How to Describe K-Dramas to Friends and Critics (Elements of K-Drama Style Series)

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

The Moral

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.

51 thoughts on “How to Describe K-Dramas to Friends and Critics (Elements of K-Drama Style Series)

  1. I am relatively new to Kdramas-I’ve only been watching for a few months-and I already can’t live without them. My friends and family just don’t get it. I would be happy doing nothing else but watching my Kdramas all day, everyday-if I could.And there is nothing like it on American TV. Definitely hard to explain to the “non-believers”.

    • Your so right. Unless those around you have watched k-dramas or are watching them, they don’t get it. Often times I get really defensive about my k-dramas because i think people should stop looking down on them.

      In any case the best you can do is recommend a drama or two to them and see how they react to the industry.

  2. I really like this topic Odessa. I hope you continue to revise your ideas as time passes. I think the second article I read on your site was about kisses. I really liked how you disected the differences there as well. Who can’t like a perfect use of the word hubris. And it is something that is hard to overcome.

    I like your topic so much I have written a not so small essay – oops

    k-drama expressionism vs American realism. This is a really astute observation and I think one that really does help to convey the right watching attitude. I may have to memorize your words the next time I attempt to have this discussion with my best friend. She just laughs at me.

    When I got my mother to watch one I know the flashbacks confused her. The queues are different than in US/UK shows. I also warned her about the first few episodes setting up the background. I think this is a huge hurdle for many.

    The sound effects are something I have a hard time with. Gurgling tummies or batting eyelashes really do not need to have these sounds. I try reminding myself it is a different esthetic and take a deep breath.

    “K-dramas break Aristotle’s rules for classical Greek drama.” – I would prefer this was not said as “breaking”. That implies they were there in the first place. I think it is more like K-dramas have no interest in following Aristotle’s rules. Though I do find it humourous that the first show I watch was Moon Embracing the Sun and I still think of the ministers in their red robes as the greek chorus. They filled that role perfectly and it basically did not matter that i had no clue who was who.

    Well I love time travel but other than that I often do not enjoy things that have different time periods. Maybe it would be better to say I am wary fo them.

    I do find the tone shifts jarring at times. This is likely more true when I think there is imbalance between them. For example in our current “She was Pretty” I am enjoying the more serious and/or quiet moments. I think they are done well. But a lot of the so called comedy is not matching that quality so I get annoyed.

    There are many dramatic devices used in k-dramas that are foreign to those of us who grew up on US/UK productions. Examples of the top of my head are hitting a body part to indicate that it is in pain or tired. Grabbing the neck to indicate stress. The shower scene to indicate deep contemplation (and to get the ratings up) and you have already mentioned the flashback. I wonder what a non-north american viewer of US TV would say are the dramatic devices that are used in those shows that are seen as very specific to those shows.

    And speaking of shower scenes – I think this is a huge difference. In north America our sexualized scenes are mostly of the female variety. Having it be much less and then mostly male is quite novel and I suspect unsettling for some. Though if I am honest I don’t really like shower scenes. Well I did like the one in “One Sunny Day”

    • oops – I meant I find shows that skip around in time periods difficult at times. Not ones wholly set in another time period.

    • Thanks for your comments! You’re right about my use of the word “breaking”–I’m glad you caught that. They’re only breaking the rules that I’m used to watching stuff by, but K-dramas are totally uninterested in them. (As are many European and American story-tellers, who started to push back as soon as 18th-century critics made up the rules.) Many of the things that annoy you annoy me too–like sound effects, and sudden shifts of three years that occur seemingly randomly ten minutes into an episode. Sometimes they’re executed so well that they work for me, but not often. Fan service (like shower scenes) makes me roll my eyes, but it’s so prevalent in East Asian stuff that maybe I should add it to my list. There’s definitely an aesthetic decision there: “the first priority is to show pictures of pretty people” as opposed to the American approach, “every scene must contribute to the narrative moving forward.”

