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The magical world of meta

Of the many things that Korean dramas do well, one of my favorites is meta. Half fan service, half navel-gazing statement on the act of creation, meta is an undeniable part of K-drama entertainment. But what is meta, exactly, and why do we love it so?

What we fondly dub as “meta” in dramaland is actually part of the complex concept of self-referentialism. It can exist in many forms, and get pretty darn complicated, but it’s most often thought of with respect to art. If a book or drawing or drama is self-referential, it means the work of art mimics, or references, itself in the very work it is creating. We won’t go crazy with strict definitions though. After all, meta exists to be noticed and enjoyed.

The early round of teasers for last year’s I’m Not A Robot are a great example to think about meta. In the teasers, we’re watching Yoo Seung-ho and Chae Soo-bin in character following the script, when suddenly they break character and start talking directly to the camera. It’s jarring for a second — but the fact that it forces us to see them as actors pitching their new drama to potential viewers — that is the very essence of meta-reference.

Yoon Doo-joon’s famous food rants in Let’s Eat are another example of this meta dynamic, since in these sequences he looks directly into the camera, and you feel as if he’s been lifted out of the story and is talking (or food preaching) directly to you. Both the teasers above and the direct address element of Let’s Eat are great examples of how meta breaks the fourth wall, or that imaginary division between the “stage” (or the screen in the case of K-dramas) and the audience.

In other words, a drama uses meta to call attention to itself and the process of creating it. Meta makes you aware of the story as something you are experiencing, consuming, and participating in. It’s as if the story is wrapping itself up in holiday lights and shouting, “Here I am!”

Another amusing way K-dramas meta-reference themselves is when characters in a drama are shown watching TV. Without fail, they’re tuned into the drama that previously aired on the very same network you’re now watching. And not only that, but the characters are mimicking your action as you’re watching their drama. It can get pretty trippy when you think about it.

Meta also builds a relationship between the work of art and its audience. The way I often think about it is that meta makes you feel like you’re part of an inside joke. It’s as if everyone making the drama, and maybe even the drama itself, is giving you a friendly poke in the ribs. Or maybe it’s a wink. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

One of the best ways K-dramas employ the meta elbow poke is through cameos. The idea of the cameo has fascinated me for a long time — I remember watching classic Hitchcock films and waiting for his famous walk into the frame. Cameos have evolved a lot since then, but they’re still enjoyed just as much.

In dramaland, cameos can be simple appearances by actors, signifying their ties to someone working on the drama — like Seo In-gook’s cameo as a hotshot chef in Oh My Ghostess, which had the same PD as his previous drama. While this behind-the-scenes connection is common for cameos, cameo appearances can also dig a bit deeper, and that’s when the meta really starts to kick in.

When actors cameo as themselves it’s pretty meta-ful, but it’s even better when they cameo as previous characters they have played. For example, Park Shin-hye cameoed in the Hong sisters drama My Girlfriend is a Gumiho as her character from their previous success You’re Beautiful.

What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim is another example of a cameo appearance that took meta to the max. The cameo was a flashback of the heroine’s backstory, and Lee Min-ki and Jung So-min played her parents. It wasn’t exactly is if they were playing their characters from Because This Life Is Our First — but they very well could have been.

It was a great extended cameo sequence even if you hadn’t seen them in the drama, but if you had, it was a stroke of genius that showed how their story might have continued. This is another way that meta makes us happy: by assuring us that the stories we’ve loved aren’t over when they’re over, but live on with a life of their own.

Another favorite meta cameo of mine was when Lee Jong-seok appeared in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo. It wasn’t enough that it was a great cameo — they poured on the meta, with Lee Sung-kyung’s character saying he was the star of the shooting team at her school.

If you watched Lee Jong-seok’s latest drama at the time, W, you would have gotten a serious drama elbowing, since that was a direct reference to his character in W. And the meta continued when Lee Jong-seok recognized Kang Ki-young for a previous acting role… was he talking about W–Two Worlds again (which they both acted in), or yet another drama? This game of degrees of drama separation is what makes meta so much fun.

You could even take the W meta in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo a step further, since what they’re doing is not only referring to an actor as his character (Lee Jong-seok as Kang Chul), but they’re referring to a character that was a manhwa character within the drama (in W, Lee Jong-seok played the hero of a popular manhwa series who came to life). Talk about a drama within a drama! This cameo was meta at its best, questioning all the different layers and realities of storytelling. And having a blast while doing it.

It’s rarer in dramaland than in other forms of entertainment, but there are some dramas whose entire concepts play with meta and self-referentialism, and W was a prime example of that. The drama broke the fourth wall within the story, when the heroine entered the manhwa world, and the manhwa world bled into the real world.

