Exactly three years ago today, I finished binge-watching my very first Korean drama. Back in the summer days of 2014, I didn’t really imagine I could enjoy watching this kind of TV show that rarely attracts the male audience. But on April 21 in that year, out of sheer boredom and curiosity, I tried to watch the first episode of City Hunter.
Since then I have watched a total of 40 Korean dramas (on average, about 13 per year). I put the blame on City Hunter’s impressive storytelling and badass cliffhangers which left me longing for the next episodes. I was entirely immersed in its narrative—in its fictional world and characters—that I felt so depressed in the following day (April 22, 2014) after watching the 20th and final episode. On that very day, City Hunter became my favorite TV show of all time.
But City Hunter didn’t hold that title long enough. As my interest in Korean dramas grew I was able to watch many series that are better than it is in so many ways, forcing me to name another favorite. What I once thought as the best TV show turned out to be just a forgettable speck in the mammoth world of Korean popular culture that is kdrama. In my three years of viewing experience, the three dramas below have reasonably taken up residence in my ‘fanboy’ soul. These are now my favorite shows.
I found out about Reply 1988 in late December of 2015 but completely ignored it despite the positive reviews it got and its immense popularity for the simple reason that it is considered a family drama. Family drama? No, that’s not my cup of tea, so I really didn’t care about it. However, two months later, as I was reading reviews and finding something to watch again I eventually gave it a try. The first episode is just fine but the second one got me hooked. Completely.
So I went on watching and concluded that it was an amazing show. Wow, how can there be a drama like that? Reply 1988 surprised me because it offered a kind of show that I never encountered before. Because it is a family drama, I expected it to have some complicated plots that would make its story interesting and watchable. In contrast, I got the opposite; it offered me with lots of simple plots that still managed to make its story interesting and enjoyable.
There are no revenge arcs, convoluted revelations, or melodramatic romances that often characterize most dramas out there. Instead, Reply 1988 simply tells a story depicting the ordinary lives of ordinary people living in the same neighborhood. There’s no even one central conflict or something of that sort to kind of give the drama a certain direction towards the ending. Someone who haven’t seen it might say then that it may be predictable and boring. But no. As it literally narrates the daily lives of characters, it’s actually difficult to predict what’s going to happen next. And also, it is not boring; in fact, it will make you laugh so hard several times in each episode.
So what did I like about this show that it has become one of my top 3 favorites in three years? I stumbled upon a review in Dramabeans (by girlfriday) that accurately captures what I have to say:
“The strength of this ensemble series was in showing that friendship and familial love could have as much nuance and pathos as any love story, and that you didn’t need villains to drive a conflict or make you watch with your heart in your throat. Real life was drama enough, and the emotions that came from everyday people facing realistic concerns like putting food on the table were immediately accessible, no matter where you lived or how old you may have been in 1988.”
Another show that stands out from all the 40 kdramas I’ve watched in three years is last year’s Signal. I am a voracious consumer of thriller and crime dramas, so I had the chance to enjoy and be disappointed at some of these shows. There is one in particular that made me said at the end of the final episode, ‘Oh, I just finished squandering 20 hours of my life. It’s good and bad news at the same time.’ That experience taught me to become wary of dramas that use the thrill and suspense factor to an unacceptable extent, dropping nonsensical cliffhangers at the end that serves no purpose other than to persuade the viewers to watch the next episode. That’s why when Signal became the talk of the town in February 2016, I was reluctant to give it a try.
However, a lot of comments online really said that it was so good so I watched it and found out that indeed, it deserved the praise and attention it received. The drama is about a modern-day criminal profiler who gets to communicate with a police officer living in 1989 via a magical walkie-talkie. It deals with the time travel concept (although no one is literally travelling through time) in a way so damn amazing.
This drama is so good because it properly exploits the mystery and thrill aspect so profoundly, giving you an emotionally gripping and genuinely thrilling experience that leaves you in awe of the happenings in certain scenes. However, what makes Signal one of my top three favorites of all time is its ability to incorporate human drama into the intricate web of past and present events in the show. As more than a mystery thriller show it does not merely makes you glued on your seats at the sudden turn of events, it also drives you deeply emotional over the heart-breaking suffering of the characters as they demand justice and face the consequences of their action.
Like Reply 1988, Misaeng is not your typical Korean drama. When I was watching this, I was really impressed by my realization that Korean television networks (tvN in particular) are getting away—not too far away though—from the usual romance-themed series and exploring new dramas that are realistic and centered on character development. What compelled me to watch Korean dramas until now is the fact that not all of them are romantic comedies bearing no substance in their stories. There is plenty of genre to choose from.
Misaeng is a slice-of-life drama that tells the story of Jang Geu-rae, a former baduk player who gets hired as an intern at a large trading company through a connection. Later on he manages to get a two-year contract that lets him continue working in the company as an employee. The drama essentially depicts what it is like to live in a corporate world for a person like Geu-rae, a regular worker who have nothing on his resume but a high school equivalency exam.
The best thing that I like about this drama is its realistic portrayal of the day-to-day routine of regular office workers. And like Reply 1988, there is no villain or an exaggerated conflict that will put the main character in danger. It simply tells the story of Jang Geu-rae as he navigates and adapt to the corporate world and the story of the people who have become part of his life when he enters the company. But it does so in an extraordinary way that creates a certain connection between itself and the viewer (you). As a result you will be able to relate to the characters even if you yourself have never experienced the unfavorable ambiance in the corporate world.
Misaeng is not the kind of show you would expect to become a hit. But it managed to become a cultural phenomenon during its run, recording abnormally high viewer ratings and receiving critical acclaim. It is gratifying to know that many people in South Korea seemed to like and enjoy the drama as much as I did.
You can notice that Reply 1988, Signal, and Misaeng are all tvN dramas. Plus, all of these aired on Fridays and Saturdays and are relatively recent dramas. However, there is no TV station and time bias involved in the way I selected my top 3 favorites. Only 20 % of the total dramas I saw were broadcast on tvN and I watched dramas as old as the ones aired in 2002.
I feel good realizing that these kind of shows exist in the world. In the country where I grew up, there is no drama like Reply 1988 or Misaeng (or maybe I’m just not aware of their existence). The evening television program in the place where I live is flooded with the usual telenovelas that uses recycled drama tropes and barely offers options for the male viewers like me.
I’ve been watching Korean dramas for three years now. It has naturally become part of my life as an ordinary guy who, like any other man within my age bracket, watches anime and play a lot of computer games during leisure (or procrastinating) time. Nevertheless, watching Kdramas is not just a form of entertainment for me. Such an activity has become an avenue for me to learn something new, get to know individuals whom I would have never met in real life, and understand more how this complicated world called earth works. I think I will never stop watching.
(A FANBOY’S PERSPECTIVE is a weekly feature in Kdramapal about anything related to Korean dramas, from a man’s point of view. For your feedback and questions, you can email the author at [email protected], message us on our Facebook page, or comment on this post below.)