      • I’m with you guys on the fan service. The only good fanservice scenes are the ones that simultaneously mock the need for it even though its added. Self-awareness is the saving grace. (Example off the top of dome, Three Musketeers, where the flower boy musketeer tries to take a bath and all the maids stop their work to go peek at him and then YDG pops up to tease them)

  3. I just love, love this topic, miss Odessa. Your thorough analysis made my day and it reminded me of my graduate dissertation on global TV and its differences

    I’ve been quite astonished at various comments on blogs in which Korean TV has been described as a “genre” time and again. That seemed a wrong assumption on so many levels I can’t even begin with. That’s why I enjoyed your post and thoughts,- you keep things in perspective.

    First things first, TV products mostly depict the society and cultural backgrounds of each country and that applies to a multi-cultural society like North America as well. From that point on, we can debate on anything.
    Are dramas depictions of real life in SK?
    What sort of major and/or minor rules do they follow?
    Where do their creators get their influences and/or inspirations (literature, poems, mangas, etc)? Have those changed in time? ( PoV. Massive westernisation is so obvious during the last years, whether it’s on mainstream or cable channels, despite severe censorship)
    Do the ways of filming and casting influence the final product and in what degree? The luck of multiple seasons do amplify the film-like feel but the live-shooting doesn’t…

    Ahhh, I could go on forever on North American and UK shows, let alone telenovelas and k-dramas. Somebody should stop me… A fantastic post! BRAVO!

    • Don’t stop! It’s so useful to hear from someone who’s thought a lot about global TV. It’s so complicated, because TV is a moving target. K-dramas have been changing considerably in recent years. At the same time, Korean society is also constantly changing. And TV story-telling reflects social changes, but also influences changes as well. I think all television shows everywhere reflect “real life,” rather than depict it. They show the real conflicts that people experience in their lives, but through a lens of fantasy and fiction that makes it hard to draw conclusions.

      I too get annoyed when I see K-dramas described as a “genre.” It’s like describing all of British TV as one genre, and ignoring the differences between “Doctor Who” and the “Forsythe Saga.” It’s a mistake that comes from not caring too much about being accurate. I think there’s a kind of “American exceptionalism” at work in the global entertainment industry. American story-tellers, no matter how educated they are, tend to assume our stuff is superior to that of other cultures. And even K-drama fans sometimes think this way–that watching K-dramas is fun, but “slumming it.” What a bummer, when some of these shows are just as smart as their American competition–once you get past the huge aesthetic differences.

      • @Odessa, erin, hariaharia,

        Can I know if all of you have done some kind of major in literature or dramatics? Your analyses are so in-depth that I feel like a shallow fan-girl in comparison.

        • haha. not me. I am loving the topic and finding all the posts enlightening, including yours. They make me feel like I should sit back and just watch the big kids play.

          (although I will admit to taking a number of classes in classical studies but not quite enough for a minor)

        • I did my dissertation on ” Psychology and Mass Media” and I’m about to start the Graduate School. To be honest, it was my sister’s idea; because of her work in a production company (she has also worked for several TV stations), she suggested the topic: Social differentiation and Global TV. I knew American (North and South) television, some European channels and, of course, my country’s (RAI, Mediaset, etc) but the Asian TV was a “terra incognita” for me, albeit the many Asian films I’ve watched. I hate bragging but sis was right, the topic was unique and original (a.k.a. no copying nor being copied ). Everyone was impressed and I was addicted to k-dramas( though I watched lots of other series, too)!

        • The short version is that my college major and master’s degree were in history. And one of the first things I thought when I discovered K-dramas was, wow, THESE are what historians will study in order to understand the early 21st century.

          The longer version is that I grew up pre-Internet with only books for entertainment, took as many film classes as I could in college, and recently did a master’s degree in creative writing. (I was older than most of my professors, which was weird, but it was still fun.) For that degree I finally had to take a couple college literature classes for the first time, and I draw on them all the time writing here. But I probably draw as much on my general geekiness, and that kind of extreme fan-girl passion that causes me to lose sleep when bad things happen to good characters.

