Korean Drama 101: Beginner’s Guide

128pixel new K optimizedEverything you ever wanted to know about K-dramas but were afraid to ask your Coffee-Prince-addicted best friend/daughter/wife/lover/high-school teacher….

Get your global cultural literacy right here!

K-Drama Basics

What’s a K-drama?

Why do non-Koreans watch K-dramas?

Is it annoying to read subtitles?

What’s the best way to watch subtitled K-dramas?

Technical Questions

Why does my computer keep pausing and buffering?

I’m trying to watch a show but I get a message saying it “isn’t licensed for viewing in my region.” Help!

Language and Cultural Stuff

How do I know the subtitles are right? Sometimes the characters talk for a long time, but the subtitle is three words long. Are they leaving stuff out?

What do the Korean words mean?

The first episode isn’t about what I thought. If it’s a show about a coffee house, where’s the coffee house?

This show on Netflix looks interesting, but when I google it, I get a different show with the same poster. Who do I trust?

Advanced K-Drama Mysteries

Where’s season two of this awesome K-drama?

Then how do I find another drama with this star?

I looked up my favorite star and he hasn’t made any shows in 18 months. What’s wrong? Why aren’t they hiring him?

Do people in Korea only have one sports drink or one model of cell phone?

Is Korea really like this?

This was supposed to be a romance. Are they ever going to kiss?



What’s a K-drama?

A scripted television serial made in Korea. Watched not only in South Korea, but also by non-Korean audiences all over the world via dubbing and subtitles. Through licensing agreements, roughly half the population of the world has access to K-dramas on their television airwaves.

The shows are particularly popular in Eastern and Southern Asia (sparking a famous fried chicken craze in China in 2014, for instance), but also have millions of non-Asian viewers in the United States, mostly young women, according to AdWeek.

Business journalists sometimes describe K-dramas with vague terms like “melodramatic” and “formulaic,” but they can be more accurately characterized as “expressionist” and “non-Aristotelian.

-marriage-not-dating-marriage-not-dating-poster medium compressedWhy do non-Koreans watch K-dramas?

For the same reason we watch any shows. If you’re used to American television, there are a few appealing differences about Korean shows:

  1. Korean shows come to a definite ending after a pre-determined number of episodes, usually 16 or 20, sometimes as many as 50 in the case of weekend family dramas.
  2. K-dramas often concern topics like romance or family, which don’t get much airtime on American television. The romance is focused on emotional growth rather than sex (this does not, to the delight of fans, preclude the occasional good kiss scene).
  3. Korean TV depict humanity’s good points as well as bad. Even when K-dramas take on sad or serious topics (and they usually do: see K-drama angst), they include characters we can root for.

It’s worth noting that in the decade since My Lovely Samsoon (2005), K-drama production values have shot up (coincidentally, this was roughly the same decade that Samsung and Hyundai became reliable brands).

Some people find it hard to believe born-in-the-USA Americans would enjoy foreign-language shows, even the best foreign-language shows. This has led industry observers, critics (and even, sometimes, fans themselves) to dismiss the work coming out of Korea. This is a pity. It doesn’t help that the shows mentioned in leading American media are often the mediocre ones.

I’ve written more about the K-dramas worth watching in a few places:

Why I’m Watching Korean Television (here at K-Drama Today)

Subtitled Love Affairs: Why Millions of Americans are Watching Korean Television (at the Hooded Utilitarian)

Why Do So Many American Feminists Love Sexist Korean TV Dramas?  (at Ravishly)

City_Hunter_posterIs it annoying to read subtitles?

Yes, if you’re sitting too far from the screen to read them. This is seriously a problem for people in my mother’s generation, when television screens were small and the entire family gathered around to watch. Watching subtitles used to be a major pain. As a result, I still can’t convince my mom to give subtitles a try.

But subs are a lot less annoying today, with ludicrously large television screens taking over the world—and with many of us watching “television” on computers, tablets or mobile phones. One downside to subtitles is you can’t do your homework or clean the house while watching, but the lack of distractions might mean you’re drawn more deeply into the story. I find reading subtitles more immersive. (Subtitles also make it possible to overlook dialogue that might be awkward or bad in Korean. This is a noted phenomenon.)

