A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO KOREAN DRAMAS
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Korean Dramas from my friends, students and coworkers. “What’s the deal?” They ask. “Korea?” Sometimes it is difficult for me to remember there are people who have never watched a K-drama before. I know, right? (at this point I’ve convinced almost everyone I know to at least try at least one) So in order to help the newbies… here’s what you need to know.
KOREAN DRAMAS ARE A COMPLETE SERIES IN ONE SEASON. Unlike America TV, which creates shows that are meant to continue on for several seasons, if not indefinitely, Korean dramas are the complete package the minute they get the green light. The entire thing is scripted out and ready to go – so the plots are compact, organized, and working towards a concrete conclusion. Like a mini series or really long movie. Most dramas are 16 to 20 hour long episodes, though a few run longer, such as Queen Seondeok which ran for 62 episodes. And since the entire show is completely scripted before it begins filming (more or less), the first episode does not have to adhere to the “pilot” format that American TV’s show have. In other words, the premise and characters of the show may not even be revealed until the second episode. First eps are often prologues. Sometimes the main characters aren’t even introduced into the series until the second episode. So it’s generally best to watch the first TWO episodes of any drama before deciding whether or not to continue.
KOREAN DRAMAS ARE NOT JUST DRAMAS. Dramas is just a catch-all phrase used to describe Korean scripted television shows. Under the K-drama umbrella you will find all the traditional genres of television – mystery, medical, cop, horror, sci fi, fantasy, historical, comedy, melodrama, and so on. Most dramas have lots of overlapping genres. You’ll be hard pressed to find a comedy drama that doesn’t have serious plot lines with character’s shedding tears, for example. Because K-dramas focus on character development over plot devices, you get deeply invested in these shows very quickly.
WILD PLOTLINES. How do you feel about Dickens’ novels? The Brontes? Thomas Hardy? BBC period shows or mini series? Downton Abbey? The Sopranos, even? Complex character exploration movies, like Citizen Cane or The Godfather? Old school Hollywood epics like Cleopatra or Giant or Lawrence of Arabia? Korean dramas share a lot of characteristics with these things. Story lines that follow a character from childhood to adulthood. A giant web of interrelations between characters. Birth secrets. Family secrets. Identity secrets. Sudden changes in fortune. Abandonment and Abductions. Grand schemes of revenge. Ridiculous coincidences. Subplots within subplots. Strong secondary characters. Intense emotional interactions. Slowly developed but intensely compelling romance. Even the cutesy-cheesy teen romance dramas have startling depth of character development and nuance over time.
Here is my recommended starter kit (in no particular order, a mix of genres): Goblin, Bad Guys, My Beautiful Gong Shim, Liar Game, Weighlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, Coffee Prince, Healer, Shut Up Lets Go, Heart to Heart, Strong Woman Bo Dong Soo, Heartless City, Master’s Sun, The Princess’ Man, My Love From Another Star, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Lucifer/The Devil, The Greatest Love and Pinnochio.
SUBTITLES REQUIRE FOCUS. You can’t look away from a show that has subtitles. It requires you to pay attention in order to understand. You can’t be doing other things, like flipping through magazines or snacking or texting a friend. You have to keep your eyes on the screen. Your brain is sorting out the written words and the images simultaneously. Because of this, your focus is fully engaged.
EMOTIONS. I think American’s are embarrassed by their emotions. This is not the case in Korean Dramas. Not only are all characters allowed to be emotional, it is encouraged. And it is not limited to one sex, either. Men are just as likely as women to cry their eyes out. To hug their mothers. To verbally express how grateful they are for the friendship and loyalty of their close buddies. They allow the emotions to come, flood through them, and be released. Anger. Jealousy. Frustration. Fear. Happiness. Excitement. Sentiment (these are my killers… the shockingly sentimental scenes… I can bawl for hours unexpectedly over these). There’s a lot of physicality in the performances. The producers aren’t focused on making sure the characters stay ever-attractive, oh no… they’ll let their actors tackle scenes with gusto: snot inducing, red faced bawling… drunken ramblings complete with vomit. It can be gross. Gloriously gross.
SHADES OF GRAY. There generally aren’t clear cut lines for who is a “good” character and who is a “bad” character. Often our protagonists are just as messed up as the antagonists. Expect back stories, if they are important characters. There’s rarely a villain who is allowed to just be villainous… oh no… they have to give us some tragic backstory which will make us cry and sympathize with the baddie, or have the villain learn from their mistakes and suddenly turn good at the end. After spending fifteen hours hating a character, you can end up loving them in the last episode.
