After years of reading your reviews I decided to take the plunge and write for 2 reasons:
1. To tell you how much I enjoy your reviews and admire your work ethic. I’m a recently retired critical care nurse (an old white lady) and over the years have found so much joy in korean dramas and films. When I am contemplating what to watch next I turn to you. I’ve seen more dramas than I care to admit and I’ve read many varied reviews but you are the gold standard. On the rare occasion that I disagree with one of your reviews I am so shocked and sometimes delighted. I only wish I could become a Patron.
2. A question….Why so often in k dramas does the story/writing go downhill later in the drama. I’m noticing an increasing pattern with this. I’ve seen videos of table reads and it makes wonder…If they are indeed reading the entire script in that sitting do they not notice they are reading what I can only describe as foolishness? The most recent example of this was Bossam. I really loved this drama. I felt it was well written and reminded me of a good old-fashioned k drama but I feel like it eventually went off the rails. This may not be the best example but I’m sure you know what I’m trying to express. I wouldn’t send this as an Ask fangirl question at the risk of sounding whiny and stupid. Is there a logical explanation. Since I know little about the making of dramas I thought you may have insight.
Again, please know you bring fun and joy to this old lady and be proud of yourself.
If you ever need a place to stay in California, I have plenty of room and no weirdos!!
P.S. Loved your participation in the podcast!
Thank you for the kind words! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy the blog as much as you do. Thanks for allowing me and the blog to be part of your world! ❤️ Also, yay that you enjoyed the podcast; I had great fun chatting with the ladies!
For anyone who’s reading who’d like to know more about the Patreon experience that Linda mentions, you might like to check out my latest Patreon monthly update post. Shameless plug: you can support the blog, for as little as US$1 a month! 😋
As for the reasons why dramas have a tendency to go downhill in later episodes, I do have several factors to offer up for discussion. If I missed out anything, or you guys have more thoughts or insights, please share them in the comments!!
PS: The screenshots I’m using in this post, are from 2012’s King of Dramas, which is a great tongue-in-cheek look at the kdrama-making industry. If you can find it, it’s a very illuminating watch!
BROAD FACTORS THAT AFFECT DRAMA INTEGRITY
Before I get into the factors themselves, I felt it would be important to state upfront, that some of these things are changing, so these factors wouldn’t apply equally to all dramas. In particular, not all shows are made using the live-shoot system. Just thought that would be important to point out!
THE LIVE-SHOOT SYSTEM
From what I can tell, more than half of the kdramas on our screens today are filmed using the live-shoot system. What this means, is that the drama is not only being filmed as it airs, it’s also being written as it airs. Yep, you read that right.
This means that the table reading that you see, is only for the first few episodes of the drama, because.. that’s all that’s available, at the time.
When an actor signs on for a drama, it’s essentially a leap of faith, because all they have to go on, is, 1, the story synopsis, 2, the first few episodes that are already written, and 3, the names attached to the production. If the writer and PD have good track records, it might give an actor some assurance, but as we know from experience, a good track record does not guarantee, well, anything, right? You could have written or directed some excellent dramas, and still serve up a stinker this time.
Why is the live-shoot system favored, you might ask?
Well, this is to enable the production team to react to audience feedback, in real time. Based on audience feedback, a writer might tweak the storyline differently, or take the story in a different direction than originally planned, or end the story differently than originally planned.
Examples of how audience feedback has affected dramas include:
1. More (or less) screen time given to a character because of audience response. Audiences responded so positively to Ahn Jae Hyun in 2014’s You From Another Star, that more scenes were written for him.
2. A switching of the male lead. Sometimes, audiences favor the second male lead so much, that the second male lead gets swapped with the original male lead, so that he’ll end up as romantic endgame for our female lead.
In 2001, Bae Yong Joon overtook Kim Seung Woo as male lead in Hotelier, while Lee Byung Hun took over Ryu Si Won as male lead in Beautiful Days. In 2007, Park Shi Hoo overtook Kim Seung Woo (poor Kim Seung Woo! This has happened to him twice!) in How To Meet a Perfect Neighbor. And in 2010, Park Shi Hoo overtook Jung Joon Ho as male lead in Queen Of Reversals.
3. Shows getting extended, shortened or canceled. Fan reaction is a major contributing factor, and can directly affect the longevity of a show. 2020’s A Piece Of Your Mind (which was quite lovely, by the way) was cut from 16 episodes to 12, because of low ratings (ie, poor audience response), and this year, the plug was pulled on Joseon Exorcist after it had aired just 2 episodes, because of viewer dissatisfaction with the show’s historical inaccuracies and cultural insensitivity.
On the flip side of things, positive viewer response has led to some shows getting extended – to the detriment of its story. For example, 2010’s Smile You was so popular, that it was extended to 45 episodes from its original 30. As a result, in its effort to muster up a sudden demand for 15 more episodes of story, Show reached for tired tropes and logic leaps in order to fill up air time. This made Show’s last stretch tiresome to watch, which was a huge pity, because the earlier episodes were so sparkling and fun.
The effect of the live-shoot system on the writing
Of course, all these audience considerations mean that the writing can and does wobble. Not only can the story direction take weird turns (as in, it’d look weird to the uninitiated), the ending can turn out pretty underwhelming, when all is said and done.
An example that I remember quite clearly, is 2010’s Queen of Reversals. It took the production team a bit of time, in Show’s mid-section, to decide whether or not to promote second lead Park Shi Hoo to male lead, displacing original male lead Jung Joon Ho. While the discussions were on-going, the show had to go carry on, because, well, live-shoot system. However, without a clear decision on who was romantic endgame, the story could only cycle in place for an episode or two, until the decision had been made.
