When The Good Doctor premiered last year, audiences fell in love with the heartwarming story about a talented surgeon with autism and savant syndrome finding his way in the ranks of a prestigious hospital. The show became US network ABC’s most watched freshman series in 13 years, but what many don’t realise is that it owes its plot to the 2013 South Korean drama, Good Doctor.
Korean dramas, otherwise known as K-Dramas, have been catching international attention since the Korean Wave in the 1990s. Initially picking up fans in the rest of East Asia then moving down south, their viewers now span most countries. In 2013, DramaFever, an Asian TV streaming service, said nearly 85 percent of their audience is non-Asian, with a 34 percent Hispanic viewership. But over the last decade, K-Dramas have barely changed, while the Western television industry has transformed completely, entering the new golden age of gritty, cinematic series. So how do K-Dramas continue to transcend the cultural barriers and changing tastes of their international audience?
Most like to think of K-Dramas in the same vein as the American soap opera — there are sudden deaths, long-lost siblings, complex love triangles and more. But within these tropes are also a splash of surrealism and much more exaggerated melodrama than the Western average. 2013’s My Love from the Star seems like a typical romantic comedy at first, with a famous actress and her awkward neighbour falling in love, but there’s just one thing: the neighbour is actually a 400-year-old alien.
It’s this ridiculousness and light-heartedness that audiences love and are starved for in other television shows. The K-Drama genre opens up the possibilities of what can happen in these worlds, unlike many Western dramas that stick to the rules of reality. While Grey’s Anatomy documents the romances, friendships and troubles of a group of doctors, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God focuses on an immortal goblin who lives with the Grim Reaper and tries to find his human bride — the only person who can take away his immortality. The fairy tale-like quality to most K-Dramas and their amusing plots — supernatural or otherwise — is a welcome solace for those from the West who are surrounded by shows like Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale that reflect the current societal and political turmoil.
This consolation comes in more ways than one, and the wholesome romance represented in K-Dramas is especially comforting for some. In socially conservative South Korea, public displays of affection are rarely seen in public, sometimes to the extent where couples need to hire a hotel room just to spend time alone, and the entertainment industry mirrors the country’s traditional attitudes to sex and relationships. In K-Dramas, the climactic passionate kiss is replaced by a freeze frame of a chaste peck, but these scenes are just as significant and touching as their American counterparts. It’s a refreshing take on on-screen love for international viewers who are used to seeing a sex scene as the culminating moment in a couple’s story, rather than a build-up of small gestures that translate into grand declarations in Korean culture. In Good Doctor, the spark that lights the drama’s central romance is Park Shi-on (Joo Won) sharing string cheese with fellow resident surgeon Cha Yoon-seo (Moon Chae-won), a sign of trust and the beginnings of a caring and thoughtful relationship.
And while rom-coms are the most popular K-Drama genre, values around family and respect always seem to underlie the main plot. In a country where upholding both is considered crucial to one’s success, they play important roles in the lives of K-Drama characters, who either struggle with familial or career pressure, or will fight for it no matter what. Commonly, there’s the protagonist who is badgered by their parents to find a husband or wife as soon as possible (The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, Full House), or a character who relentlessly searches for a long-lost family member (Bread, Love and Dreams). But occasionally, as with the commercially and critically acclaimed Reply 1988, they will show the day-to-day of what it means to have a Korean family. For Korean viewers, it’s relatable storytelling, and for international audiences, it’s a cultural lens into Korean society.
But as the world changes with the times, so do K-Dramas. The popularity of cable television has yielded to scandalous romances and serious storylines, as well as smarter and more well-rounded writing and production. Perhaps these evolutions mark a more Americanised future for Korean TV, but for now, let us just enjoy the light, fuzzy and feel-good warmth the current K-Dramas give us.
Watch Good Doctor on SBS VICELAND Tuesday nights at 10:25pm. Episodes will also be available to stream anytime at SBS On Demand:
Nick and Fiona discuss new releases and try to cut through the hype about Hereditary. They are kind of divided about Ocean's 8, then come back together to recommend SBS documentary The Fourth Estate. Fiona has also been diving into the Sydney Film Festival, and raves about Stanley Kubrick-related doc Filmworker, and Nick has been interrogating his son about what's interesting about the latest Star Wars spinoff, Solo.