘old’ so MA has a full on spat with her out in public, with the most delightful set of insults ever. It’s impossible not to love her.
    My fave ODG scene is the piano part when he finally gets the hang out of it and gets his gangster underlings to form human piano keys — hysterical.

    Thanks for the review ockoala, I love this drama a lot, too.

  6. Wow, after this amazing review, I really neet to rewatch Bad Family…
    Thanx alot

  7. Thank you, okala, for this wonderful review. It made me laugh and tear up.

    I saw this drama some time ago and liked it very much. Although there weren’t any reviews or info from viewers, I decided to give it a chance and and was pleasantl surprised by how much I liked it.

    At that time I didn’t know who Heechul was (now I’m a huge fan of his and Super Junior).

    I had only seen Kim Myung Min in White Tower and knew nothing about him, but watching him in the first episode being a gangster blew me away and made me realize what a great actor he is.

    As for the older supporting cast, they are a group of very talented and seasoned actors who were able to pull up their roles beautifully.

    Bad Family has been in my list rewatch list for sometime.

    Thank you for reminding me what a good drama it is.

  8. Yeo Woon-kye, who played the cranky grandma, passed away in May last year. 😥

  9. Thank you all for taking the time to read the review and let me know that at least it was incoherent and actually made a modicum of sense. And the compliments that it was wonderful or touching…that just made my day. Thank you again!

    Judging by the response, it’s still very clear how underrated and not-well-known Bad Family is as a drama. I don’t need people to read my review, I just want people to watch Bad Family and spread the word.

    If it’s sweet and funny and makes every viewer happy, how is it not more advertised? I’m glad everyone who comment (and serendipity will likely feel the same way after she watches it) share my feelings about this lovely drama.

    @ supah

    Man, picking fave characters is haaaard with it comes to BF. Everyone gets their moment to shine, and everyone made to laugh and most made me cry as well. Grandma was hella hilarious, I totally agree. @ thundie, thanks for letting us know that she has passed on, so we know to appreciate the legacy she left behind on screen, and remember her fondly.

  10. Oops, typo on top. I meant to say thanks for telling me my review was “coherent” and not incoherent (which I clearly am right now). Heh.

  11. I loved this drama when I first watched it and wondered why not many people talked about it. This is one of my favorites even though I tend to like the darker, action type dramas
    Ockoala, you have such a great analytical mind and writing flair. While reading this, I kept telling myself oh, she’s right, she’s so right! I try to read recaps and reviews of the dramas I watch because I miss or am not aware of so many subtle issues that you bring out.
    I hope to read many more of your recaps and reviews.

  12. Bad Family was endearing and heartfelt, a drama full of surprises. I laughed and rolled on the floor with Dal Gun (KMM is really wonderful!)’s countless LOL antics. I cried over the lil things that each family member did for each other, regardless of how menial or insignificant they appeared to be. I loved the quirkiness of the characters, how they learned to appreciate each other more with time, how their imperfection and flaws dissipated with mutual understanding built over time…etc. Oh, I can cry out of happiness now..

    It’s definitely in my Top 20 drama list. ^^

  13. @ockoala
    I know, right? They’re all so precious in their own ways that it’s so hard to pick faves, but those two characters just felt a tad bit more exceptional. So…
    Just finished the series and yes, Dal-Gun-sshi remained true to his true self to the end from the awkward kisses (snorted-my-drink-out-through-my-nostrils!) to the gangster walk down the altar.

    That’s really sad about Grandma, she was such a gem of an actress. I’ll be making a list of her other work to check out, definitely. I agree with ockoala, she will be remembered fondly.

  14. I remember watching this with my sister. We were laughing so hard our dad thought something was wrong with us.

  15. run away to my room to get copy of my bad family and rewatch it again..
    hahaha..thanks for the amazing review…

  16. I watched Bad Family right before watching White Tower and I watched it mainly for KMM since I was curious how he would handle a comic role. I wound up enjoying it (much better than this years crop for sure) but its not quiet memorable enough where you want to rewatch it or evangelize to your friends about it. I like how the show didn’t try too hard or made itself out to be what it wasn’t which made it even more likable. I would have to say though that OTP chemistry is missing. It felt much more like friends and I actually wanted KMM in love awakening role since its not something I’ve seen from him to date.

  17. …been debating if i should watch this drama. Now i’m finally decided. This should be the next one. Thank you so much for the encouragement. If i ever doubted a drama to watch, i’l just wait for your review here. Thank you..

