The ‘Hallyu Wave’ is an umbrella term that refers to a varied array of different types of Korean pop culture. In certain parts of the world, K-dramas were the first aspects of Hallyu to take root. In other parts of the world, it is K-pop music that dominates the leading edge of the wave.
Since we’ve talked to much about the music and idol aspects of Hallyu in previous Roundtables, this week lets switch it up and talk about dramas instead!
What was the first K-drama you ever watched?
What was your first impression of K-dramas as a whole?
What is your favorite K-drama to this date, and why?
Bethany: I love this Roundtable topic! I’m pretty sure my level of love for K-dramas is an unhealthy one — I can burn through an entire 20-episode drama in about three days if I get into it.
The first two K-dramas that I remember coming into contact with are Dae Jang Geum, an epic sageuk about the life of a young woman who lived as a kitchen maid and a doctor in the palace of King Jungjong; and Glass Slippers, a melodrama about two sisters with 40 episodes. But the first K-drama I watched all the way through was Boys Over Flowers. I had already seen the Taiwanese version (Meteor Garden) when I was in fourth grade, but something about the Korean version just sucked me into the story. Admittedly, the acting kind of sucked sometimes and the plot was convoluted, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t rooting for Jan Di and Jun Pyo’s love story… even though I struggled with second lead syndrome during the second half of the drama. It’s okay, I’ll always be here for you, Ji Hoo!
I honestly don’t remember what my first impression of K-dramas was. They were addicting and that was all that mattered at the time. But after about ten K-dramas, I became a little pickier about which dramas I chose to start. I noticed certain trends that were present in almost all K-dramas, regardless of genre. The hero and the heroine almost always hate each other at the beginning of a drama, the parents almost never approve of their love, an angsty kiss takes place about halfway through the drama, there’s an airport scene complete with chasing at some point, a hospital scene is required, there must be at least three piggyback rides, and some kind of tragic event (amnesia, car accident, cancer… sometimes all three) has to take place. I’m a little more cynical now when it comes to K-dramas now. It’s like eating fast food–when you’re in the process of consuming the food, you feel great, but afterwards, the guilt settles in and you ask yourself, “What the hell was I thinking?”
My favorite K-drama to date is probably City Hunter. I know a lot of K-drama fans think that it was overrated, and maybe it’s my soft spot for Lee Min Ho rearing its ugly head, but that drama sucked me in for about three days and left me in a hopeless post-drama daze for about two months (that terrible period of time after watching a good K-drama when you can’t find another one to watch that tops it in awesomeness). I loved the sleek filming, the quick-paced script, the action, the sexiness of Lee Min-ho, the cuteness of NanaBear (Park Min-young), the bromance, the wit… pretty much everything about it just dripped with amazingness. If you haven’t seen City Hunter, you’re definitely missing out!
Maryse: I wasn’t exactly the most ardent K-drama follower until recently; but surprisingly, the first K-drama I ever caught was 12 years ago — Autumn in My Heart — and I was just an elementary school kid back then.
I also used to think that K-dramas are really soppy and boring, so most of the time I tend to avoid them (especially sageuk dramas), but thanks to the perfection that Jung Il-woo is, he got me back on track with 49 Days, and most recently, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop and The Moon That Embraces The Sun. It certainly changed a whole lot of my perspectives on K-dramas! But my favourite drama till date would have to be Secret Garden… The entire drama still takes my breath away even when I think about it now.
Kimberley: OK, so first drama: I think that would’ve been My Name is Kim Sam Soon, back in 2006. Up to the point before I started on that show, I had only watched Cantonese and Taiwanese dramas. My roomie at the time was pushing for us to rent KSS and I remember being quite reluctant. There had been a K-drama wave that hit Singapore sometime when I was in primary school — that would’ve been when Maryse caught “Autumn” — and I’d just been reading/hearing all about how these plots ended up in misery/tragedy. I’m more of a dramedy sort of person. Naturally, that impression stayed with me for a long while, until I got into it in ’06.
