Before coming over to Korea, I never had any interest in 한국드라마, Korean dramas (KDramas). I’ve watched a few episodes before for classes I took in college, but they never sparked my interest. They felt cheesy and made me cringe, and the need for translation made me feel separated from the story. From the time I decided to come to Korea to about two months after I got here, watching KDramas was just an item on my to-do list that kept getting pushed further and further back. The world of KDrama is intimidating. Where to begin?! How do I know what shows are good and which actors to pay attention to? It wasn’t until two of my students recommended a TV show (and a hangover that had me bedridden on New Years) when I finally gave in. Now, I'm hooked.
I finally understand the obsession, the intrigue, THE EMOTION. Now that I'm emotionally invested in KDrama, I decided I should share the wealth. I will start documenting the KDramas I watch, sharing which ones I do and don’t recommend, and which actors I'm downright obsessed with.
Things to Know Before You Inevitably Invest Your Heart and Soul into KDrama
- Most (if not all) Korean television shows are only one season long. Unlike the television programs I'm used to back in the US, which go on for 5-9 seasons/years, Korean TV shows are big hits in small packages. So much action, drama, romance, and character development are packed into a TV show that is only on air for a few months.
- Even though the show is only one season, each episode is at least one hour long, sometimes two. You have to carve out time in your day to sit down and watch these shows because each episode is so long. Serious time investment.
- Korean TV shows are shot basically right before going on air. Instead of filming an entire season months before it's scheduled to go on air, Korean TV shows are cranked out so quickly that there is very little time between production and air time. Although this might be stressful for both the actors and creators, it allows the writers of the show to make changes to the show according to the audience reactions. That's pretty cool.
- Korean actors can act. Really, really well. They can all probably sing and dance like KPOP stars, also. They all go through serious training before they land their first roles, so they all know exactly what they are doing and do it very well.
- Product placements are obnoxious, but a necessity. Without the sponsorship from big companies there wouldn't be enough money or resources to produce such high quality programs. Also, Korean TV tries to make the show more relate able (no matter how unrealistic the plot line might be) so they are going to use an actual brand name that people use and not some phony version of it.
- When an actor makes it big, you'll know it. Their face will be on EVERYTHING. In the US, we have the mindset that if an actor starts endorsing tons of products and shooting tons of commercials, they're a sell-out. In Korea, it's almost an indicator that they are at the peak of success. The more endorsements they land, the higher in demand they are. Kinda hard for me to get used to, especially when seeing my favorite actor posing seductively with a rice cooker. How can I take your acting seriously after that!?
But it works. I watched this commercial 3 times (once to make fun of it for this post, twice to appreciate Kim Soo Hyun). I've also watched a 5 minute YouTube ad (without English subtitles) for a phone provider simply because my favorite character from Reply 1988 was in it (okay... I watched it twice.) Imagine if I spoke Korean. I would be buying rice cookers and changing phone providers every time a new drama came out.
[Full Disclosure: I'm a sucker for celeb endorsements. Anything Jennifer Aniston puts her face on, I'll buy it and use it exclusively.]
- You might think you're watching a random drama with just regular actors, but it could turn out that the main actor is a mega KPOP star or the most renowned actor in Korea right now, or the writer has written three huge series. It doesn't hurt to do research on the actors before you start watching the show. Me, I tend to walk into things blindly and figure these things out after I finish the show. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I will be providing links to how I watch these shows with English subtitles. There are other websites, such as DramaFever or Viki, that are well-established subscription streaming services. I just so happen to not use the well regarded websites and go for the free, commercial-free options. I've been using the website DramaNice and have had zero issues and find the video quality to be pretty decent.
What I've Watched
- Reply 1988
- The Producers
- My Love From Another Star
- Cheese in the Trap
Reply 1988 - 응답하라 1988
I could talk about this show for hours on end. This was the first KDrama I actually watched and it was recommended by my students, so it holds a special place in my heart. This show was widely popular here, as it follows a series of TV shows with similar themes set in 1994 and 1997. In fact, this show was so popular, the final episode broke the record for nationwide viewership, racking in 19.6% of viewers in its final night on air, making it the most popular cable TV program of all time in Korea (cable drama viewership usually stays in the single digits, so this is a massive success). [careful, there's a spoiler in that link]
Set in Seoul in 1988, this show follows the lives of 5 neighborhood friends and their families, along with the trials and tribulations of middle class families, a changing country, and general teenage angst and romance. Reply 1988 had me nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive and for a country I wasn’t born in. You’ll wish you grew up in Ssangmun-dong and you’ll crave Korean food you’ve never even tasted. Oh, and you’ll definitely fall in love.
