Variety shows exist in a kind of nebulous, “in-between” media space. By nature they are somewhat contrived, often involving wacky sketches or hijinks, but the aim is usually to deliver some degree of authenticity. Showterview with Sunmi, obviously helmed by K-pop juggernaut Sunmi, is a prime example of a series that typifies the genre in the best possible way. Showterview succeeds in cutting through artifice and delivering what feels like genuine glimpses of the people underneath the personas.
The premise of Showterview is that it is a “global talk show,” and thus operates in a more relaxed style than most series aimed solely for Korean audiences. This global concept is acknowledged with such frequency in each episode that it almost becomes a running gag in itself, with Sunmi often barely able to restrain her laughter when mentioning it. Another byproduct of the premise is that Sunmi and her guests speak to each other more casually than would be the norm in most Korean social settings.
The result of this immediate commitment to familiarity is highly entertaining, such as when American-born K-pop star AleXa admitted that she actually didn’t know how to speak in informal Korean, with the formal level being the default in most situations. “I feel dope,” was her golden response to the question of how it felt to be so informal with an industry senior. The immediate laughter that accompanies guests’ reactions to being on friendly terms with Sunmi sets the tone for the fun conversations that follow.
Much of that instant warmth is due to Sunmi herself. “Nice but savage” is presented as her tagline. However, this slogan feels a bit reductive, almost like an attempt to capitalize on the unbridled savagery that made prior host Jessi so beloved and iconic. Sunmi doesn’t need to be molded in anyone else’s image, and what defines her hosting style is not so much her wit or comedic timing (although both of those attributes are in full force), but rather her empathy.
It’s impossible to acknowledge Showterview’s success without celebrating the impact of Jessi as the previous season’s host. A bold, bombastic K-pop rapper who is beloved for her lack of pretension and ability to hone in on what is real–both in herself and other people–Jessi’s season of Showterview quickly became iconic. There was no need for shenanigans when Jessi herself carried the show with her larger-than-life, no-nonsense personality.
This means Sunmi had a tough act to follow, but her grounded and empathetic presence infuses this season with an equally refreshing, distinct style. Sunmi’s ability to draw parallels to her own career as an artist, and create space for her guests to be comfortable, feels almost unusual in its down-to-earth simplicity. As guest Hyolyn put it before dissolving into laughter, “She keeps going out of her way to thank me for being here, which makes me uncomfortable! I’m here because I want to!” This is a reminder that shows don’t necessarily have to utilize zany hijinks or sketches to succeed: setting the stage for a good conversation is often all that’s necessary, and Sunmi does so admirably.
A comedic highlight from Sunmi’s episode with Hyolyn is how genuinely stymied she appeared by Hyolyn’s deadpan confessions. In contrast to Jessi’s captivating self-assurance in any and all situations, part of what makes Sunmi so endearing is how relatable her reactions are.
“I had my brain checked out in an MRI scan because I’ve been worried about my lack of memory lately,” Hyolyn admitted with her trademark honesty. Sunmi, flabbergasted, could only reply “are you sure you want to talk about your doctor’s visit instead of your new song?” The laughter that followed after the whole exchange felt supremely genuine, as did their conversation about memories from their trainee days. “I used to tilt my bathroom scale [during weight checks] so the number would come out differently when I was a trainee. It was how I survived,” Hyolyn admitted. “This is how it works,” Sunmi affirmed. When Hyolyn admitted to crying frequently, Sunmi nodded and said that there were “10,000 reasons” for them to cry, “either out of loneliness or the pressure [we feel].”
Such candid discussion of the path to fame–and the emotional toll of the idol lifestyle–is remarkable in the K-pop space, as it is typical for idols to be presented as beatifically happy, privileged figures. Jessi eschewed that notion with her total willingness to acknowledge industry open secrets, such as the plastic surgery that is often expected of stars, and her boldness made it easy for guests to feel comfortable in their skin. Sunmi, despite being much more structured in her approach to the guests compared to Jessi’s free-wheeling and improvisational style, largely succeeds in creating a similarly authentic space.
What also stands out about Sunmi’s hosting style is her dedication to doing deep research, such as in a behind-the-scenes clip when a producer mentioned to AleXa the pages of notes on her life Sunmi took in preparation for meeting her. This was the segue to Sunmi asking AleXa about her mother, who was adopted by an American family, and her search for her biological Korean relatives. The closing of the episode was a lovely moment in which Sunmi affirmed how proud her family, biological or not, must be of her.
It is also clear that Sunmi takes her position of influence as a mentor to younger idols seriously, and the episode featuring younger group StayC exemplified that. Though there were many highlights–including Isa‘s shocking number of allergies, encompassing trees, flowers and basically any kind of fruit–what stood out the most was Sunmi’s compassionate advice to the girls and genuine praise for their skill and teamwork.
When Yoon mentioned her agency’s concern about the dissonance between her charismatic onstage appearance and goofy personality, Sunmi leapt at the chance to empathize, mentioning how her management shaped a demure, shy image for her when the reality is she is “wild” and “bold” at heart. Her advice to Yoon was to go wild offstage as a release; a refreshingly honest perspective from one of the few people who could relate to Yoon’s position.
If the ultimate purpose of a variety show is to give viewers a chance to experience their favorite stars in new ways, Sunmi’s stamp on Showterview is a success. She’s not Jessi, but she doesn’t have to be. While on the surface Sunmi seems to more closely match traditional Korean celebrity expectations, with her fairer skin and more conservative demeanor, she is a slyly subversive figure in her own right. Not to mention that she’s a breath of fresh air given the relative lack of Hallyu female variety show hosts (only Meenoi’s Yorizori comes to mind).
What also stands out about Showterview with Sunmi is how deceptively simple it is; deceptive in the sense that such simplicity can be difficult to execute well. There’s nothing too flashy about the premise, but that is precisely what makes it such a joy. At its core, the show is just about being a launchpad for really good conversations. In the process, Showterview is genuinely insightful, offering real glimpses into the lives of entertainers, grounded by Sunmi’s all-encompassing empathy.
(YouTube. Images via SBS/Mobisodic Entertainment.)