The Humanity of Kdramas

It isn’t just because there’s a new slew of great K-dramas unrelentingly minted every season—which there are. Or that there are thousands of fans who are always eager to share their own experience with the newly arrived—which they do. Or the slow, smoldering way in which Yoo In-na says “S.U.N.N.Y.” (which kind of is, TBH). But what makes me love watching Kdramas is that they are the most humane stories about being human that are told today. I know. That’s a pretty bold statement.


Up until about eight months ago, my exposure to storytelling was exclusively Western, in the sense that, as Aristotle’s poetics would have it, anything that was not directly related to the spine of the plot was a waste. Centuries later, that concept has an almost religious adherence in the way Hollywood goes about its business. It’s all about the cold, calculating structure of the thing.

And while that has led to academically “important” films and TV shows, it leaves one somewhat untouched and uninvolved. It’s like looking at a famous statue from antiquity that follows every rule of construction and accepted aesthetic measurements of its time and lamenting, “It’s nice but… meh.”

And then I watched the first episode of “Goblin: The Lonely and Great God.” I mean, even now, as I type the title, scenes from the series still flash across my mind and I get emotional. I can hear the music still in my head. That sort of thing doesn’t normally happen, at least not to me.

I felt more “stuff” in the Goblin series than I have in the last 10 years of watching western-style films and TV shows. And so, I’ve become delightfully addicted. Because, at the heart of Kdramas (of those I’ve watched so far) is the admission that we are, all of us, flawed in some very important ways. But more than that, by finding a community of similarly flawed folks, whether it’s a group of scootering delivery-people working together to save a beloved elderly woman’s restaurant against the tides of “progress,” or two detectives working together across time to solve cold-cases, or even a goblin and a grim reaper working together to save a “special case” from certain death, we can somehow be saved—from ourselves no less—with the help of others.

The “drama” in Kdramas is not left up on the screen as in western storytelling. It sets up shop in our heads: we yearn for our lover not to give up their fight, nor to give up on themselves, nor to give up on us, damaged as we are. Those people up there are in it together. And we want to be in it with them. We don’t merely watch Kdramas, we experience them. The death of a grandfather is the death of our grandfather.

Goddess hugs Eun-tak

They even break the bounds of time and space to bring people together to work for a common cause, which is, ultimately, to fix us. When the bathed-in-red Goddess of Birth and Fate enters Eun-tak’s graduating classroom—one that’s filled with mothers preening over their spoiled children—she carries flowers to give to the essentially motherless Eun-tak. It’s a beautifully sad scene that makes you smile and cry at the same time. There are hardly any words, just the Goddess’ high-heeled footsteps across the wooden floor of the classroom, striking everyone into silence and drawing their eyes up to her. She gives Eun-tak a gentle hug, letting her know that she’s never really alone and that someone is always watching over her. That’s actually a great comfort to those of us who have a difficult time finding comfort in the usual places.

In the main, Kdramas remind me of the “mono no aware” or the sadness of the soul as expressed in (the decay of) beautiful things. Even a happy ending contains its own sadness that alludes to the fact that, well, this is not going to last. But you may find hope, after all, in the humanity of it all.

Kdramas, to me, are a gentle reminder: You’re flawed. It’s okay to cry. Keep fighting.

Comment from GDhunter

Thank you DramaBrahma, for this wonderful essay that reminds me of one powerful attribute of Korean dramas—their ability to get us drawn into the characters’ situations, and ultimately, their world. While I am mainly fascinated by the dramas’ representation of reality in a fictional setting, you particularly find the humane stories they tell the driving force behind your love for them. This kind of shows truly excels at having a humane narrative that gets us involved in the characters’ lives in a way we could hardly experience by watching non-Korean TV series. And whether the show is a melodramatic romance or a gripping crime thriller, that sense of involvement is always there.  As a result, as you’ve said, we do not merely watch Kdramas, we experience them. (GOBLIN SPOILER ALERT!!!) The death of Eun-tak in Goblin is the death of a dear friend we adore so much or, much worse, the death of those who identify themselves as an extension or a duplicate of her character.

Note: The Humanity of Kdramas is one of the entries to our Kdrama Writing Contest about what made you love watching Korean dramas.