If this is true for you, beware. Many college students—and other people with jobs that require self-motivation—have discovered the addictive qualities of K-dramas. Next thing you know, it’s 5 a.m., the sun is rising and you’re thinking, “Just one more episode!” (DramaBeans has published some great stories of K-drama addiction, including a woman watching her latest K-drama addiction in the delivery room while giving birth—she gave her new baby the middle name Samsoon—and a girl who broke up with her boyfriend because he misunderstood the nature of her obsession.)

my love from another star poster compressedWhat’s the best way to watch subtitled K-dramas?

Roughly half the world’s population has access to K-dramas on their television airwaves, but web streaming is an increasingly popular way to watch around the world.

In the United States, where I’m based, the most common way to watch is on the web. (Legend tells of one American librarian who ordered DVDs of the best K-dramas for her branch library, but not many of us are lucky enough to live in her town.)

Viewers in the US have access via licensed commercial sites that include Netflix, Hulu, DramaFever, Viki and Soompi (Soompi’s TV operation, bought from Crunchyroll in 2014, folded quietly in late August 2015).

Each of these sites has advantages and disadvantages and most people simply use whatever’s most convenient. Netflix has a small collection of well-known shows from past years, while Hulu, DramaFever and Viki offer currently airing shows as well as oldies. Hulu and DramaFever are part of the same parent company, and thus offer the same K-drama collection.

One caveat: licensing battles mean that certain popular shows may only be available on one site. This is an increasingly common trend in 2015, with many shows on Viki and DramaFever labeled “exclusive.”

What about “free” sites? Until streaming video became common, fans often downloaded K-dramas over BitTorrent and other services. It was also possible to watch fan-subtitled K-dramas without commercials at websites that operated in a legal gray area. Now, however, we have legal ways to watch K-dramas. If you want actors, writers and directors to keep making good K-dramas, I encourage using the licensed sites—and, yes, suffering commercials or paying for premium—rather than going to “pirate” sites.

But if you must mooch, the sites are easy to find with a quick search. In many countries, where broadcast networks own the rights to shows or licensed sites offer smaller video collections than in the United States, viewers may find unlicensed sites provide their only access to many shows.

Technical Questions

english pride and prejudice poster 4webWhy does my computer keep pausing and buffering?

K-dramas sometimes tax even powerful computers. Too much excitement, perhaps?

First, follow the suggestions on the website you’re using. Sometimes simply turning off the high def will fix the problem.

After I watched streaming K-dramas for awhile, though, I noticed more and more speed problems. Eventually, I tested my internet speed and discovered my connection was very slow. Like many Americans, I had about 1 Mb per second—a speed that would be considered barbaric and totally unacceptable in South Korea.

Once I found a deal on cable internet and got an updated modem, I haven’t had any trouble. I now get 30 Mbp/s, and it works great for HD streaming. (Update: until Comcast started throttling down my internet speed. What a pain.)

You can test your speed with Ookla Speedtest for free in less than a minute. Do this before you start cursing the Viki or DramaFever websites for slow service or bad technology. If you’re operating at 1 Mbp/s, you’ll have occasional problems streaming videos.

Other possibilities: try a different internet browser. Chrome, Firefox, IE and others each have their own quirks. (In fact, I’ve heard sometimes on Viki you’ll see slightly different versions of the subtitles depending on your browser. This makes no sense, but there you have it.)

If none of the above help, your connection may be suffering from an outdated modem, an older browser, or a computer cluttered up with old data, as reported in this detailed article for website editors. Check out their suggested fixes.

IHearYourVoice_english poster medwebI’m trying to watch a show but I get a message saying it “isn’t licensed for viewing in my region.” Help!

Next to living in the Dial-Up Zone, this is the K-drama viewer’s worst nightmare. Maybe the Korean network is currently negotiating with video-streaming sites. Or maybe someone already owns the video rights, but they agreed to restrict viewing to a certain timeframe or certain continent.

When something is licensed, we should support the cast and creators by watching it on a site that’s showing it legally. But if no one has the rights, what can we do?

You can wait. Or you can experiment with a virtual private network (VPN) to hide what country you’re in. The simplest way to use VPN technology is to install an add-on in your browser.

Add-ons like Zenmate and Hola allow you to send your browser traffic through a server in another country. Typically they offer a choice of servers in several different countries such as the U.K., Germany and the U.S. (I confess to having watched the live BBC coverage of the Sochi Olympics this way. I offer my apologies to the British Inland Revenue Service. Please let me know how I can remit the television tax.)

