The Quick Start Guide to Korean Dramas
Korean dramas are the some of best shows on Asian primetime TV today. More specifically, they are Asian television shows usually told in a 16-24 episode story arc, similar to the American "miniseries" format.
Why should I watch them? What makes them different?
Korean dramas, and all Asian dramas for that matter, are a unique form of entertainment because they combine the high production values and high-end casting of movies with the character development and plot complexity of television shows, uniting the best of both worlds. Unlike American television shows, they are written within a specific time structure - usually that of 16-24 episodes - and thus have clearly-defined story arcs and definitive, movie-style climaxes and endings. In this way, they prevent from the repetitiveness and strained melodrama which almost all long-running American shows resort to to keep the story moving (we've all experienced those shows which are amazing during the first few seasons and then just go downhill, also known as "jumping the shark").
Also unlike American shows, Korean dramas draw on the best acting talent of the Korean industry - many movie stars are also drama stars and vice versa, and effortlessly jump back and forth between the two during the course of their career. Korean dramas have their own award ceremonies as well as being featured side by side with films in movie award ceremonies. With high budgets, they can afford superb production values, beautiful and original music scores, exotic locales, and often beautiful cinematography.
How did Kdramas become popular outside of Korea?
Korean dramas are arguably the most popular of the three central kinds of Asian dramas (the others being Japanese and Taiwanese dramas), and it all began with something called Hallyu, or Korean Wave. Hallyu was a term coined by Chinese reporters to describe an explosion of interest across Asia in South Korean pop culture beginning in the late 1990's. Between 2001-2003, the craze took off even more with the export of Korean dramas to East and Southeast Asia and beyond, most notably Yoon Suk Ho's famed Winter Sonata, which earned around two trillion won and was almost solely responsible for launching a passion for all things Korean in Japan (read an interview with director Yoon Suk Ho about his role in launching the Hallyu wave).
With Korean TV dramas taking East Asia by storm and spreading outward to the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and beyond, the country's entertainment scene abruptly became a huge tourist attraction. Dramas acted as a launching point for a surge of interest worldwide in Korean culture and products as well as Korean movies, music, and pop culture. Assisted by the worldwide popularity of other hit dramas such as Autumn Fairy Tale (2000), Jewel in the Palace (2004), and most recently Boys Over Flowers (2009,) the wave has been steadily spreading to the rest of the world, and making inroads in North, Central, and South America. With an entire section/subsite of the English Wikipedia now dedicated to dramas, books and academic articles about the hallyu phenomenon being written, Korean stars making inroads on Hollywood, Hollywood remaking a series of Korea's film hits, and kdramas now being shown on TV stations in the major cities of Canada and the U.S., the Korean wave, and Korean dramas in particular, clearly possesses something which speaks to audiences worldwide.
Korean dramas are clearly here to stay!
Now, where should I start?
While most Korean dramas are reasonably watchable, and it's hard to go wrong with any of the uber-hits that have come out (Jewel in the Palace, Jumong, My Lovely Sam-Soon), there are some dramas which I consider particularly good for drama newbies, which can act as a portal for the uninitiated. So if you have never seen a drama, or you want to introduce that friend or boyfriend or mother or aunt or roommate to the passion that's recently taken over your life (and left dark shadows under your eyes), here are my top 5 recommendations.
1. Thank You
Unlike most Korean dramas, which take an episode or two to get going, Thank You is compelling from its first moment, and has a plot and storyline easily accessible to American audiences. With superb performances, lovely cinematography, a tightly-written story, and a plot that is a nice balance of comedic and dramatic elements from the romcom, drama, and tearjerker genres, it's very hard to go wrong with Thank You. It's a pitch-perfect tale of a grieving, acerbic doctor who falls for a poor, plucky single mother and her child, and is by turns funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting, but always brilliant.
As problematic as some of us find this drama to be, there's no denying that it's more addicting than cotton candy and twice as fun. With a story that has been adapted by four (and counting) different countries and which is based on the best-selling Japanese manga of all time, clearly the plot has a resonant, almost universal appeal. The Korean version is high-budget, endlessly appealing, shot in stunning locations around the world including New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and stars five of Korea's most beautiful young new actors. This tale of four wealthy young men and the girl who changes all their lives is not to be missed.
While it has a somewhat unusual theme (cross-dressing girl falls for a guy who thinks she's a guy -- think Amanda Bynes in She's the Man, only much, much better), Coffee Prince is an incredibly compelling standout in Korean dramas. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, with a lovely soundtrack featuring indie artists and stellar performances from its main leads (both of whom it launched to superstardom). It's funny and offbeat with a solid dramatic core, has a cast of charmingly quirky (and good-looking) supporting characters, and even more importantly has that extra spark of magic that just pulls a whole drama together and makes it amazing. I can't recommend this drama enough.
One of the few smash hits of 2009, this deeply charming romantic comedy is both an quintessential Cinderella story and perhaps the quintessential Korean drama, as it takes many Korean drama conventions and does them right. The daughter of a wealthy businessman finds all her dreams dashed when her father dies and her stepmother throws she and her autistic brother out of the house. Taking a job at a restaurant, she clashes with the arrogant grandson of the company's president. Headed by the luminous Han Hyo Joo and the excellent Lee Seung Gi, this rags-to-riches and back again tale is incredibly addicting and romantic, and in some ways the more grown-up version of Boys Before Flowers.
While it did not achieve particular popularity, unlike the other four dramas on this list, upon its broadcast in Korea, Soulmate did garner a cult following among 20-somethings, and deservedly so. It is at once a beautifully lyrical exploration of the loneliness of life and the distances between people and a frank, funny exploration of romantic and sexual relationships between modern men and women. It has shades of both Sex and the City and Lost in Translation, and manages to pull off both effortlessly, becoming in the process the only drama I've seen to successfully combine modern elements of American television with very traditional Korean drama elements. It's perfectly cast and features a standout, stunning soundtrack that includes works from indie artists all over the globe, and is beautifully shot with a careful attention to detail. A drama which I think American audiences might find easy to identify with.