What’s The Topic? Korean TV, and the wonders thereof.
Even the most pop-culturally blind person in the world could not really have failed to notice just how dominant and mainstream K-Pop has become in the world. BTS are, of course, the big-ticket item there, and have secured an enduring legacy outwith their home country and around the world . Even just a few years would have seemed vastly unlikely except with a novelty hit like “Gangnam Style”. Yet music – and there’s a whole lot more to Korean music than just K-Pop – isn’t the only place Korean culture has been flourishing.
In cinema, Parasite became the first non-English language film to win a Best Picture Oscar, which is no mean achievement, but you don’t have to worry award ceremonies for good Korean cinema – Train To Busan, The Good The Bad The Weird, Extreme Job, The Man From Nowhere and many others make an excellent and refreshing change from the usual Hollywood fare while being terrifically enjoyable in their own right. And that rather neatly brings us to Korean TV, which performs pretty much the same trick on the small screen rather than the silver one.
Yet prior to Squid Game’s recent success, Korean TV hasn’t really gotten the same attention as they country’s cinematic or musical output and that’s rather a shame because there’s a huge raft of great content there just waiting to be discovered. Much of it, as far as Europe and America is concerned, can be found on Netflix which makes acquiring and viewing it effortless, and it is more than worth the time to delve into some of the TV which has landed there. There are shows covering pretty much any genre you care to name – political thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, action-adventure, romance, comedy, historicals, even Western remakes (we’ll come to that) – and one of the quirks of Korean TV is that most of the shows are a single 16-episode long season, so the time invested in watching them isn’t all that mammoth. The shows are easily bingeable and won’t drag on forever. In, watch, out. Again, next to much of the bloat of (especially) US TV shows, this feels incredibly refreshing, a succinct way of keeping everything moving. Korean TV deserves a spotlight every bit as much as the country’s other cultural exports, so lets have a rummage around and see what we can find.
While a lot of the rhythms and beats of Western TV shows can certainly be found in Korean TV, there are plenty of things which help to set Korean TV apart from those shows as well. For one, there’s those seasons, which almost never spill over the 16 episode count and rarely get more than one season. As a general principal this comes across as a good idea – ensure there’s enough plot for your story and enough run-time for things to be satisfyingly concluded without the necessity of endless dead-end plots or divergences. This mostly works well – there are a few exceptions, and two-thirds-of-the-way-through sag is not entirely uncommon – and keeps the focus tight and the plots moving but it’s certainly a deviation from the more usual way of doing things in America and Europe. The production values – especially given Korea’s size compared to the US or UK markets – are broadly very good as well, which makes much of the content accessible and lends it enough familiarity to be easily consumed without simply being a direct replication of Western TV shows.
One thing which remains striking is just how central romance tends to be to Korean TV shows, pretty much regardless of genre. There’s almost always some kind of central romance, or some kind of romantic tension, or Two People In Love Kept Apart By Events. You know the sort of thing. While obviously this is very far from unique in terms of Korean TV the actual prominence and foregrounding of them is unusual. This can come across as a little odd to those raised on the sensibilities of mainstream US and UK TV, especially since Korean drama tends to be substantially less explicit than its Western counterparts.
That means a lot of the romance is very chaste – a few stolen glances or a lingering kiss accompanied by some often-sappy piano ballads are about all the red-hot action you’re likely to get. Yet even this feels… well, refreshing maybe isn’t the word this time out, but it certainly makes a change from shirts and knickers flying hither and thither at the slightest provocation. That lack of explicitness also extends to violence, with Korean dramas coming across as considerably more toned down next to their Western counterparts, to the point where someone being choked or strangled is actually blurred to prevent it being seen. But the inability to use explicitness as a shortcut often leads Korean dramas to find more interesting or inventive ways of putting characters into harm’s way and this is very much to the benefit of the shows.
The long and the short of it is this – there’s enough that’s familiar to make it easy for Western audiences to enjoy Korean TV but enough that’s different to make it not just more-of-the-same in a different language.
If you’re looking for a way into Korean TV then Iris (아이리스) is pretty much the perfect gateway. It’s an action thriller about two best friends (Kim Hyun-jun played by Lee Byunh-hun, and Jin Sa-woo played by Jung Joon-ho) from the army who are recruited separately into Korea’s National Security Service by the NSS agent Choi Seung-hee (Kim Tae-hee). Both men fall in love with her while trying to focus on their mission, one successfully and one jealously. We are informed in a handy infodump fairly early on that they have been set the task of pre-emptively stopping foreign threats and attacks on Korea – yes, just like the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) in 24! – with the agency itself being a state secret since its inception. Without going into too much detail (spoilers!) we also have an international plot, a side-mission to Hungary, North and South Korean politics and a real global sense of scale to proceedings. Oh, and a genuinely shocking ending as well.