WEIRDOS. Saying characters in K-dramas can be quirky is an understatement. You’ll come across some of the most bizarre people watching these shows. Usually they’ll be the main characters, too. Stalkers with strange habits. Odd reactions to normal situations. Boisterous behavior. Unbelievable Arrogance. Grossness. Neurotics. Drunks. Unpredictable shifts in temperament. Casual cruelty. Personal ticks that are both pathetic and funny. You never know what you’re going to get with a k-drama.
WORK. I’m hard pressed to think of a show that didn’t involve the character’s vocation as a central aspect of the plot. There are a lot of dramas involving normal jobs – like working in a restaurant, a cafe, a clothing store, a grocery. You’ll get to meet coworkers, unpleasant customers, see the storage rooms, watch them restock the counters, cook the noodles, scrub the floors, wash the dishes, close up or open, go drinking with the boss, maybe some karaoke. There are also a lot of dramas involving the corporate world, especially CEOs and their prodigy. Expect board room meetings, intense preparation for presentations, lots of meetings in the office (with the chairs arranged in a U formation), going up and down elevators, lunches in high rises, getting in and out of fancy cars while people hold the doors open for you. People go to work.
FAMILY. Family usually plays a very important role in K-dramas. There will be brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. In particular, you will meet the moms… if the characters have one. If they don’t, this will be a key aspect of the plot. The motherless child! The orphan. The abandoned. The childhood marked with tragedy. A common trope used in K-Dramas is the “evil mom”… which is just what it sounds like. An unspeakably cruel and wicked woman who rules over her children and any who would dare approach them. They can actively sabotage relationships, cripple their children with insults, slap strangers, and sneer while you breakdown at their feet. Of course, there are also a lot of evil dads. Or grand dads. But you’ll also have supportive family, or somewhat supportive family, or indifferent family just as often. Expect to enjoy the full range of familial roles when enjoying K-dramas.
LOVE. Love in Korean dramas is often the main theme. People in K-dramas fall in love slowly. They get to know each other. They help each other. They hate each other. They work together, they fight together, they live together (usually by a strange turn of events, such as a contract/pretend marriage, disguises, adoptions, etc). They’ll see each other at their very worst and at their best. You can wait hours and hours and hours for couples to come together in these dramas. Sometimes you won’t get a kiss until the last episode… and yet it will be enough that your heart explodes. It’s hard to describe why these romances are so awesome even though they are so PG (they are not ALL super innocent, by the way, just the majority… there are indeed spicy dramas, too… with more M rated romances depicted… but even those are pretty cute).
They’re just… sweet. They tie each other’s shoelaces. They apply bandaids and nurse each other back to health when sick. They give piggy back rides when you’ve hurt your foot or are too drunk to walk. They make you dinner, usually ramen. They take you out for a day of shopping and a full makeover. They surprise you with little things. They do anonymous good deeds for you. They’ll hold your hand or grab your wrist and drag you around. They notice the small things about you.
Sometimes they fall in love through conflict. They’re actively trying to sabotage each other. They’re on opposite sides of something. They’re sworn enemies or their parents are. They’re of different social classes or economic classes. There’s a surprising age difference. They have different goals and life experiences. It doesn’t matter what is put between them, they’ll find a way to go come together. Sometimes one of them will die for it. Sometimes both of them will. It will still manage to be romantic.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the love in K-dramas.
LOVE TRIANGLES, QUADRANGLES, & OBTUSE SHAPES. Love triangles are very common in K-dramas. Sometimes it’s a quadrangle. But sometimes it can be very unexpected… like the ghost of a former lover, the memory of dead wife, a time traveled individual from the past or future, a girl disguised as a boy, a prince disguised as a pauper, the daughter of your sworn enemy, the guy you thought was your brother. Often times its one sided. You just never know.
TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS. It’s amazing how common this trope is. You can almost always expect to see speeding, suddenly stopping your car in traffic to reflect on something personal, making a sharp u-turn across multiple lanes of moving traffic, and/or hitting someone with your car. You can also almost always expect to see someone fail to adhere to the obvious rules of crossing a street. How many times have we seen someone just blinding walk out into moving traffic? Mastering the cross walk is clearly too difficult for the average South Korean and undoubtedly most of them need to have their driver’s license revoked.
