On Air 온에어 (2008) Korean Drama Review

On Air (2008) Korean Drama Review

Let’s get “On Air”… and make a Korean Drama Classic! Hey AD… Where is my coffee?

Hello. This is a Korean in America. Today’s article is about an interesting K-Drama series, “On Air”, about the behind the scene antics of making a K-Drama series. I will go into detail about what prevents this series from being the K-Drama meta-series classic considering that there are not many out there.

Keyword: #온에어 #KimHaNeul #ParkYongHa #LeeBeomSoo #SongYoonA #OnAir 

In Korean society where social status and “face” is important, the concept of “Meta” or self-referencing is not a common concept on people’s minds. We, as a culture, tend to either over-hype our so called accomplishments or hide what we think as weaknesses.  In other words, we take ourselves too seriously… As a reflection of Korean society, the entertainment industry is the same. Even though we gossip about the issue we have and Korean entertainment has issues, they are never dealt or mention on an official level. As a result, it is hard to see self-satire or self-deprecation in Korean entertainment.

The K-drama series “On Air” with “The World That They Live In” is the exception to this rule. If you think about it, 2008 was a really odd year! It was the only year that produced not only one but two K-dramas that portrayed the K-drama production process and the individuals behind the scenes with any kind of detail. This never happened before and did not happen since. The closest series that came to do this after 2008 was “The Greatest Love” (2011). However, that series was more focused on actors and the self-reflection aspect was superficial at best even though it was highly entertaining.  

Among these two series dealing with the same subject, “On Air” is the better main series in almost all areas. “The World That They Live In” has the tendency to wallow in its self-indulgence and reflection. It is a series that forgot it is a Korean drama that should be entertaining. However, “On Air” cannot be said to be this instant classic even in its subject category even though there is no one else there…

The plot
The K-drama series, “On Air”, follows the entire process of creating a Korean drama starting from concept creation of a series to the end of its broadcast run. It is also about four characters who are vital to this process.

You have “Seo Young Eun” who is a successful screen writer played by long time CF darling Song Yoon Ah.

You have the “National Fairy” Oh Seung Ah, who is the lead actress of both “On Air” and the fictional drama “Ticket to the moon” in the series.

There is Oh Seung Ah’s agent, Jang Ki Joon, played by Lee Bum Soo when he was really getting big!

And finally there is the director of “Ticket to the moon”, Lee Kyung Min, played by Park Yong Ha of Winter Sonata fame.

 “On Air” has these characters clashing with each other in the collaborative process of creating a Korean drama because each of them has different things they want to get out of the project. As the fictional series “Ticket to the moon” finds its path through the hurdles of production, so does the characters find what they truly want and need.

The K-drama industry criticisms 
What is surprising is that “On Air” is not shy about mentioning the common problems in the industry such as the fixed nature of the TV awards and the over reliance on genre clichés and poor project management on the side of the creative staff. While there is some over-dramatization in its descriptions, the series does provide the audience with a backstage pass to the inner workings of the industry. And this is the number one attraction of “On Air”.

The series also has a lot of cameo casting of famous actors popping up as themselves. Considering the common practice of K-dramas which do not use guest stars that much, this is fun in its own way.   It is funnier that the actors are doing a bad job acting as themselves.  If I would guess, I would bet that they were just scheduled for 10 minutes or so and they did not have time to prepare. Whether this is true, it is interesting to see.

A common problem with K-dramas is that the characters’ motivations are not consistent and the events that create tension in the plot are overly artificial. This is also mentioned as a problem in “On Air” by the director. In this category, “On Air” is pretty solid. Most of the problem encountered by the characters are either initially built into the concept of the series or the characters’ personality. While you may say that this is the basics, it is not an easy thing for a K-drama. As the fictional screen writer, Seo Young Eun, strugges with her script, you can just imagine the actual series’ screen writer doing the same.  This screen writer of “On Air” is Kim Eun Suk whose credits include the scripts of “A Gentleman's Dignity” and “Secret Garden”. These series are all successful and structurally solid.