One of the reasons the series works so well is that despite the fact that it’s a propulsive action series it really takes the time to focus on its key characters. The lead triumvirate in particular are simply fantastic, and large chunks of the drama is derived as much from their interactions as it is from the politics, action or intrigue. All three come across as fully rounded characters, with distinct, personal and relatable points of view and all three are incredibly easy to invest in across the course of the series. In particular, the tension between Kim Hyun-jun and Jung Joon-ho is excellently played, not so much in the love-triangle angle but whether there will be a genuine betrayal of one by the other, something we are kept guessing at right until the very last moment. It’s rare to see this kind of deftness in the way the characters are handled and the play between the desire the audience has for the two friends to reconcile as balanced against the potential betrayal is expertly weaved throughout the story.
Choi Seung-hee, as the third member of the core cast, is also a marvellously strong female character – she may be the focus of the love triangle between the two bro-friends, but she’s smart, resourceful, and every bit as capable of kicking arse as the muscular boy-toys pursuing her. On the North Korean side, we have Pak Chol-young and Kim Sun-hwa, the latter another fantastically strong female character and someone who provides a pleasing North/South parallel and balance with Choi Seung-hee. And, to anchor much of the action, we have Vick as played by T.O.P., a cute-but-evil assassin whose origins and alliances remain shrouded in mystery. Throw all these characters together into an explosively well-written series and you have a straightforward classic – a propulsive, high-octane series that doesn’t neglect its characters for action and knows how to balance the two against each other to provide excellent drama. It really is just a bloody good TV show.
There’s a number of great action shows to be discovered, including The K2 (더 케이투 and reviewed right here), and the highly-recommended 2019 series Vagabond (배가본드), which is about a stuntman whose nephew is killed after a plane is blown up ,the investigation of which leads him into a world of espionage and corruption. There’s also the equally-excellent Rugal (루갈), a blend of action and spy adventures alongside a lightly sci-fi conceit (bionic implants). For fans of great action TV they are more than worth taking the time to enjoy.
But it’s not all action all the time, and one of the big surprises of Korean drama is the remake of the American TV series Designated Survivor (60일, 지정생존자). The US version, starring Kiefer Sutherland and the always-brilliant Maggie Q, was enjoyably entertaining in its first season in an airport-novel sort of way, before it decided it wanted to go a bit West Wing-y and couldn’t really pull that off in subsequent seasons. The Korean remake, however, is just fantastic and better in every measurable way than the US show that spawned it. Designated Survivor: 60 Days (as the Korean version is properly titled) follows the same loose plot beats as the original – a terrorist attack destroys the National Assembly and Park Mu-jin, an unassuming and low-ranking cabinet member about to be sacked, unexpectedly ends up taking over the Presidency, while Han Na-kyung takes over the Maggie Q role of investigating the attack and figuring out what happened.
What’s amazing about this version of Designated Survivor is just how real and vital the Blue House’s politics feel. Park Mu-Jin, as played with thoughtful consideration by Ji Jin-hee, is a fucking great character and it’s hard to overstate just what a terrific performance Ji gives in the role as he navigates the treacherous paths of politics. His President Park is a far more interesting character than the original’s Tom Kirkland (not a ding on Kiefer Sutherland particularly, who’s… you know, Kiefer Sutherland, but more on the writing) and the studied, careful performance Ji delivers gives a huge amount of depth to the character – talk about still waters running deep. And what’s interesting about the politics is that it isn’t just the politics of succession – while obviously that occupies a large swathe of the early episodes, the series also takes its time to address other issues, including potentially controversial ones like a clandestine military operation in Cambodia or gay marriage (if you come to Korean TV hoping for lots of queer representation then you are, I am sorry to say, going to be disappointed, though it is very much a Good Thing that it’s addressed in this show so directly). That’s not an obvious direction for the show to go in, so it’s very much to its credit that it does so, and does it with a real sense of the reality of those situations rather than them just being there to be hot-button topics. In other words, it’s just top-notch writing, and obviously those aren’t beats being imported from the parent show – they’re unique to the Korean version. And the limited timeframe – not only the usual 16-episode run, but the 60 Days of the title – again has the benefit of keeping the focus tight and the plot moving.
Also worth sixteen episodes’ of anyone’s time is the show Crash Landing On You (사랑의 불시착), from 2019. The series revolves around rich heiress Yoon Se-ri, who thanks to a paragliding accident, finds herself lost in North Korea. There she encounters Captain Ri and tries to survive in the North while struggling to get back home. Sounds simple, right? But this is another show where the devil is very much in the detail, and the care and attention given to portraying life in North Korea – where the majority of the series is set – really gives dimension to Se-Ri’s struggles. And what’s so great about the show is that there is no sense of triumphalism to it – the petty business squabblings of Se-Ri’s family in the South are shown to be just as pointless and futile as anything that happens in the North. Representations of the North, equally, are never patronising or dismissive and there’s a genuine attempt made to try and portray the society honestly and frankly (as much as that is actually possible). So the show can get away with showing the poverty and hardships of life in the North but it doesn’t reduce the characters who live there in any way to stereotypes or cliches – they are real people who have to deal with the reality of their situation.
