Why Korean TV Dramas Are the Best TV to Watch Right Now - K-Drama Appreciation Essay

Korean Dramas on Netflix Have Been the Savior of My Sophomore Pandemic Year

From our couch, slurping grocery store ramyun in our underwear, we’re traveling again—a world away on you.

Well into my sophomore pandemic year, I’ve become excellent at watching television. I know when a torture scene is around the corner in Handmaid’s Tale (when isn’t it?), and I have a knack for guessing who’s going to die next in Ozark. I adore these shows, but cuddling up to my husband to watch another round of chase-gore-sex-repeat felt a little Groundhog Day—the very feeling we were looking to escape. So, when a friend recommended a Korean dramedy called Crash Landing on You, it sounded refreshingly strange. Crash Landing alone would be a great title but the “on you” says so much. Just add “on you” to any of your favorite shows: 30 Rock on You. The Leftovers on You. Seinfeld on You. With nostalgia for our former life in Koreatown, L.A., my husband James and I hit play.

In the Netflix original series, a South Korean face cream mogul accidentally paraglides into the demilitarized zone and onto a hot North Korean soldier. The red-star-crossed-lovers rom com is brilliant on so many levels—think North Korean Outlander but make it funny. There’s a North Korean defector on the writing staff, so it’s an unusually informed look at South Korea’s grumpy upstairs neighbor (impossibly romantic coincidences and balls-out camp aside.) We quickly binged the whole series and, by the end, Korean television had crash landed on our hearts. So we dove into the world of Netflix K-dramas, which has proven as endless and addictive as a BTS playlist.

We’re now deep into It’s Okay to Be Not Okay, in which a famous, sociopathic children’s book writer falls in love with a psychiatric nurse that works at the kind of institution she should probably be checked into, all while living in a mansion haunted by her mother’s ghost—I mean, why didn’t HBO think of that? The fashion alone is worth watching for, along with the blindingly obvious product placement. Key conversations take place at Subway, the shots littered with enough green-and-yellow logos to give you a seizure. And every character, regardless of age or economic status, got there in a brand new Volvo. There are multiple Volvo vs. Volvo chase scenes (spoiler alert: a Volvo always wins.) The handing of Volvo keys is the highest sign of trust. It’s so blatant it feels like ironic performance art worthy of an off-Greenwich Village stage.

Episodes run around the length of a Disney movie. And there are usually about sixteen. One season. Sixteen movies. It’s amazing. But an adjustment for the Hollywood viewer. After our incessant gushing, our friend Dan watched Crash Landing on You and said he felt like he needed Ritalin to make it through the first episode. The storytelling is slow, thorough, and zen. Climactic scenes are replayed from various points of view so it occasionally feels like being trapped in a conversation with your drunk aunt who tells you the same story multiple times (which begs the question: am I becoming that aunt?) But patience is rewarded with some of the most hypnotic cinema, ever. By the end, we’d spent so much time with these characters, saying goodbye felt like a breakup.

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There’s a deeper reason Dan wasn’t hooked: no boobs. K-dramas are prude and sometimes the only action you get after ten hours of subtitles is a long, slow mo hug that is panned in on from every angle. But what’s lacking in nudity is made up for with steamy Korean food porn. Sex is great, but have you tried Galbi Jjim? Sure, we felt blue-balled when the romantic climax to twenty some hours of television was a make out sesh beneath slowly falling cherry blossoms (all the kissing scenes seem to have something falling: Snow. Rain. Petals. Confetti). Which is maybe? Some kind of? Analogy? But after the bountiful TV sex and violence that got us through 2020, the innocence itself was novel.

We’re not alone in our adoration: K-dramas, which were already huge in much of the world, exploded during the pandemic. Along with K-pop and Korean beauty products, K-dramas have swept the Earth in what the Chinese call “Hallyu,” the Korean wave. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is among the ten most binged Netflix shows in several South American countries as well as Russia, Canada, Australia, and my living room.

The Hallyu has even hit North Korea, changing the way its citizens see their neighbors to the South—and themselves. There’s a black market for smuggling South Korean dramas into the dictatorship which is obviously not fucking cool with Kim Jong Un. Watching or owning South Korean media up North will get you 5-15 years in labor camps—and people are doing it anyway. K-dramas are so good, people are risking their lives to watch them.

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What, exactly, is so compelling about these shows. Is it the eye-popping fashion? The K-poppy soundtracks? The cinematic views of the South Korean coast? The frequent and dramatic grabbing of wrists? If I’m honest, I don’t care to know. Wanting to escape my comfort zone was what drew me to K-dramas in the first place. I like wondering why the characters are singing to a tomato plant and if there’s really that much yelling in Korean workplaces. I like wondering how many references I’m missing. I like wondering.

Yesterday, we watched the main characters of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay finally kiss—finally. To my surprise, James gasped and covered his mouth with both hands, stunned. My giant husband who has grown unphased by murder and sex scenes alike, gasped at an on-screen kiss like a tween girl. He was far away, in a land where spicy noodles abound and kisses are Blockbuster again. Especially at Subway. From our couch, slurping grocery store ramyun in our underwear, we’re traveling again—a world away on you.

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