As Seen on TV

A look at Korean Dramas by Brian Yaeck

TV tends to say a lot about a country’s culture, and this is certainly the case in Korea. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, these are five types of TV shows that seem to be a pretty good sample of what’s on TV over here .

Each provide a couple of neat insights.



Recommendation: Boys Over Flowers (꽃보다 男子 or 꽃보다 남자)

Soap operas, or ‘dramas’ as they like to call it in Korea stand as the most popular show, and indeed its biggest import as they are quite popular across Asia. ‘Boys Over Flowers’ is the most popular teen drama at the moment, which is set in a fictional ultra-rich private school.

The main character is a transfer student from humble working class origins and her encounters with the ‘F4′, which is some kind of rich pretty boy gang that makes life unnecessarily tedious for the other students.

Its worth checking out if you want to see what some of your students enjoy watching, and if you enjoy teen dramas. Guess it also hints about the ridiculous amounts of money Koreans spend on private education. Its like a Korean Beverly Hills 90210 I suppose without the weird plots about Dylan’s Dad shady past.

Historical dramas, set in more traditional times showing Korean historical figures fighting off invaders and living around the Royal Court and what not.

Emperor of the Sea (해신) is one of the most popular, it is loosely based around a famous Korean Admiral, who helped rid the seas of pirates and made trade around Asia more safe.


Reality-variety show

Recommendation: Infinite Challenge ( Mohan Dojeon무한도전)

In my favourite Korean TV genre, typically the cast, usually made up of comedians, travel somewhere in Korea and often have a series of segments with some kind of comedic slapstick element to it.

This is the important thing to know about what Koreans find funny. They absolutely love anything slapstick and visual. Subtle British whit, North American irony, or sarcasm, may completely fly over their heads unless they are familiar with western comedy. If you want to show anything funny to a Korean its best to stick to some kind of physical comedy or they may not get the joke.

That being said, the reality-variety show can be quite hilarious. Each week on Infinite Challenge for example, the cast has some kind of loose theme where the cast competes against each other in some kind of ridiculous premise.

Some of my favourite episodes involved the cast competing against each other in mock Olympic contests learning how to do gymnastics from athletics with hilarious results. Or the episode where each comedian had to perform a K-Pop song .

Other notable shows include One night/two days (1박2일) and Family Outing (패밀리가 떴다) where the cast will usually go to somewhere more traditional and rural in Korea and have a variety of hilarious challenges and games to conduct.


Talk Show

Recommendation: Global Talk Show, (미녀들의 수다)

Talks shows are quite popular in Korea as well. Global Talk Show, also commonly known as ‘Talking to Beauties’ is an interesting example.

The show has a panel of 18 foreigners or so living in Korea from countries such as Canada, the UK, Japan, etc. that can speak a decent amount of Korean. In the show, they are asked questions and talk about their experiences and culture in a talk-show format while they speak Korean.

Since my Korean is quite terrible, I don’t enjoy it as much as the slapstick comedy, but it is interesting as it does demonstrate a few things. Koreans love it when you learn their language. And why are there no dudes on the show? And why only ‘beauties’? Anyways, its an interesting only-in-Korea concept, since a show in the west would probably never be interested in a talk show where foreigners speak English. Would probably be even less interested in what they would have to say. 

The show is not widely regarded in the expat blogosphere since the ‘beauties’ often seem to say things that are not necessarily common views in the expat community.

Other kinds of comedies

Recommendations: Gag Concert (개그콘서트) & Animal Farm 동물농장

Besides, the variety show format, there are a range of other comedy programs in Korea. One form is  more of a sketch-comedy program. Kind of like a Korean ‘Saturday Night Live’. The two most notable sketches that my students seem to be familiar with involve two men doing some random activity, which then becomes ‘hot’, and then proceed to do an effeminate dance while repeatedly saying ‘that’s very hot, that’s very hot…’. Its silly humour, but kind of funny sometimes.

Animal Farm 동물농장 is also a bit of a strange show that often puts different kinds of animals together. There is often a lot of laughter from the audience, so I take it that the show is supposed to be viewed as a comedy, which is a little unsettling given some of the circumstances.

Such as the episode where a bear cub was introduced to a lion cub. The bear cub was extremely frightened though the audience thought it was quite hilarious. Other episodes have involved a person taking care of deer or monkeys in an apartment building. Animal rights is in Korea is a complicated subject, but I’ll just say that it sometimes falls below the expectations of westerners and can sometimes be shocking.


American TV & Movies

Recommendations: CSI and Under Siege

While there is certainly lots of locally produced Korean television, there are quite a few channels that show American movies and TV shows as well.

Unfortunately, the best of the best isn’t always shown. CSI is by far the most popular show, while action movies, largely from the 1990s, like Under Siege or Demolition Man, seem to be on non-stop. Reality shows like Biggest Loser or various shows about moronic people also are quite popular.

The English programming does make me wonder sometimes if Koreans are getting the wrong idea of the west. We aren’t always a society dealing with endless murder, explosions, and ghetto obesity, though some of that is real.

While its certainly popular in North America, its not necessarily critically acclaimed top-drawer shelf material either. Some Koreans do watch Lost, though, that could be because two of the stars are Korean and Hangul is spoken quite frequently in the show.


Though Korean television may not be everyone’s cup of tea, tuning in does show what Koreans dig and explains a great deal about their culture and is sometimes really fun to watch.

While it may be tempting just to relax with the latest torrent downloaded of Weeds or Dexter, try flipping through the channels once in a while. Who knows, you might even get hooked on something!Picture2