Two years ago, I came across this wonderful and highly introspective article by Thundie (who’s unfortunately, on hiatus right now due to personal reasons) exploring the answers to the broadest and perhaps most common question thrown out in dramaland across all continents:
What makes a good drama?
Recently, I came across an op-ed in Seoulbeats – I don’t always like the op-eds or writing there to be honest, but I do enjoy the rather objective and intelligent angles they apply in discussing the Korean entertainment scene – in which the writer had questioned the death of good dramas because cliched story lines, notorious product placements and the like are so rampant in Kdramas today. I was surprised at my own response of the article, when I did, up in arms in defense of Kdramas. I’ll first attest that for one, while the writer is completely justified in her opinions, I’d also personally thought she was generalizing the Kdramaland premise based on Kdramas which are thematically similar, as she’d taken on dramas like Boys Over Flowers and Playful Kiss as examples. I am in no way discrediting the writer or the article, rather sharing that following the article, I found myself mulling over this question the past week. I’m thinking hard about it even more now because to be honest, I’m still on a Kdrama-slump.
Apart from one in particular, I keep finding myself greatly uninterested in the 2013 crop thus far. Variety is the name of the game in the first quarter of the year, no doubt, yet there seems to be no lure between myself and them; not the whimsical, quiet undertones of Flower Boy Next Door, not the underdogs in Ad Genius Lee Tae-Baek, not the supposedly deftly written and lush cinematography of That Winter, The Wind Blows, not the eargasmic Lee Seung Gi and his currently airing drama Gu Family Book and not even the super sexy Lee Jin Wook in his near-completion Nine: Nine Time Travels (which I promise I will check out sometime down the line).
In the quiet and on nights when I’d opt to watch a Kvariety instead of picking up a drama, this question returns and lingers in the air… I am no Thundie – whom is personally, my favorite drama-writer that I look forward to her return, if and when she does – and I’m also voicing an early caveat that I haven’t reread that entry of hers since the first and last time I did so and especially not prior to writing this. Hence, my thoughts and opinions are completely my own but if coincidentally, they’re in parallel with hers, then I suppose there must be some basic fundamentals in what constitutes a good drama.
Let’s Talk – What Makes A Good Drama?
1) The Trifecta – Acting, Directing & Writing
Does the makings of a good drama lie in the trifecta? While this is arguably rare in dramaland in general, I believe it’s especially rare in Kdramaland because of the live-shoot system. By now, I’ve learned that Kdramas which ace this trifecta are truly far and few. On the other hand, in terms of dramas as a whole, most crucially, those trifecta winners vary person to person.
For example, my favorite and the show I consider to be perfect in terms of acting, directing and writing is none other than The Princess’ Man, but in an interesting twist, I’ve come across a number of reviews calling out on Moon Chae Won and or Park Shi Hoo‘s limitations as actors, thus stopping short in allowing the show to be coined as having aced the trifecta. Then of course, there are plenty more shows which are lauded and called the aces but ones in which I can’t attest myself, having not watched them. Cases in point: Giant, History of the Salaryman, Gaksital, Dong Yi and more.
But if one really ponders and think that acing the trifecta thus merits the definition of a good drama, then what about shows that do ace it… yet still fail to capture the viewers? Or more specifically and very often in my case, what if they fall short in the emotional investment department? Padam Padam – The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats, for instance, is perhaps the most apparent and easy to single out example for myself. It’s a beautifully shot drama, equally well-written with so much pathos and was anchored so winningly by charismatic Jung Woo Sung and veteran actress Na Moon Hee as his mother and while the show did render feelings of sadness, frustration, injustice and the like from me during my stint with it, to be completely honest it never once moved me emotionally.
I still find this to be bizarre, honestly, but one that has since made me realize that acing the trifecta doesn’t quite cut it and thus, brings me to the subsequent point…
2) Emotional Investment
In other words, a viewer’s response, or better yet – the ability for a show to elicit emotional sentiments from the audience, translating what’s reel to real, genuine emotions felt by ordinary, everyday persons. As an oldie drama-watcher, this is perhaps my most favorite part and the primary reason as to why I have stayed on until now with drama-watching; dramas are fictional products, much like fiction novels, but there are plenty parallelisms to be found and connected to Real Life, whether they are in the form of story line, characters, setting, emotional sentiments, conflicts and more.