KSS really changed it for me. I think we blazed through all 16 episodes in a matter of hours. I’m glad I got over stereotyping the genre. The funny thing was after I got into it, there was evidently lesser watching of Taiwanese dramas. Idol dramas used to be a staple — I started out with the ancient My Fair Princess aka HZGG from China and then quickly moved on to Meteor Garden. For me, Korean productions have been able to set themselves apart because of quality and calibre. I don’t partake much in shows that stretch for more than 40 episodes so to me, the story lines are usually short and sweet or just bad. Being picky like Bethany, I’m almost always impressed by the casting, scriptwriting and even the acting by supporting B, C or even Z-listers. Culture might also come into play cos I thought the comedic nuances were different and a little difficult to understand in the beginning. But I know one when I see one now, or at least I think do… I love the Korean sense of humour!
I’m really bad at picking just one favourite so I’ll list a few: Bad Family, Que Sera Sera, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho and 49 Days. Maryse’s been asking me to see Protect the Boss and all the newer ones cos I’ve been out of it for a while. I’ll be getting back into the groove of things soon!
Patricia: My first K-drama was My Name is Kim Sam Soon, too; I actually picked it up from my parents who suddenly went on a K-drama kick after a Korean lady from my predominantly Chinese church started lending out K-drama DVDs to whomever was interested. I think my parents are now working through all 163 episodes of Be Strong, Geum Soon. I don’t know how they do it.
Obviously, the gene for long-term drama watching was never passed onto me because I have a really hard time following a drama all the way until the end, no matter how good it is. It’s actually kind of appalling, the number of dramas that have been left behind in my drama graveyard. I’ve been on episode 8 of Protect the Boss and episode 11 of Oh My Lady since last November. And my dramas-to-watch list could probably span oceans.
For me, I find that it’s easier to keep up with a drama when it’s currently airing, mostly because I could never get into the habit of marathoning any television program for hours at a time. But I’m probably in the minority here; most everyone I know can’t stop themselves from watching a billion episodes of a drama in one sitting. I don’t think I’ve ever found K-dramas to be addicting in that “can’t-pull-myself-away-from-my-laptop-monitor” kind of way, and I think this is because I sometimes find drama-watching to be a somewhat exhausting experience simply because K-dramas tend to be intricate and head-spinning at times. What stuck out to me when I first watched Sam Soon was how intricate and well-thought out the plot and characters were. Granted, this isn’t always the case for all K-dramas, but having watched only American television shows prior to Sam Soon, it was easy for me to be impressed because you don’t really find that level of plot intricacy in many mainstream American shows. This also probably has to do with the fact that K-dramas typically last for no longer than 20 episodes, which lends to the plot being a lot more condensed. Unlike American television shows, it doesn’t leave much room for story arcs and long-term character development, so K-dramas have to take on another approach in order to keep things interesting. Hence, you don’t see as many plot twists and turns in a drama as much as you see complex relationships being laid out in the first few episodes, which then play out for the rest of the series.
I think my favorite K-drama to date is a toss-up between Athena and Capital Scandal. The former is fairly self-explanatory, and I loved the striking visual contrasts in Capital Scandal: 1930’s Korea where half the characters was dressed in western garb while the other half was dressed in traditional Korean garb. It also played up the historical context of colonial Korea under Japanese rule, which just makes me and my East Asian history-nerddom squeal. Also, Kang Ji-hwan. Yum.
I also watched Soulmate a while ago (shorty after finishing Capital Scandal and discovering my crush on Choi Phillip), but to this day, I have not finished the last episode and am thus unable to fully attest to its wonderfulness. Surprising, eh?
Michelle: I’m one of those people who generally keeps a safe distance from K-dramas. I’m also one of the few people in the universe who didn’t enjoy You’re Beautiful. In all fairness, I only had the ability to sit through four episodes before wincing and deciding to never revisit that drama. It was my first encounter with K-drama and needless to say, it wasn’t a good start and I certainly wasn’t very fond of Park Shin-hye by the end of my small sample. But then came a time when every second person around me was watching a K-drama and a friend successfully coerced me into watching Dream High and City Hunter. Admittedly, it was the music and IU that really gripped me, while City Hunter impressed me a fair bit (and made me realise how much I enjoy action). From then on, I had tried getting into K-dramas, but for the most part, nothing really caught my attention. I’ve dipped my toes in a few: Personal Taste, It’s Okay Daddy’s Girl and Heartstrings. Truth to be told, I’m fairly certain that there are some great dramas out there that I haven’t found the time to properly watch. But still, nobody will chain me down and make me watch You’re Beautiful, the drama that kick-started my difficult road into K-dramas.
