Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There and Back Again: Of Kdrama and The Vampire Diaries




There are boobs everywhere.

That was my first thought when I took a break from my year-long Kdrama marathon last week to watch the third season of the American show The Vampire Diaries.

Because I’m an all or nothing kind of girl, falling down the Korean drama rabbit hole prompted me to almost completely abandon American television. I can’t say that I miss it, and from what I can tell it’s still plagued with the problems that prompted me to move on: never-ending series with no satisfying, long-term narratives; a preference for male characters and male viewpoints; and premises that are so busy being inoffensive to every demographic in the country that they’re too bland to truly appeal to anyone.

I even went so far as to drop my cable service, and have since been surviving quite happily on a diet of Drama Fever. But when the third season of the zippy teen series The Vampire Diaries arrived on Netflix, I knew I had to give it a shot.

What I didn’t realize was how bizarre it would feel to actually watch an American program again. In a way, it was like coming home after a long absense: the characters spoke my language both literally and figuratively, spent their time in homes and towns that weren’t so different from my own, and interpreted the world around them from a vantage point a lot like mine. For a white-bread American like me, one of the greatest appeals of Kdrama is that it’s completely exotic, a window into another world. But that’s a two edged sword—it never lets me forget my outsider status. When I watch Korean shows, everything needs to be decoded and interpreted: there’s nothing I know or understand inherently, from the finer points of interpersonal relationships, to popular desserts, to the formulation of toothpaste.

However otherworldly The Vampire Diaries may be, the exact opposite is true. When someone made a reference to pop culture, I knew exactly what they meant. When the gym was being decorated for a school dance, I flashed back to doing the very same thing during my own high school years. And when a character became a vampire, I didn’t have to Google the word to see what it meant; I just knew, because vampires—unlike gumihos, for example—are mythical creatures that I’ve been familiar with for decades.

I knew I had learned a lot about Asia from my Kdrama daze, but I now see that I’ve also learned a lot about America. As a white, middle-class Northeasterner, I never suspected what it might be like not to be represented in the culture that surrounds me, or how amazing it could feel to suddenly see a version of myself on my television screen. (Well, myself if I were suddenly young, beautiful, and prone to drinking human blood. But you know what I mean.) With an entertainment industry so thoroughly dominated by one racial and ethnic group, I bet America is full of citizens are visitors to their own national culture just as I am a visitor to Korean culture.

Having gotten used to how things are done on Korean television, it was an interesting experience to spend some time with a show that was actually created with me in mind. Here are some specific contrasts I noticed.


The Kdrama crouch, as demonstrated by Eun Chan from Coffee Prince.

TV tropes. The Vampire Diaries featured a surprising number of Kdrama-friendly elements, including an epic love triangle and multiple scenes of loving ointment application. Mostly, though, it was standard American fare—which felt oddly alien to me after a year of Kdrama.

For one, there wasn’t a single piggyback scene, even though quite a few of TVD’s female characters were carried around by their male counterparts. (This was always done “bride style,” with the girl resting in the boy’s outstretched arms, one of his forearms under her knees and the other behind her back.) Piggybacks were always a shock when I first started watching Korean drama, but nowadays they don’t even make me blink an eye. It’s funny to consider, though, how ridiculous piggyback rides would seem on an American show: good luck not laughing as you try to imagine Stefan, TVD’s dreamy male lead, carrying his girlfriend around on his back. (Maybe this has a little something to do with the fact that he’s is a supernaturally strong vampire, but still.)

While I can’t say that I missed the piggyback rides all that much, there was one classic Kdrama move that I actually found myself wanting to see: the crouch, that quintessential gesture of self-comfort that involves a character stooping down and wrapping their arms around themselves. The American equivalent is probably covering your face with your hands, but that’s nowhere near enough dramatic for the most traumatic scenes TVD had to offer. Even though it’s something I’ve literally never seen a single American do on television or in real life, I found myself rooting for The Vampire Diaries’ heroine to do the crouch several times—as if it would make both her and me feel better.


How American heroes dress versus...
...Lee Min Ho as Korea’s most
fashion-forward action hero. Guess we know
smiling is out of the question, whatever the
continent.

TV Togs. To an American eye, Korean fashions for either gender are shockingly feminine. When I first started watching trendy Kdrama it was hard to get used to how the men dressed: It would be unthinkable for the male lead in an American action show to wear raspberry jeggings and transparent v-necks, but that’s exactly the kind of outfit Lee Min Ho’s character favored in City Hunter. Returning to U.S. television after a year away, I see that the opposite is true here: our go-to clothes have a masculine flair, no matter our gender. The girls in The Vampire Diaries tend to wear no-nonsense jeans with t-shirts and flats, and only accessorize with the simplest jewelry. If her pants had been a size larger and her hoodie zipped up another few inches, Elena, the show’s heroine, could have been wearing Eun Chan’s wardrobe from Coffee Prince.