          @pranx: I think you’re a very deep fan-girl! 🙂

        • Impressive! All of you! I am farthest away from creative writing or literature, but writing comments on posts like this is helping me to frame and jot down my thoughts. An important life skill, I think. Keep the good posts coming!

      • It’s an axiomatic mistake and I’m afraid it goes beyond “Americanism” because, let’s face it, there’s always the European artistic “Elitism”. There are surprisingly lots of comments showing off their contempt to anything “non- art-house” in a very pompous manner and using pretentious English. That’s why I’ve stopped reading and/or commenting on several blogs,- their perspective on K-dramas ignore the social surroundings as well as the cultural background and they don’t even try to understand it which is worse.

        • Hariaharia, are you by any chance in Italy? You mentioned RAI and Mediaset…

          It seems to me one of the most interesting things about K-dramas is the broad international appeal, which makes me wary of the snobs (and they bug me as much as they bug you). It’s amazing that it’s almost 70 years since Kurosawa’s films first hit the West, and yet there are still elites that want to say Asian film and TV is “behind.” Poppycock.

        • Yes Odessa, I’m Italian and I had my fair share of hilarious but mostly stupid varieties (courstesy of Silvio Berlusconi’s era), magnificent pieces of Art on a global scale and many, many mediocre films and TV shows. It’s no secret, though, that RAI has set the bar very high for any country’s TV the last decades in terms of technical perfection and artistic PoV.

          You’re right about Kurosawa and a few other Asian creators who have earned their place in the pantheon of global cinema. Thank God, we know their works and we are more open-minded here than on most other blogs. And for that we are deeply thankful to you, Odessa. 🙂

    • I am with Odessa in saying “Don’t stop”. Your questions are interesting and I would love to read your thoughts on them.

      • Thanks, @erin 😉
        The dissertation was a long piece to begin with and full of statistics,- I don’t think it would interest anyone outside my class,- but I got lots of conclusions that I can refer to.
        The Korean Social structure (like most Asian countries) have absolutely nothing to do with the Western Societies, in terms of fundamental principals. However, globalisation helped people to build bridges of communication between very different cultures and, at the same time, to overcome the language barrier (and that’s the positive aspects of this controversial phenomenon). Internet and on-line communities have their big share in global community. With their help, art products of every form and every country become topics on a world-wide scale within hours and that’s where the “hallyu wave” started its rising more than a decade ago
        Nevertheless, the K-wave is relatively new compared to any similar pop culture and K-dramas follow the same rule. Later the westernisation seemed unavoidable and, although Miss Odessa stated “the reflection of everyday life” on Korean TV, I’m sure there’s always the possibility of less Korean reality and more artistic fiction in order for dramas to suit better more audiences around the world ( China included in recent years).

        • Re “the reflection of every day life”–this is a very interesting topic. American film output for many years has been geared towards an international market, to the point where I sometimes wonder if they expect any Americans to go to the movies any more. The rapid growth in overseas sales for K-dramas could definitely be causing a similar phenomenon.

  4. I prefer the emphasis on emotion that we have in k-dramas because when I approach a show its more likely to really grab me if it hits its emotional moments right. Perhaps this is why I prefer k-dramas. They’re great escapism where romance is done well, more or less, rather than being very sexualized.

    In regard to the whole idea of time and unity, it works if its done well. I don’t mind time jumps but it is annoying when you feel like the shift (like the typical one year later) is used to perfectly tie up loose ends. Time shifts can also be annoying when your not given enough time to appreciate the time jump like in High Society. It’s not fun when the final episodes wastes time resolving the conflict when you just really want to enjoy the pay off.

    • Hi Camille! It’s so great to hear from you. I didn’t even mention the lack of sex in K-dramas, but it’s often the first thing American journalists mention (as if the reason we invented TV was so we could show sex scenes, not tell stories!) It not only makes for better stories, but it makes it possible for K-dramas to have a much wider audience.

