Good morning! There’s nothing I’m excited about in currently airing shows, so I’m catching up on old stuff: watching King of High School Savvy for the first time (absurd but, boy, does it make me smile) and working on my Deep Thoughts about how to explain K-dramas to the non-fan crowd. Here are some of the Deep Thoughts, and I’d love to hear what you think.
Now that K-dramas are a huge global business, American journalists occasionally have to write about them. And anytime K-dramas are mentioned in the American media, they are reduced to two words: “formulaic” and “melodramatic.”
The problem with these words is that they also describe many American and British television shows. What are police procedurals like CSI, if not formulaic? And isn’t part of the appeal of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones that they contain intense drama about dysfunctional relationships (one of the many definitions of melodrama)?
Perhaps when American journalists use the words formulaic and melodramatic, they want to imply something more than a certain kind of narrative. They want to say that K-dramas are just plain bad, often without knowing much about them.
Unfortunately, this kind of coverage has an impact. A year ago, when North Korea executed several high officials for watching smuggled K-dramas, the reader responses on one high-profile news site were overwhelmingly contemptuous—of the victims. As if it’s illogical to risk your life for a good cliffhanger when you’re living in a totalitarian society. I wonder, would the same people be equally snide about the imprisonment of Soviet Russians or modern-day Iranians for listening to banned American pop music?
(Admittedly, the article implies the victims were watching Dr. Stranger—definitely not worth dying for—but like most things in the North Korea, no one knows for sure what really happened.)
So I’ve been wrestling with how to describe K-dramas more accurately. Is it possible to make any generalizations about the television output of an entire country? It’s hard to make generalizations about American scripted shows that run the gamut from Two and a Half Men to Walking Dead. It’s equally hard to summarize the Korean industry, which includes everything from network weekend family dramas to sophisticated weekday cable fare.
But we can make a few generalizations by looking at style and structure. In their structural DNA, Korean shows share some assumptions about how television should work, a different set of assumptions than American shows are built on.
Visually and narratively, K-dramas are not American shows done badly. (Though sometimes they are Korean shows done badly.) K-dramas are a different approach to story-telling. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, but a good K-drama will always be distinctly different from a good American show. The difference isn’t a difference in quality. It’s a difference in style.
I’ve been thinking about it since I first started watching Asian television several years ago, but I’m still working on trying to describe the differences. These are the differences that remain even after we take away the differences between American and Korean culture. Even after we take away the difference in story content between a Korean chaebol romance and an American superhero saga.
Here I’ll describe four characteristics of K-dramas that go beyond vague terms like “melodramatic.” Next time your friends think you’re weird for watching K-dramas, just start talking about “expressionism versus naturalism” and “Aristotelian unities.” See if they can talk about Game of Thrones like that!
These are my preliminary thoughts. If you have comments, please share, because there are plenty of shows I haven’t seen. I also don’t know much about other East Asian TV styles like J-dramas and T-dramas. This is a work in progress.
1. K-dramas show how life feels, not how it looks.
At the moment, I call this style K-drama expressionism, after the German expressionists of the twenties. The 1920 German horror flick Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes place in rooms with crooked walls. This isn’t because German houses don’t have straight lines, but to set a spooky mood. The crooked walls feel right for a story about a guy who keeps a zombie in a box.
Similarly, K-dramas use music, settings, editing and acting to create a mood, to make you feel a certain way. Not every poor person in Seoul lives on a rooftop, for instance, but the ubiquitous K-drama rooftop apartments feel right for stories of working-class people struggling to get ahead. In real life, not every love scene is lit perfectly, but in a fictional show, they can be, because falling in love feels perfect.
In working to create a mood, K-dramas downplay realism (or naturalism). This drives people nuts if they think realism is the only viable style for movies or television. Realism has become the norm on American television in the twenty-first century. Directors carefully arrange their cameras and lighting to create the illusion that we’re seeing life. Things as they would look to a passing photo-journalist, noting events from the outside.
In a realist/naturalist production, the camera exposures, scene composition, etc., may give the sense that the production took place in a hurry. The editing might make the characters look less attractive and more awkward than they actually are. These are aesthetic choices, not “the way things really are.” We’re watching carefully constructed fiction, constructed to look rough around the edges.
K-dramas construct their fiction differently. Things are exaggerated for maximum emotional impact. Wealthy characters inhabit lavish sets, and poor characters live on rooftops. Actors and actresses portray emotions at twice their normal size, with gestures, shouting and tears. The editing draws out awkward moments to twice their actual length—because in real life, awkward moments really do feel too long. And K-drama kisses are well-rehearsed, never bumbling.
The point is not to depict life as it looks to an objective observer. The point is to make viewers to feel what the characters feel.
