A story for every season
Stories and seasons are often knitted together until we can’t separate one from the other. After all, it wouldn’t be quite The Catcher in the Rye without the Christmas break from boarding school, or Anna Karenina without the bleak Russian winter — and it wouldn’t be Flower Boy Next Door without a cast layered in parkas and scarves, either.
The seasons can become an important part of the stories we tell, but they’re often a visceral part of what we experience as the audience too. In dramaland, there are a few ways this relationship of story to season becomes even stronger. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
The first connection of K-dramas to seasons is the obvious one: the bulk of live-shoot dramas are usually shot during the season they’re depicting. During the sleepless; grueling weeks of a drama shoot, the cast and crew are completely at the mercy of the season around them. The story they’re working so hard to tell reflects that.
Was it sheer happenstance that a drama like Pinocchio, which was full of winter cold and parka PPL and first snows, was roughly shot and aired from November through January? More likely, the synergy of the drama and the winter season was purposeful. From the sponsorship and advertising that would pay for it, to the production schedule, to the way the plot would make use of the winter weather as prop to create a vivid canvas for the drama — all these moving parts came together in Pinocchio.
Another connection of story to season is that of mood and genre. Somehow it became pretty standard for a slew of melodramas to appear in the autumn, for summer to be full of romance and rom-coms (current evidence: Her Private Life, The Secret Life of My Secretary, Perfume, My Absolute Boyfriend, Angel’s Last Mission: Love, I could go on for ages), and spring… maybe that’s a good time for a fresh-faced youth drama like My First First Love?
Though dramas certainly don’t always stick to matching their tone to the season they’re in, when they do, it can be a good match. Classic Hallyu dramas like Summer Scent and Autumn Fairytale were even built around the seasons they took place in. But on a smaller and more moderate scale, a revenge melo like Nice Guy was perfectly suited for its September through November airtime with its cold-hearted love affair, earth tone colors, and general feeling of things (seasons, revenge plots, love affairs) coming to a close.
When we talk about seasons matching the audience’s season, of course we’re talking primarily about the seasons in Korea and the domestic audience they’re churned out for. I might live halfway around the world from there, but the seasons I experience are pretty similar to Korea’s (yay, longitude), which goes some way to explain why I experience this synergy between stories and seasons so deeply.
I’m not sure at which point I got so used to the season depicted in a drama matching the season I was experiencing. I don’t think I realized how strong it was until a few pre-produced dramas set in a different season aired. This summer’s One Spring Night (airing May through July) is a good example of a drama that didn’t match its onscreen season. In the drama, the leads are still wearing coats, but the weather in Seoul when it aired was pretty much sunny and very warm. This got me thinking about how much I’m used to experiencing the season with the characters — and how attached to that connection I’ve become.
The winter season in dramas often affects me more than others. Maybe that’s because the cold weather is such a sharp contrast to the rest of the year. The other seasons tend to be easy, breezy times of the year where our characters can walk around in their fashion-forward outfits enjoying the flora and fauna. Dramas that take place in winter however, not only have more to contend with while shooting (I always feel for the actors when I can see their breath and red noses in some scenes), but the fact that the characters have to be bundled and booted up impacts the mood of the drama.
One of my favorite examples of this is Flower Boy Next Door, which used its in-season weather to create an even stronger drama. The story of a quirky shut-in heroine saving pennies by wearing three coats inside, sleeping with a hot water bottle, and even just the overall isolated and “winter hibernation” vibes this gave off, added to the depth of the drama’s scene-setting and plot growth.
The heroine stretches and grows over the course of the winter and has her figurative “rebirth” in the spring. This element of the story just wouldn’t work the same if the story’s setting was a summer heatwave instead (and how would the panda hat still be a thing!).
Strong use of the season in a drama can build a richer story and setting, but there’s also a nice bit of a vicarious experience in there for the audience as well. If you watched Flower Boy Next Door live, for instance, you froze alongside protagonist Go Dok-mi and her neighbors. It cheered me up to deal with the cold and ice together with the characters in the drama. Even if you watched it off-season, the comparison and contrast of seasons in a drama impact the viewer experience.
Dramas have never been shy about using as many symbols and metaphors around the four seasons as they are able. In fact, there’s a whole family of tropes to go along with each one (how I love them!). Winter leads the way with the romance and symbolism of the season’s first snow. In Korea, being with your love interest during the first snow signifies that your love for each other will bloom. There’s a nice collection of dramas that have snow-kissed it up to prove it (The Lonely Shining Goblin, Pinocchio, and You From Another Star come first to mind).
For springtime the cherry blossoms rule, and to me, this is the most employed seasonal signifier — I lost count of how many dramas used the beauty of these blossoms in a pivotal romantic scene. Some are more subtle (One Spring Night), while others (That Winter, The Wind Blows and Come Here and Hug Me) have deployed the magical petal drop with no shame whatsoever. The narrow window for these blossoms to be in their full glory makes you realize just how much a shoot schedule must take the weather/seasons into account, or how nimble they are to be able to turn on a dime when reacting to seasonal variables.
Tropes for summer and fall are a little less used, perhaps — but there are still a lot of caught-in-a-summer-downpour scenes across the drama landscape. These rain scenes usually unite two unsuspecting characters, or draw two characters together, in the sense of both physical space, and emotional connection. Fox rain, umbrella scenes, and downpours in general are so common it’s a wonder we don’t see umbrella PPL.
Lastly, autumn has its own rich mood and color, and dramas know how to use that too. Whether it’s to signal the symbolic end of a relationship, circumstance, or even a life — or just a general wistfulness in the air as a pair walks through some beautiful foliage — autumn weather packs its own sort of dramatic punch.
In addition to using the symbolism around the seasons, another way dramas use them is as a mechanism to signal growth and change. Dramas do this a ton, and often flash forward to months or even years later in order to find their conclusions. What better way to do it than the total mood change of a seasonal shift? (It’s better than the token hair color/style change, let’s face it).
Dramas are sometimes so determined to use the seasonal shift in this way that it shows the painful swiftness with which they are shot. In other words, what happens if a drama wants to use a seasonal change, but they’re shooting their springtime story and its summer epilogue in the same week? Dramas fake it with wardrobe changes, which is a surprisingly effective trick — until someone’s breath or red nose gives it all away.
On one hand the use of seasons in dramas can feel trite. Was that snow kiss amongst gently falling snowflakes really essential? Or were we just given a visual treat because it’s cinematic and pretty?
On the other hand, I like to think that the dramas become an integral part of the seasons that they take place in, and vice versa. This has definitely been my experience when I look back on past dramas and try to imagine what they would be like, or how the feel of the drama would change, if the seasons were inverted.
I’ve always been impressed at how dramas can take the same elements and yet keep making shows that feel new, cohesive, and very much their own, time and time again. For some dramas, the seasons have a big part to play in this. They might not dominate all K-dramas, but the seasons and seasonal symbolism are another great example of a storytelling tool that’s used in strategic and purposeful ways.