Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Size matters

When I first discovered the existence of Korean dramas, the most surprising thing about them was probably their length. I had always assumed that there was only one way to make a TV show: build a premise for which you can create an infinite number of story lines, and then prepare to tell those stories in hundreds of episodes that will air over the course of years. This makes for lots of programs about doctors trying to cure an ailment of the week, lawyers bringing a never-ending stream of criminals to trial, and families with a plethora of miniature problems that can be solved in thirty minutes or less. Nobody grows or changes or learns, because the whole point is to preserve the central premise in amber, forever unchanged and incorruptible.

This is one of the reasons why Korea’s miniseries were such a revelation. In the space of sixteen episodes, they create worlds, establish characters and conflicts within those worlds, and then guide their stories to satisfying conclusions. That’s my kind of storytelling—novelistic and self-contained.

It took me a while to realize, though, that there’s more to scripted drama in Korea. The short miniseries I love (which themselves are creeping ever upward from the 16-episode standard of yore) are cousins to both the weekend home drama, typically running in the 50 episode range, and the weekend sageuk, sometimes lasting for more than a hundred episodes. And there are other shows that hit triple digits—both daily dramas and sitcoms sometimes run for more than 170 episodes, airing for around a half hour on every weekday.

The online Kdrama fandom tends to focus on miniseries, with the exception of the occasional youth-oriented sitcom like High Kick. Add this lack of coverage to the fact that many of the longer series aren’t available subbed in English, and it becomes easy to forget they even exist.

The sheer commitment required to slog through 170 episodes of something—even if they’re good episodes—isn’t really something I have. I’ve seen a few longer Korean series, including the home dramas Family’s Honor (54 episodes) and Ojakgyo Brothers (58 episodes), and the classic sageuk Jewel in the Palace (54 episodes).

When a long drama is good, it can be sublime. Jewel in the Palace used every single one of its (many, many) episodes to tell a compelling story that moved through the universe it created, rather than just standing still. It followed its heroine from childhood to the palace kitchen and on to her role as the king’s doctor, never getting stuck in one spot long enough to be boring. Some of its best set pieces even came late in its running time, including an amazing plague subplot. The longer dramas must demand more of their creators in terms of planning and forethought, which means they sometimes avoid the pointless plot loops that can do such damage to a shorter show.

But long dramas can also seem like never-ending torture when they go wrong. (See, for example, the coverage of You’re the Best, Lee Soon Shin at Dramabeans or Goddess of Fire at Koala’s Playground.) The failed titans don’t feel all that different from their shorter brethren—instead of using their extra time to tell different kinds of stories, they just feature a central romance and pad the rest of their screen time with B and C plots revolving around secondary characters. Most of these shows don’t need to be long as they are.

The drama I’m watching now is another a long weekend show: Smile, You, a 45-episode series that aired in 2009. At the halfway point, I have a split personality when it comes to Smile, You. I love the budding romances between the two younger couples, but literally want to throw things with hatred whenever anyone over 30 is on screen. So I’ve been making use of Dramafever’s fastforward button to create the drama I want to watch—a funny romantic comedy with likable leads and zippy chemistry. Pretty much every scene featuring an adult doesn’t exist to me. I think that might be the trick to watching the longer shows: don’t get wedded to sitting through every single minute and instead pick and choose the parts you care enough about to watch.

There are a lot of lengthy Kdramas out there, and some of them are actually quite tempting. Here are a few I’m keeping an eye on.

Potato Star 2013QR3.
2013. Sitcom, 120 thirty-minute episodes.

This series from the team behind the High Kick franchise just started airing at the end of September, but it’s already gotten some buzz thanks to a steamy kiss scene. (Thanks, Whimsyful!) It sounds like a pretty standard family sitcom that happens to have an especially interesting gimmick: the titular comet strikes planet Earth, causing mayhem for its characters. The youthful cast is what really makes me want to watch Potato Star. It’s hard to imagine going wrong with its selection of up-and-comers, including Flower Boy Next Door’s hardworking sidekick Go Kyung Po, Monstar’s female lead Ha Yeon Seo, and I Miss You’s babe-in-training Yeo Jin Goo. (In a strange counterpart to Heirs and its cast of adults playing high schoolers, in this show Yeo Jin Goo is a 24-year-old computer programmer—in spite of the fact that in real life he’s just 16.) There isn’t a lot of information in English about Potato Star, but it is available on at least one subbing site. 

Ugly Alert
2013. Family drama/light melo, 120 thirty-minute episodes

I can only imagine that Im Joo Hwan had torturing me in mind when he chose this daily drama for his comeback after military service. First of all, it’s long. Second of all, it has some sort of fashion-industry component. Third of all, I want to watch it anyway, because What’s Up and Tamra, the Island made me love him so much. Im plays a young man who ends up going to prison after taking the blame for a crime committed by his younger brother, and most of the show seems to revolve around his return to society and the blended family created by his father’s remarriage. It is being subbed in English by one reputable fansite, and the mini-recaps posted on Tumblr by Cooking Dramas sure do make it look good.