Video-streaming websites do know about the VPN trick, though. They often block traffic from known VPN servers. (The BBC blocked Hola one week into the Sochi Olympics. Picture me yelling at the screen, “No! I need my curling! Give me the BBC! Watching our superficial American Olympic coverage will cause me to hate America!” Luckily I found a new add-on the Brits didn’t know about yet. Again, my apologies to the Inland Revenue Service.)

For that reason, I can’t recommend specific add-ons. The best add-on is whichever one will work for you at this moment.

Look around the web, read reviews of the top three add-ons available at the moment, then experiment and find which one works for you. And expect to change add-ons from time to time. The one that works now might not work next month—and then it might start working again six months from now.

If you’re confident with computers, a more complicated but sturdy solution is to manually set up a VPN—a computer cloaking device!—but you should know what you’re doing.

Language and Cultural Stuff

protect the boss english poster image optHow do I know the subtitles are right? Sometimes the characters talk for a long time, but the subtitle is three words long. Are they leaving stuff out?

Subtitling is like translating poetry—it’s impossible to convey everything. Subtitles are reliable at delivering the gist. But they have a harder time capturing the speaker’s tone and style of speech. As viewers, we learn a ton about characters from word choice and accent—and some of it gets lost in translation.

But the toughest thing about subtitling—the part that’s like poetry—is that everything has to fit into small units that we can read quickly.

If a twenty-word sentence is subtitled with three words, it could mean a couple things. It could mean that the English language really has three exact words that express what took 20 Korean words to say. The other possibility is that the subtitler condensed the speech so we could read it quickly.

Subtitles fail if they’re too long or disappear too quickly. They succeed if they’re short and straightforward. I have noticed that different subtitling teams produce subtitles with similar meanings, which makes me confident we’re getting the gist.

At the same time, I’m know I’m missing nuances. And I know that certain jokes are lost in translation. Sometimes the subtitlers don’t even notice there’s a joke they could translate! I only discover the stuff I’ve missed when I read commentary by a native speaker, like Javabeans’s commentary at Dramabeans.

It’s very rare for me to watch a subtitled scene and think that the translation missed something. I’ve had this experience with fewer than a dozen scenes in the hundreds of hours of K-dramas I’ve watched.

But when this does happen—when I have a weird feeling like a scene didn’t quite make sense—it’s typically because of a flaw in the subtitles. A good example of this occurred in the first episode of Kill Me, Heal Me. Another show where the dialogue was challenging was the legal drama Pride and Prejudice. I often had to check two versions of the subtitles to understand the subtle points in the dialogue, like a few conversations in the final episode.

Luckily, many shows are now subtitled by two or more different companies. Watching the same scene through a different video-streaming site often answers my questions.

Healer_english poster 4webWhat do the Korean words mean?

If you’re watching an older show subtitled by one of the fan subtitling groups of yore, the subtitles may include a few Korean words that don’t have English equivalents.

This drove me nuts when I first started watching K-dramas, but now I can understand why some translation groups leave those words there. These words tell us a lot about how the characters feel about each other.

The ones that appear most often are the terms of respect hyung, noona, unni and oppa.

Hyung is how a younger brother respectfully addresses his older brother. Noona is how he addresses his older sister. Unni is how a woman addresses her older sister. And a woman calls an older brother oppa.

Any of these terms can also be used for a friend who is a few years older—these words signify closeness and trust. Oppa has two additional meanings: an older male sweetheart, or simply a crush that one adores from a distance (a pop idol, perhaps).

In 2010, Dramabeans published two great articles about the words oppa and noona. Note, however, that since 2010, the connotations of noona have been changing rapidly in K-dramas. The word now occasionally appears within romantic relationships, for instance in the older woman/younger man pairing in The Lover.

Koreans don’t have a corresponding special term of address for younger siblings, who are dongsaengs and are addressed by name.

The other Korean term of respect that may appear sometimes is sunbae, a term for an older colleague at school or work. A hoobae is the opposite: a younger colleague.

Sometimes what’s more confusing than the vocabulary in the subtitles is the vocabulary that shows up in fan reviews and fan forums. It took me awhile to decipher the argot of K-drama fandom, because sometimes even the on-line “glossaries” are overly long and full of in-jokes. Luckily, Worth the Drama has a superb K-drama fan glossary, comprehensive and concise.

