Not all manga fans watch anime, but I think most people in the manga blogosphere acknowledge the synergy between the manga and anime industries. I’ve sometimes wondered, however, if dramas are being overlooked. Dramas may not be as closely tied to manga, manhwa, and manhua as anime, but there’s definitely plenty of overlap in the fan base, especially among younger fans. A lot of dramas are adapted from sequential art properties, and a successful drama can drive sales of a related comic.
So here is a quick primer of Korean dramas (aka kdramas) for beginners. I’m going to focus on Korean dramas as I don’t feel I’ve watched enough dramas from other Asian countries to claim to be knowledgeable about them.
The general model for Korean television shows is quite different from US television in a number of ways. US television is mostly structured around the fall-to-spring season, especially the sweeps months of November, February, and May. Most US tv shows are produced in the hopes that they will run for several seasons. If a US show is successful, there’s no predicting when it will end.
In contrast, Korean tv shows (always referred to as dramas) usually only last for a single season of a predetermined length. Even wildly successful dramas don’t last for more than one season, though they do sometimes get episode extensions. For example, current ratings champ Queen Seondeok just got a 12-episode extension, which surprised exactly no one. There are occasionally sequel series and/or spinoffs, such as Goong and Goong S, but these are the exception more than the rule. The primetime dramas usually air two hour-long episodes per week. There’s a Monday-Tuesday slot, and a Wednesday-Thursday slot. There are also some daily dramas that correspond more directly with American soap operas; these air in the morning and early evening, but tend to be lower-profile shows.
Over the past 10-15 years, Korean pop culture has become been extremely popular in other parts of Asia. This includes not just dramas, but also movies and music. This trend is generally called the Korean wave (aka hallyu). You know your tv shows are popular when tourists start coming from other countries just to tour the sets!
Kdramas come in a few different genres. Historical sageuk dramas tend to be long and serious; some well-known sageuk series include Jewel in the Palace, Damo, The Immortal Yi Sunshin, and Jumong. Some quasi-historical “fusion” sageuk mix historical details and a more contemporary sensibility, as in the recent Hong Gil Dong. Contemporary “trendy” dramas have their own subgenres, such as the over-the-top makjang dramas that will use any and all plot twists to keep viewers’ attention. Recent examples include Boys Over Flowers (adapted from the manga) and First Wives’ Club. And ajumma dramas, like Last Scandal are aimed toward middle-aged women and tend to be a bit more family friendly.
Korean-Americans in the US have always found ways to watch their favorite dramas. I’d guess every Korean-American neighborhood has a Korean-language video store of dubious legality. The good news is that kdramas are now widely available, thanks to the wonders of the Internet. A limited selection of series can be borrowed from Netflix and other online video rental services, and dramas can also be watched legally at DramaFever and Crunchyroll. (DramaFever seems to have the best selection of series, but the connection can be fussy.) If you’re interested in buying the dvd sets, your best bet is probably YesAsia.
My favorite source of English-language news on kdramas and kpop culture is the blog Dramabeans.
Four essential kdramas
The following dramas aren’t all my personal favorites, but are representative of the recent kdrama scene. Watch these if you want to get a quick overview of some of the biggest kdrama series.
Korean name: 모래시계 / Moraeshigae
Also known as: The Hourglass
A political drama that follows the friendship of two young men during the 1970s and early 1980s. One grows up to be a gangster; the other becomes a prosecutor. Of course, they fall in love with the same woman. Sandglass was notable for tackling the up-to-then taboo subject of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. It was so popular that its final episode had ratings of 64.5% in Seoul; on the nights it aired, life in the city slowed down as everyone went home to watch it.
I was actually living in Korea when this aired, and while I don’t remember all the fuss around it, I do remember hearing the theme song everywhere I went for a couple months. It was impossible to avoid.
My take: I’ve watched a few episodes of this, but have never had time to finish it. One of these days…
Winter Sonata (2002)
Korean name: 겨울연가 / Gyeoul Yeonga
Also known as: Winter Ballad; Winter Love Song
Jun-sang moves to a new town and meets and falls in love with the cute Yu-jin. Alas, he mysteriously disappears. Ten years later, Yu-jin is about to get married when she discovers one of her other high school friends has a new boyfriend–who just happens to be identical to the missing Jun-sang.
Winter Sonata was one of Hallyu’s biggest hits; it made Bae Yong Jun and Choi Ji Woo, the two leads, into superstars. It’s also a shameless melodrama packed with every beloved kdrama cliché including love polygons, amnesia, terminal illness, and people who may or may not secretly be siblings. It should tell you a lot that Choi Ji Woo is famous for her ability to cry while acting. :)
This was the second part of the Endless Love group of dramas that also includes Autumn Fairy Tale, Summer Scent, and Spring Waltz.
My take: I gave up on this one after two episodes because I found the characters way too annoying. Your mileage may very. Evidently other people have found plenty to like!
Jewel in the Palace (2003)
Korean name: 대장금 / 大長今 / Dae Jang Geum
Availability: DramaFever, Netflix
The story of a young woman during the Joseon dynasty who went from being a cook in the king’s household to being the King’s royal physician. Try this series if you want a sample of serious sageuk storytelling. This one has great costuming and bonus food porn, thanks to the whole cooking subplot.
My take: I watched a couple episodes and liked it, though not enough to watch the entire 54-episode run!
My Lovely Samsoon (2005)
Korean name: 내 이름은 김삼순 / Nae Ireumeun Kim Samsoon
Also known as: My Name Is Kim Samsoon
Availability: Netflix, DramaFever
A romantic comedy often compared to Bridget Jones’ Diary. Kim Sam-Soon is a gifted pastry chef who is unlucky in love. After she breaks up with her unfaithful boyfriend, she meets restaurant owner Jin-heon, who gives her a job. Before long, he’s paying her to pretend to be his girlfriend to keep his mother from pressuring him to get married. But things get complicated when his first love, Hee Jin, suddenly reappears on the scene.
This was one of the big hits of 2005, most noteworthy for the star turn of Kim Sun-ah as the title character. It’s often funny and occasionally sweet, and oh yes, full of kdrama cliches including love polygons, fake relationships, adorable moppets, and terminal illness. And for those of you who like food porn, there’s plenty of that, what with Sam-soon being a pastry chef.
My take: This is one of my favorite series, a quintessential “trendy” drama, and a great place for newbies to start.
Watch for part 2 of this post, when I’ll talk about my actual personal favorites and highlight some kdramas adapted from sequential art properties.
Edited to add: Part 2 is up!