High Kick
2006. Sitcom, 167 thirty-minute episodes

Unlike most daily sitcoms, High Kick is available fully subbed on Dramafever. I never had much interest in watching this show until Dramabeans mentioned it in a recent post about noona romances, but now I’m considering trying it out. It seems to revolve around a central family, just as most K-sitcoms do, but also has a strong focus on the classroom shenanigans of its younger generation. (Which is where the noona romance comes in.) On the bright side, it includes a pre-Boys over Flowers Kim Bum and Jung Il Woo before he discovered white pancake makeup. On the not-so-bright side, it includes low production values and a painfully canned laugh track.

Shin Don
2001. Sageuk, 61 sixty-minute episodes

A number of bloggers I respect adore this widely subtitled show, including Thundie and Mr. X. It’s supposed to be life-changingly wonderful, but I’m hesitant both because it’s incredibly long and because it’s not really geared toward my interests. (Which, candidly speaking, is code for “It appears to be about things other than young, pretty people being in love.”) There are lots of things I like about sageuks, but the political intrigue and ascetic monks this drama seems to specialize in aren’t included on that particular list. Still, I’m curious—can Shin Don be as great as people say?

I Live in Cheongdam-dong
2011. Sitcom, 170 half-hour episodes

I’ve finally admitted to myself that this show will never be available in English. According to the few Korean-speaking Kdrama bloggers, it’s funny and touching and pretty much perfect in every way, but as far as I know no fansubber or corporate streaming service has translated as much as a single episode. The story revolves around an older woman who moves to Seoul’s tony Cheongdam-dong neighborhood and opens a boarding house-cum-comic book store, which sounds like an a recipe for lots of quirky characters and light social commentary. But I guess I’ll never know for sure.


  1. Ahhhh, the giant dramas... So overwhelming it almost makes you tired just thinking about starting one. To date, I've only accomplished 2 and they were both amazing, I'm glad to say: Jewel in the Palace, and Flames of Desire.

    I'm working my way through Shin Don- thanks to the overwhelming praise by those two bloggers you mentioned. It certainly does leave out all the fluff we are accustomed to, so I am not always in a mood to watch it. It features all the common plot devices I'm used to seeing in all sageuk-related dramas (both fusion, and non-) and in that sense it's occasionally eye-rollingy dull. On the other hand, it almost freaks me out that a drama so NOT full of eye candy more often than not has me on my edge of my chair, freaking out about a plot I can almost foresee, or bursting out into tears during a scene shot with absolutely no adornments or swelling music. Weird, for how slow it seems, the plot moves along pretty well. I'll let you know how I feel after it all ends.

  2. The forever long drama series are difficult to muck through sometimes. The fast forward feature was the only way I even pretended to finish Lee Soon Shin. I am watching Wang Family right now, but I only care about two of the couples. It's like pulling teeth to get through the rest of it.

    I never really thought about why I enjoy Korean mini-series so much. Your point that they are more plot and character driven is definitely spot on. I almost can't watch most American procedural shows anymore.

  3. I haven't mustered up the courage to commit to a long weekender yet. I'm currently faffing about with Wang Family where the FF button comes in handy but I'm just as happy not to keep up with it as I am to watch it for some OTT madness, if that makes any sense. Ugly Alert I have heard some good things about in that it's not chockfull of makjang (well, at that point anyways, now might be a different story). And even better, it stars Choi Tae Joon who caught my eye in the awesome special Adolescence Medley! But if I were to ever commit to one fully, it would Ojakyo Brothers.

  4. I have the same problem. I have yet to tackle and finish any lengthy drama (over 30+ really)

    I'll watch one or two episodes, and then don't bother to continue. I watched episode one of Potato Star and was surprised at all the toilet humor. I haven't seen that in a kdrama yet to that extent. It seemed kinda quirky, maybe I'll tune in later on.

    But I do have my eye on these ones that have been recommended to me by various sources: My Daughter Seo Young, You Who Rolled In Unexpectedly, Family's Honor, Childless Comfort. Giant is another one I really want to watch.

    I think length is a big reason why I don't watch many US shows anymore. Season after season, with long waiting periods for new episodes, and a quality that goes up and down usually. It's also the reason I love watching korean variety shows, and especially shows from other countries, like Japan. I'll watch and finish Japanese dramas simply because of the length, where I might not have finished as many if they had been kdramas.

    1. Yeah, I don't watch as many US shows as I used to. I've been dropping shows once they hit the 6th/7th season, unless I really love it. I'm just getting sick of them.

      Ditto with Japanese dramas. Sometimes I just feel like wasting a Sunday watching a complete drama, and a Japanese drama is one I can start and finish the same day, whereas the Korean ones will end up either going all night and I'll be dead the next morning, or I have to pause it and pick it up again the next day after work.

  5. Anything over 30 episodes makes me feel sleepy before I even begin. I tend to love the 16-18 episode miniseries for the very reason you mentioned: It offers a complete story in a relatively short amount of time. If I'm going to start something long, I'd better know going into it that the entire thing is perfect, or it's hard to make the commitment.

