What are Korean drama really lacking? : A show about nothing…. (Class 11)

Hello. This is AKIA Talking now from Korea. Here is a million dollar question. What is it that makes you like Korean dramas? For many around here, it is somewhat of a mystery. Well… those people tend to not watch a lot of Korean dramas. There are a huge section of those here. A lot of them do watch U.S. shows though.
So what is it that you enjoy? It does require some commitment to get into Korean dramas initially because it is not about a culture that is extremely well know and you have to actually read. For Americans, I hear that is a huge thing. I mean you watch TV because you do not want to read. I am right?

I am just joking but it is a thing. Being able to read while watching a video does need an adjustment and some training. It is like me and American comic books. The medium is very different with mangas that I have been bred on that I still have a difficult time getting into them. For many Koreans, we tend to view Korean dramas as inferior to US or British TV shows. This is not without considerable merit although considering the state of Global scripted TV dramas, Korean dramas are not at a terrible state.

Korean dramas are impressive in many ways. A key thing is that Korean dramas have been able to master to a degree the “character journey” based indirect narrative that was pioneered by American entertainment mediums. I mean that the audience is intended to follow the narrative indirectly via watching the characters move from one state to another state in a third person point of view. What message that is meant to be conveyed to the audience is filtered via the character development and plot events that occur during the narrative. It is not meant to be directly conveyed to the audience as seen in mediums such as modern art.

Using this narrative style, it is more difficult to include esoteric and intellectual elitist tendencies commonly seen in many literary mediums. The makers of visuals using this style have to bring everything down to the individual level and filter them via  a personal lens rather than staying on top of a pseudo-intellectual high horse. Not many places have mastered this to the degree Korean dramas have. Most European and Asian visual mediums have not. They have been trying though.

On a technical level, Korean dramas tend to be impressive in regards to what they can pull off with the resources and tight schedule they have. This includes both production and post-production processes. For the time constraints put on them, most of the Korean dramas that are being produced now are at least competently edited. Once you try editing, you will understand.

On an acting level, we complain a lot with the whole Kpop stars being actor thing which results in lack luster acting from the lead actors. However, if you think in another way, what they get out of those rather talentless pretty faces is not that bad, not bad at all. I usually compare Korean drama acting to those of the Disney channel. Both are trying to make the best show possible with talent whose talent is not necessarily acting. In order to do so, they end up developing a system to get the best possible from the actors and arrange what is needed to suite the limits of the actors. This is a rather impressive skill.

On a writing level, it is not as bad as it may seem from my body of writings. Broadly, Korean drama writers cannot write a story. However, they can write the hell out of a scene within the limit time constraints put on them. This is a skill. It is a very impressive technique that can rival those of U.S. writers. The problem with Korean drama writers is not necessarily degree of technique shown but rather that there is only technique and not much more. This is the angle in which I am writing this article.

Lack of variety? Really? Is that the best you can do?
The common criticism about Korean dramas here in Korea is that it lacks subject matter variety. The critics and bloggers compare Korean dramas to U.S. or British shows and point out that this as a major difference. They say that, since U.S. or British shows are a lot of variety, this is the way we should improve Korean dramas. The recent trend of gimmicky Korean dramas can be traced back to this argument.

However, is this not a familiar argument? This point can also be made about U.S. or British shows. Some from the US side of the pacific have said that there is basically only about 4 or 5 types of shows being made repeatedly over and over again. And, to some degree, they have a point.

So, what is with this situation? Well… while on a very shallow level, it is true that Korean dramas’ lack variety. However, it is problematic to state causality between Korean dramas’ lack of variety with Korean dramas’ quality. This would be too simple a case. If you could improve quality with just increasing variety of Korean drama subject, it would have already been done. Have the gimmicks that recent Korean dramas have deployed improved Korean dramas?

I do not think so.
They have been getting worse.

For some time, I chocked it off to issues with execution. As an armature writer, I get the difficulties in merging different genres. However, once back in Korea and getting the better insight about the place, I think I was thinking about the problem in a superficial manner which seems to be a common Korean disease. It is like Korean critics chocking thing up to lack of variety. The problem is deeper than that. Rather, I think that Korean dramas’ lack of variety is the symptom of the Korean culture. They do say that a culture’s “cultural” output is a reflection of that culture.

We, not Koreans, love Fathers and sons
Recently, I have been going through the large bookstores in Seoul, Korea. A few days ago, I was looking at books about movies and TV. There are some interesting books examining U.S. entertainment and culture. It is interesting to see how other Koreans view those stuff since I am somewhat floating between the two points of view: Native American and native Korean.