Lastly, you’ll see lots of words for good Korean foods!

Poster-the-1st-shop-of-coffee-prince 4webThe first episode isn’t about what I thought. If it’s a show about a coffee house, where’s the coffee house?

K-dramas don’t produce “pilot episodes” like American shows. Instead, a show is conceived as a whole, and a producer commits to giving the network a certain number of episodes (16 or 20 for many contemporary “mini-series” dramas). The plot develops over a certain number of episodes and comes to a definite conclusion.

The advantage of not having a pilot is that the action can develop from episode to episode. The first episode doesn’t determine everything to come.

The confusing thing about this—if you’re used to American television—is that the first episode often functions as a prologue. It may focus on the main character’s childhood or even the main character’s parents. Or maybe the main character spends the whole first episode on a different continent from Korea.

For this reason, it’s possible to feel “meh” about a show during the first episode—only to fall in love with it during the second episode.

This system also means that the first episode can be pretty rough compared to later episodes. Whereas an American pilot episode has been polished to a fine gloss, a K-drama’s first episode might have been filmed in a hurry with actors who were confirmed in the roles two weeks prior to air time (this worst case scenario plays out more often than you’d expect).

Even when production is going smoothly, the compressed shooting schedule of K-dramas doesn’t allow directors to linger on perfecting the first episode. The result is that a K-drama typically gets better as it goes along. Stars settle into their parts. The director and writer get into a rhythm.

If the first episode isn’t what you expected, wait for the second episode. They’ll get to the coffee house eventually.

faith english poster image dramafever medwebThis show on Netflix looks interesting, but when I google it, I get a different show with the same poster. Who do I trust?

One of the strangest things about K-dramas is their titles. What does “Shut Up Flower Boy Band” mean, anyway? Why did “Pride and Prejudice” steal a title from Jane Austen for a show about corruption in the twenty-first century justice system?

And how do TV executives remember the titles of their own shows when one network is simultaneously making “Endless Love,” “Passionate Love,” “Only Love,” and “It’s Okay, That’s Love”? (All part of SBS’s summer 2014 line-up!)

A Tale with Two Titles
A Tale with Two Titles

Some of the confusion comes from translation. “Flower boy” means a cute young man in Korean culture, while sounding to Americans like some kind of floral arranger. Many titles get several translations, such as 개인의 취향 (Gae-In’s Taste), which gets translated as both “Personal Taste” and “Personal Preference,” while the name Gae-In is dropped, perhaps because it doesn’t have a meaning to foreign ears. In Korean, the main character’s name serves as a pun, but how would you translate that into English?

To make things more confusing, Netflix liberally changes the titles of shows. 2012’s fantasy-medical-romance-costume-drama “Faith” became “The Great Doctor,” a bland title easily confused with 2013 hit “Good Doctor.” And “Shut Up Flower Boy Band” became “Shut Up and Let’s Go,” which makes more sense to American ears, but does lack a certain zip.

When you look for cast information at Asian Wiki or Drama Wiki, you may find shows listed under any one of a dozen possible titles. And most of the titles will sound boring translated into English. (If “Glee” was a K-drama, I guarantee it would be called “High School Harmonic Music Club.”)

If Google didn’t have clever algorithms, it would be almost impossible to find information on these shows.

On the other hand, it’s kind of charming that your friends worry about your sanity when you say you’re watching a show called “Rooftop Prince” or “Oh My Ghostess.”

Assume that every show has a few variant titles until proven otherwise. In my reviews, I try to give as many alternate names as possible.

Advanced K-Drama Mysteries

Where’s season two of this awesome K-drama?

Season two exists only in your imagination.

Arguably, one of the best things about K-dramas is that they don’t have second seasons. The self-contained shows have definite endings. Shows don’t drag on season after season long after they’ve “jumped the shark.”

But this means that no matter how Made of Win a show is, no one will resurrect it to do the whole thing over again. Occasionally, a network will make a sequel to a popular series, but typically it will be a “reboot” with an entirely new cast rather than an American-style second season. For example, 2009 action thriller “IRIS” was followed by 2013 “IRIS 2” with “a new generation” of characters. And “I Need Romance” 1, 2 and 3 share a general style and tone, not characters or cast.