Like any deep-rooted meta, W was self-referential in that it called attention to the work of art itself, the act of the audience (whether you’re reading the manhwa or watching the drama), and the act of creating it. Characters in the drama, and especially the heroine (played by Han Hyo-joo), were transfixed by the manhwa series that told the story of Kang Chul — and so were we, as viewers.

Another recent drama that played with strong self-referential elements was
Memories of the Alhambra, starring Hyun Bin. Think about the concept for a second: a smart and successful businessman gets drawn into an AR video game and slowly loses his connection to real life. Rather than the world around him mattering — his relationships, his company, etc. — he’s drawn to the living and breathing story of the game instead.

Compare this to what it was like as the viewer watching the drama. When you hit play and started streaming the episode, you entered into the same exact kind of alternate reality as the hero did in his video game. The world around you dimmed, and the world of the story took over. The hero’s gameplay is eerily similar to our vicarious experience watching the drama (or any good drama), and that’s a textbook bit of a meta-reference right there.

It might have had some plot weakness, but in terms of its strength as a self-referential story that cleverly played with the layers of reality around art, Memories of the Alhambra was a success.

While the concept of meta can get a little heady or even cerebral sometimes, it’s also some of the most fun I’ve had in dramaland. There’s something to be said for the playground of layers and references it creates between stories, characters, dramas, and players (and that includes us as drama watchers!).

Whether it’s through the filming style, cameos, or plots that are self-referential in nature, there’s a whole world of meta out there to be explored — even PPL can get pretty meta at times. We’ve looked at some ways that meta operates in dramaland, but the best thing about meta is that it can take any form, and appear at any moment. You can grab onto its coattails and go for a spin, or you can sail right past it and not even notice the drama winking at you. Such is the magical world of meta.

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I hate to admit I have such a self-satisfied proud feeling whenever I get a meta-reference. Will I ever grow out of it? I don't think so.

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I feel same. :) It's like all your years of drama-watching hard work gets rewarded.

*insert Captain America's I got that reference gif*

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The best gif.

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Hi @mary, this is not exactly meta, unless bringing up wrong referencing within a blog for notifications is considered meta in an article about shows referencing themselves. ;-D

Anyway I just wanted to 'report' that lately notifications when clicked, no longer link to the correct comment (ie my notifications that others commented on my post do not bring me to said post).

A wee tech malfunction in this site?

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I'll tag you in a post.

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I don't think I'll ever grow out of it (and honestly, I don't want to). And that's probably the exact reason I thoroughly enjoying Touch Your Heart's nod to several popular dramas through its heroine's infamous bad acting.

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Signal in episode 9 hahahahaha

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That one got me in stitches. It does look like a potentially great comedy drama, though. 🤣🤣

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If it is also a PPL, sign me up Signal Insurance!! Over.

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Thank you for another beautiful write-up, @missvictrix ~!!! This one is actually my favourite one yet <3

"This is another way that meta makes us happy: by assuring us that the stories we’ve loved aren’t over when they’re over, but live on with a life of their own."

YAS ~!!!! So true!! I especially love it when dramas create a world for the viewers in a way that is very everyday-like and it doesn't feel as if the viewers are intruding on the characters, or when it a dramaworld already feels established and the viewers were just plopped into it and getting a glimpse into our beloved characters' everyday lives

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Thank you! And I think this is my favorite one as well, shhhhhhh

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🤫 🤫🤫🤫😉😉😉😏😏😏😏😏

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"meta makes you feel like you’re part of an inside joke"

This is exactly how meta-reference works (or makes us feel), since, to notice that there is a reference to another work, you first had to ~know~ what it was referring to (or at least having heard about it).

I loved this entry, the metareference is one of the things I like most about k-dramas. <3

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is it the same a Mockumentary?

as in the American tv show The Office remake of the original British series -- where they have the "confession room" type statements of the cast about what's happening in the episode...

i like the meta parodies on previous dramas portrayed -- tho they are lost on those who had not watched those dramas...

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And then you have the idols quoting their songs (I think DO in 100 days my prince); but I wouldn't know them without the recaps

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Yes! Yoon Doo-joon totally did this in Let's Eat, and that's just one that comes to mind

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In the series The Light In Your Eyes/Radiant the idiot brother is always doing stupid stunts online to earn money. One of the online accounts on his site goes by the handle 'Toy Crane'. That was the handle of the hero in the 2016 series 'My Wife Is Having An Affair This Week' as 'Toy Crane' sought online help with his marital problems. That got a small meta laugh from me.

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I noticed it too!! Toy Crane..

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I was amazed when I noticed a character in Mama Fairy reciting the lyrics of BTS’ Fake Love. It felt like I had levelled up to be able to spot the reference myself. 😃

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Any article that mentions INAR, Let’s Eat, BTLIOF, and Weightlifting Fairy automatically gets loads of hugs in my book. 😉

That is all.

