An introduction to Dramaworld: Episodes 1-3
javabeans: Viki released its first original web series called Dramaworld last month, and since we were invited to screen it at its premiere, we figured we’d weigh in on it. At least the first part of it, since Viki is releasing the episodes gradually; I believe six episodes are viewable now, though subscribers with premium access should be able to watch the whole thing.
girlfriday: It’s a short 10-episode web drama about a drama fan who gets sucked into an alternate world (named Dramaworld, naturally) where actors live out the plots of dramas as though they’re real life. Apparently it’s in danger, though, because the heroine needs to save Dramaworld and make sure true love prevails.
javabeans: I have to be honest, when I first heard Viki was making an original series about an American drama fan walking into a Korean drama, I was skeptical — was there a way to do this without being massively cheesball or secondhand embarrassing?
girlfriday: Yeah, that’s the million-dollar question.
javabeans: But when I saw the trailer, I thought it could actually work, because it wasn’t just mimicking a K-drama idea and making it for international fans; it found a way to work in a fantasy/meta component that I found clever: The heroine has to pretend to fit into “Dramaworld” and not betray that she’s actually manufacturing plot points. It’s basically like the gravelings and reapers in Dead Like Me (there, reapers look human but are responsible for claiming souls, while gravelings engineer the deaths), and that’s one of my favorite shows ever.
girlfriday: Yeah I was pleasantly surprised by the way they embraced the meta humor and didn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a loving look at dramas, filled with nods to familiar drama tropes and cheeky asides to the audience.
javabeans: Which isn’t to say that it isn’t also pretty cheeseball — it is — but it’s part of the sensibility that the show embraces. So yes there’s cheese, but it’s not like it’s unintentional cheese. It’s cheese with a purpose!
girlfriday: How about we let them see for themselves? Here’s Episode 1:
javabeans: Although, I have to wonder how much of our initial reaction was swayed by the fact that we screened it in a theater full of enthusiastic viewers, who all enjoyed having a hearty laugh and fed off each other’s energy.
girlfriday: That definitely contributed to the humor, for sure.
javabeans: And don’t forget the liquor. That helped, too. Which means this stone-cold-sober rewatch right now is going to be an interesting exercise: Will it hold up? Is it as cute-with-some-cheesiness as I remembered, or will it be mostly cheesiness? One way to find out…
girlfriday: The first episode starts with a “Previously on…” segment of our drama-within-a-drama, called Taste of Love.
javabeans: I think it’s a pretty smart opener (despite the confusion of literally starting a series that flashes “Episode 12” on your screen), because right away we get a sense of the campy tone — it’s all seriousness for the characters within Taste of Love (Sean Dulake from Athena, Bae Nuri from Sweden Laundry and Moon That Embraces the Sun, Kim Sa-hee from Cheongdam-dong Scandal and Thorn Flower), but the slight over-the-top tone tells us that we’re in on the joke about the rich chaebol hero, plucky everygirl, bitchy jealous second lead, pushy mother, and all that familiar stuff.
girlfriday: And then as we pull away from the screen, subtitles appear, and we meet the real heroine of this drama, Claire (played by Liv Hewson). She’s huddled in the bathroom with her phone, crying over the latest episode of Taste of Love while her dad yells at her to get back to work at the sandwich shop he runs.
javabeans: I don’t know what to think of Claire (or Liv) yet, but considering the track records K-dramas have with English-speaking actors, I find her pretty decent — especially as she’s delivering this extensive clunky monologue about how dramas are all about the pure love and first kiss and kind of selling the intensity.
girlfriday: My favorite stuff is the montage of her favorite actor making the same expression in drama after drama, as she describes the plots with her fangirl fervor.
javabeans: Claire’s dad is understandably exasperated with her single-minded obsession with dramas, and you know, I do think this setup works (although I’m not sure if it continues to work in future episodes), where she’s fixated on this exciting, beautiful world on her cell phone monitor, and her dad can’t understand why she refuses to live in the present moment. She’s kind of surly about it, and he clearly worries.
girlfriday: Yeah I like that she has this obsession with dramas because she thinks her real life is boring and ordinary. It’s relatable.
javabeans: They have this exchange where he scolds her and it’s kind of unexpectedly intense, and I was thinking this could really be poignant if, for instance, Claire’s trajectory through the show was realizing that dramas are good but real life is real life, and living through the fantasy of Dramaworld makes her appreciate the realness that she doesn’t appreciate now. (That said, from future episodes I don’t really know if that’s where the show will go. I don’t expect it.)
girlfriday: Yeah I remember thinking after that scene that the real happy ending would be if she started embracing her real life and stopped thinking so little of herself.
javabeans: Wait… We’re not actually telling drama addicts to shake the addiction, are we? Gasp! When did that take a turn?
