[Dramaland Catnip] Stories featuring ordinary people
by Guest Beanie
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.
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
- [Dramaland Catnip] Friends turned enemies… turned friends again
- [Dramaland Catnip] Childhood loves and backstories
- [Dramaland Catnip] Bromances and girlfriends
- [Dramaland Catnip] Sibling love and fauxcest
- [Dramaland Catnip] Beta males and the alpha ladies who love them
- [Dramaland Catnip] The bad boys of dramaland
- [Dramaland Catnip] Prickly marshmallows and tsundere heroes
- [Dramaland Catnip] Reverse harems
- [Dramaland Catnip] Noona romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Secret identities and alter egos
- [Dramaland Catnip] Disastrous first meetings
- [Dramaland Catnip] Cohabitation shenanigans
- [Dramaland Catnip] Enemies turned lovers
- [Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
- [Dramaland Catnip] Marriage before dating
- [Dramaland Catnip] Swooning for dramatic height differences
- [Dramaland Catnip] Ragtag bands of misfits
- [Dramaland Catnip] Finding satisfaction in sad love stories
- [Dramaland Catnip] The magic of bad drama magic
- [Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
- [Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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