KDramas

Intro

KDramas have become kind of a guilty pleasure for my wife and I.

It started with the excellent Extraordinary Attorney Woo which we randomly put on one night. My wife — a special education supervisor — found it to be an amazing depiction of autism and cognitive disabilities. What particularly caught her attention was how the show dealt with a topic in a way that we rarely see in Western media.

In fact, this has been an observation that we’ve come across as we watched more shows: KDramas are much more willing to address social issues outside of the social mainstream.

If you haven’t watched KDramas yet, you’re missing out on some really great story telling.


Observations

I think that there are several key differences in KDramas versus American television series that are worth noting:

An openness to depict and address non-mainstream topics

Cognitive disabilities being one. Both Extraordinary Attorney Woo and Crash Course in Romance depicted high functioning individuals with cognitive disabilities. But Woo went the extra mile and dedicated two full episodes to characters on the other end of the spectrum as well.

Perhaps this is because Asian cultures tend to be more conservative and formal; media then becomes an outlet for these social issues like divorce and socio-economic disparities that the citizenry otherwise have difficulty in discussing openly.

I sometimes wonder if this is a concerted move by the Korean government to normalize certain social topics like single parenthood, divorce, cognitive disabilities, socio-economic injustice, gender equality (the CEOs of both of the prestigious law firms at the center of the plot of Woo are both middle-aged females), etc.

Stronger story lines

I don’t know the ins and outs of Korean media production, but to my eyes, it seems that shows generally start with a single, full season in mind. This tends to have some side effects…

  1. Story lines are more complete. You don’t see as many plot holes because it feels like the screenplay is written from start-to-finish and this affords an extraordinary sense of completeness when you finish a series.
  2. Story telling structure is richer. Because these seasons are written start-to-finish in 16-20 episodes, it affords richer structure in storytelling without feeling retconned. The Light in Your Eyes is a perfect example of this and simply an AMAZING piece of storytelling that can only make sense if it’s written and structured from start to finish.
  3. You see more range from actors and actresses. In the US, if a show takes off, it would mean that the actors and actresses on the show could end up in a years-long contract for the show and locked into one genre. On the other hand, because Korean dramas tend to end with one or two seasons, you see actors and actresses across a spectrum of topics and genres. I think this is quite unique because it better showcases the range of an actor or actress’ talents and it’s always amazing to see their work from show-to-show. What’s really cool is seeing the actors and actresses work together on different shows; their chemistry is often very apparent.
  4. Emotionally charged storylines. I rarely tear up with American television media, but I’m going to be honest here: there have been several shows where I straight up teared up. I find the story lines to be more more emotionally charged and willing to explore difficult topics.
  5. Strong female roles. It’s odd because my impression of Korea is that it is extraordinarily patriarchal, but many shows feature positive, strong female leads. King’s Affection, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, One Spring Night, etc.

Koreans have an odd fascination with serial killers

What puzzles me is that looking at crime statistics, Korea is not particularly notable in terms of violent crime. However, the serial killer trope has shown up in multiple shows 🤣. Destined with You, Crash Course in Romance, When the Camelia Bloom. Maybe someone can explain this to me? I have no idea why so many shows have a serial killer as a plot device.

No genre boundaries

Korean shows — even ones that deal with quite heavy topics like My Mister — are simply not afraid to cross genres. My Mister switches between corporate espionage, light comical touches between the three brothers at the core of the show, dark scenes with domestic abuse, and more.

It’s the same for shows like Behind Your Touch where one moment, it feels like slapstick and the next episode it’s a dark thriller.

Korean dramas never feel constrained by their genre.

Korean entertainers are perhaps more like classic Hollywood entertainers

You’ll notice that many shows feature actors and actresses who were or still are members of K-pop groups. Not only are many of them great musical and stage performers, but are then trained for acting as well. In the US, it feels rare to have such well-rounded entertainers who can perform in different genres and with different skillsets from acting to singing to dancing. IU’s performance in My Mister; Han Ji Min’s performance in The Light in Your Eyes; Park Eun Bin from Extraordinary Attorney Woo; Lee Junho and Yoona from King the Land.