So, why is this series not meta-series classic?

It is not because I do not like this series! I actually love it.
It is my 4th viewing of the series that I did for this review. However, I always felt something odd about the series. They was something behind my enjoyment of the series that I couldn’t put my finger on. On the 4th viewing, I did get it.

The cons
The problem is two pronged one. First, there are issues with the acting in that they are slightly off.

Casting issues and character interpretation issues  
K-drama actors are not known for diverse and flexible acting skills. Rather, they settle on one specific character type and repeatedly play it over and over again in many K-drama series. As a result, K-drama actors are pretty good when casts in roles that fit that type and falter when out of their comfort zone. So, the creative team behind a series accommodates this. In case of “On Air”, the actors are all slightly pushed beyond their comfort zone and it shows.

Song Yoon Ah is a CF model more than she is an actress. This is proven by her body of work. Through her entire and rather long career, she has only done a handful of K-dramas. However, she has relatively perfected her character which is best shown in the series “Hotelier”. The role of Seo Young Eun is a more snarky and over the top version of that character. From her performance in “On Air”, it is clear that she is having difficulties with handling that aspect of her role. Thus, whenever she is beyond her comfort zone, she tends to chew the scenery more than the script requires.  

Kim Ha Neul who plays Oh Seung Ah is also struggling. As a character, Oh Seung Ah is the most multi-faceted one.  There are at least 5 faces to Oh Seung Ah as a character including her public “National Fairy” face, the normal actress face, her in love face, and the fictional role she plays in “Ticket to the moon”.  The problem is with the normal actress face. Kim Ha Neul as an actress has two character types. One is the more over the top scene chewing comedic one. The other is the lovely and pure character type. In “On Air”, she is required to use both and more.

The problem is with the normal actress face which seems bored and pissed in general about the life as an actress. It is just not interesting. Kim Ha Neul’s normal actress face is just dull. You could say that that part of the role is intended to feel like this. However, this is not the same. Whether you play a funny role or a depressing role, an actor needs to look interesting playing the role.  In this case, she fails to breathe life into that part of her role. This is somewhat of a problem since normal actress mode is the default mode for half of the episodes. And it is especially problematic when she is doing scenes with Park Yong Ha’s director character.

Park Yong Ha’s director character is the weakest link in the four main cast. Lee Kyung Min, the director, is meant to be this troubled but arrogant fixable bad boy with a passion for K-dramas. However, not only does Park Yong Ha not emote at all, he has no real charisma. This is especially a problem since the four characters have equal weight in the series which is not a common setup in K-dramas. I cannot say that it is because he cannot act. Whenever he has scenes next to the foreign model who really cannot act, you see that Park Yong Ha can at least act to a degree.

He just seemed to be terribly miscast. This casting problem is more amplified by the series’ attempt to do a partner change in the relationships. The series is intended for Park Yong Ha to be matched up with Song Yoon Ah’s character and this shows from the start of the series. But the series attempts to create more tension by hinting the possibility of a switch up.
This does not work from the start more than partially because of the fact that, whenever Kim Ha Neul and Park Yong Ha act next to each other, it is like there is a rain forest in front of the TV screen because they are so wooden together. Both are underplaying their characters without anyone to bounce off from. It is like acting off a cement wall. I just wish for someone to just fire bomb the whole Forest.

The only character that does not have a problem is Oh Seung Ah’s agent, Jang Ki Joon, played by Lee Bum Soo. Lee Bum Soo is terrific from the start shifting from campy to cool with ease. Not only is the character Jang Ki Joon  the core of the series, the actor portraying him is the core of the cast. He provides a sound board for the other actors to act against and enhances their performance two fold. He even makes Park Yong Ha’s acting bearable whenever the two are on screen together. He is the breakout star of the show !

