Is Makjang really a problem for Korean dramas? (Class 8)

Even among the fans of Korean dramas overseas, excluding rabid fan girls, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Korean dramas have issues in quality primarily in the writing area. Oh, yes… acting is also an issue but not the subject of this editorial.This opinion seems to be also echoed by a lot of the native Korean drama audience here. Well… to a degree I think.

In this discussion, there is the common word that pops up is… “Makjang”
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What an interesting word! I actually did not know that specific TV terminology until a few years ago.

If you watch Korean critical media talking about its own shows, you can see that there a discontent and grumbling about the oversupply of so called “Makjang” shows. At the same time, those shows tend to be the most popular with the Korean audience. At this point, it is rather difficult to know if it is just the vocal minority on the fringes of the Korean drama audience with blogs or up tight self-indulgent mainstream media who are complaining about the shows and the majority is just fine with what they are getting.

In a way, similar parallels can be made with the reality TV situation in the US over the last half decade or so. The people who complain most about reality TV were the people who were not the target -audience of those shows. The others, who may or may not say that the shows are stupid, were enjoying the show albeit as the guilty pleasure. Among these, most serious complaints come out either when a show does not fit ones’ specific tastes or when a show is crappy even for reality TV standards.

So, what are we talking about?
Is Makjang that much of a problem? Or is the issues with Korean dramas more serious?

My experience with Makjang
This got me thinking because I never really noticed that much difference between Makjang show and non-makjang shows before. I just assumed like many Koreans that Koreans dramas were basically the same as makjang shows if you exclude historical dramas. This should be expected since I am from a generation before cable TV started their own scripted programing. There were only 3 networks that did scripted programing. Thus, the total number of show airing at one time was quite small.  It was about 3 per network if you did not count daily morning dramas. This means only 9 dramas were airing at one time. Among them, about 2 were historical dramas. The majority of the remaining shows could be categorized as makjang shows. At the minimum, the 3 the weekend shows were makjang shows.

The result of this is that it was mostly a given that Korean dramas were more likely to be some variant of a makjang show. This has not changed much in the current age of more than 20 shows airing at the same time. As a result, I generalize Korean dramas as being a single large genre of TV drama with minor subgenres with considerable overlap of the target audiences between minor subgenres. These target audiences are primarily middle age and above housewives. Some minor subgenres differ slightly as they have more female viewers within the 10~20s age demographic.

As a result, hearing men above 20s complaining that there are no good dramas to see on Korean TV is a common phenomenon. Oddly enough, it is less for above 50 male demographic. But, this may be explained somewhat by the fact that the above 50s crowd is the single largest viewing block in Korea which is true for both male and female.   

Is the Common criticism?
Reading native Korean drama criticism, I do not get the feeling that this concentration of Korean dramas into a single genre is widely understood or even observed. A lot of the issues with Korean dramas come from the fact that most of the shows being made in Korean are concentrated in a single genre. There are mentions about the budget, the schedule, and limited range of subject matters.  However, the primarily focus of criticism is laid on the so called “Makjang” shows.

The “Makjang” shows are viewed as the low end of the Korean drama spectrum. They are something to be despised but are celebrated by the masses. They are the reality TV of the Korean TV. They are the opium of the masses. However, I do not really think that is the main problem of Korean dramas. In my experience, a schlocky C grade  “Makjang” show tends to be at least less boring than a B grade so called none "Makjang" show. There is at least things going on screen other than fillers.

You have people going off at each other.
You have women grabbing each other hairs and throwing things at each other.
You have amnesia and scheming.

While I’m not the greatest fan of those things, they can be exciting.  That is what “Makjang” shows. They are low brow soap opera targeting a specific audience like any kind of B-genre audience. The key to these audience is satisfying one or two specific needs that they hold dear even at the cost of all other aspects. And there is nothing really wrong with it in itself. I have watched enough bad sci-fi shows in the 80s and 90s to understand that audience’s mindset.

The problem with Korean dramas is not that “Makjang” shows exist and are popular. “Makjang” shows are just an easy target for those Korean critics to put the blame on rather than actually examining the situation. I think the more important question to ask is why, in my eyes, I do not see much difference between what Koreans view as “Makjang” shows and non-“Makjang” shows. It is a matter of slight degree difference.

In my opinion, I put the blame on the fact that the Korean drama industry is rather inbred ecosystem. The concentration of Korean dramas into a single genre is more of a symptom of this condition.

Inbred ecosystem… I have two left feet and 12 fingers!
First there is static external environment.
Generally, the main Korean drama audience does not fluctuate that much as a whole. Most are for female 30+  age demographic.  While there can be an influx of male viewers depending on specific factors, the male viewers tend to be unreliable in terms of rating.

Usually, this is blamed on the fact that all the men are working late. While this is still true, the majority of females, even married females,  work nowadays. The men complain that they do not watch because they are no shows for them. And this is close to the truth. The Korean drama industry does not put much effort into expanding the current audience base. This can be seen in the fact that they are barely any aggressive advertisement campaigns beyond the traditional closed out channels.  Thus, if you do not have your ears to the ground and are not listening to specific grapevines, you would not have any idea of what is going around in the Korean drama industry. This is a drastic contrast to the plastic surgery ads that I am being bombarded with.

