Watching my reflection as the screen faded to black after binging on Netflix’s recent addition It's Okay to Not Be Okay for the second time in a row—after a series of other K-drama binges—I suddenly realised that this was vastly different from my pre-pandemic viewing habits. I usually don’t watch eight straight shows in a month—all belonging to the same bracket. I know the pandemic is changing a lot in our lives—from where and how we work to our dating scenes to the introduction of day drinking in our routines now filled with one too many Quarantinins. And while Hallyu or the K-wave has been sweeping across Asia for a few years now, and I myself have treated K-dramas as an instant serotonin pill since years, the pandemic cemented its numero uno status in my life.
To know if there was more to this newfound obsession, I asked around, and conversations about Korean dramas came to me from the most unexpected sources: a middle-aged couple, a self-proclaimed horror fanatic dude-bro, a The Office stan, dozens of people I follow on social media, people at work, and so on. With them then, I’ve discussed the well-timed period drama Kingdom which features a pandemic of sorts involving zombies, and perhaps hitting too close to home; Crash Landing on You, a drama that came out earlier this year and saw think pieces pour in from all directions because of its take on North and South Korean relations and grew to become a K-drama gateway drug; It’s Okay to Not be Okay which was on Netflix India’s Top #10 for weeks, even ranking as high as #3 on some days.
“I watched The Eternal Monarch at the start of the pandemic because my sister recommended it to me and I've been hooked on K-dramas since then,” says Khushi, a student. “My Netflix algorithm is all K-dramas now.” And Khushi is onto a major reason here for the boom of K-dramas in countries where it wasn’t obvious they would become so big, like India. Ever since the streaming giant acquired a few titles a couple of years ago, the segment has been seeing a boom. Now, Netflix has a full library of the classics—from Boys Over Flowers to _Full House_—and a roster of originals. Many viewers on the Reddit thread of r/crashlandingonyou say the pandemic is why they gave the show, and the genre, a try. Before this, many had never even heard of the term K-drama or at best, simply knew what it stood for and nothing more. “I think the pandemic as well as the fact that many dramas are available on Netflix solidified my drama watcher side,” says Sameksha, an artist.
Several of my friends who’ve been on a steady diet of first, American, and then British telly shows have found themselves engrossed in this genre as well, much to their own surprise: “I had already watched all the interesting western shows there, so now I'm turning to K-dramas,” says one. Another tells me, “They’re really quick to digest while offering a variety of themes.” Moreover, content from languages other than English is also increasingly becoming popular. In Indonesia too, K-drama watching hours rose to 4.6 per day during lockdown season, from 2.7 in a day.
“This is an exciting time for not only Korean content, but content in any language to be successful anywhere,” a Netflix spokesperson tells VICE. Netflix has probably done for Korean dramas what YouTube did for K-pop—globalise it and make it accessible across continents. This and the cultural connect are probably reasons why after English and local language content, Spanish, Korean and Japanese titles drive the highest viewing in India. “The language barrier is lowering and more audiences are discovering great stories made by the world. Netflix is already doubling down on investment in Korean content and we hope to amaze our members with more incredible Korean stories across genres and formats.” In a way, the boom of Netflix and K-dramas have been interwoven—while deals with Netflix did well for the Korean cultural content market which was hammered in by its largest market, China, because of political reasons, the streaming giant in return has not just profited off the back of this demand for K-dramas but also needed to invest significantly less in making them as opposed to Western dramas.
The thing about K-drama is that it's not a genre; it’s a whole universe you can get into, similar to anime. There are so many shows and genres within it but there are lots of common factors between different shows too. That makes it a lot easier to choose what might be your thing within this universe. If you like an actor in one drama, you can probably find another good drama they're in, quite easily. Or if you like a particular story or trope (friends to lovers/slice-of-life/murder mysteries/courtroom dramas), there are several dramas that explore it in different ways. Or if you like a screenwriter or a director, you can watch everything they've done if you really want to.
So when you get into K-dramas—similar to getting into entertainment of other languages—it's not like getting into one show. Once you search and get a feel for what's out there, you'll probably find several shows you like. And if you’re like me, who has a ton of free time to watch things but hates spending any energy into deciding what to watch, you’d know that’s a sweet deal.
Moreover, Western dramas usually drag on for ages. The promise of a new season, albeit exciting, can get frustrating. And the extensions often aren’t even worth it. In contrast, most Korean dramas follow a limited episode format of either 16 or 20 episodes, which makes it easier to finish a show and move on—and of course, easier to binge. Perhaps the growing love for K-dramas also has to do with breaking up the monotony of lockdown life—we can delve into a different world each week rather than being stuck with a show as unending as the pandemic. “Media scholars have previously noted the mini-series structure of most Korean dramas as contributing to their "addicting" potential, as opposed to longer traditional American TV seasons,” Dr Bonnie Tilland, professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University Mirae campus, tells VICE.
But a crucial thing to notice here is that while we might've had more free time at hand, we also have been more in need of distractions. And what's a better distraction than short, fluffy romances that Korean dramas are particularly known for?
“While watching rom-coms and “fluffy” entertainment is not a prescribed therapy for stress, I believe that it can be helpful, as it temporarily removes one from real-life problems such as wage cuts, layoffs, and economic and health crisis,” says clinical psychologist Dr Prerna Kohli. “To escape this reality, “fluffy” entertainment may be an escape route. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.”
The cultural implications of our newfound go-to binge, however, remain to be seen. “I have some concerns that watching Korean dramas on Netflix in the US context is nothing more than escapism, giving audiences a focal point removed from current tensions and violence,” adds Tilland. “I would also propose another reason—I have heard from more than a few people who are tired of the "intensity" of American TV, with very intense camera cuts and music. While the content of a zombie drama like Kingdom is indeed intense, the pacing is different than American dramas, and this has attracted viewers who are already burned out from the intensity of real-life world affairs.” In an Asian context, Asian media scholars have noted that Korean dramas tend to not feature graphic sex scenes or explicitly sexual content. This sells well all over Asia, where many viewers prefer more conservative family values on screen.
Most of all, it perhaps is just another result of our desire to connect to human emotions at a universal level: greed, anger, sexuality, love, jealousy are occurrences similar across races, countries, and cultures. And our affinity to Korean dramas is just another testimony of that.
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