Anyway, my ‘favourite’ drama to date really isn’t anything of a favourite. When we talk about favourites, it’s something you would rewatch eagerly, something that made a brilliant impression. Truth to be told, as much as I enjoyed City Hunter (and Lee Minho), I don’t think of it in that way. I am interested in seeing how Love Rain turns out, if only because the plot seems to run parallel with The Classic — one of my favourite Korean movies of all time.
Gaya: My first ever K-drama was 49 Days, all because it had a character by the name of Min-ho (yeah, I know). But I ended up falling head over heels for the concept and plot–and the Scheduler (a shaggy-haired Jung Il-woo). I marathoned that drama, and managed to learn a lot about K-drama shooting styles (the sets, the camera movements and shots, the music), as well as about Korean culture in general. I remember being freaked out by those metal chopsticks when I first saw them, and it was really interesting to see little aspects of daily South Korean life that made their way on-screen.
I was pleasantly surprised when I learnt that K-dramas typically only went for one season. The fact that I could finish a story in 16 to 24 episodes struck me as highly convenient, and this different structure proved fascinating to observe, especially in picking out the advantages and disadvantages of this type of format. I thought that the shorter lifespan would mean that I could watch and finish a story in less time than other dramas (looking at you, Tamil serials).
There is no way I could pick just one favourite K-drama except for 49 Days for sentimental reasons, but I think Shut Up!Flower Boy Band comes close–it wasn’t perfect, but it was such a nice story, and the characters and their relationships really made it for me.
Maddie: I don’t really have an interest in K-dramas as of now, although I sometimes do watch whatever is showing on the Korean channels just to hear the language spoken in conversations. I grew up on telenovelas, so Korean dramas are very different from what I’m used to. In K-dramas there is hardly any kissing, while some scenes in telenovelas (especially recent ones) are very racy or violent. I haven’t watched a telenovela since Sin Tetas no ahi Paraiso (an awesome Colombian soap opera) and that was about 3 years ago. I mainly just stick to watching The Food Network and New Girl, but I have considered watching Dream High.
Gaya: I’d watch Dream High, Maddie. The first season was one I enjoyed–and I loved how they made Suzy’s bad acting into a plot point, and fitted it in with her character.
Justin: Y’all are definitely going to make fun of me, but the first K-drama that I have seen in full is Dream High 2. I’m a little late to the drama thing because for the most part, I am not a big fan of Korean dramas. I’ve had the same feeling about Korean dramas since I was five years old. I’m not a big fan of dramas because I feel like they are all the same. Someone gets hit by a car or a bus, someone dies of cancer or some irreversible medical condition, and the dramas are usually if not all the time depressing. I just get sick of the concept of dramas — which is weird, because of all the dramas that could be my first…I chose Dream High 2. Gotta love my WTF logic.
And hopefully someday I will have a “favorite,” but for now, Food Network and Animal Planet for the win!
Nabeela: The first K-drama I ever watched was Rainbow Romance; I think it was some teen comedy drama, and I’m pretty sure I only watched it for Heechul and Kibum because I was in that diehard Super Junior phase of my life. I never finished it though, only because I couldn’t find enough subbed episodes. I came close to finishing my second drama, Golden Bride, but never actually did. Not super addicted to these kinds of things.
My first impression of K-drama’s is that they have a habit of being typical and predictable, and what makes an exciting drama is one that deviates even a little from expectations. I’ve heard that City Hunter and Protect the Boss were fairly refreshing storylines in terms of plot, but don’t take my word for it–I haven’t actually watched either. And that is also why I couldn’t tell you my favorite drama, simply because I haven’t seen enough dramas.
That being said, my first K-drama was Paradise Ranch, if only because Changmin was in it. It wasn’t great, but out of loyalty for Changmin and adoration for him, I watched it. When I got into K-pop I was really wary of watching any K-dramas; after hearing my Korean friends gripe about how cliche and dramatic they were, I didn’t go near any until Paradise Ranch happened. After that, I went through several K-dramas in the span of two weeks. It was intense, but I somehow managed through it. Granted I watched nonsensical fluff dramas like My Princess, Playful Kiss, and Boys Over Flowers — you know, stuff that doesn’t take a lot of emotional investment.