girlfriday: It wasn’t me! It was Claire’s dad! He just had a convincing argument, or Jedi-mind-tricked me!
javabeans: Let’s just say we think drama addiction is best when managed and controlled, like coffee. Not heroin! Let’s move on because I feel like I can’t sustain this argument much longer. Back to the show, where Claire is working alone at the shop late at night, and gets back to her show-within-the-show, where the vampy second lead is trying to come on to Sean’s character after hours at his restaurant (hot rich chef, on point with the trend, of course!) and Bae Nuri watches forlornly through a window.
girlfriday: Claire is so engrossed in screaming at the hero not to kiss the second lead that she doesn’t even notice the thief breaking into her store (cameo by Sam Hammington). In her frenzy, she trips over a mop bucket and her phone goes flying into the air… and then it zaps as she disappears into the phone.
javabeans: She lands inside her drama and literally ends up in the middle of the kiss, right in between Sean and Sa-hee. They all stare at each other, and then she faints. On to Episode 2!
girlfriday: The best part of Claire waking up and finding the entire main cast of her favorite drama staring back at her is when she then faints again, and just happens to fall into the hero’s arms. It’s almost like she’s seen a drama or two!
javabeans: No, the real best part is when Justin Chon (Twilight) bursts in to take Claire, because he’s the only one aside from Claire who is aware of the meta context. Namely, that Dramaworld is a world where drama plots take place, and that his job is to help the plots run smoothly as a “Facilitator.”
girlfriday: I just love the looks on everyone’s faces when he says that Claire is his sister.
javabeans: “Uh… adopted!” Justin’s as hilarious as expected. Well if we’re going to talk about acting, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by the cast so far — I’m glad they got actual drama actresses, because they’re very natural, and subpar acting is really one of the issues with web drama productions. You can’t treat a web drama as a second-tier production and then be disappointed when it doesn’t get popular! It’s only when you take effort and treat the web drama like a real production that it’ll go anywhere. That said, I wish Sean were more natural to match them. Although I do think that when we were in the screening, his stiffness played as part of the cliche of the stoic chaebol.
girlfriday: It did get a lot of laughs.
javabeans: I do like how Justin (er, “Seth,” but honestly I just think of most of them as the actor names, other than Claire) explains that everything here is understood right away because of subtitles. Really clever nod to Viki’s whole raison d’etre, really — simultaneous consumption and comprehension, where language is no barrier. Also, they head out into the streets and everybody there is the hero of their own drama, either having a fight or a big romantic moment, haha.
girlfriday: Yeah that was awesome.
javabeans: Episode 2 does have some pretty funny moments. Here, take a look:
girlfriday: The one thing that confused me about the mythology was how in Claire’s Dramaworld, Sean and Nuri were the hero and heroine of every drama though, when clearly other dramaworlds with other actors exist.
javabeans: Maybe within Dramaverse, every dramaworld runs parallel to the others? (Sequel bait!)
girlfriday: It was almost like the OTP was outside of the drama-within-a-drama, like those two actors were always fated to be together.
javabeans: I’m not quite there with Claire’s giddiness at being in her favorite drama, but then I imagine how I’d feel to be in a perpetual drama loop starring Lee Jun-ki and Shin Mina, or Joo-won and UEE.
girlfriday: Yeah but then how would you be able to stay OUT of the drama? I guess that’s Claire’s problem too.
javabeans: The mechanism of Dramaworld sort of escapes me, because if Justin has been in 50 dramas as an extra, making sure Nuri and Sean get together, am I supposed to believe that in the real world, there are 50 dramas starring them? I’m wondering if it’ll clarify in future episodes, or if I’m just supposed to accept it and move on. Also, I find it a teensy bit creepy to “wipe” the memories of our character-actors as soon as one drama ends so they can star in another one. Is that just because I’m thinking of Joss Whedon and The Dollhouse?
girlfriday: It’s not just you! I totally thought of that too, how they keep reliving different roles but still end up together. But clearly we’re thinking too much about the mythology.
javabeans: But this is what we DOOOOOO.
girlfriday: I just don’t know that Dramaworld will answer those questions.
javabeans: On the upside, it’s becoming clear that the producers do watch dramas and love them — I would have been so mad if they just threw a bunch of cliches together and made fun of the whole genre, which is why those random Youtube or Mad TV skits about how funny-stupid K-dramas are always infuriate me. They don’t even get it, and they’re making fun of it? No way.
girlfriday: Yeah this is genuinely from the perspective of drama fans, and that earns it a lot of good will. So anyway, Justin tells Claire all the rules of Dramaworld, and drops the bomb on her that if the OTP doesn’t get together by the end of the drama, their entire universe ceases to exist. No pressure or anything.
