International Dramas: ‘Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung’

Promotional image of Shin Sekyung and Cha Eunwoo. Copyright goes to Chorokbaem Media, MBC, and Netflix.

Hi! It’s Annie!

I’m back with another K-Drama review and, I apologize, it’s not the one I promised next. I know I keep saying that I’ll watch ‘It’s Ok to Not Be Ok’ but I have not been in the state of mind to watch it. I’ve more been into watching lighthearted dramas recently. Hopefully I’ll get around to it eventually, but I’m not sure it will be super soon here. Instead I decided to try my hand at watching one of the historical K-Dramas on Netflix. And of all the ones that came up, this is the one that automatically caught my eye. This drama explores themes of feminism, serious morality, as well as much more along with the romance that it already advertises. With so much going on this was probably amazing, right? Well, kind of. I had quite a few issues with this drama. This is your SPOILER WARNING for up ahead because I will be going into major plot points. And I’m also going to be adding a TRIGGER WARNING that only applies for a couple episodes if you watch this. But they aren’t super big plot points so I won’t be going into them here.

Summary:

‘Rookie Historian’ is about an outspoken woman, Goo Hae Ryung, who becomes one of four female historians in the royal palace. As she deals with the struggles of being a woman in a role traditionally meant for men, she also falls in love with the youngest Prince, Dowon.

The Good:

Goo Hae Ryung- She was an amusing and fun character to follow throughout the series. More than that, she’s an easy character to follow intention wise. I feel like I’ve talked a lot about characters where their intentions or feelings are hidden from the audience. Many shows don’t know how to balance the action of the show with focus on their character and this show does it very well. She’s also one of the smartest characters in the show and is never shown to be meek or unable in any capacity. In fact the show spends much of the time proving how capable she is. I loved every time she was on screen, which was a lot considering she’s the main character.

Yi Rim- Otherwise known as Prince Dowon. He was my favorite part of the entire series. He’s played by Cha Eunwoo who is most known for being part of the K-Pop group Astro. I honestly haven’t listened to much of that group so I didn’t recognize him at first. I had looked up reviews for this show beforehand though, and many of the complaints that I saw were about his acting. I’m not going to say that he’s the best actor that I’ve ever seen, but I definitely don’t think he was nearly as bad as everyone made him out to be. And his character was incredibly sweet! Most K-Dramas aim for this stoic and more guarded main male love interest. And many of those are great! But it was really nice to see an unguarded and overtly kind male lead. One of my favorite parts of him is that this kindness was also a major part of the romance. There’s a moment where his servant, Sambo, tells him to play hard to get and that romance is about playing games. In the next scene we see him instead directly ask Goo if she likes him. Considering the newer (rightfully) negative mentality about playing games in relationships (see Harry Styles’s recent “Trash, trash, trash” comment at his concert that went viral) I really liked seeing this more genuine approach. This character seriously brought me so much joy.

The Romance- I saw a lot of people saying that they wished Goo had ended up with Officer Min instead. Officer Min is one of the head historians and is the typical guarded love interest you would expect. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great character. But I don’t think the show was ever aiming at a romance between the two of them and, even if it was, I don’t think they would be all that compatible. They agree on many points, but what they disagree on are moral questions. Such as, should you stay loyal to your job or the people around you. Which is something they both have different answers for, for understandable reasons. I personally liked the lighthearted nature of Goo and Dowon when they were together. I thought they had good chemistry and it added a refreshing nature to the show when it delved into darker territory.

The Female Historians- One of the best parts of this series is watching the female historians bond with each other. Many of them face the same difficulties on the job. There is more than once when one of them sobs unrestrained because of how they are treated as women and I was glad that the show did not shy away from this. But what’s also nice is that they are always there for each other when this occurs. This show does absolutely none of the common pitting women against each other for no reason. The historians are friends and they work to help build each other up. It was a bond that I loved seeing.

