The medical subgenre of Korean dramas #Kdrama101 (Class 7)

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA. For this class of K-Drama 101, I’ll go over the medical subgenre of Korean dramas. For this article, I am reworking excerpts from the “Revisiting the Classics: Surgeon Bong Dal Hee (2007) Review ~ The pioneer of Medical dramas “article. This article is for those who did not read that article.

The medical subgenre has grown rapidly over the past 5 or 6 years or so in the Korean drama medium. In a way, medical subgenre shows is a rather unique genre in the Korean drama industry. The Korean drama industry tends to change focus and style of its shows in annual waves. Recently, the cycle has shorted to every half year. So, the types of shows you see one year will no longer be made in the following years. However, this is different for medical subgenre shows.

It seems like there is at least one medical subgenre show being produced every year on a consistent schedule. This is not the only odd fact. In a way, medical subgenre shows tend to be the closer than any other subgenre to their American counterparts.

The beginnings of medical drama in Korea
Before the mid of the 2000s, the modern medical dramas did not exist in Korean drama. While there were shows with a medical doctor as a character before, hospitals as the main setting did not exist in any significant manner. There is an exception.

The earliest attempt to make a Korean drama that resembles a modern medical drama show was “General Hospital” (1994) staring a then young actress “Shin Eun-Kyung”.  I actually remember that show was a huge experiment for the Korean drama industry at the time. While it was a moderate success, there was no serious follow up attempt to repeat it. The demand at the time was stronger for family dramas. This was even before the real rise of the “Trendy” Korean dramas. The audience was simply not that interested in the lives of professionals at work.

The Medical drama renaissance in America
Unlike Korean, the U.S. has a long history making medical dramas. Even before the turn of the century, there were plenty of shows solely set around the lives of the medical professions. Famous examples are  “M*A*S*H” (1972–1983), “China Beach” (1988–1991), “Chicago Hope” (1994–2000). Even shows like the ever popular “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (1989–1993) loosely falls into this category. On the other hand, shows like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (1993–1998) do not as they are have a doctor as a lead character but it is not really about the medical profession.

In regard to the modern medical dramas, there are 3 shows that are really influential today. The first is “ER” (1994–2009). This show put the camera solely on the hospital and the care giving profession. Before, the focus of the shows tended to spill over the walls of the hospitals. It is also the show that showed that the audience could handle all the medical “technobabble”.  The second show is “Grey's Anatomy” (2005–present) which introduced a more character focus story telling approach within the boundaries set by “ER”. It also did not hurt that it brought the “spice” and sex appeal in to what could be a rather cold and claustrophobic atmosphere.

The last show is “House, M.D.” (2004–2012) which merged the medical genre with the procedural detective genre. It also popularized the rouge doctor archetype within the medical genre. Before, the medical genre was more about struggling with responsibility and ethics reflecting the times they were made.  One thing these shows have in common is that they all aired in Korean via cable channels and had dedicated fan bases albeit niche ones. The audience in Korea and the creators were very influenced by these shows.

The year of 2007
The year of 2007 was the birth of the modern medical dramas in Korean drama with two shows coming out at the same time. They were “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” and “The White Tower” which aired concurrently.  

The two shows, while they have similarities, are also pretty different from each other.  “The White Tower” is far more focused on the inner conflicts between the characters than the actual health care aspects of the chosen profession of the characters. It is like the show is about these characters that just work in the hospital. They could have easily been transplanted into a different work setting without changing the core of the show.

At the same time, the show utilizes the serialized method of storytelling which the Korean dramas are more accustomed to. The show is also darker. This is not surprising as the show is based on a Japanese novel. You could feel the sense of decay and corruption typical to many Japanese shows or novels.

Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” is rather different. It was basically based on the “Grey's Anatomy” model. While the stories were set in the hospital in the same manner as “The White Tower”, they were about the patients and things that happen while providing medical care. Also, it introduced an episodic type of storytelling at least partially since the doctors moved from case to case. In regard to Korean medical dramas, “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” was the pioneer of the modern medical drama formula rather than “The White Tower”.

How does medical drama genre work with Korean dramas?
The reason this happened was that it helped negate some of the problems with Korean dramas. Many Korea dramas suffer from the nature of the medium itself. This includes the fact that there is barely any structure within the writing and the core plot cannot support the whole show. This is actually solved by adopting the American “Grey's Anatomy” model.

At its core, “Grey's Anatomy” is still an episodic show with various medical cases popping up each episode. At the same time, it has enough flexibility that a serialized story arc can be laid out over multiple episodes mainly through the characters. When added to Korean dramas, the episodic nature forces structure on to the writing of the episodes while still maintaining the mostly serialized nature of Korean drama story telling. Thus, the writing is better across the board.

Also, unlike “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (1989–1993), “Grey's Anatomy” is basically an ensemble show even though there is a title character.  This means that the ranges of stories that the show can tell increases drastically compared to when there is only the lead couple to base the stories upon. By adapting the “Grey's Anatomy” model, “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” became one of the best paced Korean drama shows I have seen ever. Every side character and each patient gets their own concise story arcs while not over staying their welcome. In other words, there are not many of those fillers you see in other Korean dramas that are not interesting and last way too long.

It also helps breaking up the monotony of Korean drama that you have guest stars coming in and out of the show as patients and family members of the patients. This is not seen much in other Korean drama sub-genres which tend to operate like a theatre company with “a cast of a few”.

The follow up shows

·         New Heart (2007)

·         General Hospital 2 (2008)

·         Brain (2011) 

·         Syndrome (2012) 

·         Golden Time (2012)

·         The 3rd Hospital (2012)

·         Medical Top Team (2013)

·         Good Doctor (2013)

·         Emergency Couple (2014)

All of these shows tend to follow the examples set up by Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” (2007). With the latter two shows, they seem to skew more beyond the boundaries of the health care setting. However, they still fall into to the model setup by Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” (2007). Shows such as "Doctor Stranger" (2014) does not. 

Seeing this list of shows, it is rather clear that the medical subgenre is one of the most consistent subgenres of Korean dramas out there.

Class 6: Why watch Long runningKorean family dramas? 

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All of the pictures and videos here are used for criticism and references purposes. They are not mine. Only the article itself is my property!


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