Which all sounds terribly dry, but what the show actually builds around is the central romance between Captain Ri and Se-Ri, and a couple of absolutely outstanding performances from Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin make the slowly developing feelings between them seem incredibly real and natural. Oh and the other thing worth mentioning? It’s funny as fuck! Much of the humour, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the culture-clash elements of a wealthy businesswoman stranded in a dirt-poor village, but the inverse also happens as, later in the series, a few of the characters from the North get to travel to Seoul. The humour can be subtle and can be very broad, but it almost always works. And there’s a handful of fantastic supporting performances as well – Yoo Su-Bin stands out as a North Korean corporal who acts as a “cultural translator” of sorts between the characters from the North and South because he watches a lot of illicit South dramas and thinks they actually represent reality, which is never not funny. But he’s far from the only one, and a well-rounded cast really puts meat on the bones of the North Korean characters. And, praise be, we get an ending that actually feels fully earned but isn’t a cliché “happy ending” either, while also being a happy ending. It’s incredibly deft and doesn’t take easy shortcuts. Netflix put a bunch of money into Crash Landing On You – rarely has their cash been put to better use because the series is brilliant.
In the mood for some sci-fi? Ah well, Korean TV has you covered there too. Sisyphus: The Myth (시지프스) incorporates time-travel and mind-bending logic to weave its tale of a tech CEO (Han Tae-San) who invents the ability to time travel from the future while investigating his older brother’s death. Meanwhile, in a post-apocalyptic Korea destroyed by nuclear weapons after the North attack, Gang Seo-hae uses the same time-travel technology to go to the past in a desperate attempt to stop the nuclear catastrophe from ever happening. It’s a twisty-turny plot, very much in the vein of Steven Moffat Doctor Who, which manages to balance its two timelines extremely well while allowing the inexorable logic of the plot to draw all the strands together for a dramatic climax.
Or how about something with a bit more of a fantasy bent? The Uncanny Counter (경이로운 소문) tells the tale of a high-school student who slings noodles by day and, as a so-called “Counter”, hunts demons by night (you know, like you do). A winningly earnest performance from Jo Byung-gyu as So Mun adds greatly to the more absurdist fantasy elements (and he ends up with a haircut that really has to be seen to be believed) and the show takes the time to explore aspects of both life and the afterlife. While “hunting demons” sounds like it could be a Buffy or Supernatural knock-off, this is anything but and comes across as fresh and original. There’s a real care taken in the way the world of the Counters is constructed and the human and fantastical elements interlock in a way that not only seems convincing but natural. It’s a terrific showcase for a younger cast to really prove what they’re made of while still delivering a great fantasy show – and some of the fight sequences are genuinely breathtaking for a TV show.
Whatever genre you pick, though, there’s going to be some great television to be explored. The range, depth and style of Korean TV is something that remains unfairly obscure outside of the country itself but it’s time for that to change. If all these shows have anything in common it is this – the sheer quality of what is being produced.
Which isn’t, of course, to suggest that every show is note-perfect. That would be ridiculous. But even when shows misstep they can still remain interesting. In truth Sisyphus: The Myth doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing (another parallel with some parts of Steven Moffat Doctor Who, then *glances sideways at the Impossible Girl arc*) but so much of the show is genuinely fascinating that it’s more than worth watching even if the ending doesn’t quite live up to the quality of what’s come before. Then there’s Black (블랙), a show with an interesting premise – essentially the investigation of a murder by a Grim Reaper from beyond the grave – which manages to get a lot of detail right while not quite managing to be as engaging story-wise as it is concept-wise.
At the other end of the scale the lightly comic You’re All Surrounded (너희들은 포위됐다) takes a familiar premise – four rookie cops join a precinct – but finds really interesting ways of approaching what could be obvious material. By giving the central character a great hook – he witnessed his mother’s murder as a child and joined the police to investigate her unsolved killing, changing his name to remain obscure to the perpetrator – we get a pleasingly different slant on the approach, and as is true with all these shows, some fantastic supporting character work to really round out the world. Worth a look, too, is Mr Sunshine (미스터 션샤인), starring Iris’s Lee Byung-hun, a sumptuously-shot historical drama set during the time of Korea’s battle for independence from Japan and dealing with love across the class divide. In line with a lot of historical drama (not just Korean historical drama) it’s a touch slow in places, yet the depth and breadth of the show more than makes up for the slightly languorous pacing and there’s a real investment in the history, culture and conflicts of the time. In each show there’s plenty to recommend even if the overall effect isn’t quite perfect, and they are all more than worth spending time with.
And, yes, subtitles. Mercifully, as far as the UK and US versions of Korean show go, they’re not dubbed. Just watch good TV and read the subtitles already! After five minutes you won’t even think about it again and you’ll get some really top-notch TV as a result.
The Way In:
As mentioned, all the shows listed here are on Netflix in the US and UK.
The K2 (더 케이투)
Designated Survivor: 60 Days (60일, 지정생존자)
Crash Landing On You (사랑의 불시착)
Sisyphys: The Myth (시지프스)
The Uncanny Counter (경이로운 소문)
You’re All Surrounded (너희들은 포위됐다)
Mr Sunshine (미스터 션샤인)