The sole exception to this rule is Vampire Prosecutor and Vampire Prosecutor 2, from cable channel OCN. This is fortunate: no one in the world could play the vampire prosecutor except Yeon Jeong-Hun. Every justice system needs a vampire prosecutor played by Yeon Jeong-Hun.

vampire prosecutor english poster 4webThen how do I find another drama with this star?

Two good databases in English: Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki.

These databases also include information on the writers and directors of K-dramas. One way to find great K-dramas is to track down the shows by writers you enjoy. Kim Eun-Sook and the Hong Sisters are the most famous K-drama writers, but they aren’t the only writers with a distinctive style and approach to characters.

As fictional drama impresario Anthony Kim says in King of Dramas, “dramas are a writers’ game.” Directors make a difference as well, but even the best director can’t make up for a script with bland characters. Get to know the names of your favorite writers as well as your favorite stars.

I looked up my favorite star and he hasn’t made any shows in 18 months. What’s wrong? Why aren’t they hiring him?

If he’s dead (God forbid!), Google will tell you. But more likely, he’s in the armed forces. Korean males have to enlist before their thirtieth birthday for roughly two years of compulsory military service. This means that a lot of good actors have two-year career gaps. If you can’t bear to see your favorite head off to the army, become a fan of one of these guys.

samsung cellphones heirs med webDo people in Korea only have one sports drink or one model of cell phone?

How goofy is it when every single character carries the same cell phone? Chalk this up to the relentless demands of commerce and K-drama trendiness. Sometimes the repetition is the result of product placement. If the characters drink the same canned beverage repeatedly—or hang out exclusively at a certain coffee chain—blame product placement. Product placement can also cause characters to have mysterious recurring conversations about their humidifier or their favorite brand of yogurt. If these chats seem random, it’s because they are.

But alternatively, sometimes everyone has the same phone because the producers wanted to show off the latest gadgets. If everyone has the same Samsung phone, but the Samsung logo is edited out, it’s not product placement per se. It’s just a techy form of Korean nationalism. And maybe the producers got a discount by ordering in bulk?

english-heirs-poster 4 webIs Korea really like this?

Yes and no. I’ve never been to Korea. But common sense says that real Korea is like television Korea in the same way that a real 1960s British police box is like the TARDIS on “Dr. Who.” Superficially, the size and shape is the same. But everything else is subject to the transformational pressures of fiction.

K-dramas give a really fun introduction to Korean life and culture. For instance, I didn’t know that hi-tech Seoul only recently got tap water that’s safe to drink, but I learned from watching K-drama characters guzzle down bottled water.

But television writers and directors aren’t trying to give a comprehensive picture either. And sometimes they may be thinking about overseas audiences when they choose what images of Korea to show. These shows are fantasies, after all.

This won’t surprise you if you’re an American who has watched American TV. We export highly fictionalized images. My life when I was a twenty-something woman in New York never looked like “Sex and the City,” even though “Sex and the City” was being filmed at the time. The background was the same—there’s Union Square!—but my friends and I spent a lot more time talking about our jobs and the price of rent than about overpriced fashion or one-night stands.

If you find yourself watching a crazy plot and wondering, “Is Korea really like this?”, remember that if you think something’s crazy, someone in Korea probably thinks it is too. And if you get angry when K-dramas show conservative attitudes about the roles of men and women, there are probably people in Korea getting angry too. In fact, TV shows get more viewers if they reflect the real tensions in society.

Think of a K-drama as a visit to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, where everyone argues about politics over the turkey. Just because they’re family doesn’t mean they all agree. The Korean national family includes a variety of attitudes and kinds of people. Which makes for some fun turkey dinners.

Some great writing about changing gender roles in South Korea can be found over at the Grand Narrative. Another amazing resource for information about Korean daily life and beliefs is Ask a Korean, which is entertaining reading even if you don’t have a particular question in mind. The “Popular Questions” page addresses everything from the popularity of plastic surgery in Seoul to the long history of hatred between the Koreans and Japanese—useful stuff to know.

mylovefromthestar_ending kiss mediumweb

This was supposed to be a romance. Are they ever going to kiss?

Probably. Romance in K-dramas focuses on the emotional and social narrative. And Korean society, like much of the world outside of Europe and the US, only recently transitioned from arranged marriages to dating and individual choice. The upshot: these are Jane Austen novels, not bodice rippers.

Ironically, though K-dramas are relatively chaste, they do sometimes deliver intensely romantic scenes. The kiss is a big moment, so be patient. ♥