So recently, a couple of comments on the blog have combined to give me pause for thought.
And instead of just answering the latest question in the comments section, I thought it was interesting enough, and thought-provoking enough, to put it all in a new post, and see what you guys think.
Well ok, that, and the fact that as I chewed on my answer to the latest comment, I realized that there were just too many facets to the answer than I felt could fit reasonably into a simple comment.
Basically, the question is, have kdramas gotten worse / more “dumbed down” in recent years?
Let’s dive in together to take a look, shall we?
THE CONTEXT OF THIS POST
Before diving into some of my thoughts in response to the question, I figure some context to how this post came about would be useful.
First, my dear friend Timescout commented on my post on why I ended up dropping Ho Goo’s Love, that she’d noticed that the overall quality in kdramas had deteriorated over the years, and that the plots in more recent drama offerings have often been dumbed down to the point of not being watchable.
I acknowledged and agreed with her point about more dramas getting dumbed down in recent years, and also conceded that in spite of it, dramaland’s also managed to produce some really impressive offerings. I mentioned Secret Love Affair as an example of a more recent drama that I genuinely found outstanding.
This morning, blog reader Brenda left a comment on the same post, and here’s part of what she said:
I’m not sure I agree that dramas are getting worse in general, by the way. In the last year I’ve seen some pretty good dramas, including Healer, Kill Me Heal Me, Secret Love Affair, It’s Okay That’s Love, Heart to Heart, Witch’s Romance. Perhaps I’m not as discriminating as some, but I’ve enjoyed them as much as I have the dramas I’ve seen that were made in the late 2000’s.
…And here’s the thing. I agree with Brenda too. I enjoyed every drama that she named (if you’d like some evidence of that, just check out the various reviews that I’ve written, which I’ve linked to the show’s titles). I’m also a big advocate of adjusting one’s viewing lens in order to enjoy what a drama has to offer, rather than tear a drama apart for its flaws.
This all came together to give me food for thought, in terms of finding an answer that’s true to both of my gut responses to Timescout and Brenda. As I’ve chewed on this, I feel like the two big things that would help, in getting us closer to a balanced answer, is considering our personal context, as well as the industry context of k-ent.
* I guess this is an appropriate point to mention that this post isn’t so much a direct answer to Brenda’s comment, as much as it is a general musing on the subject.
1. Personal Journey
Generally speaking, I believe that our personal journey with dramas has a big influence on how we respond to the shows themselves.
Broadly, I think how long you’ve been watching dramas + how many dramas you’ve watched over that period of time really does make a difference.
For example, to someone who’s relatively new to dramas, almost everything is shiny, new and novel in dramaland. Broody cold male leads, wrist-grabs and backhugs are all fresh, thrilling and quite exciting. At the other end of the scale, someone who’s been watching dramas for a long time is likely to feel at least a touch jaded in the face of those same things.
In terms of my own personal journey, I’ve watched about 200 dramas in the last 8 years (which at first glance makes me sound like I have a legit problem, but really, it works out to a pretty acceptable 2-3 dramas a month).
I like to think that I’m still very capable of squeeing and swooning in response to drama magic unfolding on my screen. At the same time, I must admit that nowadays it takes a little more than a random backhug to activate my feelz. Some might call this jadedness; others might call this discernment; it is what it is.
2. Personal Preference
Basically, this section is all about what you look for in a drama. I think this is important because what you look for is unavoidably weighed against what dramas are putting out there. The more these two things match, the more satisfied you’re likely to be, as a drama viewer.
Some people are all about the romance. Some are all about the story. Some are all about character development. And some are all about the choco abs. 😉
Generally speaking, the pickier you are as a viewer, the less you’ll find to enjoy in dramaland. If you’re all about the romance and are able to overlook all other failings, you’d find a lot of dramas to choose from. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for the drama trifecta of good writing, good acting and good directing, then you’d probably be choosing from a pool of far fewer dramas.
I used to be all about the romance, and in my early drama-watching days, how much I liked a show really depended on how much that particular drama fulfilled my romance-hungry eyes.
Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate a much bigger range of genres, causing me to have complete changes of heart over several dramas. Case in point: Chuno. I’d been super frustrated with it on my first watch, coz I felt it had let me down on the romance front. But now, with more appreciative drama eyes, I think it’s one of the most brilliant dramas I’ve ever seen. For reals.
I’ve also realized that despite the flexible lens that I like to employ, good writing and good acting are tops on my list. If something is well-written and well-acted, I generally am able to enjoy it, even if it’s a genre that’s outside my usual tastes. Er, barring extreme makjang and horror, that is. I generally don’t enjoy those genres. 😛
Along with this realization, I’ve found that good writing – and, to a lesser extent, good acting too – isn’t quite as common in dramaland as I would like. There are altogether too many dramas that have haphazard, poorly pieced-together narratives that feature plot holes and logic fails.
So then the question is, do I still manage to find dramas to enjoy? Yes. There are some legitimately excellent dramas out in dramaland. Plus, my flexi-lens policy comes in handy with appreciating dramas while overlooking most of their flaws.
Do I also think that there is room for more creativity, narrative integrity and all-around awesome in dramaland? Again, yes. I’d love to see more dramas that are all-around good, so that my flexi-lens can take a bit of a breather, heh.
3. Personal Taste
This section is basically a spin-off of the last section. Here, though, the question I’m looking at is, what do you find appealing/funny/good?
Lately, I’ve found that a good number of the dramas that have crossed my screen, have opted for broad comedy. Sometimes, I found myself laughing right along with the show, like I did (at least most of the time) with Fated To Love You and Marriage Not Dating. At other times, I found Show’s Intended Funny just not landing with me the way it did with everyone else. Shows in this category include High School King, Surplus Princess, Hyde, Jekyll, Me and Ho Goo’s Love.
At the same time, although broad comedy is generally not my kind of thing, in the past, I’ve genuinely managed to enjoy a number of dramas that have employed this kind of OTT, campy humor. For example, You’re Beautiful, High Kick and Vampire Idol literally had me laughing out loud.
Given that I’ve managed to enjoy broad comedy quite well in the past, it puzzles me as to why many of dramaland’s more recent offerings in this category have mostly failed to land with me. On one hand, I feel like overall execution and the actors’ comic timing are at least part of the answer. After all, I laughed with Fated To Love You and Marriage Not Dating, right? On the other hand, though, what I’ve failed to find amusing in Ho Goo’s Love, High School King and Surplus Princess has genuinely tickled many other viewers.
So I guess it all boils down to what you find funny, and on a broader scale, what you find good. What works for you might not work for me, and vice versa. We are definitely an audience of extremely varied tastes, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Although I don’t generally comment on the k-ent industry, I feel that one simply can’t consider the question of whether kdramas are deteriorating as a whole, without considering the industry that produces them.
1. More Players
One thing that is undeniable, is the fact that nowadays, there are far more dramas competing for our attention than before.
For one thing, there are more players on the market, with cable channels like tvN, OCN and jTBC (just to name a couple) joining the Big Three networks in putting out regular dramas for our viewing pleasure.
For another, there are more shows opting for alternative drama platforms. Web dramas are becoming more and more mainstream, and are steadily gaining popularity with audiences who have limited time and attention spans to spare.
With new players and new platforms, we inevitably get more experimentation. With more experimentation comes more missteps, as drama-makers try to figure out what works for them and for audiences. This could definitely contribute to the feeling of deterioration in quality, I think.
2. Drama-Making Conditions
As King of Dramas has illustrated with its tongue-in-cheek yet unrelenting focus on the drama-making industry, the combination of live-shoot demands, PPL demands and industry politics can definitely get in the way of creative integrity.
All too often, the stories on our screens have suffered because of these. Here’s a quick list of stuff that can – and have – adversely affect our dramas’ narratives:
- Rushed live-shoots &/or abruptly truncated screentimes, resulting in rushed endings that lack logic. Eg, Surplus Princess & Vampire Idol, both of which ended abruptly and with little logic.
- Accidents &/or other incidents that interfere with the actors’ ability to carry on, &/or the show’s ability to keep going on the air. Eg, Gong Hyo Jin having to have her broken arm worked into the story of It’s Okay It’s Love (which totally felt random and odd, by the way), and Maids, which aired just one episode before their only set went up in flames and tragically took the life of one staffer.