I’m an avid watcher of Indian movies, so the random shit that happens in K-dramas didn’t really bother me. The logical fallacies I brushed off — if I can sit through a Vijaykanth movie and not be bothered by his physics-defying stunts, I think a couple of plot issues wouldn’t bother me. What did piss me off, though, was how the girl would always choose the jerk when there’s a perfectly fine guy right next to her. It’s something I’ll never understand, but I’ll accept it as part of the K-drama universe.
My favorite drama has to be Shut Up! Flower Boy Band. The story was engaging and did a fantastic job of portraying the characters in a real way. It wasn’t perfect, but I enjoyed every minute of it and was so incredibly sad that it ended. Also, thanks to this drama, I found my ultimate K-pop bias, Bang Sung Joon.
Dana: Here is my deep, dark secret: I have never watched a Korean drama from start to finish.
To be fair, the fact that I don’t watch dramas is not because I don’t want to; far from it. Realistically speaking, I would never get anything done if I watched dramas. My addictive personality would absolutely and 100% ensure this. I can totally see myself becoming one of those people who locks herself in her room with boxes of Chocopies and Kleenex, oblivious to the world not created by a bunch of Korean producers on a tiny screen.
But just because I haven’t seen a drama in its entirety doesn’t mean I haven’t seen dramas at all. I watched the first five/six episodes of What Happened in Bali staring Jo In-sung and So Ji-sub, and I also watched the first few episodes of City Hunter. But the closest drama to my heart is Unstoppable High Kick. Never have I seen a television show so ridiculous, exaggerated, or hilarious. I only saw a couple of episodes as part of a Korean listening class, but it totally captured my heart. Watching the rest of that drama is on my bucket list.
Gaya: Dana, that is really interesting, because for me one of the appeals of K-dramas is that they finish a lot quicker than most other dramas I watch; of course, I stick to currently airing dramas so that I’m forced to stick to the 2-hours a week limit–the only problem is when I’m watching more than one drama at a time.
If I’m really short on time, I try to stick to only reading recaps–a poor substitute, but recaps also help me understand some things I may not have otherwise known, like how calling an older sibling by their name is a grave offence. In fact, I tend to read recaps and watch episodes in tandem, especially when recaps are well written and pick up on things I may have missed.
Salima: For the longest time I thought “Hallyu” was a term specifically designated to K-dramas. I had no clue that there was a music industry related to it that would eventually take over my life.
The first drama I ever watched was called Beautiful Days, starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Ji-woo. The copy I had was so terrible. The DVD had atrocious subtitles and I’d catch boom microphones in the background of scenes. The lighting was bad and the plot didn’t make any sense. The girl was constantly having to choose between two guys: one emo and forceful and the other being Mr. Right. In my mind, I knew the one she should have chosen but as I would learn quickly, K-dramas don’t allow girls to choose the good guys. And despite all of these flaws, I was strangely hooked to this drama. Gradually, the bad subtitles didn’t bother me, the bad lighting was manageable, and I started to root for Mr. Wrong. But when it was over, I felt like I did immediately after reading the first Twilight book: why the hell did I sit through that?! And I didn’t watch another K-drama for a long time.
A few years later, my older cousin — who had previously got me hooked on Bollywood films — coerced me into watching Boys Over Flowers. Apparently she’d watched it, her kids had watched it, and her husband had watched it…and they all loved it. So I gave K-dramas another try and it was the best decision I’d ever made! I loved the cast, the nonsensical plot, the random amnesia, all of it. I started seeking out music from the drama that eventually led me to K-pop and of course, writing for Seoulbeats.
The one K-drama that I always watch during dreary, rainy days is Full House starring Rain. It’s the typical K-drama that has a lot of yelling between the two leads, but oddly calms me down because there’s no crazy plot to raise my stress levels.
Johnelle: There were a couple of K-dramas I kind-of watched — The Bizarre Bunch and The First Wives Club, but for those I just happened to be in the same room doing something else when my Korean-crazy niece was watching the shows. The first K-drama that I really watched and loved was Boys Over Flowers. I watched it because of Kim Hyun-joong; I became of fan after his stint on We Got Married and thought that it was the greatest thing EVER! What’s funny is that now since I’ve watched so many other K-dramas, I’m scared to watch it again even though I have the whole DVD set, because now that I’m not watching with my rose-colored K-drama glasses it might ruin my love for it.