Female Empowerment- I mentioned this above, but I want to speak about this point specifically. This show is very up front about the struggles of being a woman. It holds nothing back. And in the same way, it holds nothing back when empowering the women in the story. Despite their position, the women in this story are outspoken and make themselves heard. One of my favorite scenes in the show occurs when the ladies of the royal court restrain the female historians and try to forcibly induct them into the inner court as ladies. This is complete with threatening them not to speak and with Goo almost getting her mouth seared shut. The male historians come to their rescue once they realize that the female historians have been taken and later scold the women for following the royal court ladies, saying that they should have known about the danger. Instead of taking this, the women bite back saying that if they had been taught by the male historians instead of ignored, then they would have known the dangers of the palace. In this scene we see a very common occurrence that many shows don’t portray. Women experience sexism and then are blamed for having experienced it in the first place. This show can be rather brilliant when it comes to feminism and I loved watching it for that.

The Bad:

The Main Plot- I’ve talked about how I liked the romance and the feminism in this story, so why don’t I like the main plot? Because somehow the main plot has nothing to do with either of these storylines. And when I say nothing to do, I really mean nothing to do. The main plot is a regular historical drama political plot about a former dethroned Emperor and people fighting about who should be Emperor now. We learn very late in the series that Dowon is the son of the former Emperor, but we also know that he never wants to be King so that role will go to his brother anyways. Not only that, but he’s often not involved at all in this plot. At all. There were almost entire episodes where Dowon was in maybe one scene. It felt as though this “main plot” was barely connected with the main characters. It had nothing to do with the female historians and it also had nothing to do with the romance. I’m not sure how this became a plot point at all, never mind what the entire series built up to. And the plot took up most of the last few episodes, which barely made sense with the rest of the show. It also moved very slowly. I would be lying if I said I didn’t skip through some scenes in the last few episodes. This is another show that needed to focus up. Much like ‘Imitation’, it felt like the writers had all the tools there to make a great show when you read the synopsis. But they weren’t sure how to continuously make that interesting so they shoved in a generic plot that ensured drama. It really made me disappointed by the end of it.

The Humor- There’s some witty humor in this. I’ll give them that. But most of the “comedic” moments come from Dowon’s servant Sambo who, in my opinion, is extremely not funny. The humor here is what I can only describe as five year old humor. I can’t imagine most adults genuinely laughing at some of the stuff he does. And for a series that has such adult situations that they tackled, I had to ask myself who these comedic scenes were for.

Abandoned Plot- There were episodes where it legitimately felt like nothing happened. And this series is only twenty episodes, so you would think that they could jam pack every inch of this with story. Unfortunately, that’s not true with this series. There were a few episodes where the show focused specifically on the backstory of one character and then never returned to any of that information. As if it had nothing to do with any of the plots going on. There was also an episode that’s sole purpose was to show the audience that Dowon could be a great King. But he never became King so it didn’t feel like it really mattered. It just felt like constant sub-plots that were abandoned because the writers didn’t know where it fit in either. Also, Dowon was a huge novelist at the beginning of this series and there was a huge dramatic moment where he was forbidden from writing ever again. And that wasn’t really resolved. I guess he just stopped writing? This is sounding more and more like ‘Imitation’ with all the abandoned plots.

I love that this was written by a woman and I loved some of the portrayals of real things women still go through. This tackled many difficult elements very well. I guess that’s what sets it apart from ‘Imitation’. But really, I think this is yet another series just like ‘Imitation’ where the story wasn’t clear enough. The writers for both didn’t seem to know how to turn their pitch into an entertaining and concise story, so they tried a bunch of other things to get it to work somehow. And just like ‘Imitation’ there are several scenes from this drama I really think you should watch! But I’m not sure I would recommend the entire drama itself. It wasn’t horrible, but it definitely wasn’t good either. I think the situations in this drama deserved a better over-all plot to encapsulate them. This drama could have easily just been about the struggles of the female historians. I believe it failed because someone behind the scenes didn’t think that was interesting enough.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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