I remember watching this, and thinking, “We are just going around in circles; I hope they decide on the male lead soon.” 😅 Now, if you were watching this and didn’t know the production was thinking about changing male leads, you’d just think that writer-nim had no concept of how to drive the story forward.
Another example I’d like to mention, is 2001’s Beautiful Days. In Show’s early episodes, female lead Choi Ji Woo has all these meet-cute / hyperawareness moments with original male lead Ryu Si Won. But before we’re even halfway through the story, Show changes tack, and all the sizzle is between her and Lee Byung Hun (because Lee Byung Hun was the crowd favorite). If you didn’t know that there had been a decision to switch male leads while the show was airing, you’d find the initial stretch between Choi Ji Woo’s and Ryu Si Won’s characters really odd.
And, if you didn’t know that Smile, You (which I mentioned above) was suddenly extended, you’d think that writer-nim had simply lost their mojo partway through writing the script.
Are pre-produced dramas in a better position?
Theoretically, fully pre-produced dramas ought to be in a better position to deliver a coherent story with maximum narrative integrity, but that doesn’t always happen.
For example, 2016’s Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo was 100% pre-produced, and yet, I found it quite underwhelming, to be brutally honest. The details are in my review, but in a nutshell, I felt that Show couldn’t make up its mind on what it really wanted to be. This, despite not having to deal with the uncertainties of writing on the fly, while Show was airing.
..Which brings me to talk about:
OTHER SOURCES OF PRESSURE
It’s a tough game, making dramas. Aside from fan reactions, there are other things to factor in as well.
Product Placement (PPL)
Someone’s gotta pay the bills when it comes to making dramas, and a big chunk of that income comes from product placement. The thing is, sometimes the products that need to be featured are more organic to the story than others, but there is so much pressure on the writer to include those products (otherwise, there’s no product placement income), that sometimes, the plot can take weird turns, in order to create a halfway suitable space to insert said product placement.
Unexpected real-life developments
Sometimes, stuff happens that affects the show’s ability to carry on as planned.
For example, 2018’s Let’s Eat 3 had to be shortened from 16 episodes to 14, because male lead Doo Joon suddenly received his military conscription letter, and there was no way to defer it. The production had to scramble to finish writing and filming the last 2 episodes (which turned out to be episodes 13 and 14), which definitely affected the quality of the ending. Not only did the story direction have to be adjusted, whatever had been originally planned for episodes 13 and 14 had to be scrapped as well.
Interesting factoid: Siwon‘s character in King Of Dramas has a manager played by Park Kyu Sun. Apparently, Park Kyu Sun received his military conscription letter while the Show was airing (and filming), and so, writer-nim wrote him out of the story, by having his character be suddenly summoned for military service. HA! That was a stroke of meta brilliance, and a rare example of a show finding a suitable way to work around an unexpected real-life event. However, I do think this worked only because Park Kyu Sun was playing a minor supporting role.
Aside from pressure to swing the story in a way that pleases fans, there could also be pressure from, say, a senior executive at the network, or an influential sponsor of the drama, for things to be written a certain way, for whatever reason.
There could also be creative disagreements between writer & PD, which would then affect the creative outcome. For example, 2020’s The Uncanny Counter had a change in writers in its last few episodes, because the original writer left the production, citing creative differences with the PD. While Show managed to stick a decent enough ending, I will say that I did feel the change in writers, when it happened.
Altogether, you can imagine that there is a lot of time pressure involved in writing scripts for a drama being produced under the live-shoot system. There are so many moving parts, and so many things that can trip up the process of producing 2 episodes’ worth of scripts for the week’s filming.
There’s a scene in King of Drama, where a delivery rider is charged to transport the latest footage from the location of the shoot to the studio, and he’s literally on the road, even as the first part of the episode airs. The thing is, I believe this tidbit was inspired by true events.
..Which is why so many of us felt that King Of Dramas was required viewing for drama fans, when it aired. 😉
There have also been stories of the latter part of an episode still being edited, while the initial edited chunk of the episode goes on the air.
The live-shoot system is a literal jungle, and it’s honestly a miracle that we actually get some amazing dramas out of it. 😅
With writer-nim already dealing with so much pressure, it’s an even bigger ask than usual, to want a solid ending that feels organic to the story, and – dare I say it? – fresh to the viewers.
The fact is, we need dramatic tension in order to make an interesting story. Without dramatic tension, there is basically no story (yes, this is true even for slice-of-life, which is a genre I personally really enjoy). And, it’s good story sense, to have a Final Conflict at about the three-quarter mark, to bring us into the home stretch.
But now that you see everything that writer-nim’s dealing with laid out like this, it’s easier to understand why it’s tough for writer-nim to pull off a solid, steady landing, isn’t it? With writer-nim having to deal with so much pressure, and probably, by this stage, a whole lotta sleeplessness and exhaustion as well, it’s no surprise that many writers reach for frustrating tropes like noble idiocy, to fulfill the need for a Final Conflict. It’s easy; it’s there; it’s worked before.
..But that’s also exactly why we have more underwhelming drama endings than we’d like.
Have there been dramas that are born of the live-shoot system, that have managed to serve up solid endings that don’t have to do with noble idiocy? Yes. (And that’s another post for another day – thanks Antonio, for the question!)
However, they aren’t quite the norm, unfortunately. But at least now we know the general whys?
I do hope that this post gives you a better idea of why dramas tend to go downhill more often than we would like. I personally find that knowing what our writers have to deal with, gives me more sympathy, patience and understanding, when I encounter an underwhelming drama ending.
Meanwhile, let’s root for Dramaland to get better, and do better, not only at giving us solid endings for our dramas, but also, at creating a space where creative integrity – and all those who work for it, and all those who love it – is protected.
Like I said earlier, if you guys have other thoughts or insights to add, please share in the comments!
Thanks, you guys.
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!