javabeans: I did burst out laughing when Sean played the cello and took a shower, though, because obvs he’s the leading man. Hee.
girlfriday: Hey, they know their fans!
javabeans: I do think it’s a good conflict to throw that wrench in the works about Dramaland being in peril, because it has stakes and also alerts us that something’s going awry in Taste of Love. Maybe their writer went crazy and went AWOL?
girlfriday: I think we’re supposed to believe that there are no writers and directors in Dramaworld. Things just happen by FATE, okay?
javabeans: Episode 2 ends with Claire getting a job at Sean’s restaurant, and I did get a genuine laugh out of Dramaworld posting its sponsor banners exactly like regular dramas do at the ends of episodes.
girlfriday: I know, that cracked me up.
javabeans: It’s the little touches that add up. I think that’s why we had such a positive initial reaction, because there was a lot of care put into it. More than a lot of Korean web dramas I’ve seen, almost all of which have been disappointing, because they felt a little half-assed, honestly.
girlfriday: Yeah, production value matters, no matter how short the project! Episode 3 starts out with Claire taking to her role in Dramaworld as a “facilitator,” though she struggles to abide by Justin’s rules of staying completely out of the drama characters’ business. He warns her ominously that she doesn’t want to become part of the storyline, or there will be grave consequences.
javabeans: Uh, she’s terrible at it, by the way. The problem is being privy to information the lead characters don’t have, but it’s like entrusting state secrets to the biggest gossip you know. She’s just way too excited, although I suppose I would be excited to run into Han Ji-min (another cameo). Apparently she’s not supposed to be in this drama, so the fact that she’s crossing over is indicative of some kind of dramaworld screwiness. Below, Episode 3:
girlfriday: Claire starts getting involved in the storyline right away, when she tells Nuri that Sean likes her and prods her to let her hair down (literally) and go for it. Then it’s one mistake after another, with the hero’s mom coming to dinner and Nuri doing all the wrong things, thanks to Claire.
javabeans: Long story (night) short, dinner service turns into a nightmare, mostly because of Claire’s well-intentioned but totally bungling interventions, and everything ends up ruined — far from facilitating anything, Claire is the cause of a serious setback in the romance department. One highlight of the night is the reference to flashbacks, but we can let viewers watch that for themselves. Don’t want to ruin the punchline!
girlfriday: Not only that, but Claire ends up getting on the hero’s radar, which means she’s about to break that rule about getting her own storyline in the drama.
javabeans: So that’s the first three episodes in a (somewhat large) nutshell. We’re not sure if we’ll cover the rest of the series, though maybe you guys can let us know if there’s strong interest in it. Maybe we can play that by ear.
girlfriday: Rumor is that Siwon cameos in the next episode! Just sayin’.
javabeans: Oh, and the cast hinted at a rather epic cameo by Yang Dong-geun in a future episode, too. I’m surprised they got rather big names to guest appear, but good on them for it. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the level of production and the attention to detail, and those aspects managed to overcome the flaws for me. (Because let’s be honest, there were a few cringe-worthy moments in there, too.) I do give it points for worldbuilding and creating its own mythology — although don’t you think that makes this feel more like an American drama that happens to be about Korean dramas? Rather than something actually riffing on Korean dramas?
girlfriday: It does, and that’s part of what keeps it separate, because it feels more like a project intended for a different viewer, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s just very clearly meant for an international audience that identifies with the fandom, and is a step removed from the real dramaland.
javabeans: For instance, I don’t expect Korean audiences to watch Dramaworld and see it in the same way that we do — not that they wouldn’t understand the plot, but that the comic timing and line delivery is all very American. Weirdly, I do also feel an interesting stylistic difference in the acting of the Korean cast acting in Korean, and those acting in English. Not in a bad way, but in a strange, unfamiliar way.
girlfriday: I think maybe in a story like this you can wave that away as part of differentiating the drama-within-a-drama from the drama, except if this were a regular story without those interdimensional elements, I don’t know if it would work.
javabeans: I hope for the sake of the production that Dramaworld ends up being successful for Viki, because Korean web dramas have been around for a few years now and I don’t really think they’ve figured themselves out yet, as a format. I’d like for the format as a whole to find its footing, and it would be nice to have a successful example be one that obviously loves the genre and format as much as this one does.
girlfriday: Yes, we’re all for more original international content, and more web dramas that really utilize the short format in its storytelling.
javabeans: And think of what they could do with even more budget and time and resources.
girlfriday: Get Lee Je-hoon onboard? Yoo Yeon-seok? Song Joong-ki?
javabeans: Well then I would have to be Claire.
girlfriday: Well then you would destroy Dramaworld.