Often when the general public discusses Korean popular culture, and the Hallyu Wave that rose from it, they are usually talking about K-pop front, right, and center. But did you know that, long before K-pop was popular among listeners and fans outside of Korea, it was Korean dramas that were breaking bank abroad? Among these Korean dramas was, most notably, Winter Sonata. This drama was a massive hit among the generation before us.
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But that was only the beginning for K-drama’s rise. They did take a bit of a back seat in the early 2000s to let the music industry expand and explore internationally. But almost every year, there seemed to be at least one Korean drama catching the attention of international viewers. There was Full House, Coffee Prince, Boys Over Flowers, and The Secret Garden, just to name a few, that were drawing the love of not just Koreans, but from other Asian countries as well. My Love from the Star, a Korean drama that was released a few years later, caused a frenzy among its Chinese viewers, even setting new trends and habits with the Chinese public interested in Korean popular culture.
However, as important and integral as the Asian audience as a whole has been to k-drama’s rise, it’s often said that you haven’t actually made it until you’ve made it with the West. And while Korean dramas had definitely made it in Asia, they were far from breaking through in Europe and in USA. Why is that?
One obvious answer to the question is the language barrier. Though the Western audience speaks far more languages than just English, none of them is exactly fluent in Korean. Unfortunate, since it’s a great way to learn the language. That, coupled with the lack of broadcasting deals with the local broadcasters, ensured that these Korean dramas were not even going to be broadcasted on any of the Western channels. In other words, they were only available online. And being available online only also meant that often there were no subtitles that readily came with it.
That started changing with DramaFever and Viki, plus a couple of other streaming services that followed. Not only did they offer streaming episodes from popular Korean dramas online, but they also came with subtitles. Each of these websites started off with fan made subtitles, with several Korean drama fans working together to ensure the highest quality and accuracy. Through sites such as these, the accessibility to Korean dramas became more widespread, and thus their viewership and popularity began growing more diverse. DramaFever unfortunately shut down recently, but Viki is still going strong, allowing its viewers dramas from other East Asian regions as well.
The services of the likes of DramaFever were largely what ensured that the Korean dramas could finally break through in Europe and USA. While they’re not yet as common spread as Hollywood produced contents, they are making waves, and they are gaining more and more viewers each passing day.
So, what exactly is so captivating about these Korean dramas for the hype of k-drama rise to take place? Though there are a variety of different types of dramas existing out there, from periodical dramas to medical and crime shows, the most popular genre among the Korean drama lovers is by far the love stories illustrated in at least one drama shown every night of the week. There are typically two different types of leads: the rich boy meets poor girl type, or the older woman meets younger guy type. And no matter how many times this simple basis is recycled, the audiences will gladly eat it up!
But while the basis may seem awfully similar every other time, there are still enough changes to each premise to make the Korean drama a whole new, fun watching experience. With all the ridiculous twists, turns, love triangles, and episode ending cliffhangers, it is not too far off to compare Korean dramas to telenovelas. However, it is not fair to the industry to say that every drama is formed around the same tropes, though it is correct in the case of many. After all, there are several that derive from the premise enough to bypass the comparison, such as My Love From Another Star. However, as the Korean drama loving audience also loves romance to an equal degree, it is extremely uncommon to see dramas without romance as the driving force, even if the settings may wildly change, from high school to historical eras.
That does not mean that all hope is lost for those who are not interested in romance. Over the years the Korean dramas have gotten more diverse, with new hospital and police dramas popping up all the time. They have even begun making Korean versions of popular American TV shows such as Criminal Minds!
Just a few years ago, there may have been a point in the recent years where the Korean dramas seemed to land in a rut, where innovation had gotten lost and instead the same formula was being used over and over again. But luckily for the fans of Korean dramas, it seems like the creators are getting their creativity back, having recently began coming up with great and more innovative Korean dramas again. One such example is The Goblin, which ran in early 2017.
Now that we’ve covered some of the history and current state of Korean dramas, we would love to hear from you. What is your favorite Korean drama? What is the upcoming drama you are most excited to see next? Let us know in the comments below!
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