  18. @ koopah, ripgal, theraihouse, altins

    Glad you all loved this drama. I usually hate laughing out loud, and find fewer and fewer things genuinely funny (my exception: Stephen Colbert, I laugh if he simply raises and eyebrow).

    Anyways, when people recommend dramas that are easy to watch and enjoyable, many times they pick something that rather just fades away after you watch it. With Bad Family, I actually took away some rather trite but still honest and heartfelt life lessons afterwards. For that, I think Bad Family is a real treasure of a little drama.

    @ nycgrl

    Darn it, I still need to watch White Tower, thanks for reminding me! I agree: KMM and NSM did not have any romantic chemistry, but I believed they loved each other. And given the general tenor of the drama, I didn’t except the loveydovey from them anyways. Still, it would have been nice for Dal Gun to awaken to his inner love demon, but alas, that is for another day, another KMM (future) drama!.

    Thanks everyone for commenting!! Nomnomnomnom, delicious encouragement to get me through another week.

  19. @ nides

    Hope you enjoy it! Do come back and let me know what your opinions are. Thanks for the compliment, I do try to write reviews of dramas I would recommend, but sometimes I review dramas that are only so-so. If you read one of those reviews, don’t watch it! LOL. I kid, I kid. Watch whatever you like, sweetie. I just write reviews to share a few of my thoughts, is all.

  20. Bad Family was one of the first dramas I watched when I began my journey in the kdramadom and even after so many other dramas, some really good some really awful, Bad Family continues to be one of the funniest, the warmest, and the most heartfelt dramas ever.

  21. Thank you for the info..just finished watching the series and it was quite wonderful!
    I enjoyed the characters and the “friends” of the OTP, they were quite cute and nice!

    Will definitely spread the love!

  22. i really love this drama , one of the best ^_^ !

    thank you so much for the great review!

  23. Well when I read the cast of this drama I saw the name Kim Nam Gil. That immediately made me stop since every time I read his name I trip over. I love that actor for years. He is a true actor. an ACTOR…
    Well I read all through the review and no mention of Nam Gil. Read through the comments and no mention of Nam Gil. Neverthless I now am so interested in seeing this drama that I am going to find it and watch. It sound so interesting based on a simple concept but all the actors are wonderful and even if Nam Gil is a quick walkon role and no dialogue I want to see the whole thing after reading the review. thanks Thundie. I was looking for something pleasant and enjoyable.

  24. Hi Peggy!

    I’m happy you want to watch the drama after reading the review. The actor whose name appears in the review, and is tagged by thundie, is KANG Nam Gil (last name Kang, not Kim). You made me worried that I wrote Kim Nam Gil by accident, but I think it’s your love for Kim Nam Gil that caused the misread. I LOVE Kim Nam Gil myself, 2 years in MS is too long for us to wait for him.

    Anyways, the actor in Bad Family is Kang Nam Gil, and he plays the father character. He’s also a drama veteran and shows up in many dramas, mostly comedic roles.

    Here’s the drama wiki for Bad Family so you can see:

    Kim Nam Gil doesn’t have a walk-on role in BF, he’s not in this drama at all. If you haven’t already watched, check out Kim Nam Gil in Goodbye Solo.

    @ ditdut, Raiya, spidey – *big hugs and high fives* More love for Bad Family anytime!

  25. ockoala, thanks for such a lovely, lovely tribute to bad family! this is one of my dears and you’ve brought back the fond memories from years ago.

  26. Great review. Bad Family is one of my absolute favorites. I hope that more folks will watch it after reading your comments!

  27. After reading your review, I have the urge to watch this series again (for the fifth time). The last time I watched this was a year ago. I also love this drama. The first two times I watched this was 2 weeks apart! I really enjoyed watching it and with my older sister by my side, this drama hits us really hard! Thank you so much!!!

  28. I started watching this online because someone recommended it on another site and I wanted to see KMM (referred to as the Guru by some) in something light before viewing his other dramas. I was sooo smitten with Bad Family that when I realized that the episodes after 8 had been taken down from the internet, I purchased the last DVD set from Amazon! My one and only drama purchase as of yet. Just love it! (BTW, good thing this is a comedy, cuz the subtitles are horribly laughable in themselves.)

  29. Bad Family is one of the best dramas out there. Totally Down to Earth! Makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you smile! It’s a beautiful story! I loved your review. I’m glad I stumbled upon it. I actually found it when I was searching the Most Underrated Korean dramas list. Definitely underrated. I always mention it in my favs list wherever I go so that people watch it.

  30. in 2016, im still watcing this exquisite drama, 🙂

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