In general, it feels like Korean actors and actresses are more well-rounded in the performing arts.

More investment in character development

Korean shows seem incredibly strong at character development. This is possibly a side effect of the single-season focus. Structuring the plot with a concrete end in mind seems to allow for better pacing and development of even minor side characters. The net result is that it’s easier to understand character motivations and makes these characters more relatable in the process. I feel like this is also the reason why I tend to feel more emotional when watching some of these shows: you simply get pulled into the world of the story because of the richer character and world development.

Tropes

Indeed, Korean dramas are simply filled with tropes. If it’s raining, you can be assured that the male lead is going to show up with an umbrella. Koreans apparently drink an obscene amount of alcohol — no matter the occasion. The childhood encounters. The inevitable road trip/vacation/adventure that often feels like it’s written into the contracts for the cast. And on and on.


Recommendations

If your interest is piqued, then here are my thoughts on shows my wife and I have watched with a short summary and recommendation.

My Mister

The first half and second half of this series feel miles apart, but like any great journey, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. This story is a slow and long embrace filled with deep emotions — sometimes ugly ones — that we often try to avoid. I think that this show is the richest, most complex television media I’ve seen on the topic of “love” in its various forms and depths. Love for your friends, love for your partner or spouse, love for your family, love for those that give you strength, and perhaps most importantly love of yourself. Part of the reason why it’s hard to start is that the beginning of the show is stark in its absence of love; our leads are both apathetic and engrossed in their own self-pity born from internalized insecurities and shame. But slowly, through small gestures and subtle kindness, each finds a path out of their own despair, releasing the encapsulated pain. A fantastic piece of television that is easy to skip because of the slow start, but by episode ~6, it becomes absolutely engrossing. Don’t give up on it!

Crash Landing on You

Towards the end, it dawned on me that there is a very strong parallel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our protagonist stumbles upon a precious and must protect it from an all-seeing entity that seeks the power of the precious. He must embark on a dangerous journey to deliver the precious to its origins. He sets off with a fellowship out of his cozy village through various adventures and dangerous mobs. He becomes enamored with the precious and has a hard time letting go, even though he knows he must. Eventually, he returns to his village, but has been changed by this journey and must leave the Shire.

There are a few scenes where even the music is reminiscent of the LotR.

This show is the epitome of a guilty pleasure that just feels so good. The plot is largely predictable and it has the typical tropes in heaps upon heaps — but it’s so charming, well shot, the actors deliver good performances, and it’s just a fun story. You can turn your brain off and just enjoy it. It is surely a “typical” K-drama rom-com, but done so well that it feels elevated somehow. That the two leads ended up getting married in real life afterwards is a sign of just how great their on-screen chemistry was in this show.

My Liberation Notes

From the same writer as My Mister, this show carries many of the same core themes of loving oneself. The start is just as slow with characters that feel just as apathetic and seemingly stuck in their own insecurities, but each finds acceptance along the way. If you liked My Mister, you’ll like this.

Lovestruck in the City

Sometimes, we put up a mask to escape from our own flaws. Sometimes, we put up masks to seek the attention and approval of others. What happens in those cases when we are seen for who we are beneath the mask? Is the mask a façade? Or are we both what we project and what we hide? Lovestruck in the City proposes that we are at once who we think we are, how others perceive us, and who we wish we could be. It is often only our selves that are so caught up in our own flaws and insecurities, that we can’t recognize these different perspectives of our identities. Kim Ji Won, who coincidentally also portrays a struggling graphic designer in My Liberation Notes, delivers a character with tremendous range and subtlety. Well-paced, relatively short episodes, and very easy to binge.

