[Escapism vs. Realism] Finding realism in unreal dramas
by Guest Beanie
I knew immediately that this was the theme for me. K-dramas are my escape from everyday life, but realistic K-dramas helped me find my way back to it. My idea of realistic dramas is not necessarily slice of life, but rather dramatic plots with elements of realism. This is usually realistic characters and their realistic reactions to the extraordinary or unrealistic situations in which they find themselves, in addition to, of course, slice-of-life plots.
When I got into K-dramas last year, I had hit rock bottom. I had just returned from an LLM at the University of London that I hadn’t wanted to do (forcibly sent by my father), spent a ton of money while there, and had no wish to pursue law as a career. As a result, I was working part-time and earning peanuts, essentially doing nothing while my peers seemingly went from accomplishment to accomplishment in their legal careers. Depression hit, and I wallowed in it, until I discovered the magically clean land of K-dramas.
As strange as it sounds, at a time when my real life and the people in it couldn’t reach me, realism in dramas did. And it played an integral role in making me re-evaluate my life. The characters in Pinocchio, for instance, were always at work. They weren’t sitting at home and watching dramas, but took action to change their lives. They made mistakes, learned from them, and moved on.
Also on the move was the most badass lady in dramaland, Signal’s Cha Soo-hyun, played by the beautiful Kim Hye-soo. She embodied the kind of woman I admire—intelligent, no-nonsense, yet distinctly feminine, professional woman working her way up in a difficult, male-dominated career. The sweet and naive demeanor of the younger Cha Soo-hyun gave me confidence in my own abilities. As a shy and quiet science nerd in high school to whom success in science and math-related subjects came easily, the loud and brash atmosphere of law school was a culture shock. I got through it with no small amount of effort and now I needed to get over the fear of failure I had somehow developed over the course of my time there. If I wanted to be a lawyer, I needed to believe that I could be one.
And do I even need to mention the inspiration that can be found in the fighting spirit of Misaeng’s Jang Geu-rae and the other entrants into the corporate world? My working environment suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad.
It took me four months of binge-watching dramas and witnessing a suicide in person to finally take action to change my life (a rather drama-like turning point, indeed). My next step was a small one, not the best or adequately researched, but it gave me confidence in my ability to be a litigating lawyer. I found that I had run away from the challenges offered by law school for nothing. I had allowed the abilities of the other kids to scare me into inaction. And that once I tried and put in the effort, I could do it too.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
Existential questions of what I wanted to do with my life settled, I now faced my next challenge—finding love, something else I shy away from. But this can mostly be attributed to my all-girls’ convent school upbringing. I connect with women very easily, but tend not to know how to connect with men.
Thus, a recurring trend in dramas these days that I enjoy is the thoughtful male lead paired with the confident female lead. Not the horribly insufferable chaebol who becomes kind to his beloved after she wins his heart, but those who are sweet from the beginning—not unlike many real-life nice guys. Easy examples are Jung Joon-hyung and Kim Bok-ju in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju, Go Dong-man and Choi Ae-ra in Fight My Way, and Ahn Min-hyuk and Do Bong-soon in Strong Woman Do Bong-soon. While Weightlifting Fairy and Fight My Way are straight-up slice of life, Strong Woman is clearly a comic book in drama format. But Min-Min sets the bar for the modern urban male. Perceptive, thoughtful, and intelligent, he is perhaps a perfection no real-life man can match.
Temperature of Love
But presently airing dramas contain a number of realistic men, like the ones from Lingerie Girls’ Generation (though they’re more aptly categorized as boys), Ohn Jung-sun from Temperature of Love (who so realistically pursued Hyun-soo, then left without saying goodbye), and Kwak Hyun from Hospital Ship. Sadly, Kwak Hyun isn’t happy these days, and Hospital Ship is quite unrealistic to begin with, so I’m wavering on continuing this one.
I also have a special fondness for realistic friendships between women, a theme less often seen in K-dramas and in fact, under-emphasized in fiction all around the world. Age of Youth, its sequel, and Weightlifting Fairy are easy examples of how important girlfriends are to one’s happiness and sanity. In contrast, the presence of the jealous, petty, and manipulative second female lead nearly always puts me off. At present, my sadness at the depiction of the two-faced Ji Hong-ah and my love for the sweet Ohn Jung-sun are warring with one another as I watch Temperature of Love, and whether I continue the drama depends on which one wins out.
Age of Youth 2
While I mostly watch dramas set in the modern day, realism can also be found in sageuks. Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People was populated by a vast cast of characters who, despite the supernatural presence of the Mighty Child in their midst, were fairly regular people. The Princess’s Man’s Lee Se-ryung was another strong-willed woman who would make a great lawyer. She stood by her man against her father not solely for romantic love, but because she didn’t believe in her father’s ideology, and persuaded him back from the depths of a revenge-torn hell after her father massacred his family. The gravitas of sageuks and their realistic settings mean that they quickly become some of my favorites, earning a spot in my personal 10/10 ratings list.
Korean dramas aren’t a heavy subject steeped in deep meaning for me, as this write-up might imply. I watch mostly the lighter ones and the comedies, largely for easy laughs and to de-stress. K-dramas are entertainment, and sometimes entertainment can serve a purpose beyond that which is obvious, as it did with me. Once I looked beyond my own head, I found that the world isn’t as harsh a place as I had made it out to be, though it isn’t easy either. As I take on more and more responsibility, the time I spend on dramas is reducing, but I’m fairly certain K-dramas will always remain a part of my life. And of course, there is no way I could give up all the hot oppas—lawyers, chefs, baristas, CEOs, writers, revolutionaries, doctors, deliverymen, athletes, journalists, policemen, secret-identity-holders, some unemployed—that dramaland has to offer, unrealistic as they may be.
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