Another big difference between clothes on American and Korean television is what’s seen as immodest: When TVD’s girls wore skirts, they were all mid-thigh or longer. On the other hand, “cleavage city” is probably the most accurate way describe their shirts—the show’s per-episode Wonderbra budget must be greater than the GDP for most small nations. In contrast, Kdrama skirts are little more than glorified belts, but its actresses hardly ever wear shirts that reveal much more than a sculpted clavicle. This brought to mind a funny quip I read about girls in Korea on ex-pat blog post: “[they] tend to dress like a pilgrim on top and a pole dancer on bottom.”

Cheesy product placement. Neither Korean nor American TV is immune to this (especially when it comes to cell phones, for some reason). The Vampire Diaries seemed less indulgent than most recent Kdrama, although toward the finale it did have some dialogue that amounted to little more than “Look at this amazing app!” I wonder, though, if Korea’s lack of commercial breaks actually strengthens the impulse to bury product placements in dramas. Big was a particularly tragic example—huge chunks of its script existed solely to name-drop the store the female lead shopped at or pitch the latest brand of camping equipment. In contract, when TVD airs on American TV every episode includes at least 15 minutes of commercial interruptions. This feels less like the show selling its soul for money than having a character shill the latest phone on screen. Commercial breaks, as annoying as they may be, allow for a clear line between content and commercial.

“Wait...I don’t remember him?” I watched the first two seasons of The Vampire Diaries last summer, which only made this season’s sprawling storyline all the more difficult to follow. This is a show chock full of countless characters and so many reversals of fortune that I could have used a scorecard to keep everyone’s motivations straight. And yet, the only CliffsNotes provided were 30-second “previously on” clips at the beginning of each episode. People may say that Kdramas are dumbed down by never-ending repetition of scenes in flashback form, but I sure could have used some of the same in TVD.


Snark. One of the things that drew me to Kdrama early on in my obsession was its complete lack of snark. Even the nastiest Korean characters tend to be genuine, earnest, and sincere compared to what we Americans expect, and all that good-naturedness was a refreshing change. But after a year of Kdrama, the opposite was true: the breezy insults of The Vampire Diaries’ second male lead were like a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a bitter sentiment well expressed, and this show has snark to spare.

Sex as a recreational activity. I had forgotten how much American television differs from Korean drama on this front: Even in high school series like The Vampire Diaries, sex is something that’s expected in pretty much every romantic relationship. In Kdramas, it’s marriage that’s expected—if characters ever get around to actually having sex, it’s almost always after they’ve agreed to tie the knot. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with either approach, but it was a culture shock to see how lightly physical intimacy was treated by TVD’s characters. (I guess as werewolves and vampires they don’t have mundane concerns about unplanned pregnancies and STDs the way humans do, but this divorce between sex and marriage has occurred in almost all American entertainment, as embodied by The Vampire Diaries’ contemporaries over at Gossip Girl.)

Brain cell use. There’s an oft-quoted statistic about watching television involving less brain activity than sleeping. Maybe that’s true when you’re watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but whoever originally said it should scan the brain of an English speaker trying to read the speedy subtitles and follow the manic camera work of a show like Queen In-hyun’s Man; I think it’s safe to say they’d be lighting up like a game board on the Price Is Right.

Not having to focus on reading subtitles did allow me to appreciate The Vampire Diaries’ finer details, like the subtle reactions on characters’ faces. And I caught up on some light reading, too—following the action required so little attention that I knocked off several weeks’ worth of my Entertainment Weekly backlog while watching. But television that I didn’t have to read was also kind of boring; when I watch Kdrama, it’s like the video and script are pieces from two separate puzzles that I’ve gotten the knack for putting together on the fly.

***

Ultimately, the thing I missed most in my foray back onto U.S. soil was the everyday slant of Korean storytelling. There was nothing homey or real-life about the Vampire Diaries; it completely ignored the necessities of day-to-day life. We never saw a character eat a full meal, or do laundry, or pay a bill. The show’s fantastical subject matter has a lot to do with this, but the same is true of almost all American television, which takes place in a magical land that exists outside of the earthy, mundane demands of the real world.

