What I’m Watching on Korean TV

No matter how hard I try to get out-and-about during my free time on one of these work trips, I still end up spending some time in my hotel room in front of the television. There are a few English-language channels, but I don’t have a very long list of “must-see TV,” and if I want to catch up on American Idol or the latest episode of Castle, my daughter will have it waiting for me on the DVR when I get home. Why watch it in Korea?

The Korean channels do carry a few U.S. shows, and there’s a mild amusement in watching familiar characters like Dr. House spouting off in Korean, but the novelty wears thin after a while. So, what else is on Korean TV? Let’s tune around…

Domestic dramedy: You don’t have to speak Korean to follow what’s going on here. The story usually centers around a family composed of a father who tries to be stern but is mostly tired, a critical and vain mother frustrated with her family’s failure to keep up appearances, a responsible oldest son who’s feeling the weight of his parents’ expectations and dating an earnest young lady who can’t quite measure up to mama’s standards, a frazzled oldest daughter who enjoys her nights on the town with her office mates a little too much and frets that she’ll never get married, a ne’er-do-well younger son who just wants to have fun, and a ditzy baby sister who’s always getting into trouble. Dysfunctional family tension mixed with goofy humor and a sprinkling of heartwarming moments. Rinse and repeat.

Historical dramas: Lavish reenactments of the trials and tribulations of life during the royal Korean golden age. There’s usually a romance at the heart of the story or a heroic young nobleman fighting for truth and justice against impossible odds. Women wield considerable power and influence behind the scenes, but have to deal with catty infighting and courtly intrigue. It’s pretty, but it would be more edifying if I knew a little more about the history.

Musical entertainment: Male and female idol singers, boy bands, and girl groups lip-synching bouncy pop tunes about love, love, love, with the support of choreographed backup dancers. It’s all very bubbly and cute, probably a little too sugary and derivative for most American audiences. The word ‘paparazzi’ comes up in the lyrics quite a bit, at least this week.

Reality shows: No, Korea hasn’t escaped this phenomenon. There are a lot of shows featuring troupes of lovable young knuckleheads doing wacky things out in the countryside, and a few imports of familiar reality products like Project Runway: Korea, and Korea’s Next Top Model. As many of these shows were imports to the U.S. market from elsewhere in the world, I begin to wonder who’s actually coming up with all the original ideas these days.

Cartoons: Fun in any language, these tend toward Korean-language dubs of popular Japanese anime like One Piece, Shin Chan, and Pokemon, plus a few home-grown shows. Some are obviously intended to be educational, with animated retellings of stories from Korean folklore and history, or classic literature. Tom and Jerry is also popular here–c’mon, who doesn’t love watching Tom take a flat-iron to the noggin?

Go: You hardly ever see a televised chess match on U.S. television, but you can almost always find a game of Go (called Baduk in Korea) in progress on one of the Korean networks. If you set your attention-span to maximum, it’s fascinating in a time-lapse photography sort of way to watch two skilled players incrementally capture territory on a wooden grid with black and white stones, but it’s hard to follow the underlying strategy when you can’t understand the commentary.

E-Sports: I used to tune right through this until I figured out what was going on. Hours upon hours of programming is devoted to watching people play video games, but it’s mostly one game: Starcraft. Korea has an electronic sports league devoted to Starcraft, with corporate-sponsored teams of high-school to college-age guys that play each other in ongoing tournaments. One team is even sponsored by the Republic of Korea Air Force. These players train like athletes, living, studying, and working out with their teams. The best earn upwards of $200,000 U.S. a year and have a following many rock stars would envy. There is a certain addictive suspense in watching the players build up their infrastructure piece-by-piece, scout the terrain, and then send their armies tearing into each other in an apocalyptic conflagration of missile detonations, energy bolts, and caustic alien goo.

I’ll post some other day about why I think South Koreans have embraced this particular game to the point of national obsession–Jerry’s about to drop another bowling ball on Tom.


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