  5. Ohh I’m so using this. It’s a much better defense than “I’m not crazy!” *runs away*. I confess I’m one of those Amuricans who find the exaggerations frustrating at times. It makes sense when you explain it this way, but the forced nature of the emotions they want to elicit still grates. The bombastic ballads and 360 slow motion camera declaring THIS IS LOVE or what have you will never not annoy me, even in my favorite shows.. That tendency is a little less frequent off the beaten path, however. Not to mention I discovered lakhorns up the ante about tenfold on the overly dramatic music, so I’ve learned to count my blessings.

    I’ve read this a lot recently, the defense of k-dramas on the basis making you feel feelings. But it’s odd because the high-octaneness usually forces me out of commiseration. I’ve been meaning to write up a post on that but I that’s as far as I got in the examination so I guess you beat me to the punch haha.

    The structure never bothered me, I love how dramas’ storytelling is like that of classic novels. That was the first thing I was drawn to as a bibliophile. (Past me would be stricken at the amount of time I spend watching tv now haha). The other stuff, done well at least, doesn’t bother me either. Anyway, you always put your finger on the pulse of the matter; what would the k-drama blogosphere do without you?!

    (Also, Savvy is love! Possibly the most consistently funny k-drama I’ve seen. One of the few shows that fully committed to its own lunacy. Hope to read more from you on it!)

    • Hi Muse! I’m torn on the exaggerations–it really depends on whether they work or not. There’s definitely a difference between a director inviting you to feel emotions and a director trying to force you into the emotions. And if I think about it too much, I realize that American shows also try hard to make us feel emotions, but the emotions are often horror or fear. I agree with you so much about the classical novel structure!

      P.S. If you’re a Savvy fan, that seals it, I’ll have to write something about it. Ridiculously cute show.

  6. This is an interesting topic.

    I haven’t actually noticed that much of a difference between the acting styles. Certainly if you go back quite a few years, the acting in shows like Mash is not particularly realistic. That’s true of the English shows I still watch (Orphan Black, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries and Eureka re-runs mostly). Movies too, the Korean acting stands up quite nicely compared to the Avengers or the Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t watch “The Grand Budapest Hotel” mostly because the performances were so weird (I thought the film was unpleasant too).

    One thing I have noticed on occasion is that the dialog can be poetic/flowery/metaphoric in a way you’d never find in an English language show or in real life. Secret Garden abounds in that as does Producer and Master’s Sun. I remember being really happy about this first time i noticed and I still am, Even if when on reflection, the metaphor is silly. Sometimes I go back and watch the “You make all the other women look like squid” speech from the end of Gentleman’s Dignity just for the beauty of it.

    Aristotle’s rules fall out from the length of the show, it seems to me. He wouldn’t have thought they applied to epic poems. American half hour/hour television shows really map to short stories. When you have something that’s only 20 pages long, there can’t be much nonsense. Even a two hour or so movie. Film adaptations of novels tend to pitch everything but the essence, unless they’re something like the Lord of the Rings. I’d expect the webtoons with their 16 15 minute episodes would be more Aristotelian than City Hunter.

    One related thing that has annoyed me is referring to Korean Dramas as being low brow. When you get down to it, if you want to watch a TV show with a score rich in classical music (or old American musical tunes) you’re pretty much stuck with Korean (or Japanese I guess) dramas. Similarly you’ll find references to Herman Hesse or see an illustration from Arthur Rackham or French Impressionist art in these shows and not (that I can think of anyway) from an American show. In this sense they’re making the high-brow western art, and we’re making the low-brow stuff.

    • Ooo, your comment brings up so many interesting things. I admit I don’t have much vocabulary for describing or analyzing acting. What I have noticed, though, is that within the Korean entertainment industry, film directors tend to ask for more naturalist performances and TV directors go less naturalist. So somewhere in there, people are making aesthetic choices about the acting. And there’s differences about what American directors want from their actors (or what Wes Anderson wants–he seems to have his own particular thing, though I admit I haven’t seen GBH). But I still need to figure out how to actually write about acting styles.