As crazy as it sounds, by the time episode 22 of TVD rolled around I missed the down-to-earth feel of Korean dramas. Sure, their plots tend to be built from one insane improbability after another—chaebol/poor woman romances, girls pretending to be boys, birth secrets, fits of contagious amnesia—but their feet are still on the ground.


(P.S.: Look who’s back online! In particular, make sure you check out the K-drama Hub section of the page, which includes interesting overviews and updates about a lot of currently airing and upcoming shows.)

(P. P.S.: I’m still regularly updating the list of Kdrama links I posted a while ago, if you’re looking for things to read.)

21 comments:

  1. While I found kdramaland somewhat exotic at first, it didn't take me long to slide right into it. Some things are really strange to me, like the strict hierarchy and respect being shown to people that don't deserve it. Other than that, while things are definitely different than what I'm used to (and somewhat frustrating at times), I haven't felt like an outsider looking in for quite a while. Even some of the food is familiar. We call pig intestines chitlins where I come from, though you can't force me to eat them.

    When I drop back in on American TV from time to time I don't feel any more connected to white characters who could be a representation of me. I do on the other hand feel more connected to the snarky characters. I guess that's a better representation of me. :) So, when I started watching the first season of Once Upon a Time this past week, the main thing that stood out to me is that the people looked a little exotic to me. LOL...I've gotten so used to seeing Asian faces on my TV that the kind of faces I see around me everyday looked exotic to me. It was strange, but passed fairly quickly.

    Have you really never seen anyone do the crouch? I don't know if I've seen it on TV, but I definitely have in real life. I've done it myself a time or two.

    You're absolutely right about the clothing situation. I personally prefer the more masculine approach. One thing I can't stand in kdramaland is the abundance of skinny jeans and scooped neck shirts on men, though I've accepted it as normal. It will never look sexy to me. Ick! But it's really no different than how much I hate extremely baggy jeans or shimmery shirts here.

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    1. It's funny because I am watching HanaYori Dango right now and I was just thinking about how each culture has such a different idea of what "rich" fashion is. The Japanese and the Koreans dress totally different and I know I'd there was an American version they wouldn't be caught dead wearing what any of those guys wear lol.

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    2. I haven't really felt like an outsider when watching Kdrama in ages, either. But when I started watching an American TV show, I suddenly realized how far my own life experience is from so much of Korean drama. It's not even that I'm white and most actors in Korean dramas are Asian, because I know a number of Asians who are every bit as American as me. It's that the little things are totally different—no matter how much I want to try that ice cream Eun Chan is always eating in Coffee Prince, I'll never be able to. I have a pair of boots just like Elena's in The Vampire Diaries, but in order to get one of those fun animal-earred hoodies people wear in Kdramas, I'd have to go wildly out of my way and spend tons of on shipping. The characters in TVD all have their own bedrooms and closets and sleep on queen-sized mattresses just like I do, but that's just not true for many Kdrama characters. When it comes right down to it, I'm an interested guest in Korean drama, but American television is my homeland. (Minus the vampires and size 00 jeans, of course.)

      I do have to admit that all the blue-eyed actors in TVD took some getting used to, though ;)

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    3. I think when the drama was made has a lot to do with the clothes, though. In Korea, anything before Boys over Flowers seems prone to bargain-basement wardrobe and set direction; they didn't have the budgets for really pricy couture. (I just started watching a Kdrama from 2003, and the clothes are painful.) I'm not as familiar with Japanese dramas, but Hana Yori Dango is pretty old—maybe that's one of the reasons why the "rich" fashions are so different.

      I'll be interested to hear if you like Hana Yori Dango, having disliked Boys over Flowers. They're pretty similar in a some ways—although I think the boys in HYD are way less cute =X

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    4. I just have to say that while I haven't come across any animal-earred hoodies, I did find a sock monkey winter hat with little ears on it and everything at Walmart yesterday. Of course, I had to buy it. I live in a sub-tropical climate, but I might be able to wear it once or twice this winter.

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    5. Well, they may not be animal-eared hoodies, but how about these? They're not even all that expensive, but I don't think I could live with myself if one entered my home.

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  2. Your timing on this article really amuses me. I also took a short break from Kdrama this past week (the first in a year!) to watch One Tree Hill - a show I steadfastly ignored since it was first aired. At first it was fun, normal, different.. but after about 8 episodes I was already bored, and predicting how long the agony of these stupid characters would take. I think my little jaunt back to American TV has been satisfied already.

