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Soap Opera? K-Drama? Korean TV shows? What’s the big deal?

Korean Dramas.

They’re here. Get used to them.

These television shows are comparable to primetime television programming in America (think Grey’s Anatomy or Heroes). These Korean series bear little resemblance to what we refer to as “daytime” television. The production format is closer to a “miniseries” (think Band of Brothers or Lonesome Dove). However, when westerners hear the term “K-drama” or “soap opera” we instantly think of cheesy dialogue, unnecessarily long pauses, overacting, unrealistically overdone characters, and untimely bizarre deaths (think General Hospital or The Young and the Restless or your dramatic cousin on your dad’s side). While the Korean equivalents certainly share some of the surface level similarities, there is much difference to be found.

Korean soap operas are so big that they are hard to ignore. When I say big, I mean it in every way. Big drama, big secrets, and especially big budget. I liken them to a perpetual Superbowl game playing on all channels. It’s hard to ignore. If you didn’t like them before, you like them now. Admit it.

See? Doesn’t that feel good? No? Dirty? Yes, of course.

Come on. I’m from Texas. You may see a grown man cry once in a blue moon but you sure won’t see him watching a soap opera anytime soon. With Korean dramas though, they are insidious. Infectious. Just watch one episode. No biggie. Your buddy said it was a good show, right? And he can drink his weight in 소주…Of course at that point, I convince myself that it is all in the name of learning the language. Yeah, so really, it’s like homework. I mean, that’s not wrong at all, right? Just doing some homework?

Actually, in that regard, many dramas fill in that role nicely. The dialogue is close to natural, the dialect is usually standard, and common speech is used frequently. Whereas if an ELL (English Language Learner) were to imitate the speech used in Prison Break…not so effective. Some Korean dramas even go so far as to be quite deliberate in their speech that it’s hard not to pick up at least some of the language.

Prison Bathroom Break
Truth be told, not all are fantastic. They can run the risk of dreadful predictability and the use of rehashed, overused themes. However, some challenge social norms and break the mold of what a television show should entail. Some entertain while others educate. Some take modern settings while others assume alternative realities. Some are a showcase for dialects and subcultures. In addition, a plethora of historical-based dramas are arguable in their own category by themselves let alone seeped in Korea’s surprisingly saucy history.

Oh and make no mistake, you will cry. Oh yes. There will be tears.

One particular difference in these shows is the demographic viewing audience. Typically, American soap operas are viewed by non-working or stay-at-home homebodies. It’s also fair to point out the majority of the viewers are older women. Korean soap operas are viewed by people of all ages, gender, and class. Working class people watch them, but so do white-collar business people. And apparently so do young twenty-somethings from America 🙂
Coffee Prince and Tool
It’s also interesting to point out the group factor in watching Korean dramas. When seemingly unrelated people sit around and watch the same show, they now share something in common. This reminds me of an ancient form of online blogs and forums. Really! Think about it. I dropped by a nice little 목욕탕 to find the group room filled with locals all in an awed hush over the K-drama playing on the television screen. If you want something in common, try all hating all the same spoiled brat on the screen. Add into that formula a natural group-centered culture such as the one found in Korea and you have a recipe for K-drama addiction. The poorly taken photo below doesn’t show the fury that was in the room. We were all watching the same spicy program. The funny part is that there were people that I could have sworn were sleeping, but they would react when something shocking would happen in the plot. A sort of “He said what?!” reaction.

Intensity of the drama not shown
Likely, everyone who has professed an interest in K-dramas are especially fond of their first show they watched. Like many other foreigners, mine was Full House. Furthermore, many students of the Korean language have openly admitted that it is because of Korean dramas that initially sparked their interest in the language and culture. Can you imagine KBS producing shows with the unintentional side effect of being a sort of diplomatic representative showcase for a whole culture? The ramifications of 비’s poor acting are quite profound now that I think about it…