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[Dramaland Catnip] Stories featuring ordinary people


Misaeng

By @pogo1

Rich people make for interesting stories. That’s a truism K-dramas live by, going off the number of chaebol dramas we get every year. On one hand, I get why—making your characters rich and powerful, or at the very least glamorous (via a “cool” profession that can literally be anything from a musician to an architect to a cop to a geeeenius), makes it very easy to frame a story as wish fulfillment. On the other hand, it’s not particularly relatable, even in a world that worships money. Being rich doesn’t actually make people better or more interesting than others as the subjects of a story, just as it doesn’t make them better people in real life.

Maybe it’s just me getting jaded by newspaper stories about the awful things super-rich people have done over the last year, but looking at chaebols in dramas now makes me think less that he’s a sympathetic character who looks good in a suit and more like he’s probably a tax dodger whose wealth was built on bribery and employee mistreatment. But as a viewer, I’ve often connected more to the stories of the “little people”—and when it comes to dramas, ordinary people may sound really underwhelming as catnip, but as these dramas prove, you don’t have to be rich or glamorous for your story to be worth telling.


Let’s Eat 2

First, there’s Misaeng. This is an ode to the people who are the cogs in the wheel of corporate Korea, the ultimate workplace drama, and rightfully legendary in the K-drama canon. Its premise may not sound like much—a rookie corporate employee learns to navigate his work environment—but it’s well-written in a way that makes the stakes feel higher than the premise would suggest, because to the characters, this is their life. A lot of people have called it depressing, but there’s an incredible and uplifting message to Misaeng, which is that even the simple fact of survival from one day to the next is an accomplishment and should be valued. That goes for those of us who aren’t corporate workers, too.

Both series of Let’s Eat are serious weight-gain hazards (I dare anyone to watch them and not develop serious cravings for everything that gets eaten onscreen), but the ultimate draw of Let’s Eat, for me, has always been about the characters—a ragtag bunch of neighbors who may not be particularly well-off but are wildly interesting, and who have that most universal and relatable of things in common—a love of good food.


School 2013

In School 2013, I doubt anyone even remembers Nam-soon and Heung-soo’s family backgrounds, but who needs to be a chaebol when you’re rich in bromance? School 2013 doesn’t rely on the usual clichés to make its point; sure, some of the kids might be financially strapped but drama rely on loan sharks or force or competitions to drive the drama. High school life and friendships are interesting enough in their own right not to need the usual K-drama embellishments.

As for sageuks, the overwhelming majority of them have protagonists who are either from royal or noble families, or are secretly related to royals or aristocrats (through birth secrets). So when, five minutes into the first episode of Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People, the eponymous hero declared that he was the son of a slave, my interest was piqued. The drama made short work of any birth secret possibilities (he really is the son of a slave), but I didn’t realize right away that that initial statement was basically this drama nailing its colors to the mast to say that heroism had nothing to do with being from the “right” kind of family.


Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People

Literally not a single one of the main protagonists is a royal or noble (though we do get royal and noble antagonists, in spades), which lends a certain credence to the point the drama makes about unfair social systems and how they’re designed to keep ordinary people at a disadvantage. And while Gil-dong may have supernatural strength on his side, it’s the time Rebel spends on its non-superpowered protagonists that really backs up its ultimate message.

Then there’s Fight My Way, which has protagonists of average means, stuck in average but regular jobs they don’t really like when we first meet them, who are naturally talented at the things they’d rather do instead—but they’re not portrayed as geniuses, and it’s real life that got in the way of their being able to pursue the jobs they really want. And while it is a rom-com, there’s something about the fact that Dong-man and Ae-ra’s biggest professional lows come from petty humiliation and unfair rejection that makes it a lot more realistic and relatable than most dramas with a similar story. When a drama can make you want to reach through the screen and console a character after a particularly discouraging interview, it’s probably solid proof that that bit of realism was a far more effective way to connect with the viewers than any number of makjang elements could ever have been.


Fight My Way

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This is my fave because too much chaebol dramas was one of the reasons I quit watching KDramas in the past. I'll include the Reply series here. I've read great reviews about "Let's Eat" (and "Age of Youth"), so I might binge-watch those if my schedule permits. :D

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This catnip is becoming a trend now in Korea. Viewers love it coz lets be honest, this type of kdrama setting is close to ur hearts probably coz some of us are living the average life.

