Hello! Here's the script for the episode on k-dramas.
Welcome to the Press X to Fall in Love podcast. This is your host, pseu, and I am a librarian in the midwestern united states who makes heart eyes at... a lot of things. In this episode I’ll be talking about K-Dramas.
I’m going to provide a short introduction, briefly touch on some important things to know if you’re new to K-dramas, and list some romance titles I think are great places to start to get to know this type of media. K-dramas are not exclusively romantic, but many are, and of course I’ll be focusing on those for the podcast.
So… what is a k-drama?
The “k” stands for “Korean”-- these shows are made by production companies in the Republic of Korea, and their scripts and most of their settings are of course Korean. Both thanks to and as part of hallyu, the global “wave” of Korean popular culture, these shows are widely subtitled in English and available digitally through streaming services and some dedicated fan groups.
Scripted K-dramas, which are what I’m going to talk about here, are usually one season of around 15 episodes, and each episode is 60 to 90 minutes long. These seasons tell intense stories from start to finish-- individual episodes may end in cliffhangers (and they do), but the season will have an ending, usually a tidy happily ever after. If you’ve never seen one before, I think the best comparison is something like a premium cable show or an original BBC miniseries: self contained, single-season shows that pack in A LOT of story. Unlike an English language show like Shameless or Game of Thrones, K-dramas are sometimes not fully produced before they begin to air. They aren’t broadcast live, but they aren’t entirely filmed and processed before the season begins, either. Social media response to the first few broadcasts can influence the writing and direction for a show as it progresses. As you can imagine, this makes for a very engaged fanbase as the drama airs. I think the closest we get in the states to that level of investment and control are talent programs where viewers are encouraged to vote for their favorite performers.
Production quality on these shows is stellar. The filming is clean and well-lit, and even though I rely on subtitles I have never had to adjust the volume of a drama because the sound suddenly got too loud or too low. The original soundtracks for k-dramas are filled with catchy songs, often performed by popular artists. As you watch a show you’ll learn which theme plays when and when it’s worth hoping that maybe THIS!!! will be the scene! when they kiss! … Or know that someone onscreen is going to pop the bubble of the moment soon.
There are a lot of those will they or won’t they kiss?! moments, because romance is always right at the front of the story, with a parallel mystery or Big Threat subplot to propel things forward and sometimes provide contrast or something for the characters to work on together. Even series that are mostly lighthearted in tone lean into being dramas, so watching one can really take you places, emotionally. I’m a calm TV watcher, but k-dramas make me cry, they make me sigh, they make me laugh outloud.
When you begin to watch Korean dramas, you’ll probably notice some storytelling strategies that show up in multiple productions but aren’t common in western shows. It would make a fun bingo card! Here are a few of the things you’ll see (or hear) more than once:
- Dog whimpering sound effects
- If a character is chastised, the sound of a puppy whimpering usually follows it up to drive home the feeling of shame they should be experiencing.
- Slow-motion falls and catches
- Slips, wayward iceskates, marbles, whatever takes a main character off balance-- they’ll be caught in the arms of their possible romantic partner, and there will be a lonnnnnnnnnnnnng moment of looking at each other’s faces, lips slightly parted.
- People crying!
- Everybody cries! Men cry! I love it.
- “Saranghae” but not really
- It’s common for characters to jokingly (or even mockingly) declare “Saranghae” (which is “I love you”) to someone they don’t love. If this happens, it’s super likely they’ll say it and MEAN it before the end of the series. Watching that change happen sometimes feels like the whole point of a kdrama.
- You’ll also hear “saranghae” a lot in the love songs that make up a show’s soundtrack.
- Black Bean noodles and spicy chicken feet
- One or both of these dishes have come up in every Korean drama I’ve watched. I saw black bean noodles so often they became my Rapunzel, and now that I’ve had them I get why so many people want to eat them!
- As the episodes end, are Freeze Frame endings!
- As you get to know the way episodes are presented, you’ll develop a feel for when things are wrapping up. Episodes usually end on a freeze frame, and then the credits roll over other stills from the episode.
In terms of time settings for K-dramas, there are modern and historical stories. Time travel in one direction between the two is a well-used trope. Much less common are stories that feature time travel beyond the present day, and though there are k-dramas with sci-fi elements, there aren’t any that I know of set on spaceships or anything like that. Maybe to come!
There are a lot of beautiful costume dramas set in the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, especially the Joseon, which is even identified in some titles, like Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency, and Joseon X-Files. Sadly, it’s beyond the scope of this episode to explore Korean history with anything approaching the detail it deserves, but I think you’ll find that historical dramas provide really colorful, detailed glimpses of court life, and may inspire some extra-curricular research based on looks alone. I strongly recommend checking out more about Korean history, and I’ll include some primers in the episode notes.
As a viewer, though, I think you can go in blind and depend on k-dramas to provide the necessary information to understand hierarchies and relationships, even if you’re watching with subtitles. These shows are really immersive; they give you a lot to help you acclimate.
On the other side of the timeline are the modern dramas, most of which focus on romance between twenty-somethings in college or early in their professional careers. I mentioned time-travel a minute ago-- there are a significant number of shows that feature someone from Korea’s past somehow arriving in the present day, and a few that involve someone from today traveling back in time. No matter the travel direction, these series provide modern scenes and those gorgeous historical sets and fashions, so as much as we all appreciate a good either or, I think these combos are best of both worlds for new k-drama viewers.
Some modern-set shows are pure “real life” dramas without any magic or fantasy elements. Others feature them in isolation, like Strong Girl Do Bong-soon’s super strength. Goblin and Bride of the Water God incorporate the supernatural in the modern, otherwise totally natural world.
