Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fifteen Reasons to Watch Kdrama

Fifteen years is a long time, but on the Internet it’s practically forever. In 1998, there was no Facebook. Google was being beta tested. Wikipedia wouldn’t be around for three years, and streaming cute cat videos on YouTube would be impossible for seven more years.

But Internet users back in the dark ages of the late 90s did have one of the things we enjoy today: Soompi. Founded fifteen years ago this week, Soompi even predates the word Hallyu, which wouldn’t be coined for another year.

Since Soompi’s 1998 inception, Kpop and Kdrama have become worldwide cultural forces enjoyed by people from every imaginable background—including me, an American who has never been anywhere near Asia but is still deeply obsessed with Korean drama.

It’s hard to imagine life without Soompi and sites like it. So in honor of Soompi’s fifteenth birthday, I give you fifteen essential reasons to watch Korean drama.

Playful Kiss: The first and last time this drama’s heroine
showed aptitude for something, in teddy bear form.
15. Freeze-frame finales. I don’t know who decided that Kdrama episodes should end with split-screen close-ups of the show’s leads, but I’d like to shake that person’s hand. Even a ho-hum ending becomes a cliffhanger when you’re left with your favorite actor’s stunned expression on your television screen. Even more wonderful? Some shows feature closing snapshots depicting their leads in teddy bear form.

14. Two episodes a week! Watching currently airing dramas is still pretty new to me. For the first year of my Kdrama obsession I only started watching shows that had already finished their runs in Korea and were already available online. There’s something to be said for this, but it meant that I didn’t get to experience the wonder that is watching a show live. The wait between episodes is exquisite torture that allows for lots of fangirling, but the best part is the thrill of watching a great episode and knowing that you only have to wait 24 hours for another.

Jang Ok-Jung: Live for Love: Proving that Kdrama trends know no bounds,
this show will feature a 17th century fashion designer.
13. Historical shows that are actually amusing. Entertainment with historical basis in the West tends to be completely serious. With the exception of a few outliers (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and A Knight’s Tale come to mind), we just don’t have fun with history the way Korea does. Every batch of Korean shows offers a new crop of the historical dramas known as fusion sageuks—complete with magic, poop jokes, and impossible feats of martial arts bravura. It’s fascinating to watch history constantly being re-imagined from new perspectives. In the space of a year, the life of a single seventeenth-century Korean queen will be key in two different dramas: Queen In-hyun’s Man and the upcoming Jang Ok-Jung: Live for Love.

12. Gender-bending. Kdrama writers love nothing more than a character pretending to a be a member of the opposite sex. And neither do I, as it turns out. Whether it’s earnest Eun Chan in Coffee Prince or surly Irene in Ma Boy, some of my favorite Kdrama characters aren’t quite what they seem. Gender-bending series tend to be funny and sweet. But beyond that, they’re also stealth commentary on gender politics.

11. Sincerity. In this age of irony, my fellow Americans are trapped in a world of cynicism and snark. But all we need to do for a refreshing change is to watch some Korean drama, where characters actually mean what they say. In Kdrama coincidence is possible, coolness is optional, and emotions aren’t so much worn on sleeves as they are etched across the sky. The importance of family ties, hard work, and striving for success aren’t things that come up much in my own culture, but they’re all delightfully essential in Korean television.

Padam Padam: The best way to conserve water
is by showering with a friend, right?
10. Broody shower scenes, which are all but a legal requirement in Kdramaland. Nothing goes together better than abs and angst.

9. Homey, domestic storytelling. Kdrama premises may be over the top, but the shows themselves are always rooted in the world we live in. Characters actually eat, pay bills, and clip their toenails. Being a living human being is a part of the story, rather than apart from the story.

8. Emotion. No matter what a Korean drama is about, its goal is to make you feel something. How it’s written, how it’s acted, how it’s filmed—all those decisions are made in service of that single purpose. This can make for some pretty pathetic plots, as shows pinball from one emotion-bomb to another, but when done well it draws you into the story so completely that it sometimes feels as if you’ll never recover from your emotional engagement with it. In Western entertainment, this often isn’t the case: shows primarily want to wow you with their technique, premise, or diabolically clever plot. They forget that all those things should just be tools for hitting you in the heart.

Flower Boy Next Door: Not to be superficial or anything, but it makes me happy
that an entire Kdrama subgenre revolves around cute boys.
7. The boys. Practically every Korean drama is full of beautiful things to look at. And thanks to clever casting and direction that treats men as objects of desire, the most beautiful thing of all is often the male lead: There’s gorgeous Lee Jun Ki, with his lovely almond eyes; Lee Min Ho, he of the luscious, kisssable lips; and Yoon Si Yoon with his little-boy grin. Let’s also not forget Hyun Bin’s architectural cheekbones and Gong Yoo’s knowing, naughty smirk.