Reply series is one of an example of this set in the 90s. Currently, Fight for My Way is doing a good job in showing this side of society. Drinking Solo is also my favorite kdrama last year that potrays this catnip.

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This catnip is the basis of slice of life genre which I love even when slice of life shows can portray the story of extra ordinary geniuseees, I like it best when they show the ordinary.
Misaeng will forevet be my favorite show beacuse not only does it show the life of normal ordinary people but also that it fits to any profession and any newbie struggling with their job. That's what shows with ordinary people do. They make it relatable.
I still wished FMW had dug more into their third rate lives than the lovelines because their struggles and monolgues were so heart felt.

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It is the basis of the slice of life genre, but it has to be noted that not every drama featuring ordinary people is a slice of life drama (Fight My Way being a good example – it's certainly not slice of life, even if it often features real-to-life and relatable scenarios. But generally there is too much happening and some too bonkers stuff that doesn't fit within slice-of-life).

Yeah, Misaeng is pretty much my favorite-show-forever too (though there are others that rank high, recent dramas like Forest of Secrets).

I don't think the catnip for me is the "ordinary people" part, but it's the "slice of life" part, which is why I'm often happier with Japanese dramas, that do this more often and really, truly make it ordinary.

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My favourite part is how characters often find happiness in smaller, ordinary things. It isn't just about the ordinary people, but also indeed about the 'slice of life' things they portray in the drama.
It doesn't have to be about saving people's lives or being a top chef or whatever, but about finding happiness while being perfectly ordinary, doing perfectly ordinary things.

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In 2017 I think we have seem many such examples.
Chief Kim is one suchild example.
Suspicious partner too.
If time travelling counts then Tunnel also talks about an average detective who want to catch the murderer.
I love story lines with non chaebol casts.

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This I can get behind. It is what I enjoy so very much in TW or Japanese Dramas. Dramas about ordinary people makes me think even my life could be interesting enough at some point. And it is so much more relatable because the struggle to make it everyday is real.

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One of the reasons I love Tamra is because most of the characters (with some exceptions) came from the peasant or merchant classes. It was such an enjoyable fusion saeguk that didn't focus on court politics or nobles masquerading as peasants. Anyway, thanks for this post. :)

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Reply series slays this troupe like no other ❤

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I guess this is my favorite catnip too. I love Misaeng, Dear My Friends, Fight My Way and Oh Hae-Young Again. It deals with ordinary lives in the most insightful ways. Together with superb level of acting, it's my favorite combination.

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I love stories featuring ordinary people, but I don’t think Kdrama will ever give us a show featuring people who look ordinary.

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I also wonder if this catnip will only remain a catnip if these ordinary folks eventually get their vindication and triumph in the end. If so, these stories are just as much wish-fulfillment as other types of dramas.

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I think the Answer Me series does a great job of not making everyone up. Sure, Go Ara is prettier than I ever will be even with an awful haircut, but the haircuts the characters are given and the outfits they wear do wonders for making them look as ordinary as possible. It's very no fuss, and when characters do attempt to be "fashionable" it's played for laughs because they do the ridiculous 90s and 80s fashion to the highest degree lol. Same with the makeup--it's either hardly there or is there to poke fun at previous makeup trends.

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I was just about to dismiss this catnip as an ordinary plain jane, because dramas should allow us to indulge vicariously in a lifestyle we would otherwise never have been able to live out. But after thinking about it, I realised that most of my favourite shows are based on this catnip— Age of Youth, Drinking Solo, Fight My Way, Plus Nine Boys, Reply 1988 (and the rest of the series), Sassy Go Go, WFKBJ. I guess it's the ordinary that resonates more; those that can better express societal norms rather than choosing to impress society are those that can truly touch the heart.

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The catnip is trending now because people could relate their life with the characters. Chaebol's life is all fascinating and fun to watch, but I think sometimes we get bored with the same old chaebol's drama. Look at how badly Cinderella and 4 Knights turned out.

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This a slice of life genre & feels very fresh & bright if done properly.

But I don't especially like or dislike this catnip because....this is dramaland, & although chaebols are shown dirty rich, even the ordinary people have a better living standard than what is supposed to be if we considered their said poverty & all. There is no logic for the lifestyle of ordinary people in dramaland.