The best ones in terms of emotional investment is perhaps those dramas in which the sentiments are felt deep within – resonance and relatedness. There’s a sense of kinship with an aspect of the show, be it the characters, writing via conflicts and such presented or relationships depicted. This one’s the holy grail I think, because then I’m no longer just a viewer, instead I’m in every scene, second and moment with the drama; a fine example would be Shut Up! Flower Boy Band, a show I’d shed tears so easily for the boys, the girl, their situations and my own memories of that period in my life. I’d also funnily or rather embarrassingly, attempted to write a review but found myself unsurprisingly, unable to. Yes, it was that awesome, this show, that it rendered me speechless.
Interestingly however, emotional investment is not only internal – there are plenty and perhaps more commonly, dramas that still elicit emotional sentiments, albeit in terms of semblance of relatedness to an aspect, or many, of the show. Loosely, I’ll define this as an external emotional response. For instance, some stories are terribly written plot-wise, yet at the heart of it is a hero or heroine with the heart of gold; as a viewer, perhaps you’d find yourself rooting for said-hero or heroine enough to stay on, wishing he or she would obtain that much-deserved happy ending. Me Too, Flower is such a story for me, personally. There are obvious, gaping holes in the plot that leave much to be desired but at the crux of the show is the emotionally guarded Bong Sun, who puts her heart on her sleeves when in love that even at the show’s worst, I stayed on for her sake; I’d felt that had I abandoned the show, just like all the others, here’s another person – myself – who’s abandoning her.
There are also shows which I’m categorizing on third-degree emotional sentiments; they elicit all sorts of feelings, yet it’s more of mere ripple effect, or literally empathy and or sympathy. In other words, unlike the external emotional response aforementioned, in the case of this one, one feels and such to, for and or by an aspect (or a few) of the show, yet it’s not due to a sense of emotional kinship, rather fundamental human sentiments. It’s almost like being a bystander, or witness to a stranger’s life – there’s that emotional response governed by morals and or principles, yet it doesn’t quite resonate and linger on a personal level.
3) Intelligence and Depth
What then, about this one? I know you’re perhaps thinking – aren’t these sources which will result in the above two points? Yes and no, or so I believe.
A drama which constitutes as a good drama, in my opinion, is not only intelligent in it’s execution, but also in terms of the relationship between the viewers and it. What I mean by the latter in particular, is that it is a drama which trusts it’s viewers; symbolism is embedded throughout the show for instance, to be unraveled and dissected by the viewers. Or for instance, ethically controversial issues are explored with depth and sincerity, trusting the audience to mull over the stances focused upon in the show, or providing room for plenty afterthoughts. Dramas like these exist almost in symbiosis with their audiences because more than the presence of mutual benefit, at the core, it’s a relationship based upon respect.
A suitable case-in-point would be the introspective, difficult to digest Jdrama Soredemo, Ikite Yuku, which explored the complexities of two families forever entangled to each other due to an unforeseen tragedy. Soredemo, Ikite Yuku is quite frankly, one of the greatest dramas I have ever encountered and deservedly so. It’s a show that emotionally captured in equal parts internal and external, but more than that, the reason I think of it as a good drama is because it trusts it’s audience to understand, reason – or not, so argue and arouse feelings of injustice and the like – the characters and their dilemmas. It’s a show that doesn’t thrust conflicts to the viewer’s face without thought, nor try to visually depict them, as if with the excuse that just in case the undertone doesn’t come through. Instead, it probes it’s viewers not just morally, ethically and principally, but also emotionally through the central conflicts, characters and more. Best of all though, it unflinchingly throws questions back to the viewers, almost as if challenging and thus, forcing self-assessments, personal reflections and intuitive explorations of our own moral codes. It’s the sort of show that may or may not leave a bitter tone at the end of it’s run, but one that the viewers can never discredit.
But perhaps you’re thinking, what if such things have indeed happened to you from shows which are… not at all in the same league as Soredemo, Ikite Yuku? What if you’ve felt all these complicated emotions from shows which are writing-handicapped, woodenly acted and other lacking qualities which easily place them under the sucker drama category? This thus, leads me to my next point, the intangible factor that honestly, is perhaps the real key factor that distinguishes my pool of good dramas from your pool, your friend’s pool and so on. It is none other than…
Very simply, heart. Unlike emotional investment in which it’s an external quality, or rather causal effect by a drama, heart is very simply an innate quality of a drama. Much like how as humans, we are alive due to this central organ in our body, both physically and metaphorically, similarly at it’s core, a good drama is one with a beating heart. The qualities of it’s heart, however, differ drama to drama.
