This is a conversation I have on a pretty regular basis. People are surprised when I say I watch more foreign tv shows than American ones. I am not Asian. None of my family members are Asian. I have yet to even visit an Asian country. So why do I watch Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, and Hong Kong TV shows? How did I even get introduced to them?
I had a friend while I was in grad school who is Korean American. She ended up doing a study abroad in Korea and when she returned she recommended I watch Playful Kiss and Boys Over Flowers. I don’t remember which one I watched first, but after finishing both of them I went on the search for more Korean dramas, and that lead into other Asian shows.
I usually give people a brief list of reasons why I watch them, catered to that individual, but here’s the comprehensive list of reasons why I got hooked on, and continue to watch, a lot of foreign TV shows.
Asian TV shows are structured differently than American ones. The majority of Asian TV show don’t have seasons. Instead they have a set number of episodes. In Korea, weeknight prime time shows are typically 16-24 episodes, weekend evening shows are around 50 episodes, and the daily dramas are 50-150 episodes. Japanese shows tend to be 10-11 episodes, while Chinese and Taiwanese shows are about the same as Korean shows, though Taiwan’s dailies usually run around 70 episodes. Because of the way they air shows there are fewer airing gaps, so you’re not sitting and wondering how many weeks until the next episode, like I currently am with a couple American shows (seriously, when do we get new episodes of Big Bang Theory again?). Plus you don’t have to worry about the airing station changing their mind about offering a show online halfway through its run (I’m looking at you SYFY, TNT and USA).
Also, because of the shorter run time, it’s a lot easier to get into a show. If you know there are only 20 episodes, it’s a lot less intimidating than something with 5 or 6 seasons. This also makes it easier to catch up on shows you might have missed. For example, I know I would probably love Battlestar Galactica, but the idea of trying to watch four seasons is just too intimidating, whereas while I haven’t yet watched Road No 1, Nine or Pasta yet I definitely will sometime in the future; I’m just waiting for a free weekend so I can marathon a whole series.
Also, with the shorter runs there is more variety in subject matter and tone, so you can easily find something to fit your mood/preferences. Korean shows also usually do two episodes a week, so it’s faster and easier to get hooked on a currently running show.
The Art of the Cliffhanger
They are incredibly good at cliff hangers. From physical danger to the revelation of secrets, they have incredible cliff hangers on a weekly basis. There is one of the reasons shows get marathoned; it’s really hard to only watch one or two episodes when almost every episode has a cliff hanger. Korea is especially good at this.
Mythical and Fantastical Elements
With their deep fount of mythical creatures to draw from we get some really interesting aspects to the stories. I would love to see more use of mythical creatures like the gumiho in American shows. You also get to deal with curses, shamans, gods, fairies, magic and mythical creatures. The shorter series length gives writers the opportunity to take risks by having fantastical elements. Thus we get awesome shows with ghosts (Master’s Sun, Arang and the Magistrate), aliens (My Love From Another Star), or other elements (time travel via a talisman in Queen In Hyun’s Man) as the main focus of the show, and sometimes the fantastical element is a secondary feature (Prince of Lan Ling)
American shows tend to avoid having romances for the leads work out since the show can rarely function once the couple actually gets together, and even if the couple do get together the romance is usually not the focus of the show (unless we’re talking soap operas). It’s nice to be able to watch a straight up romance with more depth than we get in a movie. And it’s common to have the couple get together (or even get/be married) halfway through the series and spend part of the time showing the couple dealing with different issues. It’s not an immediate happily ever after. Plus you frequently have strong romance elements in the other genres as well.
Awesome Crime/Spy/Thriller Stories
You get better thriller/spy/revenge stories because the writers know how many episodes they have to tell the story. You can get some amazing twists and foreshadowing when you know when your story is going to end. There are some crime of the week shows (usually more like same crime for 2-4 episodes), but there are a lot more main arc shows, and we get some killer revenge stories and awesome thrillers like Iris or Cruel City.
Different Themes and Character Types
Since Asia has different cultures than the USA there are different themes and character types from what we see. The Candy girl, chaebol boy, protective and snobby moms are all character types that are different than what we see on American shows. There is a lot more focus on family relationships and dynamics, respect for seniority, and corruption issues than I see in American shows. First love is a common trope in Asian shows, but we rarely, if ever, have them in American shows.