Not as deep as the series think it is!
The second problem is that the theme or message of the series is not as deep as the series think it is. At the end, what is the message of the series..? Try to do something more creative against the reality of the industry? OK... it’s a nice message. But it is a very generic message and the series does not provide an actually viable approach. It is more like luck that made the fictional K-drama “Ticket to the moon” not crash and burn.

This does not help that the main mouse piece of this message is Park Yong Ha’s director character, Lee Kyung Min. Not only is the actor for the role miss-casted, the role itself is the least well developed. He has a poor background that never really goes anywhere with his mother character in tow. He is arrogant but we, as the audience, never get why he is arrogant and how he can afford to be arrogant and snippy.

Is he an actual good director? If you see the series, you do not get any confirmation that he is actually good at his job which is a great sin especially for an arrogant character. We can forgive arrogance but we cannot forgive incompetence in an arrogant character! In addition, if you really look close, all the problems encountered by the “Ticket to the moon” production team originate because of Lee Kyung Min’s careless/idealistic decisions. So, when the series has this underdeveloped character spouting idealistic and generic claims, it sound silly than being profound.  

After everything
At the end, how do we evaluate “On Air”? First, it is entertaining. Second, it is shallow but interesting. Third, it is unique. For a K-drama, this makes “On Air” special which is basically what was said about the fictional series, “Ticket to the moon”, in the actual K-drama series. However, the rhetoric in the series itself makes you want more than this which is the tragedy of the series. It is great but claims to be greater! This actually prevents it from becoming THE meta K-drama classic…

P.S.  Park Yong Ha committed suicide in June 2010 leaving the K-drama series "A Man's Story" as his last K-drama... RIP... 

Score: A-  or 8.25

Other Articles you may enjoy!

Read My Review of  Snow Flower 설국 (2006)
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One Warm Word (2013)  Review
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Can we love? (2014) Review 
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  1. I forgot of King of drama.
    Well king of Idrama felt more like a cartoon. I think it is also because I think the main male lead felt like a muppet!
    Lol but true!

    Also merry there is barely anything actually about making drama in that show other than being a background set up.
    So the two I mentioned is the only attempt to be serious about the subject and make it the core of the show.

    Thanks for being a consistent commenter

  2. So, I finished it... what a train wrecked, ahjusshi ah. Too many screaming and bickering at each other for the first 8 episodes, i just couldn't handle it. To me, On Air was just alright... It is not my cup of tea. I don't like production-type of drama, I just don't want to know behind the scene. I guess fiction and fairy tale-like dramas are more of my taste.

    I admit it is unique, as you said, but I don't find it entertaining. Even the final episode had me cussing... aish! Never again!

  3. A Korean in AmericaOctober 25, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    Well Train wreck is for "Musical" or "Marry him if you dare".
    But I do get the taste thing and the series is sharp edged!
    In my case, it love writer-ry stuff! Closet writer dreamer!

  4. The only character that makes me stick to the 21 episodes of the drama is the nicest actor manager, Jang Ki Joon. For SYA, her collaboration with Kim Seung Woo and Bae Young Joon, as a clumsy hotel manager in Hotelier is more enjoyable than her character in ON AIR. I watched HOTELIER 11 years ago but the clumsy manager still lingers in my mind.

    On a side note, since I saw tag about long kdrama series (50+ episodes) in your blog, I do hope you will write review about my current kdrama liking, the 60 episodes of GIANT (SBS, 2010). While it had many recognitions showed by the rating and awards the drama received, it's not popular among international fans. Albeit I found some good reviews about GIANT in other blogs, a review from a Korean perspective will be very much fun. Thank you in advance.

  5. A Korean in AmericaFebruary 25, 2014 at 7:00 AM

    Not sure I can do Giant.
    Way to much research. I see everything before I do a review...
    Not enough time.

  6. A Korean in AmericaFebruary 25, 2014 at 7:02 AM

    HOTELIER was SYA star role. She never did much dramas.

    She is a CF model at her core