I never understood the whole “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” thing back when Twilight was relevant, but now, I totally get it. Two of the main characters will pull at your heartstrings for episodes on end, but ultimately, you’ll know where your loyalties lie. #TeamJungHwan
As with all KDramas, there were gaping holes, random and unnecessary storylines, and the ending wasn’t as fulfilling as it could have been, but it was great and I cried and wanted to start the whole show over again. I probably will, actually.
Recommended: MOST DEFINITELY 10/10
Run time: Nov 2015 - Jan 2016
Episode Count: 20
Where to Watch: dramanice.to/reply-1988/watch-reply-1988-episode-1-online
The Producers - 프로듀사
I really liked the idea of this show, but it felt like it wasn’t fully developed in some places. I feel like it could have been a lot better if the show was either completely shot in the documentary style, or just a clean single-camera style. The back and forth made it complicated to pay attention to and felt sloppy. Also, the product placement in this show is atrocious. NOBODY LIKES ZINO COCONUT WATER AND PUDDING THAT MUCH. Those are just some of the things that personally bothered me, overall I really enjoyed this show! (I mean, Kim Soo Hyun, need I say more?)
This show follows the adorably awkward rookie producer Baek Sang Chan through his internship at the Korean broadcasting station KBS. He works in the variety department and gets involved with the daily antics and drama that occurs when producing a major television program. Tangled love lines and the drama that follows inevitably play a key role throughout the show, causing trouble for the four main characters.
The thing I really enjoyed about this show is that KBS is a real broadcasting station and Music Bank is an actual TV program. The show plays off of real Korean pop culture, so it was a fun way to learn about some of the biggest names in entertainment (of course most of them went way over my head. I had no idea IU is an actual pop star until I finished the show, and she’s one of the main characters).
Run time: May 2015 - June 2015
Episode Count: 12
Where to Watch: http://dramanice.to/drama/producer-detail
My Love From Another Star - 별에서 온 그대
Following my need for more Kim Soo Hyun after watching The Producers, I turned to google to find out what other shows he has been in. As fate would have it, he’s the main character in the HUGELY popular, My Love From Another Star, which just so happens to be a show recommended to me by my Global Media professor. (DHL, if you’re reading this, I will forever regret not watching this show when you told me to, but let’s Skype sometime and chat about Kim Soo Hyun).
My Love From Another Star is about an alien who landed on earth in the Joseon Dynasty. He misses his ride back to his planet and is left to live out the next 400 years dealing with the human race. He manages to keep to himself over the next four centuries, until 3 months before he’s set to go back home when he gets involved with the top actress in modern day Korea. Drama, of course, follows.
I wish I was in Korea when this show was at it’s peak. From everything I’ve read, it was insanely popular. Kim Soo Hyun was launched into mega stardom, as was his co star (Jun Ji-Hyun). This show wasn’t just a massive success in Korea, it was also a major hit all over Asia, especially China. I highly recommend this NYT article, which goes into more detail on how this show and Korean programs are majorly influencing Chinese media. Article teaser: women in China were sent to the hospital after binge eating fried chicken and beer because that's the main characters favorite meal. (gotchya to click, right?)
Not going to lie, there were definitely parts in this show that were just too ~drama~ for me. I cringed. A lot. But the acting is incredible (still looking at you, Kim Soo Hyun) and the story keeps you hooked.
Recommended: Most definitely 11/10 (the extra point is for the stellar scene of Kim Soo Hyun's abs)
Run time: December 2013 - February 2014
Episode Count: 21
Next Show: Cheese in the Trap
Anyone out there have suggestions for what I should watch next? I don't really have a formula... I just follow whichever actor I fancy at the moment...