Rather, the Korean drama industry just tries to service the existing base which is not only lazy but also counterproductive in the age when more and more shows are being produced every year. The industry just ends up cannibalizing itself by over supplying the market. This means that the Korean drama industry is making shows for the same unchanging audience. Thus, there is no real impetus for improvement.

Second, the internal environment which also can be called gene pool is very limited.

While I am always complaining about the actors in Korean dramas basically clones of each other in both looks and talents, I am talking about the writers at the moment. The easy scapegoat for makjang shows and Korean drama as a whole is to say that Korean dramas cover a small range of subjects unlike either US and Japanese dramas. This range includes Adultery, revenge, rape, birth secrets, fatal illnesses, and flirting with incest possibilities.

However, you can do a lot with Adultery, revenge, rape, birth secrets, fatal illnesses, and flirting with incest possibilities. Even if you look at US shows, the subject matter they cover is not as diverse as Koreans tend to think. Koreans are looking at the wrong place. Rather, it is that the characters are diverse as a product of both the writers’ and actors’ efforts. Korean drama lacks in both writer and actor departments.

I won’t talk about actors here. I will talk about the writers. How many writers at one time do think are active in Korean drama at the same time? The number is not that large with one or two writers on a show at the same time. In addition, once a writer is successful, he or she does multiple shows. In other words, Korean dramas are written by a handful of writers at any time which is very different from U.S. shows which uses the writers’ room system in which many writers are on the staff underneath a show runner.

This works for  the U.S. shows since you simply cannot produce a full season of 20 plus original episodes with one writer while maintaining a certain level of quality. The human brain does not work that fast. Korean dramas can only really do this because the show is a single story pulled and expanded over 16 plus episodes. It is extremely difficult for episodic shows. For the more episodic shows and sitcoms, they also use guest writers in addition to the staff writers. As a result of these large staff writer and guest writers, U.S. TV industry has more trained and talented writers at a single time then the Korean industry.
This is the reason for the condition that Korean critics’ view as the limited subject range in Korean dramas. However, I would like to go further than just saying the Korean drama gene pool is naturally small. I want to say that it is artificially being controlled also.

The control of the “common morality”
Have you ever compared Korean makjang to U.S. soaps? Even though Koreans say that makjang shows are outrageous, I never really felt that they were. While they can be loud, they tend to actually be timid. Even 15 years ago, a marriage between people between the same last name which were only link centuries ago was a big taboo subject. What about now? Do you think either being adopted or being a bastard should be this huge taboo thing that makjang shows should make a big deal of them?

Korea is a very loud mouth “Moral” kind of place.
This comes up a lot with Korean critics. After they say one sentence about narrative logic and another sentence about limited subject matters, they talk a lot about the loose morality of makjang shows and how they go against family values like FOX news.

As a result, makjang shows tend to be timid about what they do. The problem is that this goes against what makjang shows should be. They are meant to be outrageous, scandalous, edgy and not play it safe. What would a horror movie be if it played it safe?

In addition, after everything, makjang shows are very judgmental and petty towards its characters especially those they deem to be morally wrong. It is like seeing a lynch mob from a far. This is a rather stark contrast to U.S. soaps which tend to either be neutral or comedically warm towards most of the characters. If your ultimate motive is to debase the majority of your characters, your range of story options tend to reduce drastically, All of this moralizing constrains what the writers could actually do with a Korean drama.

In the end
The problem with Korean dramas is not that makjang shows are popular. It is that the whole industry in inbred with a very narrow audience base, a handful of writers, and huge fist of moralizing restraining even those small number of writers. It does not help also that the Korean drama industry is rather poor.

It is more common to hear that production companies went belly up than actually making money even though they had a hit show. It is usually because the networks only pay about 50% of the cost of making the shows at best. It is a very odd thing that more Korean dramas are being made in this situation but this is a discussion for another day since I already went over 2000 words at the moment.

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  1. From what (little) I've seen so far, K-drama, be it makjang or not, is usually a just somewhat stretched mini-series, and, because of that, structurally very different from an episodic comedy or a soap.

    I would think that writing a mini-series should be a much easier task for a single writer than for a team of writers, while at the same time soaps or long-running high-frequency soaps are very easily distributable between several writers.

    In fact, these things considered, I'd expect K-drama mini-series to be MORE cohesive and tighter written than American soaps, especially since there is only one single K-drama genre (and a very schematic one too) to learn for the writers in the first place.

  2. I do appreciate that Korean TV can pile on the makjang, but there's a sense of shame and responsibility taken by the characters for their makjang actions in the end. At least from the dramas I've seen, characters grow and learn something. Hopefully they mature. Whether the bad guy gets on his knees and begs forgiveness in tears, or tosses himself out the window. You just don't see that in American soaps and shows. People do things w/o consequence, or they barely consider them, they don't allow whatever's left of their conscience to get to them. And it's just one makjang scene after another with nobody even whispering, "I'm sorry, it was my fault." or acknowledging what they are doing is morally wrong. Everything is me, myself, and I.
    I can understand it's probably hypocritical in reality, but at least on Korean TV people own up to their actions or pay a price in the end for their behavior, even if they are the hero or heroine of the drama.

  3. Now that's very interesting article written on here. Especially when they mention the incest part, which usually occurs in several dramas or movies.