      Regarding the low-brow/high-brow distinction–wow, yes. You put into words something I’ve noticed but haven’t gotten around to thinking about. It fits with the flowery language thing as well. K-drama dialogue can include a lot of great philosophizing (as well as great squid metaphors!). I’ve noticed that a few of my favorite K-drama writers were French literature majors. I think that in the American film and TV scene, many more writers attended film schools. The strong American film school scene makes it possible for writers to study craft intensively, and produce those perfectly structured short episodes, but on the other hand, I imagine K-drama writers spent college wearing black berets, smoking Gauloises and quoting the symbolist poets. Which makes for interesting TV too.

  7. This is an interesting take on KDramas! I took my time to form my thoughts on this since I was busy reading so many viewpoints posted here. I cannot claim to have a critic’s eye like you evidently do, so my post might be “low-brow” 🙂

    Have you thought if our liking of Kdramas is proportional to how cynical we are? Lets face it, what brought us to Kdramas is their love stories against various backgrounds (slice of life, historical, fantasy, scifi and what not) I mean, I love Punch, but thats not a show I would recommend to someone to get a feel of Kdramas. And even with Punch, it is a story of one man’s triumph against the system so, in the end, its a romantic tale.

    I feel American audiences have become more cynical and TV/films adapt to that. That is why there are no more fairytale romances (think Titanic) and the romance genre has devolved to being YA fare (like Twilight) or Fifty Shades. The personal triumphs are reserved for super-heros/super-spies against other super-villians. I might be over generalizing it, but the current movie landscape is filled with lone wolf heroes and while TV is engrossed in showcasing eccentric or plain dysfunctional people.

    If I have to really analyze why I like these dramas, its mostly due to this
    1. length – 16 episodes and you are done. No need to follow for 5 years
    2. I was a voracious reader before college and work took me down. I would finish a book in a weekend, similarly I can finish a Kdrama in a weekend.
    3. I like stories of triumph, whether of love or ideals.

    As for melodrama, I have grown up on something way worse than this, so that doesn’t bother me in the least. Only thing that does is the co-incidences and Mary Sue characters (Boys over Flowers and Heirs).

    • I have to admire that you’ve boiled it down to three simple statements! It’s so hard to be concise where K-dramas are concerned. The cynicism thing is huge. I totally agree with you about the big shift in American entertainment during the past 20 years: from Titanic to 50 Shades sums it up nicely. One curious thing is that my friends and family haven’t actually become more cynical, so it’s only partly a shift in the audiences. It’s also an odd shift in what studios are willing to produce.

      If you grew up on something more melodramatic than K-dramas, now I’m curious! Bollywood? Thai dramas? Maybe one reason K-dramas have wide appeal is that they hit a happy medium in the melo department.

      • Bollywood, song and dance and tears all they way! I would love for these Korean actors to break into a song rather than have it as just background OST.

  8. Can I add one more things : the OST elements in Kdrama?
    I am also an avid fan of Jdrama (until now) but the thing that really make me can’t fall out Kdrama is the OST and how they make the album that completely about the drama and when THE SONG is come, you just hyped up to the next level, no matter how it runs out of steam like Love is the moment or almost paradise, it always has the definite moment.
    This is totally different with Jdrama and Western drama, they have soundtrack but it just doesn’t embedded like Kdrama when they always has their representative song.
    There’s no such things as elegant Shin Se Gi without Auditory Hallucination playing in background or Ailee goodbye my love as proof that it;s sad scene to coming.

    Kdrama like to try bizarre things and make totally okay in “drama-land”, they accept the bizarre idea no matter how silly and criticize it’s gonna be, they embrace it. The makjang drama also fascinating for me, it’s like tone down telenovela but still out of the world unbelievable, still they knew how to make the qualities one and the rating fave one.

