Why Is the Whole World Going Crazy Over Doramas?

In recent years, the world has been taken over by the Hallyu, the Korean wave. Everyone has probably heard of BTS at least once, whose fame and influence on fans can only be compared to the legendary The Beatles, Korean celebrities are becoming the faces of fashion houses, and the victory of “Parasites” at the Oscars has brought local cinema to the world level.

Korea’s popularity largely began thanks to the Korean TV series doramas, which created the image of a fairy-tale country where true love, friendship, and amazingly beautiful people live.

What are they? And what is the secret of their popularity? Now we’ll tell you all about it.

How did it all begin?

The history of Korean movies and TV series is closely related to the country’s unstable political and economic situation. Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world (the occupation and civil war consequences), but after the Olympics of 1988 and economic reforms of the 1990-s, South Korea became one of the leaders in its region.

State and private corporations began to invest in the entertainment industry during this period, including movies and TV. Harsh censorship and foreign film quotas were lifted. Local directors and screenwriters initially succumbed to American content but quickly learned new techniques and plots from their Western colleagues.

Back in the ’80s, the first national hit, Love and Ambition, exploited nostalgia for the rural way of life in a rapidly developing country. The Korea Times even wrote that the streets became empty when a new series came out.

The heyday of the first wave

In the 2000s, Korean dramas (doramas, as we call series in Korea) took over Asia. Winter Sonata (2002) became a phenomenon, and Namisom, the island where the shooting took place, is still a place of pilgrimage for fans.

At the same time, a new genre of fusion sageuk (historical dorama) was taking shape. Pioneers were such projects as “The Pearl of the Palace” (2003) and “The Mystery of the Shining Stone” (2003). These are about the love affairs of young girls who get caught up in the intrigues of the palace.

One of the latest popular sageuk-dramas is Scarlet Heart: Goryeo, about a 21st-century girl, Go Ha-jin, who is transported back to the time of King Tae-jo. Historical costumes, gorgeous sets of royal palaces, and love intrigue have made the drama one of the most popular in the world.

As I write my essay, a thought occurred to me. It is no coincidence that South Korea focuses on historical themes: almost all the historical monuments of the Goryeo and Joseon eras were destroyed during the Japanese occupation and carefully rebuilt in the 20th century.

The New Wave

In the period since the 2010s, a “new wave” of Korean doramas began. Their production has become streaming: the plot changes depending on audience reactions, and sometimes a series begins airing while the studio is still shooting and editing! The actors work under conditions of constant change and hardly ever sleep. Also, the series has increasingly begun to feature aides (local stars), which attracts an additional audience.

Korean TV series are persistently associated with melodramas, which actively exploit all sorts of stamps. But in fact, from a genre point of view, doramas are much richer. They can simultaneously combine detective, romance, and even horror. This is true of Korean cinema in general: local authors are less constrained by genre boundaries.

Chastity and social problems

Doramas are different from western dramas: they have a ban on cruelty, and the most explicit thing you’ll see will be a passionate kiss, and you’ll have to wait for it for a few episodes. The idols’ reputation and the companies who sponsor the dramas depend on every detail, so the creators are trying not to take risks. More often than not, the characters in the doramas behave very chastely, and the emphasis is on the emotional connection. Therefore, even a scene where the heroes simply hold hands causes a wave of discussion among viewers.

At the same time, the shows talk about important issues for South Koreans: social inequality, the cult of beauty, bullying in schools and universities, strict hierarchy, sexual orientation, and gender equality. The heroines of dramas are often girls who are detectives, female athletes, bodyguards, company managers (for example, in the drama “Search: WWW”).

Even the topics that Korean society is traditionally silent about are touched upon, such as adultery and divorce. For example, the drama “The Lyrics of Marriage and the Music of Divorce” may be compared to the Western “Desperate Housewives” or “Why Women Kill” (discounted by censorship): the focus here is on several women in their 20s to 50s who are facing marital problems.

Why watch them?

Much of the success of doramas is due to their life-affirming plots. Doramas are feel-good serials, that is, ones that make you feel better watching them. Although the doramas are steeped in the traditional Confucian values of the region, they convey universal ideals: the importance of family and friendship, love, and the pursuit of justice.

Yes, dramas talk about serious problems, but they are never 100% realistic. Here even the minor characters have model looks, and the action takes place in a fabulous South Korea, which looks like a glossy picture.

It is believed that the doramas popularized the Korean way of life because a lot of time is devoted to everyday little things, such as cooking. For this reason, many filming locations gain a cult status (queue in the cafe, where the drama was filmed, can stretch for a whole street), based on popular series conduct special quests, and for fans of historical drama create a special place where you can dress up in costume and be photographed in an authentic setting.

Doramas have gained fans all over the world: Netflix has launched a co-production with local companies, and now doramas can be watched wherever there is the internet, and some doramas even received popular western remakes (for example, “The Good Doctor”).

The doramas draw viewers into the world of Hallyu: the music for them is written by popular Korean musicians, the favorite actor is likely to be an idol from a popular band, and the plot of the series is based on a local comic book (for example, the dorama “True Beauty”).

Tourists from all over the globe visit Korea to walk along the Hangang River, which is the setting for about half of the romantic moments in doramas, or to immerse themselves in the busy life of the Gangnam and Itaewon areas.

Do you have a favorite dorama? And are you interested in Asian culture?

Lisa Fuson

Lisa has been covering Netflix since 2014, and has spent up to 10 years covering the comings and goings of the Streaming library. Currently resides in the United Kingdom. Outer Banks, Ozark, Black, and On My Block, and Stranger Things are among my favourite Netflix series.