Welcome to the Hallyu Wave, the crazy, addicting world of Korean dramas. But just what is this world all about? Let me explain…
The Korean Wave or Hallyu Wave
The Korean wave, also known as the Hallyu Wave, is the name given to the spreading of Korean culture. It began in the mid-90’s with K-pop (Korean pop music) but now includes TV shows and movies. The Wave exploded internationally in 2003 with the airing of Dae Jang Geum (also known as: Jewel in the Palace) a historical drama set in the time of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. It tells the real story of Jang Geum, a young girl who was the first woman to become the King’s supreme royal physician in a male-dominated society. You can learn more about the Hallyu Wave here.
Korean dramas, or K-dramas, are South Korean television shows. They typically run for one season, very rarely does a show carry on into a second or third season. K-dramas are all about relationships… most shows focus on a central love story, family ties, and/or other relationships, especially those with a contemporary setting.
Historical set stories, called sageuk, tend to involve historical figures (royals, warriors, famous people, etc.), events, political situations, or are simply set in a historic backdrop. Most sageuk are typically set during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Learn more about sageuk’s here.
K-dramas have, for Westerns, the unique characteristic of being shot continuously (though this is beginning to shift) unlike American television. Sometimes production can wrap on a K-drama hours before it airs. This makes the shows very fluid, with the final ending not necessarily set in stone. It also means its not uncommon for viewer ratings and feedback to have an influence on the length of the series (extending a 16-episode show to 20, canceling a show, or changing the love interest). I’ve seen more than one show in which the original hero does not end up with the heroine, the second male lead does, and that usually only comes about because of viewer feedback. I’ve also seen dramas in which the show wrapped up the story very suddenly, at say episode 14 instead of 16, leaving parts of a subplot or character arc unresolved.
K-dramas typically run for 16-24 episodes, with daily dramas (similar to American soap operas) and historicals running between 50-200 episodes. New episodes usually air two nights a week (for example, Tuesday and Wednesday nights), with the last episode of the week ending on a big cliffhanger to entice you to come back the following week.
There are also short-series which can run anywhere from 4-12 episodes. They’re still 45-60 minute episodes but the show is structured in length more as what Westerners would refer to as a mini-series. And recently a newer format has been introduced, in which episodes are only 10-15 minutes long and run for only 8-20 episodes. This format still gives you a full storyline but in a shorter time frame of 4-5 hours instead of 16-20. These bite-sized shows allow for easy viewer consumption while on the go – like on the bus, the subway, or between classes or meetings.
Like American television, the world of K-dramas can be broken down into genres. The most common being:
Within these dramas there are common themes in every show. Some of the most common themes include:
Love triangles are often referred to as a “love line.” This is the most common theme in K-dramas and the complexity of this web can get pretty intricate. But you can always bet that there will be a love triangle of some kind – if not a love square. Typically there are two guys falling for one girl, but its more common to have two guys falling for the same girl plus another girl falling for one of the guys in a crazy twisted storyline that tests the budding romance of the lead characters. This is where the dreaded Second Male Lead Syndrome kicks in, as in some eyes the heroine chooses the wrong guy.
A contract is a common plot device used to connect the two main characters so they’re forced to interact with one another on a daily basis, and who of course, end up falling in love. A common contract is a dating contract. The main characters agree to “date” as a way to say – stop a meddling mother from forcing the main character (usually the hero) from going on blind dates in the hopes that he’ll marry someone of her choosing.
This theme is the go-to for many shows, and its one that’s fun to watch. The classic love-hate relationship starts out with the heroine and hero completely hating one other but whose mutual dislike eventually fades to love as the story progresses.
Almost every K-drama includes rags-to-riches elements, where one of the main characters rises from poverty (or what is perceived as poverty to the rich person) to a position of wealth through love and marriage. Chaebol sons (heirs of mega corporations – i.e. super rich and good looking guys) are staples of the K-drama world. Often spoiled and snobby they are brought down a peg or two by a heroine who’s not well off but has a heart of gold.
There’s no better way to force characters to interact than having them work together, typically at a large corporation run by a chaebol family. Here we get to see them bounce of one another on a daily basis while they navigate (and compete in) the world of work and romance. With this storyline the hero is typically the boss, or in some other position of power, but it isn’t uncommon to have the heroine cast in the role of the power position though they’re rarer.
First loves are a common occurrence in K-dramas. Usually the main characters are experiencing the first pangs of love together or struggling to overcome the scars they received from their first loves who often reappear to throw a monkey wrench in the new love they are just discovering. First loves doesn’t always work out, but when they do (which is most of the time) they are heartwarming to watch.
Flower Boys are all the rage right now. Basically they are very good looking men (usually from money) with model-like good looks. They have great hair, great clothes, not to mention a great body. They’re also charming, so much so that every girl falls for them. The K-drama world love these guys for their looks, cool charm, and often playful cuteness. You can learn more about the definition of Flower Boys here.
Coming of Age/High School Dramas
High school-based coming of age stories are very popular. Typically starring an ensemble cast of characters these stories take the characters (and viewers) through the oftentimes rocky road to adulthood – from first love and heartache that sometimes follows, to the pressures of family and friends, to chasing dreams and finding your own path in life.
Shows based on comic books or manga
In the last few years there has been an explosion of K-dramas based on manga (Japanese comic books), translating to some of the biggest hits in the Hallyu Wave – shows like Boys Over Flowers,Mischevious Kiss, and City Hunter. More recently webtoons (web-based comics) are almost making a splash in the K-drama world.
Made popular by shows like Coffee Prince and You Are Beautiful, gender bending shows feature a woman who’s passing herself off as a boy. Keeping her identity secret leads to laughs, lies, and of course, love.
The K-drama world wouldn’t be complete without K-pop stars. Not only are some of the biggest names in music stepping into the acting world (many finding amazing success), the K-drama world loves stories that feature characters searching and struggling for K-pop stardom. Many of these shows have musical numbers that hit the pop charts thanks to the talented professional singers who bring them to the small screen.
K-dramas wouldn’t be K-dramas without drama. And the best drama comes from characters’ whose lives are connected in ways they don’t realize. These connections are usually bombshells to alliances and budding romances alike. Seeing how the characters learn about, react to, and overcome their intwined fates is always a fascinating process to watch – and makes for some of the best television I’ve ever seen.
What I Watch
Personally I’m a big fan of romantic comedies and melodramas, and of course fantasy/paranormal stories.