People are usually somewhat startled to learn that I watch Korean drama. Of course, I assume that everyone finds me a bit odd, so I’m sure it isn’t too surprising. They are more shocked when I say that I prefer K-drama so much that I rarely watch any Western television these days. Yes, even though I don’t speak Korean, so I have to read all the dialog and, yes, I realize I miss nuances that only native speakers fully familiar with Korean society can appreciate. I’m guessing that many of you reading this feel the same and I’m thrilled to have your interest. But, please also share this article with your friends and family who have not yet joined the K-drama club: my goal is to convert everyone!
K-dramas as mini-series
From the mid-1970s until the 1990s, mini-series were very popular in Western television, so much so, that the networks often scheduled them during sweeps month to boost their ratings. They were big-budget productions, more movie-like that ordinary television shows. In fact, it may have been the high costs that nearly killed off the mini-series in North America; today, they are usually only found on pay-TV or British television. According to Wikipedia, “a miniseries is a television program that tells a story in a predetermined number of episodes.”
Korean dramas are all mini-series, and that definition pretty much sums up exactly what makes K-drama better. They “tell a story” — beginning to end — “in a predetermined number of episodes”, usually 14 to 20, although some shows are longer. The writing team knows, more or less accurately, just how many episodes they’ll have to introduce the characters and story, develop the plot, and reach a (one hopes!) satisfactory conclusion. In that aspect, Korean television shows have more in common with movies, while enjoying the luxury of at least 14 hours of detailed character development as well as lots of fun and/or poignant moments. You can’t do that in 90 to 120 minutes on the big screen. In fact, since most shows air twice a week during their run, the writers have 120 minutes each week to advance the story.
K-drama vs. Western TV
By contrast, Western television has plenty of time to slowly, bit-by-bit, drag out the character development and try to tell a coherent story. How I Met Your Mother, for instance, took 208 episodes, each one approximately 22 minutes long, to tell the story promised in the name. In the meantime, though, we are treated to a “side” story of the week. The story of the week is what determines whether the show will be renewed and more episodes added to the total. If the show is unsuccessful, it may end abruptly and we never find out “what happens”. If it’s too successful, it drags on season after season until it loses focus and “jumps the shark”. That’s just not for me.
K-dramas aren’t soap operas
K-dramas are sometimes referred to as “Korean soap operas”, which is ridiculous. Soap operas typically broadcast five times per week, during the daytime, for ages — that is, eons. They are characterized by their open-ended narrative, completing one story line after another while never tying up all the loose ends so that you’ll tune in for one more day, week, month, decade… The Guiding Light was on television for 57 years, after having been a radio series for 15. The beauty of K-drama is exactly that the whole story is neatly packaged and delivered in just a few short weeks.
What are they like?
But wait, if you read AskAKorean, you may have heard that K-drama “writings are terrible, the lines are unnatural, acting is awkward, everything is about hysterical yelling and the storylines defy belief.” Is that true? Well, yes, actually, some K-drama is like that — because there is a market for it. The Korean entertainment industry is made up of savvy business people who know to give the people what they want, whether it be catchy k-pop dance routines or intensely violent revenge movies.
So, yes, significant number of viewers enjoy outrageous plot lines that exceed all human reason and so those dramas (makjang, 막장) get made. Personally, I don’t care for that style and, not too surprisingly, quite a few people agree with me. Some like a more realistic romantic comedy, or action, science fiction, or historical drama. 2014’s runaway cable network hit, Misaeng/Incomplete Life (미생), despite being based on a webtoon, is notable for its realistic depiction of Korean corporate culture and office politics. There are k-dramas for nearly every taste because that is the route to ratings and commercial success.
What do you think?
I’d love to get a discussion going in the Comments. If you are a K-drama addict, share your favorite shows with a synopsis. If you have never tried Korean drama, tell us what Western shows you like and let me and, I hope, other commenters make some recommendations. Don’t forget: I aim to convert the world!