- Pressure from the audience, resulting in switching of a male lead, for example, which leads to a narrative that feels meandering, and arcs that feel like they’re circling in place. Eg, Queen of Reversals, whose narrative stalled for several episodes, while the decision was still up in the air of whether or not Park Shi Hoo ought to be upgraded from second lead to first.
- Extensions. Whether it’s because a show is enjoying good ratings or because the network needs to buy time for the next drama to start its production, extensions often result in a narrative that feels meandering and bloated. Eg, Smile You, which got extended by a whopping 15 episodes to 45 from its original 30. As a result, all the spark and fun of the earlier episodes got replaced by melodramatic meddling parents. Writer-nim probably ran out of ideas on how to extend her original story by 50%. What a waste, seriously. The early episodes were so winning, with so much cute.
- PPL helps the production with much-needed money, but is often worked into the show in such an unnatural manner that it feels forced and is completely distracting. Eg, Subway sandwiches in SO. MANY. of our recent dramas.
With pressure from these fronts only getting stronger as time goes by, it’s no surprise that the quality of our dramas are suffering more and more because of it. I honestly believe that if some of these factors could be mitigated or removed, that we would actually get better dramas as a direct result.
3. The Drama Trend
I have always been rather bemused at how dramaland consistently manages to put out shows with similar themes, at around the same time. Like, how does this work, exactly? Does one network agree on a concept with a production company and writer, only to have that concept quickly leaked to other production companies and networks, so that everyone else in the industry can get on board with the same theme?
Whatever the case, if you’ve been in dramaland for a while, you probably have come across at least several drama trends.
In 2014, we had more noona romances (Secret Love Affair, Witch’s Romance, High School King), infidelity (One Warm Word, Secret Love Affair), reunited exes (Cunning Single Lady, Emergency Couple), adaptations (Three Musketeers, Fated To Love You, Bel Ami, Misaeng), and the first of the “Healing Romances” (It’s Okay It’s Love).
So far, 2015’s already shaping up to be a year of psychological disorders & healing romances (Kill Me Heal Me, Hyde, Jekyll, Me and Heart To Heart), vampires (Blood, Orange Marmalade, Scholar Who Walks the Night) and webtoon adaptations (The Girl Who Sees Smells, Orange Marmalade, Ho Goo’s Love, Scholar Who Walks the Night, Cheese In The Trap).
While it is rather interesting to see how different writers approach the same theme/topic, I have to admit that the repetition of the same themes across dramas in the same window of time does result in some viewer fatigue.
I mean, if dramaland were to put out another multiple personality drama right now, for instance, it would have to be Seriously Awesome in order for me to be interested enough to watch it, since I’ve already checked out 2 other dramas about multiple personalities this year. If there was just ONE drama about multiple personalities in 2015, though, it would feel that much fresher in concept, y’know?
This is why I don’t think drama trends actually help improve the quality – or variety – that we get in dramaland.
SO WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
Given all of the context that we’ve just considered, what’s the final answer to our original question? Are kdramas in general deteriorating in general, &/or getting dumbed down?
I think there will always be viewers in the absolute camps of “Yes, absolutely” and “No, what are you even talking about?”
Personally, I think my answer is somewhere in-between the two extremes.
On the one hand, because of the simple fact that there are more kdramas being produced these days, there are therefore more dramas that are making missteps. Perhaps because of that, it feels like there are more meh dramas in our drama world, when perhaps the proportion of good dramas to meh might not have shifted all that much.
At the same time, with industry pressures steadily mounting over time, I feel like it is becoming more and more difficult for writers, producers and directors to make dramas that are robust with artistic integrity.
I’d love for k-ent to overcome some of the issues that I’ve mentioned in this post, coz I do honestly think that will improve the overall quality of our dramas.
In the meantime, I’m far from giving up on my beloved kdramas. I’m gonna keep rooting for dramaland to bring us more awesome, while keeping my flexi-lens handy, so that I can find more dramas to love. Coz I do love my dramas. 😉