SB Exchange #18: Running Variety
I have TVXQ — AKA HoMin — to thank here, for it was via an old clip of a very nervous Changmin being hunted down by what I would later discover to be Spartakook that I discovered this variety show. Like a mix of a small-scale The Amazing Race with extreme Hide-and-Seek all wrapped up in a Korean variety show layout, Running Man has proven to be a hit among viewers. The show is nearing its 100th episode, so I have a fair way to go if I want to catch up. To help me mug up on my RM, we have Amy, Gil and Salima.
1. Running Man has given birth to more pairings and groupings than I’ve ever seen, so much so that it’s easy for newcomers to get lost, only recognising the more popular and current pairings. Which, for you personally, is your favourite current pairing, and past pairing, and why do you love them?
Amy: I actually really don’t enjoy the pairings on Running Man, and I guess this is because I generally don’t enjoy them in variety shows period. I think pairings are unavoidable as the cast gets closer to each other, but I also feel like it’s a huge part of the scriptedness that comes with variety shows. Two random members randomly do something that randomly comes across like they like or enjoy each other’s presence more than that of other members, and then that pairing gets hammered into our heads relentlessly. For example, I thought Gary and Ji-hyo had a good enough friend chemistry in the very, very beginning, and then Gary played it up just the teensiest bit and BAM, Monday Couple that refused to die until it was revealed in the news that Ji-hyo’s in an actual relationship with someone else. Come on.
Gil: I agree. I’m not a big fan of the fake idol pairings, just because it becomes so played up a lot, especially in variety. In the beginning Ji-hyo, as the only female member, was paired up with pretty much any male she so much smiled at. The Song/Song couple was pretty popular and let’s not forget Haha‘s attempts to woo Ji-hyo.Then again, the man tried to woo anything with two X-chromosomes. But male/female pairings aren’t the only type in Running Man. I quite enjoy the Hyung-Dongsaeng, and the Easy Brothers. Those pairings are the ones I like best, they become almost like an inside joke that no one except the Running Man watchers understand. Those little quirks make the show enjoyable but it’s best when it’s subtle and not overused.
Salima: Wait, you mean Gary and Ji-hyo’s Monday Couple relationship wasn’t REAL? I actually am a huge fan of pairings and groupings on Running Man. In addition to the games, the interactions between castmates are pretty much the heart and soul of the show. Honestly, I don’t think they could have chosen a better group of people to join that cast. Each one of them has their own little quirks that make them so fun to watch: Kwang-soo‘s cluelessness, Haha’s mischievousness, Kim Jong-kook‘s over-competitiveness. And when you put one cast member’s quirks against another’s, hilarity is bound to ensue. My favorite pairing is the “Ace” Song Ji-hyo and “Commander” Kim Jong-kook. When they get together, they’re pretty unstoppable (which is why I think the show’s writers stopped pairing them up).
Amy: I don’t mind that Ji-hyo is the only female cast and I actually love that she plays just as aggressively and as dirtily as the boys, but it does get uncomfortable when female (idol) guests come on and suddenly the two girls are pitted against each other, like girls often will be on variety shows, unfortunately.
Salima: What I love about Song Ji-hyo’s relationship with all the guys on the show is that they treat her like a little brother. There was one episode where Kwang-soo tackled her to the ground and put her in sort of a headlock and all she did was laugh and laugh. It’s great that they don’t treat her with kiddie gloves and that she can take what she dishes out. I can’t say if Running Man would benefit from more female cast members, but they would definitely benefit from having frequent guests like Lee Hyori and Park Ye-jin on the show. They’re both known for playing dirty and I don’t think the guys would have a problem ripping off their name tags (like they do with other female guests).
Gil: Although Ji-hyo has been dubbed “Blank Ji-hyo” the woman can play dirty. As the show goes on she has more than proved that she is capable of fending for herself. I remember one episode where she was cornered by Kim Jong-kook and used his weakness for females to wiggle her way out, Haha was also a victim of her wily ways too. Like what Salima said, Ji-hyo has become someone the whole cast is comfortable with and I like that dynamic. The boys constantly tease her and she easily dishes it back out. If there is going to be another long running female cast member I want someone who is not so worried about getting real, like Hyori or Park Ye-jin. My problem is that a lot of female guests who do come are portrayed as fragile, delicate beings and the cast, especially the males, have to restrict themselves.
3. Running Man has undergone structural changes during its run; do you think its current format is the best, or was there a point at which they could have stopped with all the tinkering?
Amy: I think the format they had in the first 5-6 episodes worked best, where the members and the guests basically played games in one space for the entire-night while it was closed off to the public, because it allowed them to get way more creative with their games and for them to be more rambunctious (and it gave us more B-roll footage of them just chillin’ in non-game mode!). But you can see that that didn’t work because forcing the entire cast to play games on no sleep — despite how it could’ve theoretically worked out better — took a serious toll on the cast members the next morning, when most of them were so exhausted and fatigued they looked like they were ready to drop like flies, and that’s not a sustainable model.
Salima: I agree with Amy, I absolutely loved the first few episodes of Running Man. But I also loved the era in which the cast had to “find the guest.” The episode that immediately comes to mind is when TVXQ’s Yunho and Changmin dressed up in Phantom of the Opera gear and had to carry out a mission while the Running Men searched for them amongst a crowd of hundreds of other Phantoms. Viewers not only got to watch the Running Man cast in action, but they also got to see TVXQ actively participating in a major way. There was crazy suspense and close calls and Changmin almost having a heart attack. It was an awesome time in Running Man history.