K-expressionism uses the camera and scene composition to bring us in close to the characters’ emotions. Often this literally means a lot of close-ups—those lingering shots in which we see a series of emotions pass across a character’s face. Soong Joong-Ki realizing he’s about to go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Jo In-Sung realizing someone he cares about isn’t as real as he thought.
The director may pause the action to remind us of emotions in another way, too—through the use of flashbacks. Flashbacks typically show us things we’ve already seen earlier in the series, so they aren’t necessary for narrative purposes. They serve a practical purpose, padding the length of an episode. But even though flashbacks are padding, directors do choose their flashbacks for emotional impact. Flashbacks aren’t just there to remind us what happened, they’re more commonly used to remind us how the characters feel about something.
K-drama expressionism may also mean the use of non-diagetic sound for comedy purposes—the bleating goats that punctuate odd moments in Reply 1997, for instance. It encompasses the use of repetition: showing several quick cuts of one key event, sometimes from several angles. (Every dramatic moment in Heirs, for instance.) I call these quick repeats “stutter-backs,” but if anyone has a better term for them, please let me know!
It’s also part of K-expressionism that stylists keep the characters looking artificially polished most of the time. K-drama leads always look like movie stars, even when they’re playing the next-door neighbor. This is one reason K-dramas occasionally recall the Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties. These shows embrace glamorous artificiality.
Some Americans may think realism is the only possible style for good television. But we’ve produced our own great works of anti-naturalist television, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks being my favorite example. And some K-dramas are far more naturalist than others. The drab noir style of Pride and Prejudice was a world away from the typical K-drama glossiness.
On the whole, though, K-dramas are more comfortable with artificiality, while American shows strive more for photo-realism.
2. K-dramas break Aristotle’s rules for classical Greek drama.
European and American television tend to follow Aristotle’s rules for constructing plays, the so-called “classical unities.” Aristotle may have lived in Greece 2300 years ago, but he’s still influential. Three hundred years ago, European critics derived “rules for drama” from Aristotle. Modified versions of those rules still appear in every American manual on how to write a screenplay for a movie or TV show.
The three rules are simple: 1) the story must contain one plot, with minimal sub-plots (“unity of action”), 2) it must take place in one geographical setting (“unity of place”), and 3) in one period of time, preferably less than 24 hours (“unity of time”).
American movies or TV shows tend to follow modified versions of Aristotle’s unities:
- Unity of action. Until the nineties, most American shows didn’t have a lot of subplots, and episodes could stand on their own. You could watch one episode and see a distinct beginning, middle and end. The one big exception was afternoon soap operas, which have mostly disappeared. Since the arrival of big nineties ensemble shows like L.A. Law and E.R., shows include more characters and subplots, but most shows are still organized around separate episodes. Individual episodes often have enough structure and thematic coherence to stand on their own, even though binge-watching makes this increasingly irrelevant.
- Unity of place. Typically, an American show will take place in one or two settings. If the characters travel around for work (as on some crime shows), the individual episodes still typically begin and end in the same location. One of the things that makes Game of Thrones an unusual show is how many different settings it uses in each episodes. (And it’s not a coincidence that it’s incredibly expensive to make, coming in at $8 million per episode, the cost of many movies.)
- Unity of time. An episode of an American show might cover one week of action, one day, or even one hour (as on 24). But once a show establishes how it’s going to use time, it sticks to the plan. An hour of 24 will always equal an hour. A year of television Buffy the Vampire Slayer will equal a year in Sunnydale, CA. Shows don’t randomly skip a few years in the middle of an episode—a common occurrence on K-dramas.
K-dramas didn’t inherit Europe’s obsession with Aristotle. And K-dramas aren’t trying to imitate eighteenth-century European stage plays. (By the way, eighteenth-century critics dismissed Shakespeare’s plays because they broke with Aristotle’s unities.)
Instead, the structure of a K-drama resembles an old picaresque tale or a nineteenth-century novel, with sub-plots sprawling all over the place, random changes in setting and large stretches of time going by. One 16-episode drama might take only three months to air, but cover a decade or more. A long family drama might spend six episodes on the hero’s childhood, then skip 20 years. The unit of story-telling for K-dramas isn’t the individual episode—you have to watch the whole series to get the story.
Not every K-drama skips around in time or takes its characters to foreign countries, but every K-drama reserves the right to do so. Even a show that feels very grounded in Aristotelian unities may surprise you—because Koreans don’t follow the ancient Greek rules.
By not worrying about Aristotle’s unities, K-dramas can tell a distinctly different kind of story, one that skips from one time period to another, or visits distant continents, or tells the stories of several loosely connected characters. (Or even, bizarrely, skips back in time three hundred years, like supernatural-teen-romance/costume-drama Orange Marmalade.)
This approach to time, place, and sub-plots can give us wonderfully novelistic stories. It can also be a jarring surprise the first time you’re watching a K-drama and see on the screen the words “one year later.”