The Light in Your Eyes

An incredibly unique story that I was just blown away by. The ending is classic Shyamalan and just incredible once you get there. It features a topic matter and an elderly female lead that would be rare to see in Western media. This show should be watched twice because the second watching makes the story line and structure all the more amazing. I appreciated it even more on a second watching.

Run On

Another underrated show, but both my wife and I found the dialogue quite unique and the humor to be subtle but with an outsized impact. Finding our selves can be hard, especially so when so much of one’s identity is defined by others or by some external trait like beauty, wealth, or success. In every type of relationship, when expectations are set unilaterally, such misalignment can lead to disappointment, insecurity, and self-consciousness. Whether that’s a parent-child relationship, business partners, or lovers. Our egos can often make it difficult to manage such relationships because we fear failing to meet those expectations; we question whether we are good enough or worthy enough of such lofty expectations. Those doubts often lead us down a path that pushes us away from those that we need the most. Im Si-Wan’s character (Ki Seon-Gyeom) — with his naiveté and the social awareness of a toddler — provides a vehicle for the characters around him to explore what if we could let go of those fears?

Some reviewers called out the “effeminate” portrayal of the male lead by Im Si-Wan. Rather I’d say that his is a portrayal of masculinity without the toxicity where he’s able to support the hopes and dreams of those around him without the need to feed his own ego.

When the Camellia Bloom

Fantastic performances by both leads and handles a multitude of difficult topics. Picks up in episode 2 so give it a chance! For me, a very emotional ride reflecting on my own childhood experience raised in a single-parent, not-well-off household. This show honestly had no lulls; very consistent pacing that kept us hooked.

One Spring Night

Both leads in this show were charming and I loved how the supporting male lead’s character developed. About half ways through, this character that you started feeling bad for at the start slowly becomes someone that you loathe but in such a subtle way.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo

This show is extraordinary in how it addresses cognitive disabilities and those on the Autism spectrum. It deals with these topics with a sensitivity and in a way that would be rare to see in Western media. A fun watch with great performances by the cast. My wife, who deals with kids on the spectrum, felt that the depictions were realistic and nuanced.

Twenty Five Twenty One

My wife and I initially didn’t make it past the first episode; it felt like it was trying too hard. But as parents of an athlete, I think there were elements of this story line that we really connected with. Give it at least 3 episodes to pick up.

King the Land

While the topic matter is quite light, I think the story of the female lead working her way up through her own hard work and determination is a powerful message. Her desire to define her own terms of success and happiness touched a nerve with my wife and I as parents of two young girls. While the storyline and so on has a bit of “cotton candy” sweetness to it, the two leads are simply electrifying in their performance; one of the few shows where you truly feel the chemistry between them. Picks up in episode 2.

Behind Your Touch

A clever piece of writing by the same writer as The Light in Your Eyes with a similar Shyamalan-esque twist at the end. The first episode felt a bit too “slapstick”, but absolutely worth the ride. While not as satisfying at the end as The Light in Your Eyes as the end felt a bit less “polished”.

Black Dog

Slow paced, but very consistent from start to finish. For my wife, who works in a school, this show hit home in many ways.

King’s Affection

We watched this show after Extraordinary Attorney Woo and it was really amazing to see Park Eun Bin’s range from her character in Woo. I thought the plot device at the core of the show was really interesting, but felt a little let down by the end (perhaps unjustifiably).

Doom at Your Service

A show with an interesting premise at the core and the interlocking of the fate of the male and female leads. Strong performances by them, but some weak performances by the supporting cast.

See You in My 19th Life

Absolutely loved the premise and the excellent performance by Shin Hae Sun, but falls apart a bit by the middle of the series and let down a bit by the weaker supporting cast.

Crash Course in Romance

An interesting look into just how competitive the Korean education system is and how draining it can be for not only the students, but also the parents who navigate the system.

Destined with You

I can only conclude that my wife has a thing for Rowoon…