Some things are cultural (seriously, there’s an obsession with first loves), while others are a product of the different show structure. When your show is only 16 episodes you can take risks in regards to topics and characters that you may not for a show expected to run 5 seasons. Plus they can tell stories or ideas that would be difficult to handle in a longer show. Some issues and character types would pall (or lose tension) after a season or two, but are really interesting and compelling in a shorter narrative. For example, that’s why in Asian dramas we get shows with the main character who is dying or suffering from a physical or mental disability.
Some of the culturally based differences include shows that focus on first loves, family dynamics, chaebols, history, myth/legends, office politics and generational stories, both as in stories about multiple generations at the same time, but also ones that span generations. Say what you will about Love Rain, it was different to look at the love stories of both generations.
Time travel is actually pretty common, and we get both the man out of time (both forward and back) and moving within own time variations. What’s awesome is when time travel is used to unite stories told in two different time periods, so we get elements of historical and contemporary shows. (Queen In Hyun’s Man does this the best and is a great starter show.)
American shows rarely take place any other time than the present. Asia has a much larger chunk of history to play with, and they take advantage of it. From shows merely set in historical settings to ones that actually deal with historical characters, we see a lot more than just the present. Most Korean historical shows are set sometime during the Joseon era (approx. 1400-1900 AD), but we also regularly get them set during earlier (Faith) and later (Bridal Mask, Inspiring Generation, Answer Me franchise) time periods. Taiwan does some, but seems to favor more modern settings. I haven’t seen many Japanese shows set in different time periods, but I’m not sure if that’s because they don’t make as many or because those tend not to get subbed. China, though, does a lot of historical dramas and boy do they have a ton history to play with! Something like 25 dynasties offers a lot of inspiration. Hong Kong also does their fair share of historical shows.
These different time periods allow other issues to be addressed, and we get amazing sword fights 🙂 (If you want an example just go watch any of Lee Joon Ki’s historical shows. The man is amazing!) Plus they do a great job of adding fantastical elements to historical shows or showcasing court intrigue.
Asian shows are cleaner in terms of sex, language and violence. They even will blur out knives sometimes! Cable shows can be more graphic than broadcast, but they are still less graphic than American shows. We still get our kisses, and sex happens, we just don’t see as much of it. Plus even if the character are actually swearing in the show half the time the subbers bleep out the translation.
We don’t see many child actors on primetime American shows, but you do in Asian ones, and holy cow are a lot of these kids and teens are GOOD. Sometimes we get a few episodes at the beginning of the show set during the childhood or teenage years of the leads, and sometimes we get a couple kids that actually run through the whole series. One of my all-time favorite shows is Two Fathers and it stars two men in their early 30s and an 7 year old girl. Wen Di was awesome and had her own character arc and plot lines.
There are a number of shows where the viewers were really sad when we transitioned to the adult actors. Golden Rainbow definitely declined once we left the kids behind, and the child actors in Moon That Embraces the Sun have my heart as strongly as the adults do. I see some absolutely incredible child actors, and it has gotten to the point that I frequently cringe at how bad most American child actors are.
Less Type Casting, More Risk Taking
With the shorter series runs actors have less of a problem being type cast. It still happens (Lee Jae Yoon is almost always a cop or tough guy), but it’s easier for actors to fight free of it; when you don’t have an actor play the same role for 10 years it’s a lot easier to see them as their new characters. Even if there are certain show or character types that actors are better in or tend to favor, it’s still nice to see them stretch their wings. One of the reasons I love Joo Won is he has such diversity in the characters he chooses. In the last three years he has played a Zorro-esque character, a goofy spy, a pediatric surgeon with severe developmental issues and a cold, arrogant student conductor. Plus with the shorter series runs the actors and producers are more willing to take a risk. Otherwise how would we have gotten Ji Sung’s amazing multiple personality performance in Kill Me, Heal Me?
Eye Candy 🙂
This is definitely shallow, but I have always found Asian men incredibly attractive. Who wouldn’t want to watch Jo Ji Sub, Lee Joon Ki, Wallace Chung, George Hu, Roy Chiu, Ji Sung, Hyun Bin, or any of the other dozen men I could name who can both act and are incredibly hot?
This list of reasons could still be longer, but it does give you an idea of why I watch these shows. However, the two strongest reasons why I watch Asian tv shows are more personal. Firstly, they make me think. About my own biases, beliefs and perceptions, about my relationships and mental health, and many other things. Secondly, I enjoy them. I have fun watching them and feel happy and satisfied when I’m done. And really, isn’t that enough of a reason?