I watched over 20 Chinese dramas that aired in 2019, and these are my recommendations. I’ve included links to where you can watch these dramas with English subtitles.
Favorite Drama of the Year: Joy of Life
With an intricate plot, Joy of Life balances humor and wit with intensity and emotion. Zhang Ruoyun stars as Fan Xian, who somehow has modern-day knowledge. When he is summoned to the capital for an arranged marriage, he gets pulled into court politics despite his intention to live a carefree life. A historical drama has never made me laugh so hard while also keeping me guessing. 100% recommend, and I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. (Available on Viki & YouTube.)
Most Popular Dramas: Go Go Squid! and The Untamed
These were both immensely popular and very solid dramas.
I didn’t expect a drama about cybersecurity competitions to be so fun, but Li Xian was perfect in Go Go Squid! as the driven, serious, and socially awkward boss of Team K&K. This is a drama about pursuing your dream, and I loved how his relationship with his former teammates and his mentorship of his young Team K&K members were a major part of the story. I actually felt that his relationship with Yang Zi’s character was the weakest part of the drama. (Available on Viki & YouTube.)
The Untamed was SO popular that I had to check it out, and I quickly understood why. Xiao Zhan is magnetic as the carefree and kind-hearted Wei Wuxian, and Wang Yibo is lovable as the stoic, principled Lan Wangji. The bond between them is deeply moving, and their theme song makes me want to weep every time I hear it. I did think there was a stretch from around episode 30-40 where the story was too slow. (Available on Viki, Netflix, and YouTube.)
I watched this drama as it aired in July, but I wanted to think about it more before writing my review. Surprisingly, I found Go Go Squid! enjoyable from beginning to end. It’s really Han Shang Yan’s story, a young man approaching the age of 30 who holds grudges and regrets, single-mindedly pursuing his dream of winning a cybersecurity competition for China. The romance storyline helps him let people into his life again and let go of the unhappiness he’d bottled up in his heart. There are much more flashback than I expected, but I loved all the team and competition scenes.
This 41-episode drama is available on Viki with English subtitles and YouTube.
Shang Yan isn’t actually such a cold person, he just happens to be very serious and on the quieter side. He has a strained relationship with his grandpa and after Team Solo split up, so I can see how it may be difficult for him to let people get close to him. The timeline of what happened back then is still murky, but Xiao Mi makes a great point in episode 10 and I think he’s able to get through to Shang Yan. I really enjoy their friendship.
Also, I saw Hu Yi Tian’s role labeled as a “special appearance” and I now see why. He features prominently in several scenes, but he frequently doesn’t appear in larger K&K team group scenes. I enjoy his scenes with Shang Yan a lot, and although his character is very quiet as well, I find his facial expressions (confusion, amusement) to be on point.
In these episodes: Shang Yan’s grandpa has him bring Tong Nian over for dumplings. A small group of K&K and SP team members travel to Norway together for an individual competition. Ai Qing makes efforts to repair her relationship with Shang Yan.
Go Go Squid! is such a charming mix of cringeyness and laugh-out-loud moments, I just can’t stop myself from watching episode after episode. As I mentioned before, I love Shang Yan and the K&K kids, so these quick recaps will focus more on them than on Tong Nian. (These episodes happen to be more Shang Yan focused anyways.)
In these episodes: Shang Yan makes things clear with Tong Nian. Shang Yan’s grandpa arrives and stirs up trouble. Tong Nian finds herself in an unexpected situation. More is revealed about what happened with Team Solo in the past.
Although I find Tong Nian (Yang Zi) to be cringey at times, I love Shang Yan’s (Li Xian) ice-cold stare and the K&K team members. It’s become clear which of the K&K team members are being focused on, and they bring so many humorous moments to the drama. There also seems to be a substantial storyline centering around Shang Yan’s old team, Team Solo, and what happened to cause their split.
By the way, this isn’t a full recap but a recap of highlights—key moments and favorite scenes. I meant to group episodes 2-5 together but episode 4 turned out to be so eventful. Definitely don’t abandon Go Go Squid! before episode 4!
Based on the novel by Mo Bao Fei Bao, Go Go Squid! is about a Computer Science grad student and a driven esports professional. It just began airing and will be 41 episodes in total, concluding on July 31. You can watch it with English subtitles on Viki.
Go Go Squid! stars Li Xian and Yang Zi, with a special appearance by Hu Yi Tian of A Love So Beautiful fame. Li Xian previously caught my eye playing a Special Forces member in last year’s Only Side by Side with You, so I’m really excited to see him in a leading role. As for Yang Zi, I found her character in Ode to Joy so annoying, and then her character in Ashes of Love too simple and naive. From what I’ve seen from trailers and the first episode, her character in Go Go Squid! is also that sort of character, but I remain optimistic.
This first episode introduces a lot of characters, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes!