Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Part Deux: Kdrama Franchises

Two worlds collide in Answer Me 1994

One of the things I love most about Korean television is the finite nature of its dramas. They’re each novelistic in their completeness—free-standing, independent stories with a beginning, middle, and end.

These days, though, the trend is toward something a bit different: The drama franchise. From the Answer Me shows to the Flower Boy series, more and more dramas seem to be part of an ongoing brand. And while these individual shows may share a common name, they’re almost always distinct stories built around a unique set of characters, rather than what we Westerners would consider a subsequent season or a true sequel.

It’s easy to see why the Drama Overlords would like franchise series. You don’t have to start from scratch when you’re promoting I Need Romance 3—there’s instant name recognition, and potential viewers know exactly what to expect from your show. People who are familiar with the product are likely to tune in out of habit, unlike shows that are presented as fully separate entities. It also ties old dramas (what people in book publishing would call “the backlist”) to currently airing series, giving them new life by encouraging viewers to catch up with reruns and DVD box sets. I bet it’s also easier to sell a known quantity like a franchise drama abroad, and international markets sure are like catnip to the folks behind Korean television.

If you want to be cynical and jaded about it (as I often do), contemporary franchises offer the Drama Overlords another perk. You don’t necessarily need to pay for a big-name star, director, or writer to get publicity for these shows—the franchise name is what ties them together, allowing you to can jettison cast and crew at will rather than working hard to keep them happy over the long term.

Franchise building isn’t a new strategy for Kdramas. The late-90s School series ran for four seasons before inspiring last year’s School 2013 reboot, while the High Kick shingle produced three successful sitcoms in the mid 2000s. My arch-nemesis Kim Eun Sook’s Lovers trilogy also fits the bill, including Lovers in Prague, Lovers in Paris, and Lovers. (I watched the last one long before I knew who Kim Eun Sook was. Guess what? I hated it.)

I think it’s especially interesting how fluid these collections of dramas can be. Most of them share common themes, like Answer Me’s pop-culture-flavored coming of age stories. But some of them are held together by little more than their names. The Flower Boy shows are barely related beyond their casts of eponymous dream boats. All four shows have a youthful vibe and feature stylistic visuals, but they run the gamut from gritty, realistic explorations of friendship to broad comedies about ramyun.

The Endless Love cycle—Autumn in my Heart, Winter Sonata, Summer Scent, and Spring Waltz—is another franchise series with an extremely loose theme. The uniting factor is what the director called “pure love,” although three of the shows also feature first loves who are cruelly separated as children, only to find each other as adults. The Wikipedia page devoted to these dramas notes that the they were grouped together like this only after the first two installments became international successes, which sounds to me like the smartest marketing ploy ever. I’m sure I’m not the only one with a completist’s heart who watched all four shows, and their common name definitely helped them reach huge audiences around the world.

The first season of Rude Miss Young Ae premiered in 2007.
(For context, that season completed its run before Coffee Prince opened for business, but new episodes are still being made.)

Cable network tvN is particularly fond of franchise dramas, even airing Rude Miss Young Ae, an Office-style sitcom that’s lasted for 12 seasons with the same characters, cast, and ongoing storylines. There are also a smattering of recent, smaller-scale franchises on other networks. Some of these shows might be more accurately considered companion pieces, like SBS’s makjang revenges Temptation of a Wife (2008) and Temptation of an Angel (2009) and KBS’s grownup rom-coms Queen of Housewives (2009) and Queen of Reversals (2010). Even the currently airing JTBC drama Can we Love is being tied to 2012’s Can We Get Married with its title, although as far as I can tell a director is the only thing the two shows have in common.

Here’s a quick rundown of the franchises I’ve watched.