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Gosh Bams you’re so cute and have great taste

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:”)

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For some reason the meta I thought you’d mention was the eternal Goblin watching Train to Busan in theaters and FREAKING OUT. Haha I guess watching yourself get chased by zombies will scare anyone. Love that scene.

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Yeah, it was SO fun! XD

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This scene was really funny!

The BTS too. Kim Go Eun couldn't stop laughing and I completely understand her :D

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I loved that one!!! :-D Rolled under my table laughing.

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This was great too! I watched TBS after Goblin and only really understood it on my rewatch!

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😂😂😂😂

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My latest favorite meta is I Hear Your Voice reference in Romance is a Bonus Book. I watched it again and again. The CEO's expression is gold. I laughed so hard.

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I loved that cameo in WWWSK, even because I hadn't watched so many dramas at that time, and it was fun to notice the reference (even if for a sec I was afraid they wanted to create a link between the two stories, and so poor Ji-oh was dead).

And I became curious about Pretty noona seeing Se-Kye from Beauty inside watching it.

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The Hong Sisters are the QUEENS of meta. Most of their references can fly over less experienced drama watchers' heads. In Best Love every other sentence was a meta reference. Hwayugi didn't take it to those heights but it was chock full of them too.

And for a current drama, Romance is a Bonus Book referenced nearly all of LJS's dramas in its first few episodes.

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The most hilarious meta from the Hong sisters was Full House parody when Chun-hyang told lies to Mong-yeong 😂😂

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Yes, all of their dramas are full of hilarious meta references.

For me their most hilarious one was the CSW and LSG scene in Best Love. And when they went and actually played a CF together, that was the icing on the cake!

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LOL I loved that. XD Her shop assistant who played a mix of So Ji-sub and Rain was hilarious.

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He's sooo funny 😂😂
I wonder where the actor is now, I never see him again in more recent dramas

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I went and checked his profile: http://asianwiki.com/Yang_Joo-Ho

I can't believe I forgot he was Choi Jin-hyuk's multiple-timeline-sidekick in Tunnel! :)

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This is the reason why I love Oh Ji-young the writer of Shopaholic Louis and Terius. Sometimes her reference is so old and cross culture that I wonder if she's the same age as me. Did she grow up watching MTV Asia like I did? Is she also a fan of Natalie Portman? I never think about any other drama writer like I do to her. I feel like she's my friend 😂😂
I literally peed on my pants on Old Boy reference in Shopaholic Louis. Seo In-guk was amazing in channeling Oh Dae-su. I think it was the time I decided to follow his works.

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Great piece, @missvictrix! I’ve always loved meta in any art form because it reminds the audience/viewer/reader/etc. that what you are enjoying is not reality, but a creation from the human mind. And at the same time, it encourages us to participate, not just passively consume. There is a reason that people look at paintings of trees as well as trees themselves, that we watch dramas rather than just watching the world around us. Art gives us new ways of viewing reality, opening it up magnificently and inviting us to reenter our real worlds invigorated, empowered, and with a sense that we too can create change.

So any art work (no matter how abstract or infused with the supernatural) is sort of “meta,” I guess, in that it refers to the realities of the world in which it occurs and in so doing enriches our appreciation of the “real” and the human imagination that can create so much more!

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I learned a new word today. Meta. TBH, that was pretty confusing (it was like trying to brain a lecture)
So... would Kim Min Gyu (I'm Not a Robot) watching a kissing scene from W count as meta?

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The first meta-reference I ever picked up on was in the short web-drama Wednesday 3:30, where the main female lead referenced Goblin and TWICE in the same scene. I was over the moon! Since then, meta’s have been a staple of my drama watching. Still waiting for the Goblin meta-reference in Touch Your Heart though!

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I hope Gong Yoo shows up and they do The Walk again. Or he just insults Jung Rok's hat.

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One of my favourite little bits of meta was with the Go Back Couple when Jang Nara is trying to tell her friends her real age and that she's married and has a baby and they say something about her age and that face- and the look she gives them (because that was the actresses real age). I'm not explaining it well, but I laughed out loud at her facial expression.

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I'm trying to recall a particular K-drama.
The heroine is drinking at her friend's apt. She drunkenly asks her friend to tie her hands so she can't drunk-dial her ex-boyfriend after she blacks out. Cut to the next morning. The heroine sleeping on the floor had managed to get a bag stuck over her head. She jumps up startled and blindly runs around the apartment recreating the famous scene from 'Signal' to the great amusement of her friend. What's that series?

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I love it when the meta reference doesn’t go over my head and when they reuse old characters as themselves or they reference popular songs/movies!

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Now I really have to watch w all over again

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Wow I can't believe I missed this post thanks @missvictrix for insights

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