There are shows which are anchored by justice, for instance shows like The Chaser, or anchored by that coming-of-age melancholic sentiments such as the likes of buzz-worthy School 2013 and my forever golden Orange Days or shows like Wild Romance, which is a blend of a few aspects which collectively produce a gem for a heart. In the case of the latter specifically, the show is atrocious from an objective, honest point of view – the chemistry is nothing to talk about, nor is the conflict but for me at least, Wild Romance is a show with such a big heart dominated by sincerity, hilarity, natural likeness and a surprise relatedness based upon fundamental values and feelings.
Sometimes though, what makes a good drama is more than just what it’s made of. In fact, it’s really all about…
5) That Sticky Factor
How much of a show do you remember long after you’ve completed it’s run? How much of a show lingers on in your memory, heart and mind? What if it’s a show which had you at it’s tail all throughout it’s run but mere months later… you can hardly remember whether or not certain scenes took place?
I’ve now realized that this is indeed a significant point, because there are a handful of shows which I loved like no other throughout my stint with them, but can hardly make out what was so great about them now. Cases in point would unfortunately be My Girl, featuring my very own His Hotness or fortunately, Witch Amusement.
Last but not least, while this point may be minor, I do believe it is indeed significant because it all does come down to…
I’ve stated this plenty times – I’m in my 13th year of drama-watching. I started off with a Jdrama but in those pinnacle (read: middle to high school) years, I’d watched just about any dramas the world over; Oriental Asia in the form of Japanese, Korean, Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong dramas? Check. Southeast Asian like Filipino, Indonesian and even Malay dramas? Check. Spanish telenovelas? Check. American, British and Australian shows? Check. Indian Bollywood and Tamil series? Here and there, but check. I’m lacking in say, Middle Eastern dramas, I know, but for the most part I’ve covered a fair areal space of the world continents, I think.
Coming back to this fact and it’s relevance with timing, sometimes when I think of dramas I’d watched in the past, I acknowledge that I was much too young to understand the subject matters explored, or that I was more easily taken by superficial scenes and actions in the dramas, hence liking them because they’d for example, shown lots of lovey-dovey moments between the main couple. I have a handful of dramas, mostly Japanese with speckles of Korean, which I revisit annually, every few months or years and with every visit, I would come out with different, growing perspectives. In rare turnouts, growing out of love but for the most part, able to appreciate the stories better and more surprisingly, holding near and dear scenes and moments in those shows which I’d failed to take notice or bothered about previously. Cases in point would be those revisits done recently on epic-gem Tentai Kansoku, the one and only first love Beautiful Life and the sweepingly romantic Love Revolution.
My lenses have matured – or jaded, depending on how you look at it – thus aspects that previously constitute a good drama do not always hold, the more time passes and older that I grow. For this reason, there are shows which I think are good dramas in their own rights, but require a revisit to (re)validate. Some notable examples would be the Kdrama Que Sera, Sera and the Jdrama Karei naru Ichizoku.
Timing however, is not only in terms of age; it’s also in it’s literal sense: the right timing.
A prime example for me, would easily be Cinderella Sister, which premiered in late winter 2010. I remember this so clearly because this was the year I’d just moved Stateside to further my undergraduate. Needless to say, I was dealing with homesickness, terrible adjustment phase and loneliness. Something magical happened – this show came along, providing me with a reprieve; a form of escapism, twice a week. I fell into it’s rabid hole wholeheartedly like I never did before and until now, despite knowing and realizing that indeed the show’s greatly flawed, truthfully in my heart, I still think of it as a good drama. I feel the same way towards relatively less-liked and fatally flawed shows like Wild Romance, which provided the pitch-perfect zany escape during last year’s winter and I Need Romance 2012, which filled my cup to the brim with romantic goodness, just late last year.
Two years ago, I’d coined points (3) and (4) specifically to be my criteria for what makes a good drama, but my current drama-watcher self believes very strongly in (2) while appreciating so much (6). The first point, ergo the trifecta, is something that I now think of as an edge – an advantage, but no longer a deal breaker. To be completely honest though, just as experience mars innocence, in truth a person’s perspectives are equally as dynamic. Thus frankly, I suspect that the answers to this question will continually change a year, two, three and more from now for not just myself, but you, too.
What makes a good drama? The mind knows what it knows and the heart feels what it feels, I suppose.