There always comes a point during these work trips where the schedule compresses, consuming the scant slack time for exploring the local area and tossing me into a repetitive cycle of work-eat-sleep-work. During the transitions between eating and sleeping, or sleeping and working, there’s not much I can do but read or watch television.
Yes, I should be reading, but the compact dimensions of my hotel room are offset by a very large flat-screen television.
The language barrier limits my ability to fully appreciate what’s happening on Korean TV, but I’m finding ways around it. Cartoons are my old standby, with their modest demands on language skills, but this time, I’m getting some help from internet resources like YouTube, where I’m finding some of the programs I’ve been watching, subtitled in English. You can get the gist of a drama or comedy through physical cues and music, but a joke, for example, is usually funnier if you understand the punch line. Not always, but usually.
GAG Concert: Ninety minutes of sketch comedy with a young ensemble cast, à la Saturday Night Live minus the snarky political commentary. Some of their standard set-ups include a celebrity agent suffering through a parade of high-maintenance clients, two bachelors bemoaning their eternal solitude, a big sister’s dating horror stories re-enacted for her younger sibling, ballroom dancers flirting and fighting mid-tango through their relationship issues, and, if you need high-pressure business negotiation, call in a pair of no-nonsense ajumma (old ladies) to do your haggling. There are also zombies.
Larva: I watch this not because I like it, but because it’s running on every single channel. Two worms against the world—a little red one with attitude, and a big yellow flatulent one. These guys live in a seedy apartment, eternally scavenging the oddments of food left behind by its slovenly human occupant. Part of the show’s amusement is how many imaginative ways they find to employ their infinitely-elastic prehensile tongues to solve problems, since they don’t have arms or legs. The larvae occupy the rock-bottom of the food chain, which means they’re usually fighting off predators for the privilege of eating things that would choke a maggot. The show leans heavily on gross-outs and toilet humor, but there are some inspired moments, such as an episode where our slimy heroes spin cocoons in the hope of transforming into butterflies, only to emerge months later as geriatric larvae. They re-enter the cocoons for successive do-overs, getting their metamorphosis spectacularly wrong every time.
Jewel in the Palace: Another show that seems to be playing all day long on one or more channels, this 54-episode historical epic is a more uplifting experience. Jewel in the Palace is Korea’s Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. Jang Geum, the orphan daughter of outcast parents, finds her place in the royal court of Korea during the golden age of the Joseon Dynasty, circa 1500. She rises above palace intrigue and her tragic family heritage to become the first female physician to the royal family. Along the way, we’re treated to a vivid panorama of the often perilous life inside and outside the palace walls, traditional Korean culinary artistry, the harsh injustice of the caste system governing Korean society of that era, and the practice of medicine at a place and time when science was just beginning to ascend above ignorance and superstition. The staging and costuming are lavish and beautiful—Seoul’s network of restored palaces provide an authentic period backdrop. The Korean television and film industry put $15 million and some of their best talent into this production, and it shows. Jang Geum’s story is both compelling and inspiring. She’s one of Korea’s greatest and most beloved heroes. All episodes are available for free viewing, subtitled, at Crunchyroll.com. If you fall in love with this series, take heart—a sequel is planned in 2015.