  6. I want to watch Ugly Alert because I really like Kang Sora but it's just too long, and when it started, I wasn't sure it would ever be subbed. When I first got into k-dramas, i literally thought that every single show was only 16-20 episodes, lol. It was only after a while that I realised that nope, actually, there are more longer dramas than there are mini-series.

    "I love the budding romances between the two younger couples, but literally want to throw things with hatred whenever anyone over 30 is on screen." That was exactly what I thought about Lee Soon Shin. That show was great when the younger characters were on screen, but the minute the parents popped up, it was bloody awful. That's also a reason i don't watch the longer dramas, because there's just more time for them to give more screen time to people you hate.

  7. Will have to say that the 100+ shows are mostly daily shows which should be treated as a separate genre.
    They are either real Soaps in the vein of General Hospital or episodic sitcoms.
    In any case, the writing talent pool in Korea is very thin compared to U.S.
    No writers room, no showrunner, no creator positions like U.S.

    Some of my long series reviews

  8. When i was beginner in k drama, i was proud of korea entertainment which only served mini series drama. because i was so bored with daily and striping drama in my country. Later, i know that in korea there is also such daily drama. It might happen because korea drama fandom only serve information abaou miniseries k-drama. Not long ago i have just dropee Tale of two sister from KBS. It's a annoying, out of sense daily k-drama (same with stripping drama in my country)

  9. I am slogging through Jumong (81 episodes) and Smile Donghae (157 half hour episodes). Don't know if I will ever finish them as they always become back burner when new shows come on or I want to repeat one of my favs. I did watch all of Your're the Greatest Lee Soon Shin which was 50 episodes but I was watching it as it came on Dramafever each week and since I liked it so much I looked forward to each episode. I prefer the 16-24 episode length. On the other side, Monstar at 12 episodes was far too short!

  10. Smile, You DOES have a split personality, and I think it's because the show, originally planned for 30 eps, did SO well in the ratings (probably due to all the cute in the teen eps) that it got slapped with a 15 - FIFTEEN!! - episode extension. That's when stuff started to meander and get padded, and that's also when the show developed a split personality. Still a cute watch overall, but I do wish that extension had never happened.

    I watched High Kick in its entirety and even though the toilet humor took some getting used to, it ended up a fun, lazy marathon. Something easy to unwind to, when time is of the essence. And Jung Il Woo will steal your heart with his angsty noona crush. I actually felt sorry to watch the last ep, simply coz I knew I'd never rewatch it ever again, due to its monster length.

    ILICDD is as heartwarmingly sweet and engaging as it's reputed to be.. One lone fan subbed the first ep, but never got around to more than that. I'm watching it with Chinese subs, straddling my imperfect grasp of Korean and my slow Chinese-reading abilities. It's worth the effort though. Maybe, one more reason to take some Korean lessons? ;)

    1. wtf 15 ep extension?! O.O to think these days even a 1 ep extension makes all the diff wow ratings then must've really been a diff ball game

  11. ILICDD has actually been eng subbed up till ep 25 since Aug 2012 (at least on asiatorrents :P) but subber seems to have died and no more has come up T_T

  12. I tend to prefer the family dramas and I have seen a few that I've really enjoyed. Ojakkyo Brothers was good, as was My Too Perfect Sons and Life is Beautiful. But the two I have really enjoyed were You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly and My Daughter Seo Young. I would go as far as to say that My Daughter Seo Young is the best kdrama I've seen so far, and probably one of the best dramas I've seen in any language. Highly recommend it to everyone. As for Smile, You, I've seen it, and more or less enjoyed it, but felt it dragged on too long. Plus I hated the Grandfather. Obnoxious bully.

  13. Glad to learn I'm not the only one who is daunted by length. I approach anything 30+ with trepidation, partly because I was SO engaged by my first Kdrama (Emperor of the Sea, 54 episodes) that I scared myself a little. I mean, I made a spreadsheet!

    Also, my imagination is sadly (or not) limited to residing in one alternate universe at a time, so I really have to think about whether it's a place I want to be for the full length of the drama, forsaking all other imaginary realms for the duration.

    Strangely, I don't mind lengthier dramas as much when I'm watching them on TV. I have usually stumbled across them by accident because they're in a timeslot when I'm already predisposed to be watching something, maybe that explains it. However, I find that I can't remember (or care about) what happened months ago, which is a problem when it turns out to be a major plot element.

    I like your idea of creating our own bespoke dramas. There are a few dramas I saw on TV that I wish I'd watched that way. I renounced KBS's weekend dramas completely, due to the repetitious appearance of certain plotlines, but you have shown me a middle path :)

    Anna's comment also inspired another application of the selective viewing technique: eliminating unbearably annoying characters. They're going to be relentlessly, repetitively, and increasingly slappable 'til the last few episodes of the drama. We'll just bring our own timeslip, and skip to the point where they undergo a radical and highly unbelievable (but nevertheless relieving) metamorphosis into a reasonable facsimile of a decent human being.

    Now if only we could figure out how to do that in real life...

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