For example, in BOF, Jan di was supposed to be dirt poor but managed to have these pretty wardrobe change so many times in a single episode, the same went for shopping king Louie because the 'ordinary' country bumpkin could suddenly afford the pretty dresses & heels (not to mention that skin tone change)

So as long as no ridiculous financial crisis is involved, ordinary people catnip is good to go 👍👍👍

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Yesss, and they always have the latest smartphone.

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Exactly!! I forgot to mention that, the poor girls in BOF & Heirs had exactly the same branded smartphone as the rich guys....HOW??? and the girls were dirt poor, they worked multiple part-time jobs & got sick & nosebleeds & whatnot....

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Although it may seem quite silly, in SKL they explained the additions in their wardrobe through the exceptional sixth sense that Louie had to get amazing bargains. This drama used to give another turn to the same old cliches, so I took it as they did it on purpose. The change in skin tone was because she stopped being exposed to sunlight and it was used to show how she was changing her life in the city.

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I love solid slice-of-life-with-ordinary-people drama *thumbs up*

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This catnip reminds me I should get back to Misaeng!

This may come across as boring to some, but I always felt drawn to ordinary people/slice of life shows. More often than not, it's relatable, and even if it isn't, there's a lot to be learned about the daily struggle of life, haha.

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Excellent catnip. This is why Reply 1988 has such a huge place in my heart. Also, as weird as this may sound, it's something I loved about Goblin -- the fact that the Bride wasn't the bride because she was the most beautiful or talented or smart or rich. She was actually an ordinary girl thrust into an extraordinary position, whose magical love story, for all its trappings, ended up being less about destiny and more about the power of the love that an ordinary person can experience and engender.

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This is why I always enjoyed slice of life stories. Little stories about ordinary people. It's not crazy makjang plots and chaebol heirs, but the small quiet moments, the moments of reality that seem to strike so close to home and really enable me to understand and connect with the characters.

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The royals will always be the majority part of sageuks because of the way history was written in that era.
I wish there were more that were written about ordinary people beside folktales so it doesn't have to be a work of fiction when it comes to telling their story.

Misaeng and Lee Sung-min <3.

Thank you @pogo1<3.

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I also wish to see sageuk dramas telling the story of ordinary people. A love story between commoners. A story of the everyday lives of the people. A Reply series, but in sageuk if you will. hehe!

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That's true and it was more common for the peasants to marry for love than the royals and nobles.

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@kiara Yeah so I think that's a treasure chest for some really good sageuk love story.

And to be honest, when I'm watching sageuk/fusion sageuk dramas I cannot help but roll my eyes sometimes because we all know that true love or marrying for love was not the norm among royals and nobles. Am I to think that this king is to love this woman only forever? And then I think of how many concubines he'll take in and that really ruins it all for me. lol So sometimes, I prefer watching sageuk for the thrill of the politics than the love story because I have all these info about the truth behind them.

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Ordinary dramas are more relatable. I don't know about you but what are the chances of dating a chaebol in real life?

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Bravo @pogo1! No Sassy Go Go though? ;)

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Great article, pogo. One of my favorite dramas featuring ordinary people is Miss Korea. Sure she wins the crown, but she continues to live humbly in the house behind a corner shop that she shares with her male relatives. What about her support? They are a bunch of businessmen on the verge of bankruptcy plus an ex-thug. But their fighting spirit in the face of obstacles carry them through, Miss Korea crown or not.

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Definitely this is my catnip too. Chaebols are a turn off for me in dramas.
For example, Que sera sera. I really liked that both of the leads were ordinary people.

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The reason I love Fight My Way so much is because of how relatable Ae-Ra is. Her struggles are struggles I've gone through in my own life, so its very easy to root for her with her dreams and cry with her when her life goes awry. Plus, she has a Dong man. I guess there's one thing we don't have in common that I so wish we did. ;) haha

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this is my catnip solely cause I'm always wondering whether I'm unhappy because I was born where I was born or just because of who I am. I hate watching shows about regular people set in my country.

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After reading this, I think my catinip is also dramas of ordinary people!!. And maybe thats why I just love misaeng...my favorite of all time ♡♡♡♡ .