6. The culture. Before Kdrama happened to me, I never realized that I could easily step out of my land-locked American life. Now that I know different, the world seems like a much more interesting place. Watching Korean dramas has inspired me to eat things I never ate, drink things I never heard of, and learn things I never knew I wanted to know. From what Koreans do when released from prison to why you should never give a pair of shoes to someone you love and the best way to eat ramen,* foreign customs suddenly seem like the most interesting thing imaginable.

(*Eat tofu; because they’ll leave you; with lots of green onions and an egg, sitting on the floor using the lid as a plate)

5. There’s always something new to watch. A major contributing factor to my Kdrama obsession is just how many shows there are out there. Every three months or so, an entirely new batch of dramas air. Add this continuing output to decades worth of dramas that were completed before I even realized Korean drama existed, and you’ve got the world’s best recipe for couch-potato hermithood. When I started off watching Kdrama, I wanted to see it all—every drama, no matter how good or not-so-good it might be. Nowadays I’ve developed a self-protection mechanism I never would have imagined: if I’m not enjoying a series, I stop watching it; if a series gets lousy reviews, I don’t even start it. But barring the invention of a time machine I’m still never going to watch every drama I want to see.

A Gentleman’s Dignity: flash mobs, flowers, hand hearts? That’s romance.
4. Romance. If Kdrama were a universe, romance would be its sun: the central focal point that everything revolves around. Starry-eyed and fated, quippy and reluctant, or tragically unrequited, Kdrama love is like nothing else. It’s prone to things considered painfully uncool in the West: grand gestures, piognant longing, and aching tenderness. And as far as I can tell love stories aren’t ghettoized or scorned as “television for women” in Korea. Instead, romance is at the heart of most every drama.

3. Their fun-sized length. Primetime Korean dramas don’t overstay their welcome. Often lasting fewer than 30 episodes, they’re long enough for twisty, turny plotting and meaningful character development, but not so long that you get sick of them. A few Kdrama genres spawn lengthier shows—sageuks are regularly more than 100 episodes long, and sitcoms and daily dramas can be as long as 200 episodes. But even then, the series have a finite number of episodes and complete their runs in less than a year.

Lie to Me: The only thing this screen capture is missing is the phrase The End.
2. Real endings. Because Kdramas have definite lifespans that are established before they air (give or take a few episodes, if there’s a surprise extension), their writers can actually create shows with a specific endgame in mind. And there’s no danger of cancellation getting in the way of reaching that endgame, unlike American shows. This allows for novelistic storytelling: characters are established, conflicts are explored, suspense is heightened, and then the conflicts are resolved. You may not love a show’s ending—maybe everybody dies, maybe the heroine ends up with a guy you hate, maybe the resolution feels too open-ended—but you’ve got to love that it actually has an ending.

1. The fandom. Thanks to the hard work of the folks at Soompi and countless other blogs and news sites, the Internet is always abuzz with Kdrama talk in almost every language imaginable. From spoilers on Soompi’s forums to gifsets on Tumblr and the latest recaps posted by bloggers, the Internet is a drama-watcher’s (second) greatest pleasure.


  1. Ahh Amanda.. you have such a way with words :):)

    Your 'sincerity' section is really spot-on. If I were to come up with a generic list of reasons why I love Kdramas, I would probably list most of these.. but the sincerity is something I wouldn't necessarily remember to list. Yet it is so vital, and the thing I unconsciously love about Dramaland. It's why I continue to watch drama after drama, and probably the reason why everytime I venture into non-Asian shows, I inevitably come flying back to Korea after barely a couple episodes of anything else.

  2. I agree with Rosie. Your reasons are very good and don't miss the mark. Maybe another one will come to me later but right now I think you've covered them! I absolutely agree about the sincerity. You know they mean what they are saying and how really deep in their sole what is said is meant. I just want to swoon!!

  3. Love this post! SO full of spot-on observations! My favorite is how Kdramas aim to make you feel. We are emotional beings & a lot of people tend to forget that and even like to think of themselves as rational beings. Kdrama hits us in the heart, and I love that!

    Another fabulous job, Amanda. You rawk!

  4. Of course where would kdramaland be without the drama tropes. Amnesia, piggybacks, wristgrabs, break-up zombie walk, interfering in-laws, hateful mother-in laws, sudden fevers // fainting // I.Vs etc., A charming and annoying mix. Thank you for your 15- I will share with other drama lovers.

  5. Great post! Oh K-drama - what would life be like without it. One of my favourite thing about watching K-drama is that I have made so many friends who I would never have met/gotten to know without it. And those are friends in RL and all my lovely bloggersphere and Twitter friends. They help me restore my faith in humanity.

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