Saharial’s guide to Korean TV Drama

There are currently 20 dramas airing on Korean TV, all vying for recognition, ratings and cult status. Some are filmed in advance, some are still being filmed even as they are starting to be aired, all having press conferences, on-set interviews, and mass produced replicas of special items from the story, not to mention the usual calendars, posters and OST. If your head isn’t spinning from the media hype already then you still are left with the often tough choice of what to watch.

The Legend - the $45 million sageuk
The Legend - the $45 million sageuk

Just like Western TV shows there are historical dramas (sageuk – 사극), romantic comedies, hospital dramas, mystery, horror, sport, fashion – all of varying quality and popularity. There is usually at least one drama every year that manages to tap into the mass obsession enthusiasm of viewers both in Korea and the rest of the world. (I include myself in on this one too).

Favourite Sageuk actress Seong Yu Ri - 성유리
Favourite Sageuk actress Seong Yu Ri - 성유리

The two factors that pull people in to watch are, of course, story line and cast — and not always necessarily in that order. A popular actor or actress will do wonders for the hype, but even they can’t save a weak story line (though may make it bearable), whereas a good story can be popular even without a major star in a role. This is supposed to go without saying, but somehow gets ignored on many occasions. The main problem with Korean Dramas is the sheer amount of cliché that can be involved as ideas and situations blend and are re-used, but there is always hopeful creativity and originality and lately things do seem to be taking a turn for the better.

So here is a quick guide to selecting a drama:

1: Story line

  Pick one that sounds like you can watch for all 16, 24 or 50+ episodes. Saeguk dramas tend to be longer and are often seen as a more superior level of acting. They are a good starting point for learning about Korean history, but beware of some ‘facts’. Romantic comedies are fun but the area in which you are most likely to encounter the dreaded cliché, the same goes for romantic dramas. No matter what the drama there will be some element of romance, but cliché is a whole other article.

Jumong - one of the more popular historical dramas
Jumong - one of the more popular historical dramas

2: Cast

  If you can’t decide any other way it’s a good place to begin. Drama episodes are about an hour long, so if you are going to sacrifice at least 16 of them to watch something, then you may as well select who you will like to watch! I’ve watched dramas based purely on the fact my favourite actor or actress was in it and, whilst a few haven’t been too great, it won’t feel like such a waste of time.

Full House with big names: Rain and Song Hye-kyo
Full House with big names: Rain and Song Hye-kyo

3: Hype

  If everyone is saying should watch it then you really must. Seriously. I kid you not. Everyone is always right and you will love all that you see and think it’s the coolest drama you ever saw and… well, I think you get my drift. Hype does sometimes live up to its … err hype, but learn to spot it to make sure you know its hype you are watching for!

Winter Sonata - the one that started it all?
Winter Sonata - the one that started it all?

4: Subtitles

All In - starring Lee Byung-hun
All In - starring Lee Byung-hun
  Yup, subtitles and availability, the biggest hurdle for any drama fans. It’s nice to watch without subtitles, but even better to understand exactly what is going on. Cliché comes in handy here as slapstick comedies and romantic dramas or any kind can still be followed. Mystery dramas without subtitles are only for the very brave (or fluent in Korean).

5: Soundtrack, poster, merchandise

  These are the weakest reason to watch anything. Don’t do it. Enjoy the songs, sure, but don’t let them fool you. Sometimes they are better than the drama. Sometimes the poster is the only good thing and the merchandise better made.

I’ll be reviewing some dramas soon, so just for the record on personal taste: I do like the more unusual dramas, do not like the so-called ‘classics’ much, am not a fan of Kwon Sang-woo, and love to spot and kill clichés. I’ll be honest in my reviews whatever my bias towards the stars, right down to the reasons why I chose to watch the drama in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Saharial’s guide to Korean TV Drama

  1. I am a huge fan of Korean dramas and I totally agree with the tips you have given in your article. I once bought a bootleg copy of Princess Hours and it stopped working midway through the last episode. Plus, I had to read these poorly written English subtitles filled with wrong grammar and wrong spellings. Buying original DVDs of Korean TV series is truly the way to go

    Zooey Korean TV Drama Reviews

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