Why I’m Watching Korean Television

My Subtitled Love Affair with Korean TV

I’m a white woman in America who loves K-dramas.

lie to me kdrama cola kiss yoon eun hye kang ji hwanDisclaimer: I don’t love all of them. Some of them I love to hate. (How else can I explain the crack-like power of Boys over Flowers?) But foreign television entertains and intrigues me, while I find American television increasingly bleak.

When Netflix first recommended a few subtitled shows from East Asia, I was a little confused. My queue was mostly filled with old Hollywood black and white movies—a few screwball comedies, a couple of Hitchcock melodramas from the thirties. I wasn’t aware of having any interest in East Asian television. What had the Netflix algorithm noticed about me? Did something in my viewing habits suggest I wasn’t American enough? Was Netflix trying to get rid of me? Or was my personality so complex that the Netflix computer had made a mistake?

I shouldn’t have scoffed. The computer figured out I was dissatisfied with American television before I even knew it myself. That was three years ago. Since then I’ve watched hundreds of hours of Japanese and Korean television.

Since Korean shows are easy to watch on the Internet, there’s only one downside to falling in love with subtitles. It’s hard to find other viewers for heated argument over what happened on last night’s episode. Even though millions of people around the world watch K-dramas with English subtitles, mainstream English-language media avoids them. The reviews and commentary I want to read haven’t been written yet or are works in progress.

To give an idea how many people watch subtitled shows, the audience for K-drama streaming site Drama Fever is roughly the same size as the first season audience for Emmy-winners like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.” (That’s a conservative estimate from an outside web analytics group.) We don’t know what shows on Drama Fever have the largest audiences, but the number of visitors does suggest rising acceptance of subtitled television.

Three things that keep me tuning in

You Gotta Have Heart

shut up flower boy band episode 16 sung joon l kim myung soo yoo min kyu kim min suk lee hyun jaeKorean shows are emotional. They can tell smart stories too, but they really want to touch your heart. Like a black-and-white Frank Capra movie, a K-drama wants you to cry so hard that you’ll have to wring out your handkerchief. And K-drama characters actually own handkerchiefs.

The first K-drama I watched was a shock, but a pleasant shock. Despite the high-tech smart phones every character carried, the story was kind of old-fashioned. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Finally I realized what was different: K-drama isn’t afraid to be cheesy.

pride and prejudice episode 6 kang soo's post-prison tofu heartWe all have our own individual “squirm point”—the amount of emotion we can watch before we cringe or roll our eyes. American culture used to produce plenty of schlock. Broadway musicals! Spielberg movies! James Cameron’s “Titanic”! Popular directors aren’t afraid of heartfelt emotions, even though they risk touching the squirm point. It’s a risk worth taking if you want people to say your story has heart.

Today’s best American shows avoid sentimentality with the efficiency of a professional slaughterhouse worker. Unsympathetic characters offer us intellectual pleasures, but not a lot of laughs or smiles. And some of our shows are so bleak I’d rather tune in to a PBS special about the Syrian refugee crisis.

The best K-dramas offer a few characters we might want to cheer on to success. Just as the best American shows require us to watch the darkest side of humanity by throwing the spotlight on violent crimes and murder, a good Korean show sometimes requires us to watch the corniest side of humanity. Romantic couples hold hands in public. Friends embrace. Characters sacrifice everything for the people they love, sometimes for really silly reasons.

I can still appreciate a smart American drama about anti-heroes. But I also like the change of pace I get from K-dramas. I arm myself ahead of time with crackers, in case I run into cheese.

The Never-ending Story

What can we say about life in a modern city that hasn’t already been said?

More to the point, what can we say about life in general that hasn’t already been said?

Hyun Bin (left) and Kim Sun Ah in "My Lovely Samsoon" (2005)The writers of K-dramas re-use story elements we’ve seen before, and find ways to make them look new. I’ve learned things from them about genre, tone, character and how to structure a long story with multiple characters and plotlines. In length and scope, the narratives resemble nineteenth-century novels—the thick ones by Anthony Trollope or Charles Dickens that you take with you on a sledge journey to the South Pole, because you know they will take a long, long time to read.