One book tried to examine American culture via the lens of TV. It had an interesting sentence. The author said that a lot of American TV is formed around the father-son relationship. This sentence spiked my interest. I have noticed that issues of being men and being a father tend to be favorite subject matters for U.S. shows before. However, I hadn’t quite connected the dots to link it to specifically the father-son relationship.

If you think about it, a lot of American TV or specifically the characters’ motivations in American TV are connected with the struggles and issues with father-son relationships. From both sides of that relationship to be clear. Every cop show, every medical show, every fantasy show has characters and storylines directly or indirectly can be linked to the issues of father-son relationship. And, if you compare U.S. shows and British shows, the relative obsession of American TV shows tend to become more evident. This sudden clarity led me to further develop this train of thought. It is not just about the father-son relationship but a representation of something more. I mean a lot of Korean dramas touch on mother-son relationships…

Or do they?

That is the question. Do Korean dramas really touch on mother-son relationships or are they also just gimmicks like having a ghost on your show? What do U.S. TV shows really do with the father-son relationships?  Sometimes the father-son relationship becomes the actual inciting event like in the case of Korean dramas. The action of the mother or father directly affects the plot of the show. However, more frequently, it is used as part of the characters’ psyche.

You are getting what I am touching on?

The writers use the plot to examine/ dig into who the character is which leads them inevitably to the parent/ child relationship. The emphasis on father-son relationships in U.S. TV specifically is because the majority of U.S. TV writers are male.

The fundamental relationship that defines the building blocks of who we are is parent /child relationship. Your world view, your sexual interests, your religious tendencies all are directly influenced by this relationship. At the same time, it is the most frustrating relationship a person will form since we, as children, have so little control over it. That frustration is also very primal and fundamental. As a result, trying to deal with the relationship after the child has become an adult is such a struggle but a necessary one. This is what the writers of U.S. TV are zoning in on.

This interest can be expanded to explain the key element that defines the U.S. TV show from every other form on the planet. What is one way of dealing with a difficult parent /child relationship?

Well, make your own family.

U.S. TV shows have an insatiable interest in creating a pseudo-family with non-family members. Just think about it. Every show can be boiled down to this theme. Every popular show has a strong pseudo-family dynamic among the characters.

Someone is the pseudo-father.
Someone is the pseudo-mother.
Even the characters you like to hate fills in the role of the black sheep of the family.

If I think about it now, the unique American syndicated/episodic multiple seasons show framework is built on the pseudo-family forming mechanism. If you have multiple seasons of a show, there are ups and downs. To be frank, even the best shows have a lot of downs. But you end up watching even those episodes a lot and over and over. Why is that? It is because the characters of those shows have become your family.

It is not a difficult thing to hear someone say that they were raised by TV shows in America. I have spent more time with Sam and Al from the TV show “Quantum Leap” (1989~1993) than my actual father during my youth. If someone asked me to choose between my second cousin never existing and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987~1994) never existing, I would have to say…

Who? What second cousin?

I think the theme song of “Cheers” (1982~1993) said it best.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name.

Or are you too young for that show? The theme song of “Friends” (1994-2004) is also good.
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A.
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but

I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)

If you are even too young for “Friends”, I give up. Just take my word for it.

It is rare to find a Korean drama that has the same effect on you. Koreans always talk about why the American syndicated/episodic multiple seasons show framework is difficult to implement in Korea. They do not really get it.

Back to my main point.
Yes, I know it’s getting long.

The exploration of truth
Drama comes from the exploration of the truth about the human condition. And what is more close to the truth about a person than one’s parent /child relationship?  As a side note, google failed me in fining a reference for this quote about drama.

Bad google.

Drama does not come from the gimmicks, the special effects, the money put on screen. It comes from this exploration of the human condition. When you hear the writers of U.S. TV talk, you can see how much of their own truth they put or try to put in even broadest criminal procedural show. As an audience member, you start to come for the gimmick but end up staying for the characters and the examination of their truths. And, at the end of the show, you buy the DVD/Blu ray box set and catch the show’s reruns on cable.

The parent /child relationship is not the only truth out there. However, it is the most personal and primal truth to a character. And that element I think draws American TV writers and even executives to the exploration of this truth. It is funny hearing American TV writers talk. One of the stuff they all talk about is the fact that TV executives buy scripts because they love the personal truth part and, afterwards, the executives panic because they do not know whether they can sell it.

What is the character’s motivation?
It is such a common phrase in US TV but so foreign to Korean dramas.