    I agree with all of your list especially the length, it really make me prepared my self for the time being cause I knew how long it gonna be last and how long I will get the payback feeling. You know : how long I need to wait for the kimchi slap to happen, haha,

    • KDrama OST! Anastasya you won’t believe I had a note typed up on this topic for Odessa as a suggestion for next post! Here it is

      “Can I make a topic suggestion? KDrama soundtracks. I know its a foreign language, and I swear I am not a kpop fan (yet). But they are strangely addictive. I feel like even if I don’t understand the words I understand the meaning. Every time I hear the soundtrack of Lets eat, it makes me crave Korean food. I have a whole playlist of songs collected from various dramas till now.
      Do you have any favorites like that?”

      I will say that the songs that I wear out of the earlist are the ones with English words in it. Almost paradise, Love is the moment, Eternal Love (Healer)

      • “Do you have any favorites like that?”

        Honestly the ost always make me remember certain things in Kdrama, and it just granted when they have english chorus to emphasize the meaning,
        There’s a song in I hear your voice about “why did you come now?” that really make me sad for no reason, I also remember singing Yesung-it has to be you despite not watching the drama until finish, fangirl over because I love you in BBF, back before time in the moon that embraces the sun, Taeyeon if, and almost every song song in you’re beautiful.

        I really appreciate the OST album, the song is special for the drama and also being a great song as stand alone song. The Ost also introduce me to a lot of great Korean singer and it feels different than KPOP-boyband/girlband in general.

        This week, I got influence by she was pretty with the carpenter-close to you, Zia-sometimes and of course Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – Muse version
        Imo drama soundtrack has great impact, I still remember the opening of How I met your mother,The bigbang theory and community cause it match the series feeling.

        nb: every time I hear Eternal love, my mind always go to Eternal flame from love shuffle (jdrama)

        so can I double your suggestion?
        this reminds of bollywood movie soundtrack too which is almost magical imo,

        • This is such a great topic!! I totally adore the song from Let’s Eat, and I didn’t even like the series particularly. I Hear Your Voice had such a great OST, too–my fave song from it is Every Single Day.

          And the OSTs do play a bigger role in K-dramas, both as a money thing (the release of the OST is part of the marketing for a drama) and as a story thing (some shows are practically musicals, the way they use music). I don’t know as much about OSTs as Anastasya, but I definitely have a mental list of faves and I’ll do a post.

  9. This is a fantastic and thoughtful analysis. You’ve thoroughly researched the parallels between American TV and Kdrama. I loving and hope you continue on different aspects of it. One thing I hate is when American reviewers dismiss all Kdramas as “Soap Operas.”
    Soap Operas are a specific genre or brand of AmericanTV with a kind of niche audience. And references to them are not usually favorable. So lumping all Kdrama in that mold is like saying they’re worthless or just fluff. NO. Kdramas are Just as important to Koreans as “Game Of Thrones” or “Walking dead” (shudders!) is to Americans and the style can be just as good.

    • Yes, the soap opera word!! I shudder in horror whenever I hear it. I once got so annoyed when an American news story referred to them as “soap operas” that I went back to the original Korean press release–only to discover that the Korean media themselves translated the word “deurama” as “soap opera.” They gotta work on their outreach. But I agree with you so much about this word.

  10. I find some of the cinematography interesting and unique to these dramas. Certain camera shots are so common and seem to relate to Odessa’s first point of dramas’ emphasis on showing the character’s emotions and Erin’s comment about dramatic devices. I wonder who decides these shots: the writer, director or cinematographer?
    Examples include

    • The repeated pass by- used to convey a missed opportunity to meet or reconcile a misunderstanding.
    • The close up of hand, most often clenching- used to convey a character’s tension or concealed anger.
    • The spinning embrace/kiss- to give a dizzily heightened sensation to an emotional moment.
    • View through bookcase, screen or other partial obstruction- to give the feeling of overhearing a private moment
    • The stand- off – to emphasize the feeling of conflict, to show the separation between conflicted characters.

