Words By Catarina Vicente
Photo Illustration by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
It was during the 2000s that K-pop created such a big reaction from Western audiences that the market for Korean exports boomed. Soon, there was a growing buzz surrounding everything Korean-related, dubbed the ‘Hallyu Wave’, which included skincare, music, food… and K-Dramas.
Western audiences fell in love with K-Dramas, and with growing accessibility to entertainment media such as Netflix, there is now more demand than ever for Korean television. K-Dramas have many similar aspects, from tropes to plotlines to character types, including: love triangles, a strong but clumsy female protagonist, a rich male love interest, a scheming matriarch, the evil female rival — some are so copied that they have become parodies within K-Dramas themselves. Despite these clichés, there is a vital element to K-Dramas that keeps audiences coming back for more. The stark similarity among the most famous K-Dramas (Descendants of the Sun, Boys Over Flowers, Goblin) is the epic, strong love story between the protagonists.
‘It’s the cheesy love stories that truly hook Western audiences.’
Fans fawn over the chaste, small gestures between the love interests, whose romance appears far more innocent than those in Western shows. As most shows end after one season, with a rare few getting a second season, audiences are left wanting more, and thus move on to the next K-Drama.
At the forefront of the propagation of K-Dramas globally, Netflix is now dipping its hand into creating its original K-Dramas with great success: My First First Love received a vast number of favourable reviews, and Itaewon Class, although not a Netflix original, became more popular after its acquisition by Netflix.
However, both fans and writers of these K-Dramas note differences between the K-Dramas created by Netflix and those created for TV. Some writers claim they feel freer in their writing for Netflix originals, and as viewership ratings don’t influence the screenwriting process, the attitude of fans does not influence plotlines. Netflix original K-dramas may touch on topics that TV K-Dramas stray away from. The recent Itaewon Class featured a transgender character, a black half-Korean character, and discussed topics like the corrupt power of chaebols (business conglomerates) and attitudes toward the growing diversity in Itaewon, the area in Seoul where the show takes place.
Scenes can also be more graphic: writer Kim Eun-Hee says scenes involving knives or decapitation in her Netflix show Kingdom would have been blurred on Korean TV. Netflix original K-Dramas seem to be straying from the original K-Drama formula of a vital love story too: in its debut season, Kingdom had no love plotline, and yet the series was still positively received – although that’s not to say Netflix isn’t investing in romance shows, with My First First Love and My Only Love Song under its belt.
Netflix is even taking chances with style and length of programs: Persona, a mini-series starring Lee Ji-eun (IU), consists of 4 episodes concerning entirely different storylines directed by different directors. The possibilities for Netflix to explore seem promising, as it gains a stronger foothold in the Western market of K-Dramas.
What lies in the future for K-Dramas? And how will it stray from the path of K-Dramas created for Korean TV? Only time will tell, but with upcoming releases such as Sweet Home, a Netflix original K-Drama based on a webtoon revolving around a tragedy-stricken boy discovering malevolent monsters in real life, it appears that the platform won’t shy away from exploring prevailing social topics.