But again the parent /child relationship is not the only truth out there to explore. Just look at British TV. The truth they seem to be interested in tend to be far less personal and more existential such as class conflicts and dealing with their place as a nation in the world considering that they once were a superpower. Not dull subjects to explore the truths about them. How about Korean dramas? What truths do they explore?

Well…nothing really.

Seinfeld(1989-1998) was initially called “a show about nothing “. However, if you watch only a few episodes of the show, you get it is about something although you may have a problem putting your finger on exactly what. Korean dramas are more about nothing than Seinfeld(1989-1998) ever was about nothing. Sadly there are so few exceptions to this in Korean dramas.

Writing about nothing
This is the crux of the issue in regard to the discussion about the lack of subject variety in Korean dramas. How much can you do with trying to keep writing about really nothing? I cannot imagine keep writing about nothing like professional Korean drama writers have to.  I would stop writing forever if I had to go through that hell. I do have to give them props for the fact that they could keep things going on pure technique while writing about nothing.

When I say “nothing”, I mean in terms of the search of truth whether it be personal or more social or cultural. Korean dramas tend to be extremely superficial in their approach that it can be considered as writing about nothing. And I am not even being snobbish here. You can write thousands of stories about Jaebuls and their illegitimate children if you dig deep into the writers’ interests and emotional truths.

This is the same for revenge, and even makjang shows. I tend to get rather bored by makjang shows because they over react as if they are doing outrageous stuff but never really go for it. Underneath the posturing and blustering, they really go no further than basic “After school special” levels. They are afraid of going further. All of them tend to be afraid of going further and deeper. They are afraid to get personal beyond the shallow limits permitted by the Korean culture.

So, why is this?
This is an interesting question.
Why are the British up tight?
Why are Koreans so shallow?

I think that it has to do with the modern version of the concept of “Han” which is not exactly the same as the traditional Korean “Han” concept. Since I am already going long with this article, I’ll continue with this in the next one. I’ll leave you with this impression.

You have a person, let’s say “she”, who is obsessed with flashy/colorful stuff. She spends way too much money on expensive luxury items. She avoids talking about anything serious or personal. She also insists on outward beauty and acting cute. She has a tendency for outbursts of irrational/manic behaviors. She likes to blame anyone but herself for all the bad thing that happen to her. In other words, she is one crazy b***h.

That does tend to describe current Korea to a “T”. Just think about the Korean dramas you have watched up to this point in a clinical manner. If you are a social psychologist, you would evaluate the Korean culture reflected via Korean dramas as being healthy? To a degree, I think the recent popularity of Korean dramas is a similar phenomenon as people watching “Honey Boo Boo”. The main difference is that you do not really get that fact while watching it because of the flash and glitter. It is the magic of denial. Koreans are masters at that. Have you wondered why Koreans are making so many cute stuff?  

To be continued...

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  1. interesting analysis! i watch the dramas because they suspend reality, are funny (i mostly watch romcoms) and i enjoy the eye candy of the beautiful Korean people. they are entertaining enough, but i get frustrated with the lack of communication and misunderstandings that we get a steady diet of in dramas. it would be nice to see the characters get a little bit more intelligent where dealing with each other is concerned but then 3/4 of the story would be gone if they did. still, they are addicting and most are just long enough so that you don't seem to ever get tired of them.

  2. thanks for the comment. It is always interesting and somewhat bewildering when you have foreign fangirls of #Kdrama or #Kpop become more rabid than those from Korea. To some degree, many here do not really understand it. Why like something or someone so much when you do not seem to have any real understanding of who or what you are crazy about.

    However, at the same time, it is human nature that it is actually easier to become crazy about something or someone when you know nothing. That is how ignorance tends to work. It makes things easy.

    With myself, one of the reasons why I do this shindig is to help people who are not from Korea to know more than the typical fangirl. Unlike Koreans, there are some hope there. I tend to give up with Koreans. This is why I blog in English thus no one reads in Korea.

  3. What a great article! I never thought about it, but you're right on the father-son themes prevalent in American Television culture. One of my favorite old shows is The Courtship of Eddie's father, about the struggles of a successful single dad trying to raise his son. A lot of boys coming of age in the seventies related to that and always wished Bill Bixby was their dad. Television changed the world and the way people think. Sometimes too much and to the detriment of families. It's kind of sad that TV characters become substitutes for the people in real life. I know someone who always said they wished their brother was like Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. Because he took an interest in his sisters and showed them love and support even when they had arguments.