    Despite the conventions, sometimes there is such a beautiful shot that conveys so much emotion it makes the viewing experience unforgettable. One of these moments was in “My Lovely Sam Sook”. It was a very tight shot of the interior of an overturned car. I don’t recall any dialogue, just pained, increasingly panicked breathing which turned to agonized sorrow after a limp hand falls into view. What could have been a horror movie’s claustrophobic startle shot was more than that because they took the time to draw out and show the intense and changing emotions of the unseen accident victim. In addition, this shot comes midway into the drama after the viewer has become attached to the character.

    • The scene in Samsook is a great example of how K-dramas can take a super-melodramatic moment and just make it beautiful. I like your examples of common visual elements. The stand-off and the pass-by are ones that have so much sheer visual drama.

      Another cinematography thing I’ve noticed is how dramas from the past few years often have wonderful lighting and photography for outdoor night scenes. We see the characters faces in close-up with the city lights around them in the background and it’s beautiful. The city feels like a character itself in scenes like that.

        • SWP reminds of slice of life, cause no matter what happen , what we see is their daily life and their interaction, all the worries is in our head when the character just doing their every day life

  11. Odessa….this is a very interesting article. One of the reasons I like K-dramas so much is the character development we see in so many. A ‘bad boy’ can, before the end of the series, become warmed and softened by love of a sweet girl….or vice versa…as is The Snow Queen, where a stony-hearted girl’s cold heart was softened by the love of a good man.

    One subject I’d like to see you write on is the acting ability of the actors and actresses. How is it that they can dry at the drop of a hat. I’m watching East of Eden right now and am seeing more tears from men than I have ever seen in a drama….they come by them seemingly so easily? Is it the culture….more emotional…or just good acting? They can get more emotion into just a look than many times with words….they’re really pros at that!

    I agree with you and others, that the cinematography is used much to convey emotion. I guess what I’m saying in all this, is that these dramas really can pull at your emotions. Guess that’s why we just can’t leave them alone!

    • I’m so glad you mentioned man tears! There’s so much interesting stuff going on there with cultural expectations as well as drama conventions. So much that I don’t even know where to start, but it’s an upcoming post.

  12. Oh….on reading back on some of the comments….I left out the musical scores! VERY effective. I usually end up getting the OST form many of the dramas….just love the music and how it sets the stage and feeling of a scene.

  13. I loved your analysis Odessa and the comments so far have been fantastic: erudite and thought-provoking. It got me to thinking not just about the classification (or lack thereof) of K-Dramas, but also about the classification of the K-Drama fan. I know it’s tough to generalize on this one, but I’m curious about the global fans in particular. I wonder, if somebody conducted a survey, what would the areas of commonality be? Possibly: a literary background, a love for reading novels, a preference for relationship-based narratives in movies and shows, a fondness for quirky/cult genre fiction (Dr. Who, Buffy, Veronica Mars, etc.), an avid Janeite who’ll watch any incarnation of Mr. Darcy, a fan of period dramas, a sentimentalist with a high tolerance for cheese, and probably a die-hard romantic (as pertains to all things fictional). I think the qualities and proclivities that K-Drama fans share are the precise things that distinguish Korean Dramas from their Western counterparts: they’re novelistic in structure, they’re relationship-based and character driven, they’re quirky, the archetypal K-Drama hero is a riff off the Jane Austen playbook, they’re rooted in old-fashioned concepts of courtship and invested in the slow and steady flowering of romantic relationships, they’re sentimental, cheesy, and unabashedly romantic. The tendency to diminish the value of narratives that have these qualities has resulted in the death of romance in the West (in television and the movies). Well-developed romances (whether as the main plot or as a subplot) are hard to find, and if they’re brave enough to make an appearance, they’re quickly derided and critically eviscerated. And another thing K-Dramas and their fans have in common, which I think is important, is an appreciation for happy endings. If something makes me smile and makes me feel happy, then it’s earned the time that I’ve spent on it in my opinion, and K-Dramas do precisely that.

    Speaking of smiling, I’m so glad you’re watching Savvy, I love that drama to bits.

    • Ah, so well put! I’m nodding furiously in agreement.

