Growing up, I always had a strong hatred toward Korean dramas. My parents would rent a big stack of them on VHS from Atlanta’s Koreatown and watch them on Friday nights while munching on dried squid snacks. Maybe it was a kind of Pavlovian response on my part — the smell of stinky squid forever associated with the sound of Korean actors speaking a language I only barely understand — or the fact that my parents watching their stories meant no TGIF lineup for me, but I never gave Korean soap operas, or K-dramas, a chance until recently.
A non-Korean American friend of mine had been telling me for a while that K-dramas on Hulu were crazily addictive and that we should get addicted together. I ignored her recommendation for weeks, until one day after an epic DVR and Netflix binge, I was really lacking any other TV options. I did a Hulu search for “Korean Drama.” I settled on one called Boys before Flowers, based solely on the title, and my friend was right — after two episodes, I was hooked. I watched all 25 episodes of the series and had serious withdrawal after it ended. Luckily, Hulu’s DramaFever channel had more than 20 more series, and there are thousands of episodes, all subtitled in English, available to watch for free.
You can’t enjoy a K-drama using the same standards as you would watching American TV. Even the more salacious storylines might seem pretty tame to a western audience. The popular K-dramas I’ve seen, even the most recent ones, feel like throwbacks to a less cynical time. The plots tend to unfold slowly, and teenage characters seem shocked by things that the kids on Skins wouldn’t even blink at. The humor is usually played broadly — think: Three Stooges — and poop jokes are practically guaranteed in any K-dramedy series. The minds behind Korean TV have to be doing something right, though: The ratings for the most popular K-dramas would blow those of American scripted shows out of the water, sometimes attracting more than 40 percent of South Korean households.
K-dramas can appear simplistic and downright campy to an American viewer, but they’re also fascinating and weirdly comforting in a “movie-of-the-week” kind of way — they’re not afraid to whack you over the head with an important moral lesson or social critique. Take Boys before Flowers, which is still my favorite. It’s a Gossip Girl-like allegory about Geum Jan Di, the daughter of dry cleaners, who is admitted to the impossibly exclusive, super-rich Shinhwa High School. She becomes a quick target of F4, a gang of the four richest and most feared boys on campus. They make the other students shake in their boots, but really, they’re the most hilariously dainty-looking gang I’ve ever seen. In Korea, young male actors are just as — if not more — concerned with grooming, makeup, plastic surgery, and general prettiness as female stars, and these actors are Blue Steeling up a storm whenever they’re up to their evil antics, which include throwing cake in a boy’s face for no reason or demanding that a girl lick ice cream off their boots. Jan Di, who I find lovably grating, manages to get through to the bad boys of F4 by repeatedly shouting at them that there are things that money can’t buy. You can’t miss the message about class differences here. The Chuck Bass of his high school is Goo Joon Pyo, a snarling poor-little-rich-boy who rocks a pretty sick perm and delivers his lines like a young Alan Rickman. And I get that Jan Di is working class, but does that mean she has to constantly eat with her hands? Despite the exaggerated types, the characters do grow and become more complex as the series progresses.
It’s really a charming, funny show, and others are just as good. (The titles alone are amazing.) Check out Cinderella’s Sister, Playful Kiss, Bad Boy, and Creating Destiny. I’m convinced I’m not the only one out there: PopWatchers, have you discovered — and become addicted to — Korean dramas?