Monday, November 13, 2006

sucks to have drama envy

From Smoo's English-language magazine, The Times, I see the following from an article about TV dramas (the article's author is a Smoo student, probably undergrad):

People often compare our dramas to American dramas such as the above-mentioned Sex and the City and Yeowooya.... These days more and more people are watching American dramas. They say American dramas have a big scale, solid story line and above all, the subjects are [varied] and [specific] as well. "[Once] you see an American drama, you will get shocked and then immediately fall for it. And [you] can't [watch] Korean dramas again." ...Because of these factors, 'Midmaniacs' (people who like American dramas) have appeared. ...Compared to American dramas, Korean dramas look rather shabby.

I'm not a fan of Korean dramas. When I was in the States during the late 90s and early double-aughts, I would occasionally watch an episode or two with my mother on cable TV, and I remember being more attracted to the scenery-- the Korea I remembered and missed-- than to the actors and the plot.

However, in defense of Korean dramas I'll submit that there is something to be said for consistency and repetitiveness: these are aspects of a series that comfort the viewer, like knowing that a Big Mac is more or less a Big Mac no matter what country you're in. And truth be told, American TV series don't reinvent the wheel every episode, either: there's plenty of consistency and repetition there as well; it's how you maintain a stream of return customers. Korean dramas definitely fill a niche, and if the Smoo Times article's author is worried about the progress of the Korean Wave (hallyu), I think she can wait a few years before things come to a head.

My mother is convinced that the quality of the acting in Korean dramas shows a significant improvement over the acting in Korean TV shows gone by. Perhaps; I'm not as impressed as she is, but I do enjoy the acting in the Korean movies I've seen. Korean TV acting doesn't yet rival the acting in American TV dramas, but I see no reason why this should always be true.

At this point, I think I've said enough in defense of Korean dramas, so let's address this question of their "shabbiness." Wherefore the shabbiness?

Two reasons immediately leap to mind: (1) viewer demand, and (2) limited budgets. I think most Korean viewers are quite satisfied with Korean dramas-- the reassuringly predictable storylines, the general lack of all the violence, sex, and flowing blood (literal and metaphorical) that characterize American TV, and the fact that these dramas deal directly with cultural issues burbling just beneath the surface of Korean public consciousness. In other words, Koreans can relate to the issues in Korean dramas.

It goes without saying that limited budgets are also a problem. Korean dramas appear to be videotaped, placing them perhaps one or two notches above 1980s porn in terms of visual quality. The settings are never particularly elaborate (most appear to be location shots, with some low-rent studio work thrown in), and the conspicuous lack of car chases, stunt falls, and gushing bullet wounds is an indicator of the shoestring on which peninsular dramas appear to be made.

I think the Smoo writer might have a point, though: she says that many Koreans are viewing American dramas online (I have no idea who's doing the subtitling if these are bootlegged downloads), and that, in essence, a sort of "American Wave" is happening inside Korea, even as hallyu runs its course in other countries. This is a prime example of the double-edged nature of the internet, which allows the frog to peek out of its well and see what's happening in the larger world. Quite unlike the overt and self-conscious efforts of President Kim Young Sam to "globalize" South Korea, this sort of unconscious, curious-in-spite-of-myself cultural cross-pollination might represent a true form of globalization. The question, of course, is whether Korean media bigwigs will "get it," and understand that it's not the particular style of any given American show that needs to be adopted, but the mindset behind the show. This mindset-- innovative, envelope-pushing-- is what the Korean public is probably responding to when they watch American dramas.

But let's not call this a win for American TV quite yet. First, American TV is 99 percent shit. Koreans will rapidly discover this as they illegally tap into American satellite channels. Second, American TV follows its own formulae, which become easier to identify as one grows more accustomed to watching our shows. Third, the Korean drama viewership is a luxury liner that isn't about to turn on a dime; young college women (and some men) might find themselves enamored of American TV, but the older generation has its loyalties, and the Korean industry must continue to pander to geezerly tastes.

It would actually be a good thing if Korean TV execs could figure out how best to hybridize the better elements of American and Korean TV to create something uniquely Korean. Innovation is key, especially as the Korean attention span shrivels to the same length as the American attention span. American TV offers other countries a good case study in what to do and what not to do: our shows exemplify both imagination and a total lack of it (see, for example, the way different studios create similar, rival TV programs to try to hit the same market: "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family" come to mind, as do "ER" and "Chicago Hope"). The history of our TV is an open, sacred text; I hope Korean studio execs are perceptive enough to read and exegete it.


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