January Staff Picks: Horror, K-Dramas, and Romance!

C. E. Janecek

Twenty-Five Twenty-One has all the spirit of a sports drama (professional fencing, in this case), the youthful enthusiasm of a bildungsroman, and the heart of familial and romantic relationships coming together and pulling apart over the course of Na Hi-Do’s life. Through the frame of Na Hi-Do’s daughter reading her mother’s diary entries about her high school years in the 90s, the majority of the story takes place during the 1997-1998 Korean Financial Crisis, striking the fine line between being a sobering drama about class and also a genuinely uplifting story of growing up with dreams of being a professional athlete and finding one’s way into adulthood during a crumbling economy. Athletic rivalries, professional sacrifices, and heartbreakingly written friendships make this drama feel deeply in tune with its difficult backdrop. The ending—unlike many dramas that struggle to find the right tone between comedy, romance, and drama—felt absolutely perfect and bittersweet. Grounded deeply in reality as well as the high hopes and aspirations of teenagers’ dreams, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is one of the best Korean dramas I’ve ever watched.

Jessenia Hernandez

Heartstopper is a delightfully sweet series of graphic novels that was recently adapted into a Netflix show, and I have been absolutely in love with both since discovering them this past month. Alice Oseman’s story follows Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, two teenagers who meet in school and proceed to have the warmest, kindest, and most refreshing romance I’ve seen in a long time. While Charlie was outed as gay and is still recovering from the incessant bullying he faced, Nick is known as the straightest guy on campus, a “rugby lad” who’s popular with all the ladies. But as Nick spends more time with Charlie, he starts to question his own sexuality.

The most beautiful part of this story is that despite the two main characters dealing with their own insecurities and expectations, there is an overwhelming amount of love and support in every interaction they have. When one is afraid, the other is there to comfort him. When there’s a misunderstanding, it’s usually not long before the characters are word vomiting their honest feelings. The characters are never working against each other, only holding each other up as they navigate being queer in a sometimes unaccepting environment.

Aside from the perfect pacing, killer soundtrack, and abundance of adorably romantic moments, I also love that the show incorporates little bits of animation from the graphic novel. Leaves float around the pair or sparks fly between their hands, adding a certain magic to moments between them while paying homage to Alice Oseman’s endearing art style. Needless to say, I binge watched Heartstopper’s first season in one night and read the four volumes of the graphic novel the next day. The later volumes get into some heavy mental health topics (TW: self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia), but Oseman deals with them honestly and compassionately.

It’s very unlike me to watch something first and then read the books, but the show left me feeling so happy that all I wanted was more Nick and Charlie content. Luckily, volumes three and four go beyond the show’s first season, so I got to read some fresh Heartstopper content before watching the story unfold again when season two comes out!

Dominic Loise

Rats! The year 2022 is over and I still have a stack of unread books, as well as a queue of unwatched shows. New Year’s Eve hit and I hadn’t finished the first season of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix. Yet, the single episode called “Graveyard Rats” may be my favorite television viewing experience of 2022.

Cabinet of Curiosities is an anthology horror series created, produced and hosted by Guillermo del Toro. Each of the Cabinet of Curiosities episodes has its own director and most of the episodes are based on short stories by classic authors like H. P. Lovecraft. Please note that I am putting trigger warnings for this series due to the visuals involved bringing these stories to the screen. “Graveyard Rats” is directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the first Cube (1997) movie in that science fiction/horror puzzle box franchise. Henry Kuttner wrote the short story the episode was based on. Kuttner wrote the piece the Twilight Zone episode “What You Need” was filmed from. David Hewlett plays the main character Masson. Hewlett is an amazing character actor who fans of Murdoch Mysteries may know as Dilbert Dilton in the emotional episode “The Accident”.

I haven’t seen the version of the story done for Trilogy of Terror II and I will acknowledge that I have written about rats and horror already in 2022 when reviewing Wrath. However, this “Graveyard Rats” is a different animal. Not only is this production my favorite episode of television of the year, but I would put it up as one of my “go to” episodes of horror television. I was jumping multiple times with fright and delight. I bought Masson’s motivation for graverobbing and how the terror of his financial straits caused the crawling after rats through burrowed tunnels under the graveyard. And the confined spaces Natali filmed in Cube comes back to play here along with the same atmosphere of enclosed desperation fighting for survival that I loved in the director’s previous work. “Graveyard Rats” is one of those perfect combinations of story, director and actor that makes something memorable and nests itself as a benchmark for the genre.

Asmaani Kumar

Alchemy of Souls Pt.1 and Pt. 2 has been the IT drama of last year, spanning two seasons to tell you about this fantasy world of mages intermeshed with dangerous palace politics. Our central character Jang Uk, is the only mage without his own source of energy to cast spells and you find yourself on this beautiful journey where he becomes the most powerful mage in the kingdom. This happens all because of his stern tutor, Naksu/Mudeok, a dangerous assassin that has switched souls and is now trapped in a body that cannot perform spells. With a hauntingly beautiful OST and a host of lovable characters all on their own journeys, this is a storyline that keeps you hooked with its exploration of multiple relationships and dynamics, a series of unexpected twists and a brilliant cinematography that leaves you wanting more.

It’s been a long time since I have fangirled over a series so much but it’s also been too long since I came across a story that was so beautifully written with a solid narrative that brought in so many sub-plots together. But what I was drawn to the most was the relationship between Jang Uk and Mudeok, which as ill-fated as it may have been had all the ingredients of a romance that could conquer all. To see their journey of living with their past, accepting loss and heartbreak and becoming more powerful together was one of the best things I’ve seen all this while. I’ve been calling this story beautiful too many times, but I love it so much that I just cannot find the words to capture what I feel and how brilliant this show is. It’s an iconic must watch!