I’m a self-professed fangirl of the television exports from South Korea. Puzzled? If you’re just coming into the conversation then bone up on the Hallyu wave by reading my primer here. If you’re already in on the power of k-dramas then follow me as we explore the many varied delights of K-Drama-Land.
Rarely are we in the forefront of new trends (luckily!) By the time we join the fangirl ranks we happily have many choices to love on. The problem arises then, whenever trying something new, that we may become overwhelmed by the sheer volume we can choose from. And as we know not everything is made equal, especially when an up and coming trend is becoming more and more popular. Like with Korean Dramas.
It really helps when said new love can be broken down into manageable sections. When those sections are labeled with details you can easily relate to, more or less, depending on your personal likes and dislikes. It makes choosing your foray into K-Drama-Land one with better than average odds of you enjoying it. So wade in and feel the drama-fever for yourself…
Daily vs. Trendy
First I want to clarify that there are two kinds of dramas: daily and trendy. In spite of the rather simple-minded names it boils down to two different and separate demographics.
As you can guess Trendy dramas are well, trendy and aimed at a younger audience. Trendy dramas are 16 to 20 episodes long and are exclusively the type of k-dramas I watch. They feature contemporary issues of society and tend to focus around some area of work milieus like restaurants, chaebols, the Blue House (S. Korean government) and pop stardom. Despite their categorization into specific genres there are themes of humor, romance and mystery in most trendy dramas. When I talk of k-dramas, trendy dramas are what is general being discussed.
A kind of dramatic sitcom, daily dramas are only 30 minutes and run during prime-time Monday through Friday, but are written in a telanovella format. I’ve never actual seen one though I’ve read about some of my favorite South Korean Actors having parts in them. These are the bread and butter television shows for mainstream South Korea and predominately an older audience watches them. They tend to cap at 200 episodes, so much longer running than the trendy dramas, but still with a defined beginning, middle and end. It’s on my to do watch one, with 90-100 episodes for the short dailies, it’ll be a while. They are worth looking into as the night dailies are major rating draws.
Whether you love the longer story arcs or the shorter more socially conscious dramas they can be further grouped by the overall focus within the stories themselves. I call these genres. (In the strictest sense of the word genre is perhaps more specific than I mean but it’s a better descriptor than type or category.)
Romance is actually a part of most dramas, whether daily or trendy. When that focus is on a group of women fighting for love at different points in their life these are called the romance genre. As a result they are predominately daily dramas. Depending on what site you watch episodes from trendy dramas will also be labeled romance. There is a segment of k-dramas that have no romance and these would be the dramas without a romance label.
Rom-Coms are a sub-genre of romance. Most rom-coms are trendy dramas. They focus on humor as a couple come to find love. Many of the best rom-com dramas will seem like total fluff at first but will go to unexpected depths the deeper you get into episodes.
Relationships are very important to South Koreans and as a result so is romance. It’s not that they are saying that you can’t be content without being in a relationship but they are saying that part of happiness comes from having a connection with another person that transcends time and space. These are the romantic relationships that make up an integral part of the k-drama landscape.
Melodramas have a bad name in America. Many times it’s used to describe campy, overly emotional fare. These dramas are all about characters and plot that heighten the emotions of the audience so it’s generally a good description. In America everyone is so worried about what the director, producer and actors want to say by making that particular movie or television show. With the k-drama melo format it’s all about the audience and the stories they want to experience. There are crisis of human proportions and struggles with emotional and physical hardships, there are illnesses and multi-generational family squabbles. Melodramas allow characters we can relate to work through their problems and come out the other side with bravery, stamina and toughness. Most of my favorite k-dramas are melo.
Makjang is a melodrama on crack (I have to interject that I’ve never been on crack but it’s how I imagine people on crack ‘think’ they are – crazy, hysterical and ridiculous but charming.) When a viewer mentions that a show is makjang they mean either the drama has an outrageous plotline that runs through the entire series or when a show has sudden plot points that are hard to believe in real life. A good makjang though is engrossing and so overwhelmingly good that you want to binge and binge…and binge. Yeah, that good. The less successful ones are total fluff, fun to watch but with eye rolling moments. Some of the extreme and absurd plot twists involve adultery, revenge, rape, birth secrets, fatal illnesses, and flirting with incest. Don’t discount these because they are some of the funnest dramas out there.
Melodrama gets a bad rap in America. They believe it’s old-fashioned and rather like strangling a cat – overboard. South Koreans though understand that to every person their own emotional and physical journey is compelling to them. By portraying a drama with emotion the audience is allowed to partake of the character’s journey in their own life. These characters are seen as friends of the viewers, people they’d really love to know in real life. This passion is woven throughout the entire world of the k-drama, knitting it together like the sky.
Sageuk is simply referring to dramas based on a historic time period of South Korea, i.e. a historical. For Americans it will be hard to believe but Sageuk historicals are king in the drama industry, almost like a comfort food for South Koreans. Major rating makers these easily draw in double-digit ratings with popular ones exceeding 30%. Hence, money is no object, so the costuming, sets and special extras are all high quality. As more time are spent developing these stories the plot is deeply complex with political undertones. Martial arts, sword fighting and horsemanship all make these more fun than your typical modern drama.
Fusion dramas are just that a fusion of historical and modern storylines. While filled to the brim with creativity these can be a horrid cheese fest or overwhelmingly fangirl favorites. Some are based in history with clearly modern themes and characters. Recently there have been a slew of shows with crossover between the past and the present. Those are really fun. Anything really goes with fusion dramas. They do tend toward the shorter running trendy dramas, rather than the rating juggernaut Sageuks. The costumes and martial arts really add fun and whimsy to the modern love story mixed with a dash of political intrigue.
So many South Koreans watch Sageuk because they’ve grown up with them. Their history is a part of their identity and thus a place they return to again and again. Whether it’s because they want something safe to watch or want to revisit a familiar time, it’s all about preserving their culture. Fusion dramas take the serious and historic and turn it on its ear, putting it in a modern context that pulls from all parts of K-Drama-Land. To Koreans, where they come from is important, something Americans are forgetting about with their own land and culture.
Procedurals/Medical or Crime
Procedurals are exactly what you think. Based upon medical or criminal situations they have cases that a team solves each episode. For Americans this is perhaps the best gateway drama for those who already love such procedural fare. They can be fun to watch because they are deeply character driven and yet you still get this sense of the Korean culture and ways. Due to this focus you can still get caught up in Korean Actor love and in this way catch the Hallyu wave bug.
Both their law enforcement and medical ways are different from ours so it’s an interesting lesson in that if you are familiar with American practices. For the same reason these are viewer favorites in America is why Koreans love them as well. This is perhaps one of only a select few ways you’ll see a second season of a drama from Korea. They routinely bring back a team who captures the ratings consistently #1 in their time slot. You really see the effect American television has had on the Asian consciousness with this pitstop in K-Drama-Land.
As a self-professed fangirl of the television exports from South Korea, I can highly recommend trying one of these genres. There is something for everyone, old and young, traditional or modern. That’s the beauty of K-Drama-Land despite being centered in Korea their world is populated with rich plot lines and powerful characters full of love, history and drama. Catch the drama-fever and partake of one of the many varied delights to be found in K-Drama-Land!