Being a 90s kid – a middle child with average looks and an average intellect, there was more than enough in Reply 1988 for me to feel extremely nostalgic about. However, relatability is not an issue for this show. It has a lot to offer to everyone irrespective of age, nationality, or language. Despite its South-Korean background and being set in 1988, each episode of Reply 1988 felt like an hour and a half long time capsule that took me to a place that I didn't want to return from. The show is so sweet that it keeps you longing for more.
For starters, our official narrator is extremely relatable and fun to watch and easily defies the trope of the chirpy bubbly manic pixie protagonist. She is fleshed out and has more personality and depth than a mere bubblegum persona. The friendship between the teenagers in Reply 1988 seems real. This is not one of those shows where everyone is hooking up with each other, which makes it heartier and more believable. The romance too, takes its own time, making your stomach flutter more than once. You long for and relish those moments when they arrive, wanting them to stretch out before reaching the final culmination.
Reply 1988 has something for every age group. The episodes are long enough to give nuance to the characters, with their own stories and background. Each family is distinct from the other. The parents aren't just playing into tropes or supporting acts. They are living, breathing people with their own issues to deal with, besides their children. The most distinct part of the show is the non-judgmental and non-preachy commentary on various human emotions. For instance, in one episode the parents taunt a girl's hair and her extravagant make-up, but upon learning about her reasons, they are quick to apologise and warm up to her. These are some reflective ways in which the show gives a lesson in empathy and compassion without being preachy.
Almost every episode ends with a beautiful voiceover teeming with wisdom. One of my favourite lines in the entire show was "I hate my old belongings as they are 'dull' and 'pathetic', however, another word for dull and pathetic can be 'familiar' and 'comfortable'". It reminded me of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching that "understanding is love's another name"- to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. To understand this, one has to avoid the "western pathology of cynicism" that makes us "dismiss anything sincere and true as simplistic or naïve". In the age of "left and right swipe" where 'settling' has become an abominable term, the series shows us the charm of being with the one we love and accept them as they are.
The show acts as a relief from all the grey and dark characters we have binged on lately, in the name of complexity. Like those complex characters gave us relief from the binary framework of good and bad, this show and its simple yet complex characters give us a break from the darkness. It is a reminder that people can be complex while doing everyday things, and one cannot just categorise them as good and bad, in fact, the very category of 'grey' seems to limit them. The characters, rather than simply give in to their inner demons, do not yield in the face of struggle. The show is full of such characters and their inner motivations should not be discarded as simplistic and naïve. It is full of complexity and nuance.
The most important element of the show is the year in which it is set, quite obvious from the title itself. The year 1988 is imprinted all over the show, from the political environment of the time to the Seoul Olympics to the student protests. Almost all the remarkable events that happened in Seoul during that era have been used as a canvas for the characters to paint their own stories on. Living in the capital of the country deprives them of the luxury to detach themselves from the goings on of the country at large. The temporal and spatial setting notwithstanding, the show is as timeless and borderless as it can be.
The colour palette and the wide shots that capture the entire block make the show super nostalgic and cozy. The dialogues are written with so much warmth and wisdom that every episode becomes a learning experience. It reminds you that despite the barrage of Western content, it's Asian sentimentality and hospitality that we find the most relatable and easy to connect with.
Food plays a very important role in the show. The camera always focuses separately on the food that the families eat. It helps in reflecting their different social positions. The show keeps itself grounded and not paint too rosy a picture. Behind all the sweet stories is the backdrop of class distinction, state violence, and family discords. The show is about love, family, friendship, and it rekindles the child in our hearts.
The pandemic has compelled most of us to stay with our parents and family. Add the show to your watchlist and watch it with them and make sure to not watch it in one go. It is not junk food to binge on in a single day, it's soul food to be relished and savoured while it lasts.