FOOD. Everyone eats and in K-dramas, they eat a lot. It creates depth to the characters and story, by adding in the necessity of sustenance. Plus, let’s be honest, a lot of things happen when we eat. Our lunch breaks, our dinners… these are often times we get to socialize, or maybe they’re the only times we’re left alone. Eating scenes are used throughout every drama for different reasons. Business lunches. Secret clandestine deals in the hostess club. Loving moments between family members preparing or serving food. Romantic late night ramen (inviting someone in for ramen late at night is the equivalent of “netflix and chill”). From the street vendors to the outdoor grocers, the fish marts, the stores, the restaurants, food in its various stages is well represented. And the character’s aren’t just talking over a plate of food, oh no sir, they are stuffing their faces. My personal favorite are the ice cream pops in the plastic tubes they’re always sucking on.
INTEGRATED ADVERTISING. Now, this isn’t just in K-dramas, but it’s often more noticeable in K-dramas. If you find yourself wondering… why does everyone drink the same brand of bottled water all the time? Why is that the only thing in their fridge? Why does every woman have the same ugly handbag? Oh my gosh, we get it! You’re watch is brand name… stop showing it off! But all this is quite calculated. Since most K-dramas have very limited, if any, commercial interruption while airing… a great deal of their advertising revenue comes from integrated product placement. If they actually stop and tell you how good something tastes or how awesome their such-and-such is, you know that company paid a lot o’ money.
VIOLENCE AGAINST CHILDREN. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many children slapped around as I have in Korean dramas. They have no problem showing you the cruel reality of violence against children. Boys and girls. And it’s harsh. Whether its parental abuse, neighbors, teachers, other children, gangsters, or strangers… children in K-Dramas get hurt. Sometimes quite violently so. It can be hard to watch. But it really invests you in the story lines and makes you understand the characters.
VIOLENCE IN GENERAL. There are some startling violent Korean dramas. And there’s a lot of casual violence as well. Wicked rich women slapping the faces of helpless employees. Men slapping each other. Hair pulling. Punching. Whether playful or serious or somewhere in between, you can expect to see some confrontation that crosses into the personal space of someone else. Usually they’ll end up at the police station, where things are generally settled with money. If they spend the night in the jail, they’ll be rewarded with tofu (the traditional post-jail food) by a friend or family member the next day.
BODILY FUNCTIONS. Every body poops, let’s face it. Though you’ll be hard pressed to find any reference to our natural design in American television. In Korean dramas, people use the bathroom. They take poops and text their boyfriends. They talk about constipation and diarrhea casually at work and at home. They vomit when they’ve had too much to drink. They get stomach aches. They get nosebleeds. They get sick. And with sickness… often comes the bonding of being able to care for someone when sick. They run to the pharmacy for hangover cures. They all seem to have first aid kits handy. They fart. Their stomachs growl. They have actively functioning bodies in K-World.
HOME. More time is spent in homes in K-Dramas. No matter what type of drama it is, all the characters have to go home at night… and the drama’s will take you there. There is a lot of variety in the homes you will see in Korean Dramas. You might see the penthouses of the uber rich. Or the plastic covered roofs, complete with spare tires to hold down that plastic, of the old homes in the country. Rooftop apartments. Tiny one room apartment complexes. Old rickety structures of various ages and design. Winding streets that seem like poor city planning remind you which areas were constructed before cars were a major concern. Some people live in houses. Some people live in high rises. Some people have their laundry hanging up over their beds while others have glorious sculptures and modern art throughout. The characters come and go – from home to work – from place to place. Their entire family may live together, or a combination. They may be all up in their neighbors business or have isolated themselves to complete solitude. Sometimes, if they are celebrities, they will have gigantic pictures of themselves on their own walls. Apparently this is normal. They clean their houses and do the dishes and lay out their bed mats at night and gather around to make kimchi in giant bowls. Home isn’t just a prop. Home is an important grounding principle to almost every show I have seen.
ADDICTION. This is more of a warning to viewers. Korean dramas can become extremely addicting. Because there are so many of them… it’s like discovering a secret library in your own home. These shows are unexpected, even the cliche ones, so you tend to get fascinated by them because they’re so unique. Like books. 16 Hours is just about the time it takes to tell a complete novel’s worth of a story. You might fall in love with a certain actor or writer and seek out all their dramas. You might fall in love with a certain genre. There are many ways to fall down the rabbit hole. And once you do… well, welcome to our home. It’s nice here. We like it.
WHERE TO WATCH: Currently HULU has a great selection. Netflix has a lot but most of them are junk (read reviews first!). Viki & Dramafever, of course, are your go-to portals to the garden of delights of Korean Dramas and highly recommended for everyone. Their yearly subscription fees are very generous, in my opinion. And even Amazon Prime has one or two… hopefully they will realize the error of their ways soon and add more.