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Chaebols are so overrated anyway.. it seems we can't go further than 5 steps without meeting a chaebol in dramaland. But IRL most people are just ordinary people, working in factories, companies or schools, hospitals, etc.
That's why I love tvN dramas like Let's Eat series, Reply series, Flower Boy series that shows what average people do compared to what chaebols *probably* do in 3 major stations.

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jtbc's AoY is also pretty good. It's a shame now though that tvN have kind of moved away from slice of life to more similar vibes to the Big three.

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I have only seen a couple of the dramas mentioned in this post, but I definitely agree with this catnip!
Real stories about real people finding happiness in things we can all understand are a win in my book. It's not about the grand gestures, incredible geeeeniuses or dramatic plots, but about highlighting the great parts about normal life and the little things. Normal life can be interesting too!

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Misaeng was such a refreshing drama for me at the time of its airing.

Slice of life dramas bring warmth to the heart. Protagonists & side characters make viewers identify with or remember a friend, a relative and ex-love.

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this is one of my catnips too. I really enjoy when leads are ordinary people. The ones I've watched who fit into this catnip are like you said School 2013, Pinocchio, Weigthlifting fairy Kim Bok Joo, SUFBB and... I went blank I think thats it. It's a shame that they don't create more ordinary leads, the cinderella story (rich boy meets "poor" girl)is tiring, more down to earth or realistic leads would be more appealing to the viewers because you can relate to them.

I've watch over 30 dramas and only could think about those, because in every single one (minus the saeguks) one of the leads is a lot richer.

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Yes to all this. Slice-of-life genre shows are my weakness. I love seeing stories of ordinary people because they really help put your life in perspective and always have a life lesson worth learning.

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yess,,,chaebol story don't fit my real lifo tho....realistic drama often make me smile in silent how this drama so relatable with my own life 😊

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I love this catnip. I'm so with you on the points that you've made. As much as a drama for me, is to escape the real world for a little while. There's only so much I can take when the dramas are super unrealistic. Even if I can't relate to the main characters in the story, i want to truly believe that somewhere out there, it may be happening out there in the world. I always say that well fleshed characters that can hold their own story will make me continue watching over a decent plot with dull characters

Now if we can just find the balance between them both, I'll be a very happy bunny

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I like this too, but not particularly/especially drawn to it. Looking at the list of my faves, I have quite a lot that are about ordinary people and their everyday lives like WFKBJ, Reply 1988, and Misaeng. I have not seen AoY or Let's Eat though.

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AoY and Let's Eat are both my all time favorites.

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Radiant Office is also another one.

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This is such an underrated theme and I hope it'll become more popular. As I'm getting older (and basically making more real life experiences), I'm starting to appreciate these kind of dramas more. Misaeng is especially important to me, b/c when it aired I was doing an internship at a bank.

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This is definitely my sort of catnip. The first season of Let's Eat will forever be one of my favorite dramas ever. Drinking Solo and Age of Youth are two of my other favorites along with the Reply series :)

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One of the best dramas of 2016 in my opinion was This Week My Wife Will Have an Affair at JTBC. Not many beanies here watched it but nevertheless, the comments sections were always full of heartfelt stories about people's experiences with affairs and divorce and the affects on their lives. That is how relatable that show was in its portrayal of ordinary people struggling with real and very common problems. It was brilliant.

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Awwww! This catnip just tugs at my heartstrings <3 Being able to find a compelling story, even in the most average of people, is always a gem =)
"Fight My Way" is my current favorite, but some others that come to mind include: "Another Oh Hae Young", "Playful Kiss", "Misaeng" (which I have yet to finish), the "Reply" series, "She Was Pretty" (you can't get anymore 'ordinary' as Kim Hye Jin) =)

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This catnip brought me to love doramas. It's less common to found this catnip in kdrama than in doramas. I gladly welcome it when kdrama bring this theme to screen

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I'm head over heels over dramas where there's no chaebol involved in bizarre love triangle or octagon or whatever].
That's why I love good oldies like What's Up Fox.
God, I'm weird.

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Yes, I love a slice of life, ordinary people drama. Sure all the chaebol stuff is cool, but it's a fairy tale. The ordinary people angle makes the characters very relatable and always Sparks my interest.

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