My first impression of K-dramas as a whole wasn’t positive at all. K-dramas were big in Hawaii a little before everyone else in the US because we have a local Korean station, KBFD, which began airing Korean programming in 1986 (to a mostly Korean audience). Slowly other Hawaii residents found the station and started getting hooked, including members of my family and a couple of my BFFs. At the time, I couldn’t understand the appeal or my friends’ need to go home by 7:30 to watch their show… WTF? My friends all gave up K-dramas because it was too addicting and ruling their lives, and shortly after that I was eating my words as not only an avid K-drama fan, but K-variety and K-pop fan, thanks to this one K-pop site which I eventually began writing for…
So yeah, my outlook on K-dramas have done a complete turnaround. Even though they can be completely predictable, they’re still so addicting and I like that a complete story can be told in 20 episodes (I stay away from the long ones) even though at first I’ll be whining for more when a fave K-drama ends.
Some of my favorite K-dramas include Shut Up! Flower Boy Band, Protect the Boss, Secret Garden, City Hunter, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Coffee Prince, Goong, Full House, and My Name is Kim Sam-soon— but my fave K-drama of all time has to be You’re Beautiful; why is everyone hating on it in here? I think I loved it so much because I liked the story, the characters, the music. I’m easy to please — just make the characters lovable and the story slightly believable and I can get hooked. I LOVE fluffy K-dramas. I like K-dramas without the makjang and like the fluffy ones because I watch K-dramas to be entertained and escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. I don’t want to be crying my heart out over lovers who will be separated by cancer, evil mothers-in-laws, evil so-called-friends, etc. I guess I’m shallow like that.
Fannie: My first K-drama ever was Full House and I loved it — it was full of cute silliness and the chemistry was great. Rain, by the way, has a well-earned spot on my extremely short “excellent for an idol-gone-actor” list, right in between Yoon Eun-hye (ex-Baby V.O.X) and Eugene (ex-S.E.S).
Having already been an avid watcher of J-dramas and T-dramas for years, the general mold of an Asian drama wasn’t anything particularly new to me. K-dramas seemed fresh to me before I realized many held the same rehashed plots (love-quadrangles, relationship-contracts, incurable diseases, bratty chaebols that I’m supposed to grow to like, but I never do). Generally when I watch K-dramas, the first few episodes hook me in, but once I get to past the halfway point I start fast-forwarding through the rest of the series like crazy because more often than not, the remainder of the episodes is pretty much just a variation of the same old push-and-pull. By that point, the actors and the characters are tired, and I’m tired of them being tired as well.
My favorite K-drama of all time would have to be the epic sageuk Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)… not only was the storyline, production value, and acting excellent (it stars the lovely Lee Young-ae), but I also learned an astounding amount about Korean history, tradition, and food from watching it. Dae Jang Geum was also the only K-drama I have ever watched alongside my family; my mom and my dad (who typically avoids K-drama-watching type activity like the plague) were equally addicted to it as well.
In terms of rom-coms, it’s hard to say because I don’t think there has been a ‘perfect’ series in my eyes, even though it is my go-to genre. However, My Girl is pretty high up on my list (I love you Lee Da-hae), and I also appreciated Protect The Boss for managing — up to a certain extent — to avoid the typical K-drama pitfalls. As for tear jerkers… I tend to avoid them, because I don’t want to willingly subject myself to sorrow. Accidentally stumbling my way through Stairway to Heaven and was quite enough of that kind of experience for me in my lifetime, thank you very much!
Young-ji: Believe it or not but my first K-drama was Sandglass in 1997 — I pretty much beat everyone in the team in terms of drama tenure. When I first started watching K-dramas as a kid, it was very fascinating, seeing adult romances and what not. Fast forward two decades and I think it’s pretty much the same thing. Yes, the budgets are bigger so there are more “foreign” location, special effects and what not, but the overarching story lines and conflicts presented in dramas in my opinion are pretty much the same. The love triangles, rare illnesses/death, nonsensical parental or financial conflicts, etc etc.
There has been some drama gems along the way, such as Soulmate, and of course, some themes changed with time but overall, I think K-dramaland is having a hard time being truly innovative and they tend to just plagiarize one another in terms of topic all the time. When one station produces a medical drama, another one does within weeks, when one releases a fusion saeguk, another one does within weeks, when one creates a drama based around death, another one does within weeks, and you get my drift.
I’d love to see K-dramas escape from their tried and true formula and succeed in a completely new way. Until then, I’ll continue supporting mindless dumb romantic comedies that are great sources for light entertainment and of course, eye candies.