Anthony Kim may be the greatest of K-drama anti-heroes. The cold impresario at the center of the 2012 comedy King of Dramas doesn’t have a sense of humor himself, but he doesn’t need one. The Korean entertainment industry itself is funny. Even without the magnificent Anthony, this show would still be interesting for its behind-the-scenes look at “live shooting,” celebrity egos and product placement. It’s a wry satire, polished to a shine and peopled with memorable characters.
I debated whether to include King of Dramas on my list of favorites last month. I’d never re-watched it. But recently I set out to rewatch a few scenes, just to see Kim Myeong-Min in something less serious than Six Flying Dragons and Choi Siwon in something better than She’s So Pretty. And even though I’ve watched it before, King of Dramas kept me up late all over again. I hereby surrender to its genius and designate it an official favorite.
The president of Empire Productions Anthony Kim (Kim Myeong-Min, above) is a ruthless egotist, but he has a knack for pulling together the money and talent needed to make and sell K-dramas. He lives and dies by the audience numbers and prides himself on reliably manufacturing ratings over thirty percent.
He also embodies the central paradox of television: it takes money to tell a story. Money can’t be the only motivation for art. But neither can creativity. Writers need publishers or producers, if they want an audience. Accordingly, King of Dramas revolves around Anthony’s negotiations with a fledgling drama writer whose script he needs. It’s a story that gets deep into the uncomfortable relationship between money and art.
Unlike many 18-episode dramas, King of Dramas is not primarily a romance. This is about business. Anthony maneuvers to secure financing, get his show scheduled, hire actors, fight lawsuits and police investigations, and manage celebrity scandals. He discovers that not a single director in the country is willing to work with him, and even runs up against the yakuza.
It’s a Sisyphean task, and we come to admire Anthony in spite of ourselves. He’s a liar and cut-throat businessman who declares he’d sacrifice his own father to make a good drama. But he has a talent for outwitting his enemies even when the odds are undeniably against him. There’s also something refreshing in how little he cares whether anyone likes him.
This is also a tale about artistic obsession. Show business tales as varied as Singing in the Rain and Robert Altman’s acidic The Player have tended to portray producers as pure money men, uninterested in art—the producer as natural enemy to writers, directors and actors.
At the beginning of King of Dramas, Anthony is one of these money men. Yet after a dramatic fall from power and a string of failures, his insistence on staying in the entertainment business makes him look less like a calculating entrepreneur and more like a crazy artist. He’s willing to humiliate himself and risk his safety—even his life—just to put on a show. He remains a calculating man. But his calculations seem to include things besides money and power, whether or not he realizes it.
Anthony has a great foil in Lee Go-Eun (Jung Ryeo-Won, of My Name is Kim Samsoon, above). When Anthony buys Morning in Gyeongseong, the drama about the Japanese occupation that she’s been working on for six years, it’s just the beginning of her labors. Fortunately she’s a tough fighter, because she has to fight with everyone: with Anthony for creative control, with a novelist accusing her of plagiarism, and with the drama’s star (Choi Siwon, below) over his lines. (The negotiations over his swimming scene are hilarious.)
Though writing is a notoriously difficult activity to dramatize, the constant production crises make Go-Eun’s education as interesting to watch as Anthony’s deal-making. Jung Ryeo-Won makes Go-Eun an appealing heroine, a smart woman who, though she’s new to the business, quickly learns to use Anthony’s own tricks against him.
King of Dramas mixes its comedy with a suspenseful business thriller. The first episode particularly stands out for its “live shoot” worst-case scenario. It’s midday, Anthony’s show is airing at 10 pm, and the director and actors haven’t finished filming the final scenes—in fact, the writer hasn’t even finished writing them yet. (Though it’s an outrageous situation, only a thin line separates this fiction from the kind of real-life snafus described in DramaBeans’ Why Do Dramas Do That?)
Oh, and Anthony needs to shoe-horn a product placement for orange juice into the hero’s death scene.
Within the next few minutes of crisis management, King of Dramas swiftly establishes Anthony’s unflappable intelligence and Lee Go-Eun’s likable combination of talent and naivete. By the end of the episode, we’re already on to the next plotline, a riff on Jerry McGuire that loses nothing in translation. The series continues to move briskly from cliffhanger to cliffhanger for much of its 18 episodes.
Though the show produces genuine laughs, it’s anchored by Kim Myeong-Min’s fine performance, which shows Anthony Kim’s fear and passion as well as his arrogance. With his deep-voiced gravitas, Kim Myeong-Min is an anomaly among Korean actors—an actor who appears more mature than he actually is. His absurd brilliantined hair, aristocratic clothing (those fur collars!) and commanding presence make him appear at least a generation older than writer Lee Go-Eun, if he’s not actually a time traveler from the nineteenth century.