Not coincidentally, K-dramas also draw on the finest story formulas of the old classics. It’s all here: missing children, poor orphans, mysterious benefactors, self-sacrifice, sudden changes in fortune and legal battles to rival Dickens’ Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

These stories don’t revolve around the question, “What will happen?” Depending on the formula, we can often guess what will happen. (Spoiler alert: if it’s a romantic comedy, the guy will probably get the girl.)

Instead, the stories are propelled by the question, “How will it happen?” Boy meets girl is the starting point for the majority of K-dramas, but how will they meet? A good writer, director and cast can breathe life into storylines that were already ancient clichés back when Dickens used them. I’m fascinated with how this freshness is possible. What makes audiences suspend disbelief and approach an old story like it’s new?

I’m a professional writer now, but for years I didn’t write enough, partly because I wanted to write stories that were 100% original. I thought the only way to tell a good tale was to invent something completely new. But years of reading and studying have left me aware that there aren’t any completely new stories. And I realize too that I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If well-told, a familiar story can give us a new way of looking at the world, even if we recognize its basic structure.

Since Robert Warshow wrote his famous essays about gangster movies and Westerns in the nineteen-fifties, film scholars have acknowledged that popular entertainment can be as interesting as loftier, prize-winning stuff. Popular movies and shows succeed or fail based on their story-telling. Can they convince the audience to follow an intricate plotline through sixteen or twenty episodes?

Ventures Abroad

In my twenties I traveled as much as possible, but I haven’t had a chance to visit East Asia yet. Watching a Korean show is an expedition to another country, where I don’t know anyone and no one knows me. I don’t speak the language. (Though I’ve started studying it in fits and starts.) I don’t know what behavior is normal and what’s unusual. The food looks weird and they eat rice for breakfast.

boys over flowers episode 14 jun pyo dumps jan di on bridgeBut after watching a lot of South Korean television, the culture looks increasingly homey. Though watching television isn’t much of an immersion, it still gives me a faint experience of a distant place. Those living rooms where everyone sits on the floor around a low table look more comfortable to me now.

Like living abroad, “watching abroad” is a window into the ways in which humans are similar and different. When I was living in a poor, underdeveloped country almost twenty years ago, I sometimes struggled to find things in common with neighbors. I believed people all share some things in common. But the question is, what things? What are those things we all have in common? They weren’t obvious to me at first.

The similarities are in the questions we ask about life, not necessarily in the answers themselves. Korean shows ask questions I recognize as my own: how should men and women get along? What makes a happy family? The answers to the questions are sometimes less recognizable. A Korean rom-com would probably not be a good source of dating advice.

And the surface differences in style between American and Korean television are large. Though they have familiar story elements, Korean shows often have unfamiliar aesthetics. From the perspective of a strict realist, a K-drama is overwrought. It’s melodrama.

But realism isn’t the only aesthetic for television or movies, though it’s the most popular one on American television. I’d argue Korean shows should be considered expressionist. The images on the screen aren’t trying to mimic physical reality, but emotional reality. They’re designed for viewers to experience the characters’ emotions. When a K-drama is melodramatic, it isn’t because it aimed for realism and failed. Producers and directors are trying to depict how life feels, not how life looks. In watching Korean television, I get out of my preconception that movies and TV “should” always be realist.

Watching subtitled television isn’t an adventure, but it is a kind of venturing forth. Television may be the closest I’ll get to Korea. And following K-dramas also brings me closer to K-drama fans around the world. Even if I were wealthy, I’d never have time to visit all the countries where K-drama fans can be found: Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, India, Egypt. The latest HBO hits don’t give me that same sense of belonging to a global community.

Entertainment

And I really just love good stories. I love a twisting narrative where a dozen characters follow each other through astonishing coincidences and twists of fate.

On the most basic level, K-dramas are escapist entertainment. My professional areas of expertise are cheerful subjects: Middle Eastern history and mental illness. After a day of translating Arabic protest poems or writing web-pages about schizophrenia, a K-drama hits the spot. Stories are an escape to a world that makes more sense.

Or at least a world that makes sense to the viewer. The characters are caught up in fears and secrets, but as viewers we get to see everything. The order is apparent from our vantage point. For an hour or two, we know everything. ♥