Tuesday, November 14, 2006

postal scrotum: Charles on "drama envy"

The Liminal One writes:

Excellent post on Korean dramas. As you know, the subject of Korean dramas is something of a pet whipping boy of mine. I suppose one of these days I'll get around to writing an entry on them. Or maybe I'll just dump all my ideas on you.

In that spirit, I'd like to point out one crucial factor contributing to the suckitude of Korean TV dramas that you seemed to have missed: the way they are written. I'm talking specifically about serial dramas here (if you've ever watched non-serial sit-com type Korean shows, you notice that they are automatically much better simply for the lack of this flaw; they obviously have more going for them than just the lack of this flaw--I don't watch much TV these days, but in the past I have enjoyed a number of Korean sit-coms--but that's another story entirely). I'm not sure if there's such a thing as a non-serial drama (isn't one of the defining features of a drama a continuous storyline?), but I figured I'd cover my bases.

What do I mean by "the way they are written?" Allow me to explain with an anecdote. The other day I was explaining to Hyunjin the challenges of writing a serial novel at full speed without stopping to edit along the way. You invariably create plot holes and inconsistencies as you think of new ways the story can go, and you often end up tying yourself in knots just trying to make what you write next fit with what you've already written. She listened, nodded, and then said, "That's pretty much the problem with television dramas." I had to laugh, because that's exactly the problem with television dramas. The writers come up wtih an idea for a story and then pretty much write it as they go along. So if they're writing a twenty-episode drama, they may not have a very clear idea where they're going to be at Episode 20 when they start writing Episode 1. I'm not exactly sure how the writing process goes for American serial dramas, but judging by the ones I've seen ( 24, Lost), they at least have a very good idea of where they're going, if not an entire season script written in advance. In the case of 24 for example, I can't see how you could possibly shoot a show like that without having the script written in advance.

Ah, but there's another side to this coin, and it clouds the waters a bit. You mentioned "viewer demand" in your entry, but you didn't touch on what I consider to be the most important effect of viewer demand on Korean serial dramas: when viewer's actually change the course of the story. In some popular dramas, fans have so vocally protested the impending death of certain characters that the writers have actually changed the story to allow the character to live. Can you imagine the havoc that would wreak on a carefully conceived story? Can you imagine something like that happening on Lost or 24? I sure can't. (Bit o' trivia: In the pilot episode of Lost, Jack was actually supposed to die, but when the studio execs saw it they said "You can't kill off the main character in the first show!" So they changed it and let Jack live, undoubtedly changing the way they wrote the rest of the season. This was a pilot, though, and thus before the public ever saw the show, so it's a very different kind of thing. I can't imagine Lost fans protesting the death of a character and then seeing the writers rewrite the story so that he or she lives.)

So it's a bit of a combination of factors that has devolved into a feedback loop that almost ensures that the level of fragmentation in a story line is directly proportional to that drama's popularity. Viewers know that storylines are fluid ( i.e., more or less made up as they go along) and thus their protests can actually have an effect on them. This ties the writers' hands--even if they wanted to write a storyline in advance, the uncertainties of the market practically guarantee that they will have to rewrite anyway, so why bother going through all the trouble? In a word, the suckitude of Korean serial dramas is the product of the environment in which said dramas are created and consumed. American TV dramas may be an open book, but unless you actually have the freedom to put the ideas into practice, reading about them is probably only going to depress you.

Just my two cents.


I agree that I glossed over the issue of how Korean shows are written, but that's mainly because I don't have a TV and am not plugged into the Korean pop culture scene, so I have little notion of a given series' long-term narrative arc. Your second point, however, strikes me as a subset of my own very general point re: viewer demand, so I think we're both in agreement. I was interested to read the finer details in your missive, though; I wasn't aware of the ins and outs of Korean drama storylines and had little idea about the degree of influence the Korean viewership enjoys.

There are American analogues to this, however: Patrick Duffy's character in the 1980s TV series "Dallas" was brought back from the dead in an "it was all a dream" plot contrivance. In the movies, Mr. Spock himself was brought back from the dead in "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock" after Trekkie protest at Paramount Studios following the release of "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan," in which Spock sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise. In other words, American viewers also carry some weight with their own writers. But if I can interpret your larger point to mean that American viewers don't have the same kind of intimate relationship with a TV show's writers that Korean viewers seem to enjoy with theirs, then I agree.

The ultimate story about this phenomenon-- the writer controlled by his audience-- is, of course, Stephen King's novel Misery, about an author who suffers a car accident and finds himself trapped in the home of his "biggest fan," a deranged woman who insists that he bring back her favorite character, Misery Chastain, after he had already killed her off in a recent story.

Meanwhile, we both can agree that Korean dramas need a lot of help. For foreigners, these dramas might best be seen as language aids. Then again, whether they teach true "saeng-hwal-hanguk-eo" is another subject for discussion.

Other readers: you're missing out if you haven't been following Charles's NaNoWriMo novel, which is, at its 13th chapter, already past the 30,000-word mark. Check it out! If I were to pitch it as a movie scenario, I'd call it "Dan Brown meets JK Rowling, with a dash of Lonely Planet UK, Hamlet, Umberto Eco, and Steven Spielberg.


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