3. K-dramas tell stories with definite endings.
Another distinct way that K-dramas break with American television conventions is by ending.
The American television industry is organized around seasons, and successful shows have multiple seasons, year after year. Sometimes these shows go on too long, until producers have milked every last advertising dollar possible. Other shows plan out their final season carefully and go out on a high note. But the seasonal structure means American shows have to keep developing new conflicts to keep the story going. Defeat one Big Bad, and another one will appear.
In contrast, Korean producers make a contract with a network for a certain number of episodes. A K-drama is a distinct project with an end date, just like a movie. No second seasons.
This structure means K-dramas lend themselves well to stories where the ending matters. Does the hero get revenge or not? Do our characters have the important realizations that will make them better people? Most importantly, are the lovers reunited? K-dramas don’t have to leave any loose threads for a possible second season.
K-drama romances are particularly appealing because they can end on a happy ever after. We don’t have to suffer through break-ups: Ross and Rachel, Buffy and Angel, Castle and Beckett. Would Buffy and Angel still be together in the Korean production system?
Also, with no second season in store, K-dramas can go for broke. Send the heroine to jail for a crime she didn’t commit, steal her baby, give her father dementia, have her fiancé betray her—and do it all in the first few episodes. In an American show, you can’t have everything go wrong for the hero in season one, because you need to leave some challenges for season two. Each season has to present increasingly harrowing scenarios. American producers are looking for stories that will take years to tell.
Increasingly, the best American shows do come to definite endings after a few seasons. But during the opening episodes of the first season, producers don’t know whether they will have ten episodes to tell their story—or fifty. And this gives American and Korean shows a distinctly different kind of rhythm.
One of the most satisfying things about a good K-drama is that it tells its story only once, without repeating itself season after season. (At least if it’s a short K-drama. I should note that Korea’s 50-episode family dramas can feel every bit as repetitious as multiple American seasons.)
4. K-dramas embrace tragicomedy.
Lastly, K-dramas accept tragicomedy, a genre that European critics have often derided. In the West we tend to classify dramas as either tragedy or comedy, thanks again to Aristotle. But even in ancient Greece, much of literature didn’t fit cleanly into either category. Homer’s Odyssey contains both, for instance, as do the best works of Shakespeare. Alfred Hitchcock is a more modern offender.
For decades, American television had pretty clear genre differences. Comedies were half an hour. Dramas, detective stories and thrillers occupied hour-long time slots. Comedies could on rare occasions get serious and hour-long shows could include humorous episodes. But in the Emmy competitions, only half-hour shows could compete for “best comedy,” and hour-long shows competed for “best drama.”
The twenty-first century has seen major shifts on American television, with more “tragicomedies”—shows that go back and forth between humor and darkness. Even then, dramas usually still stick to one tone per episode. Later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sometimes went very dark, sometimes comic, but tragedy and jokes rarely mixed in the same hour. When American directors do mix comic and tragic tones within one episode, they do so very, very carefully.
The Korean television industry isn’t organized around a distinction between comedy and tragedy. Within one hour, we may swing back and forth between light moments and deep emotional scenes. And a 16-episode series typically takes us through a number of tones.
Some K-drama fans argue that tone shifts are jarring. They prefer to watch the K-dramas that stick to one tone throughout. According to this theory, tone shifts aren’t a quality of K-dramas, they’re a quality of bad K-dramas.
But even the best K-dramas contain a fair amount of tonal variation. Boys over Flowers, for instance, blends silliness and spectacle with tears and angst to make it a real tragicomedy. Despite its Japanese source material, it’s an excellent example of the K-drama aesthetic. Coffee Prince draws in new K-drama fans year after year partly because it blends cute, whimsical scenes with scenes of emotional revelation and depth.
I believe that K-drama producers (and audiences) are more embracing of tone shifts than American producers. Sometimes the shifts are jarring and sometimes they’re smooth, but most K-dramas follow the principle of “pack it all in.” If our lives can include comedy as well as tragedy, why not include both on screen?
For viewers accustomed to American television, even K-dramas’ smoothest tone shifts are disorienting at first. But that disorientation can be enjoyable, a pleasant reminder that people are complicated and life doesn’t stick to one genre. Compared to American television, Korean television make more of an effort to include multiple genres in one show.
K-dramas aren’t trying to be American dramas. They aren’t trying to follow the rules of eighteenth-century European drama, or the rules of twentieth-century American television. American critics who dismiss the global Korean drama industry as simply inferior without trying to understand its successes are guilty of hubris, another good old-fashioned Greek idea. ♥
How do you feel about the K-drama emphasis on emotion over photo-realism? Does the lack of unity in “time and place” bother you or is it an essential part of the stories you love? I’m still working on this and I’d love to hear your thoughts.