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.