Answer Me, tvN, 2012–2014(?)
Answer Me, 1997
Answer Me, 1994
Common Themes: Fangirl love, mysterious love triangles that play out over two time periods
Crossovers: The kids from AM1997 make cameos in later episodes of AM1994
Best: Sharply perceptive and deeply funny, Answer Me, 1997 is my drama soulmate
Worst: It’s a fine show, but Answer Me, 1994 rode its marital mystery into the ground

I Need Romance, tvN, 2011–2014(?)
I Need Romance
I Need Romance 2012
I Need Romance 3
Common themes: The line between comfortable familiarity and romantic love; sex
Crossovers: A secondary character in the original becomes a male lead 2012, and one of its female leads does a brief cameo. None in the third as of yet, but a character really obviously lives in the same apartment complex as someone in the earlier shows
Best: The original wins out with its iconoclastic take on romance in the modern world
Worst: While it was still worth watching, I Need Romance 2012 was too traditionally minded by far

Endless Love, KBS, 2000–2006
Autumn in My Heart
Winter Sonata
Summer Scent
Spring Waltz
Common themes: forbidden love; misery
Crossovers: Song Seung Hun plays unrelated male leads in Autumn in My Heart and Summer Scent. (And no, his acting didn’t really improve over the years.) A number of secondary actors in each installment
Best: My beloved fairytale Spring Waltz, an ultimately happy tragedy full of beautiful people and places
Worst: The glacially slow Summer Scent, which should be prescribed to insomniacs


Flower Boy series, tvN, 2011–2013(?)
Flower Boy Ramyun Shop
Shut Up: Flower Boy Band
Flower Boy Next Door
Dating Agency: Cyrano

Common themes: Cute boys; youth
Crossovers: Cyrano’s male lead cameos in Flower Boy Next Door
Best: A tie between Shut Up’s heartbreaking rock ’n’ roll coming of age story and Flower Boy Next Door’s sweet, character-driven romance
Worst: The manic, live-action cartoon known as Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, closely followed by boring, episodic Cyrano, which I haven’t even been able to bring myself to finish watching


  1. "Common themes: forbidden love; MISERY" hahaha. Too right.
    I'm not sure how I feel about this trend yet - whether it works for me, or not. Most problematic with the lumping together of dramas though is if I didn't like one of the originals, I'm not bothering with the rest. Ex: the Lovers 'trilogy'
    As for the flower boys, I think they're so vastly different from each other that I barely think of them together anymore. How on earth are you supposed to liken SUFBB to ramyun shop??

  2. I remember being shocked (and a little bit angry) when I watched Vampire Prosecutor 1 and discovered that it had a part 2 that was actually related to the first series. Then the second season ended on a cliffhanger, and they never got around to making season 3, which reminded me why I love self-contained kdrama stories so much.

    I really want to watch I Need Romance 3, but I kind of feel like I should watch the original one first to get a feel for it. What would you recommend? I'm skipping the second one for sure. I don't know of anyone who really loved that one.

  3. I got into the second High Kick (High Kick Through the Roof) because I saw a couple of reruns while in Korea. I just found it hilariously accessible even without subtitles. Plus, I recognized Oh Hyun Kyung from Gloria.) I just finished watching the whole series and I really loved it.

    Because I was in withdrawal, I tried watching Unstoppable High Kick (the first series, which has at least one lead actor in common), but I just couldn't get into it. I've read comments from people who say the first series is terrific, but I think you can't discount the attachment you form to the characters, actors and relationships - things which don't necessarily translate across into other products in the franchise.

    Also, Shin Se Kyung. Why is there no Shin Se Kyung in the other franchise entries? There's your problem right there :).

  4. Nice post, Amanda! Maybe I'll give R1997 another try; despite everyone saying it's one of the best dramas in the past few years, I ended up dropping it (I don't particularly remember why, I didn't dislike the show).

    I don't know if you take requests for your blog posts, but I would love to see an updated "Playing Favorites" encompassing everything you've seen up to this point. Or maybe a least favorite drama post? Hehe, sorry. Love your blog!

  5. So far, I'm loving the franchises tvN has released over the years. Though I've only watched two from the Flower Boy series and I'm only in the middle of watching I Need Romance 3, both from the Reply franchise have won me over from their first few episodes alone. I love how tvN is always the ray of hope during bleak K-drama seasons. So I don't mind this franchise thing going on. :)

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