No matter when they’re set, Cinderella-style relationships and power or economic imbalances between love interests are very common in k-dramas. Every show is so different, though, and the ways relationships are explored and individual characters are explained can be surprising, even if you feel like you know where everything is going.
Alright, now it’s time for titles! I’m going to separate my recommendations into historical, modern, supernatural, and allover must-watch shows. This full list will be in the notes attached to the episode, and in the episode transcript.
For Historical dramas, I recommend:
- My Sassy Girl, set during the Joseon period, which is a mostly happy story in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Lots of court intrigue! The chemistry between the leads is SO good in this one, and because it’s set in and around a palace, the scenery and costumes are super vibrant. The villain and some of the supporting cast are a little more two dimensional than they might be if the drama were made today, but it’s got a lot of charm in a compact run of 16 episodes.
- Queen: Love and War is my second recommendation, and also a Joseon show. This one concluded very recently and is the newest of the shows I’m recommending. The female lead needs to become queen, because only with that kind of power will she be able to put the force of the kingdom behind finding her twin sister’s killer. The king has many other would-be brides, but the two of them are drawn together despite radically different views on how to use royal power.
- Thirdly, I recommend Gunman in Joseon, which is set in the late 1800s, at the end of the Joseon, so it features traditional Korean dress as well as western weapons and clothing. Some of the romantic aims-- it’s not quite a love triangle, maybe we can call it an affection trapezoid-- feel Shakespearean here. The titular gunman returns to Joseon in disguise, years after he was assumed dead.
When it comes to modern dramas, I love:
- Because this is My First Life, which deviates from what I consider a “standard” k-drama in several ways, but still ticks so many important boxes: a slow, dramatic burn of a romance; a well paired-off supporting cast; and circumstances that are out of the main characters’ control that force them to grow. The story is about two people in their thirties-- which is older than most new pairs in romantic kdramas-- who begin an extremely unconventional landlord/tenant husband/wife relationship, and how that sets them up to actually fall for each other. There’s also a super cute cat, “Kitty”. :)
- The second modern drama I recommend is What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim, which is a delightful show about a secretary who can’t work for her “perfect” executive boss anymore-- he’s so, so business smart but so, so secretary dumb. This one covers the same “Does he get it now? NOOOO!” ground a lot, but the script and performances are so good every step feels funny and fresh! This show makes me want to learn Korean so I can understand it as it’s performed. Even via subtitles: funny as hell.
For dramas that include the supernatural or some kind of magic, I recommend:
- Strong Girl Do Bong-soon, about a young woman from a family where all the girls are born with super strength, which they keep for life unless they use it for selfish purposes.
- Also Hotel del Luna, which is a story of curses, ghosts, and redemption. This one little dark, but amusing, too, and it’s really popular with my friends who like kdramas.
- My last supernatural recommendation is for Scholar Who Walks the Night, a Joseon-set Vampire story. The vampires in question are more dangerous than sexy, except for the aforementioned scholar. I haven’t finished watching this one yet, but I like it so far. It presents as dramatic even for a drama, but the actors carry it. The romance includes lost love and new love, still simmering.
And when it comes to K-dramas that you just have to see because they are so good, my two recommendations are: Goblin and Cheese in the Trap.
- Goblin broke a ton of records and at least as many hearts. It’s incredible, and it’s my favorite k-drama. You may need to look for the show as “Guardian” instead of Goblin. It takes place in modern Korea, where the Guardian/Goblin character is still alive after being betrayed by bureaucracy nearly a thousand years ago in the kingdom of Goryeo, which predates Joseon. The Goblin has traveled the world and he’s weary, but he cannot die until his fated wife pulls a magic sword (that very few people can even see) out of his chest. That’s enough to make for a compelling story, but as this series progresses the opening scene of the Goblin being betrayed becomes more and more meaningful-- every little detail is significant and every character is more than they appear. It’s not all sad, but it is all moving. I can’t recommend this one enough.
- The other must-watch from me is Cheese in the Trap. In the last episode of the podcast I mentioned the webcomic this is based on-- the drama is also REALLY, REALLY good. Usually love interests in these shows are presented as good people, maybe they’re tortured or reformed, or there’s a nod to someone being a bad boy, but still a good person. The primary male lead in Cheese in the Trap, however, is SHADY AS HELL, and the show manages to make that great.
It’s a coincidence, but these shows have the same female lead!
One more type of romance drama I want to mention before wrapping up are series that adapted from texts. Cheese in the Trap is based on a webcomic, Bride of the Water God is very loosely adapted from the manwha of the same name. Boys over Flowers and My Absolute Boyfriend are both based on popular shojo manga. So if you’re running any kind of manwha or manga club at your library, these series may be good crossover points to expand the conversations you’re having about those stories.
And that is what I’ve got for you for now!
Thank you so much for listening! If you haven’t watched any K-dramas, know that they provide a ton of heart, laughs, and drama, dependably wrapped up in a tidy way. The high production quality of these shows makes the physical experience of watching them evocative in a way that I don’t think is common in other television programs you’ve seen.
I hope that this was an easily-digestible intro to romance K-drama series! If you have any questions about titles, or ways to watch them, please feel free to reach me on twitter (@pressXpod) or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Episode notes with links to everything I referenced here are attached to the episode, and if you can hear this, a transcript of this recording is up at pressxpod.podbean.com.
Next month’s episode will be about romance situational CDs, also called Drama CDs, and I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Bye ‘til then!