      I think if we still produced romances in American film or television, I wouldn’t be accidentally learning to speak Korean. It’s a curious thing, the total rejection of romance in American fiction (whether written or filmed). Hemingway wrote novels about romance, for Pete’s sake. (Though not ones with happy endings, it’s true.) Shakespeare wrote stories with romances at the center. So there’s a certain lack of imagination in American story-telling today, that critics automatically discount any stories that contain romantic relationships, at least marginally functional ones. Curiously, I know plenty of American adults who have good romances in their lives, so “realism” isn’t a sufficient excuse for eliminating stories of romance. It’s more like a pervasive intellectual blind-spot in American culture.

      Savvy’s adorable. 🙂

  14. While on this subject….I want to recommend a really great K-movie that encapsulates all that has been talked about in this session. Really….check out A Moment to Remember….you won’t regret it!! Mood sets, emotion, enduring love, great acting, music….it’s all there! I’ve been trying to watch more movies lately….they don’t take so long to get through and can be so interesting, both in content, direction and cinematography. You almost have to watch them a couple of times, though….they move through the story quickly and it’s easy to miss things. You get so much more the second time, as scenes at the beginning take on more meaning after watching the first time. “Oh….that’s why she said that….or “that explains….”, etc. The second half of the movie is viewed more vividly by some of the previous scenes that you’ve forgotten by that time. I find that watching anything the second time makes it better….especially, as I have to catch so much of the conversation by reading the translation….which doesn’t always stay on the screen long enough….and I end up rewinding if I really want to catch something important. Look it up….A Moment To Remember starring Son Yi-Jin and Jung Woo sun….director John H Lee.

    • Thanks, Weesie! I haven’t seen enough Korean movies and I like Son Yi-Jin, so I’ll put it on my list. I definitely end up rewatching movies because reading subs makes it easier to miss things.

      • Odessa….while watching it today I realized just how really excellent the acting is in this film. Check out the reviews on it, too!

  15. You probably won’t see this comment, as it’s been many months, but…

    I find this article fascinating, it’s a subject I’ve been pondering myself and I love your analysis. Regarding the rules of Aristotle, I think they use a different set of rules that may not be *as* old (or are they?), but still very old:
    As I recently began reading the 16th cen. Chinese drama “The Peony Pavillion” (trans. Cyril Birch), something in the introduction really struck me. It started talking about how the dramas of the time were usually meant to be played over several days and thus had repetition and were somewhat long compared to Western drama, stock characters, mix between comedy and tragedy and last, but certainly not least, a romantic plot with a rich, handsome and smart young male lead and *something* always trying to get in the way of the main couple’s happy fate, be it opposing family members, fate etc. Everything about this just screamed “kdrama!” at me! Even the stock characters described sounded so familiar. So I started wondering if maybe kdramas have evolved like this because of the influence from chinese drama? I haven’t at all made a thorough investigation, rather it’s just a thought that I thought you may find interesting to think about 😉

  16. Also, I can’t believe how American critics describe kdramas (or well.. yes I can.. Danes look down on Asian cinema too and don’t even know what a kdrama is). And that some people would call it a “genre”? That’s just wrong in every sense of the word.
    But I guess that’s just anglo/americano-centricism rearing it’s head once again. I must admit, that as a Dane, every time I see a movie site or something similar putting movies from every single country around the world except GB and USA into the “Foreign” category (or worse, Foreign “genre”), I get seriously annoyed and frustrated. To me, Danish movies, or even movies from other Scandinavian countries, aren’t “foreign”. To me, GB and US films are the foreign ones. Putting all other countries’ movies under a single umbrella called “foreign” on *international* websites etc, feels a bit like claiming superiority, in a way.

    • Hi KayBee! I just realized I didn’t respond to these comments. Sorry! I know very little about early modern Asian drama, so its very useful to read your thoughts about “The Peony Pavilion.” And Anglo-centrism turns out to be inescapable, even in Korea. Many Koreans I meet find it hard to believe that I watch K-dramas, even outstanding pieces of television like Signal. It’s sad and frustrating.

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