    Part of my justification for watching Asian drama is that I'm learning something! Okay, that's an iffy premise, but culturally, it's invaluable.. right? It's not just mere entertainment when you brain is having to soak in foreign language, manners, and context, right? :D Just yesterday I was so proud of myself that while watching Flames of Desire, during a father-son argument I caught on to how rude/inconsiderate the son was being when the father angrily refilled his own drink! Now that's worthwhile knowledge! Or so I'll argue 'til the day I die ;)

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    1. I think we're at a spot in the Kdrama cycle that invites wandering eyes ;) The current crop of shows hasn't ended for marathoning, and none of the new stuff is available for watching. I've never seen One Tree Hill (my one-stoplight town didn't get the channel that carried it until recently), but I've heard bad, bad things about it ;)

      Kdrama has already welcomed me back with open arms—I finished Answer Me 1997 on Sunday, and moved on to Sang Doo, Let's Go to School. I don't think I'll be back in America until the next season of the Vampire Diaries comes out on DVD, pathetically enough.

      Being a Kdrama junkie is actually sort of cosmopolitan and cool, as far as I'm concerned. We learn about the world around us and have a good time doing it; how can that be wrong? Right? ;)

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  3. On the contrary, I am very excited for my dose of American television (Bones, Hawaii, NCIS and NCIS LA), in contrast to my kdrama plate which is basically empty. Except for 1n2d and shinhwa broadcast, I am not watching any currently airing or completed dramas. These days, I spend about 3/4 hours a day reading up on kdramas and 0-30 minutes actually watching them. I am contented to read recaps, devour gushing and pic spams and participate in swooning but that's it. I can't even push myself to finish AM1997 (stuck at ep 10)..

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    1. Wow...you're in dire straits if even AM 1997 doesn't make you want to watch Kdrama! The more I see, the more jaded I get about it, so I could definitely see myself arriving at that point sometime, too. Possibly by 2041? ;)

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  4. Hey! Thanks for quoting me on this post. I've been getting some hits because of it-- and I'm glad you found it amusing. ^^

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    1. You summed up the issue so perfectly that your comment lived in the back of my mind ever since I read your post, ages and ages ago ;) Thanks for sharing your experiences in Korea!

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  5. I agree with your points here, especially about the brain cell use. When I watch American TV I do several other things at the same time and still get what's going on in the show. But with dramas I have to be really attentive and follow the subtitles carefully, and with sageuks and political dramas I simultaneously have to follow the recaps too the get the whole idea. So it can get a little exhausting at times.
    Yet, I have to say...American TV no longer attracts me, at least not drama series like Vampire Diaries. I can list many things that are better about American TV than Asian dramas. BUT I can't get over the fact that most of the American shows leave no lasting impression on me. They are entertaining (for the first seasons), don't get me wrong, but they never really get me at the heart. Not to mention that the storylines never satisfy me and characters I like always get killed off or leave the show halfway. With Asian dramas I actually feel like I gain something in the end, whether learning a new word or just having another perspective on life.

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    1. Heart really is lacking in American dramas—everything's so slick and high-concept that there's no room for emotion. And I also think that the never-ending structure of most American shows sets them up failure as narrative exercises. There can be no real endgame when you don't know if your show will be back on the air for another 22 episodes next year, so nothing can ever really be gained or lost. That's definitely the case in The Vampire Dairies...in fact, I think the AV Club on Salon is only recapping the first and last episodes of every season, as they assume nothing of lasting interest happens in any of the episodes in between. And, sadly, they're pretty much right.

      It's interesting, though, that some American TV is coming around to the shorter running times that are common in the UK and Asia. An American Horror Story had a self-contained first season that was 12 episodes long, and its second season is totally unrelated, with the exception of one character that was carried over. Here's hoping more televisions figure out that when shows drag on forever, nobody wins.

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    2. Yeah, I've noticed that too. The Walking Dead, which is one of the few shows I do follow in American TV, also had only 6 episodes in the first season, 13 in the second. However, the third season is going to be 16 episodes altogether, and I don't think the show that is this successful is going to end soon. And that is the trouble with American shows. The more popular they are, the more money the show creators want to make by endlessly extending it.

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    3. Absolutely. Although The Walking Dead has an interesting parallel to a lot of Asian dramas—it's based on a long-running comic. So presumably they have hundreds and hundreds of already established storylines to chose from when scripting the show. That might make it better—especially if they're able to be less wedded to the central characters from the first few seasons. It could be like the U.K. show Skins (or even Canada's Degrassi series), which keeps things fresh by starting over with a new cast every few years.

      P.S.: I'm all about The Walking Dead, too. I love all things zombie (especially this plate).

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