    I really think K-dramas have way more substance than Honey Boo Boo- who has now went Honey Bye Bye! But I can understand your point about them being about 'nothing.' I think it has a lot to do with the format. We only have 16-24 hours to get attached to, love, or hate the characters in a particular Kdrama world. Then poof! It's over and quickly on to the next. Vs. In America you follow a show faithfully for years (Like Cheers) and the characters really do become a part of your life.

    I think the writers are definitely tied down to creating the perfect 'scene.' What will bring out the most fangirl squeals or emotions and viewers? Back hug? Accidental owl kiss? Sudden illness from a tumor? The same regurgitated cliches.

    American shows tend to carry more weight in our psyche because they last so long. Like Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, or Bonanza. They grab you right in the heart. But Kdrama is shallow that way because it may disturb you or get you in the feels, but for how long before the next totally different drama with your favorite leads? It's a wonder how the Koreans even process all that – one drama after the other in quick succession. And a celeb culture that allows the celebs to do everything, sing, commercials, plastering their face on your juice box and kimchi. In America there's a distinct 'snob' line drawn between all aspects of entertainment- the music world, theater, television, movies, and even commercials.

    The show I followed the longest was Law and Order Criminal Intent, for its life- 11 years. I'm a big Vincent D'onofrio fan. Even when it went totally makjang and drove their lead detective crazy because of HIS daddy issues.

    As a reader, I'm going to say Kdramas are like Pulp and Penny novels/paperbacks. You get totally engrossed in them while reading, but then toss them and move on to the next. Quickly forgetting what you just read. The ideas are always the same, but the execution differs every time. They are quick and easy to digest– unless of course it's a super long family drama or a deep Sageuk that requires brain power (Tree with Deep Roots)

    Here's something though - You know how you have a favorite show, you can find yourself watching the series over and over. You mentioned Quantum Leap, I love that series too and must have watched it 5 times over in full. I don't feel that way w/Kdrama. When I finish a series, I don't re-watch. Unless it's because I'm introducing it to a new fan, like my sister. I re-watched my favorites like Kimchi Family, Chuno and Ghost. If anything, I'll just go back to specific scenes I remember.

    I was tired of American TV a year before I became a full-fledged K-drama fanatic. I had pretty much only stuck to watching retro and classic shows. So K-dramas, their format, their stories, and different, elevated morals were a big breath of fresh air. 2 years into them I have become a very discriminating viewer, but I also enjoy other Asian dramas to fill in the gaps. Of course I can see the silliness, the glitter, shallowness and hypocrisy, but if the story holds my attention and I like the actors I stick to it and enjoy it.

  4. I think the "fangirl" culture pretty much works the same in America too. But you're right, there's more cultural understanding when you're obsessed with something from your own country.

  5. I'm not much of a TV watcher, I generally prefer reading. I watch Kdramas mainly because it's a good way to polish my Korean language skills. So I really can't compare Kdramas to other countries' shows but Kromances really really remind me of Harlequin Romances.(without the sex scenes) I guess they both are about enacting women's shallow fantasies (being worshipped by wealthy successful handsome men lol). Do normal Korean men watch these shows? I'm pretty sure that no sane English speaking man would be caught dead reading a Harlequin romance.

    I used to enjoy romcoms but after watching too many supposedly desirable characters and relationships that are so very shallow with nothing behind the gloss, I'm kind of losing my appetite.

    I am getting really bothered by the very shallow narrow worldview that seems to pervade Korean dramas and Korean society in general. There seems to be a very rigid gauge of beauty and success that I think is detrimental to a healthy society. I have to agree with you about the crazy b***h comparison.

  6. Hello Mr. AKIA, how are you?. Thanks for your insights. I will give an example (and a recommendation if allowed):

    One of my favorite Korean dramas is "Flowers for my life" (2007). It is a beautiful and deep reflection on life at the light of death. It is in no way morbid and it starts with a money-obsessed lady who does have a sense of gain, but with no sense of loss that doesn't value human relationships. The main hero is a dude who doesn't think about the future and kind of assumes he will live forever. Beautiful and deep.

    The thing is it was largerly ignored in S. K., since it spoke about MORTALITY (... and the value of every moment).

    It is OK to use dramas to escape to another realm or even to have some catharsis, but sometimes we need to reflect on our values. I haven't seen more K-dramas with that in mind.

    Hope to see a continuation of this essay,


  7. thanks for the comment.
    I think a lot is about tone with Korean dramas.
    I think if you want to be heavy or serious, you need to have more depth.
    Korean dramas don't really understand that I think