Gil: I don’t mind the slight tinkering, every episode cannot be the same in structure. The slight variations on the hide and seek game are great: I really enjoyed the Hip-hop special where there were three spies. The look on Lee Kwang-soo’s face when Tiger JK ripped his tag was priceless. Speaking of spies, the element were they have members try and throw off a game are always interesting. Not only are we in suspense from the main game but the added tension from trying not to be discovered makes it more fun to watch.
4. Like a lot of other variety shows, Running Man has also featured hallyu star guests, and it has been claimed that their inexperience brings down the level of what is a highly strategical game, and thus also brings down the viewers’ enjoyment. I don’t think it’s possible to completely ignore idols, so is there a way that they could be incorporated these guests in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the game?
Amy: I think the mark of a good K-variety show is that its structure is fluid and not SO regular cast-reliant that having guests throws the whole system into whack. I think it’s less a problem that the guests’ inexperience brings the energy down, it’s that the cast is so aware of not offending potential fans of those guests that they go way easy. I was going crazy during that Big Bang episode when so many of the guests were so conscious of what would happen if they offended a member of Big Bang that they made the games so unfun to watch.
Salima: The question is, can the Running Man staff bring back the days when the guests actually had a purpose? And like Amy said, can the cast interact with the hallyu stars in a way that won’t offend guests’ fans? In regards to the Big Bang episode, I think Big Bang was just so easy to defeat, that if the Running Men had put in all of their efforts to catch them, the episode would have been finished in 5 minutes. At the end of the day, they’re still filming a television show.
I’m really tired of the guests that come on the show strictly for promotion’s sake. They show up, look pretty, act cute yet feisty, and then win the challenges with laughable effort. Earlier episodes forced the guests to be the aggressors. Taecyeon and Nichkhun chased down the cast members until there were none left, Sunny and Yoona stealthily ripped off name tags with no mercy, and Yonghwa‘s scenes always looked like they were straight out of Mission Impossible. But now, the guests are useless and offer very little to the game besides hype. Give the guests something to do! I want more Yonghwas!
Gil: It’s not about how many guests they have but rather the quality of the guests. A lot of the idols featured on the show are usually promoting at that time and Running Man becomes a platform to plug their work. The show gets higher viewer ratings because they’re featuring a popular idol and the idol can promote his/her work. There is nothing wrong with that but the guests that are featured aren’t always tailored for variety. However, that does not mean that Running Man should abandon that aspect. The problem with the guests are both the production team and the cast become extremely careful about how they act lest they offend the fans. Some of the idols also just aren’t comfortable letting go and just playing. My wish is that the person who is inviting guests invites people who are experienced in things like this.
5. Apart from being entertained, have you managed to take away/learn anything from the show?
Amy: I haven’t taken away hard knowledge, but I have learned that Song Joong-ki is a much more feisty variety personality than his pretty baby face gives him credit for, oh and that Running Man just isn’t the same without him.
Gil: I learned that adults can still play hide and seek and that if my friends and I ever play this game, I might have a few tricks up my sleep. Also, don’t piss Choi Min-soo off.
Salima: I’ve learned that the behind-the-scenes crew is the backbone of variety television, even more so than the cast. The things these people come up with are simply astounding! My friends and I are one day planning on doing a huge Running Man event and we’re finding out that it’s no joke.
The Monday Couple was sweet, I thought — of course, my experience was unspoilt because I rarely encountered fans who shipped them obsessively like I have with other “ships” — though I was really more interested in “working relationships,” like the Easy Brothers and Kook-Soo (those two with the paper handcuffs was the best), as they kept the focus on the gameplay itself.
What really gets me is in fact the treatment of female guests (though this sentiment kind of extends to most guests) — obviously there are ladies who seem to be made for this game (Hyori) as well as those who can adapt to suit the nature of the game if needed (Sunny and Yoona), so why bring on guests that may need to be treated with kid gloves? As mentioned, guests need an avenue in which to promote their latest project and their fans help boost the show’s ratings and really, as long as the end goal of raking in profit is achieved, who cares about the show format being spoiled? But then, there are also myriad other shows out there on which idols can appear and promote — Running Man needs to keep up the quality of its product (the gameplay) in order to avoid becoming just another variety show. People get really excited when they hear that a particular hallyu star is going to appear on Running Man because the show presents situations and opportunities that other shows don’t, and to not take full advantage of that would be a shame.
That fans are used as a reason for the problems mentioned above strikes me as convenient at times, but I can understand why it would be a concern — fans can get pretty intense, as seen with the “demise” of the Monday Couple. That fans would get upset over ships, or their bias losing a game or being humiliated on the show is understandable, but the way expressions of disappointment can escalate into something more is a bit scary, to say the least. The extent to which fans influence shows like this isn’t something that can be easily quantified, and the actual nature of this relationship and its effects is probably best left to another discussion at another time, but I think the episodes like the Big Bang one are a sign that something’s gotta give.
As for what I’ve learn from Running Man, I have to second Salima here: the interactions between the crew and cast is something I enjoy about K-variety in general and the RM Production crew is crucial to the working of the show as the main communication system between players, as well as coming up with some really nefarious tasks over the two years that the show has been broadcast.
What are your thoughts on Running Man? Do you have a favourite pairing, host, guest or episode? What direction would you like to see the show take going forward? Leave your thoughts below!