He’s an actor you barely want to stop watching to read the subtitles. (In 2008, he won most of the acting awards in Korea playing an anti-hero conductor in the surprise hit Beethoven Virus.) Sometimes a tiny flick of Anthony’s eyes or mouth seems to show he’s developing a conscience in front of our eyes. At other times, he seems hopelessly, irredeemably flawed, a liar by constitution, a man who believes this world is hell—and doesn’t hesitate to make it worse for the rest of us.
King of Dramas incorporates a few elements of classic melodrama, but doesn’t rely on them. There’s a secondary character with a birth secret, a low-key love triangle, and a few accidents and medical crises. These plot-lines blend smoothly with the comedy, which is buoyed by Choi Siwon playing lead actor Kang Hyun-Min. With his polished public face and behind-the-scenes immaturity, Hyun-Min is a perfect send-up of a star. Because Choi Siwon is in real life a member of internationally famous K-pop group Super Junior, there’s an added level of humor in watching him demolish the image of the humble, hard-working K-celebrity.
Much as the series satirizes the clichés of Korean celebrity, it also rejects easy drama clichés about diverse characters pulling together to make a show. When Anthony’s production staff express loyalty to him, he ridicules them for being sentimental, then excuses himself. Anthony knows his genres, and he’s chosen to live action, not melodrama.
(Side note: Anthony and Go-Eun’s fictional series Morning in Gyeongseong faces challenges because the Japanese occupation noir doesn’t fit into established genres. It’s thus appropriate that King of Dramas itself doesn’t belong to any of the standard K-drama genres. This may be one reason the series didn’t do well commercially in genre conscious Korea.)
The narrative grows more reflective in later episodes. The first time I watched King of Dramas, I regretted that its break-neck pace slows down to normal speed in the third act. But on it watching again in 2015, I find the third act just as good. I also enjoy the ending more the second time around.
This final section features fewer scenes of Anthony triumphing over rivals. But it gives Anthony a chance to become a marginally better person. A few of the plot devices here feel heavy-handed, but the fine performances, brisk editing and lack of sentimentality keep things moving. The third act also delivers a romance that grows slowly and organically, with few of the common romance cliches, an unexpected pleasure.
If there’s a weakness to King of Dramas, it’s the reliance on narrative fake-outs and bombastic music. No event is too minor that it can’t be rendered a major point of suspense through clever editing and dramatic music.
This manufactured suspense makes bureaucratic events like personnel announcements seem more exciting, but it calls our attention insistently to the fact that we’re watching a K-drama. The most-repeated piece of music sounds suspiciously like that fanfare from Requiem for a Dream that Hollywood has used for dozens of movie previews. It’s the definition of dramatic excess.
Yet because this is self-consciously a show about making shows, I find the musical overkill strangely endearing.
The dramatic tunes only play for Anthony’s big moments (Lee Go-Eun gets a sweet indie song as her theme) and they fit the personality of a man who describes business as warfare. You get the feeling this is the gleefully bombastic music playing in Anthony’s head when he goes to work in the morning. It reminds me that I’m watching a drama, but it also reminds me that I love watching dramas. This is a satire, but it’s a satire that’s full of affection for K-drama campiness.
Appropriately for a smart series about the pressures of commerce, King of Dramas didn’t do well in the Korean ratings game. When it aired in November and December 2012, it was consistently behind the other dramas in its time slot, one of which was the poetically titled costume drama Horse Doctor (from the writer of 2015’s Hwajung). If it made a mark, it was with the international fans at DramaBeans, where “Anthony-esque” occasionally appears as an adjective to describe production shenanigans.
Although King of Dramas has special appeal for drama fans, it’s also potentially fun for international viewers new to K-dramas. The business setting and the fast pace will feel familiar to Americans, and the narrative doesn’t require familiarity with Korean culture. The first 30 minutes of episode one are a perfect window into the K-drama industry, an excellent primer for “television tourists” reluctant to leave HBO for longer than an episode or two.
The marriage of art and commerce is uneasy, but keeping them in tension can make for great television. King of Dramas is smart story-telling with a heart. If it didn’t do as well as Horse Doctor in Korea, that doesn’t mean it can’t become a viral hit overseas someday, right?
Until that happens, you’ll be able to recognize ardent K-drama fans. They’re the ones with the bumper stickers saying “What would Anthony do?” ♥
Reasons to Watch:
- Memorable characters, especially from Anthony Kim and Choi Siwon
- A fast-paced look at the drama industry from the inside
- Wry jokes that don’t overstay their welcome and blend smoothly with business suspense
- Lots of dramatic music and Anthonyesque editing tricks
Reasons to Skip:
- The villain played by Jeong Man-Shik is one-dimensional and his vendetta against Anthony is simply a narrative device to get the action going
- Romance devotees will find some smart grown-up romance here, but it’s overshadowed by business
- The melodramatic plot elements lack the originality of the business narrative
- Lots of dramatic music and Anthonyesque editing tricks
Availability: At Viki and DramaFever/Hulu. Because of the fast dialogue, reading the subtitles is easier at DramaFever or Hulu, where they edit for conciseness.
Alternate titles: Lord of Dramas