The ways we watch dramas
An often overlooked part of watching Korean dramas is the actual methods we use to watch them. Because many of us are international fans living outside of South Korea, there’s a smorgasbord of ways we can consume these dramas, whether we keep up with the show as it airs, or watch one that’s already aired in a frighteningly quick period of time (actual time withheld to protect the innocent).
But does how we watch a drama say something about the story? Is one particular method of watching better than another, or does the content of the drama dictate how we watch it? Let’s take a look at the many ways we watch.
I’m not sure how much my own introduction to dramas compares to others, but I did not start with live shows. I watched shows that were a few years old even back then, and part of falling in love with Korean dramas was falling in love with the freedom of consuming them. When the K-drama world was opened up for me, I realized I had a treasure trove of dramas that I would never be able to exhaust — and it was a wonderful feeling. I could watch important classics that defined genres, watch the favorites of people whose taste I shared, and in turn, develop my own list of favorite dramas, actors, and storytelling moments. Marathoning dramas was how I built my drama foundation.
Marathoning a drama allows you to get submerged in the story. The whole story is complete and in your hands, and the only interruption in the storyline is when real life takes over. Watching dramas uninterrupted (i.e., not waiting for episodes to air) is often the best way to enjoy the pace of the plot. Once your attention is captured, it’s easy to keep up a constant level of interest. Even when — or if — the plot begins to lag and you start to lose interest, having the next episode a click away (rather than six or seven days away) makes us much more inclined to stay committed. In other words, inertia is a drama’s friend.
In just the last few years we have seen such a huge shift in the way televised media is consumed in America. Not that long ago, your only options were to watch a show when it aired, catch a rerun if you missed it, or use some method to record it (VCR, DVR, etc.) and watch it after everyone else had seen it live. But with the sudden surge in proprietary streaming media (Netflix, Amazon Prime, and many more public and cable networks joining them), the way we consume televised media has been radically altered. And with it, the binge culture has become equally mainstream.
A handful of years ago, I felt like one of the only people that was marathoning TV miniseries long after they had aired (thank you, endless DVDs of BBC period dramas). But now, the changing availability and delivery of TV media has changed so dramatically that everyone is free to marathon or “binge watch” TV shows. We’re now used to consuming content without a second thought given to an actual airing schedule, or any kind of barriers between us and the story. This revolution is neither good nor bad, but one thing is for certain: Korean drama watchers are no longer a fringe demographic with the amazing ability to devour media independent of an airing schedule. This is now an option everyone has come to expect — and in many cases, prefer.
This brings us to the opposing method of consuming K-dramas: live-watching. While this is arguably the most painful method of watching a drama, it is often the most rewarding, as well. It also feels like a bit of a rebellion these days. Is it possible we’ll reach a point in the history of television where watching syndicated TV is actually the rarer method of watching? That’s how it feels now when I live-watch a show. And if that’s considered rebellion, I’m in!
Granted, there has always been a bit of masochism involved with the live-watch, and with the addictive nature of K-dramas, that is only more so. The cliff hangers are cliffier, the stakes are stakier, and waiting that week for more episodes can be completely agonizing. But it’s also fun. Serialized stories keep us engaged in the story and keep it playing in our heads during the lull between installments. That lull also equals time to commiserate and communicate with other fans. It’s the reason we have fabulous communities like, you know, Dramabeans, around.
Live-watching dramas can bring them to life, and make experiencing them into something communal, but can it also work to their disadvantage? I think it can. Dramas that settle into predictable and expected patterns are often a real struggle to stay interested in week after week. What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim was this kind of drama for me. I wanted to love it, and the leads are amongst my favorites, but each week when new episodes were up, it was more like a chore than a pleasure to catch up with the story. This drama is the perfect example of one I think I would have enjoyed more if I marathoned it. My attention span would have wavered less if the full story was right at my fingertips. I would have had more patience for the tropes, and a little more interest in the falling action.
On the opposite side of that, there are shows that were amazing when watched live. In addition to the sense of community around them, the best dramas I have live-watched have been ones that almost required that space in between their episodes. Answer Me 1988 was probably one of my favorite examples of this. Each episode was rich and affecting and the space in between the airing of the episodes actually parsed the story beautifully. The pause in between episodes was almost reflective, and helped the story grow as you watched.
But if live-watching dramas can go both ways, so can marathoning. While I don’t exactly regret marathoning a show, there have been some dramas that I banged through at such a ridiculous speed that I almost wish I had taken more time to savor them.
What does all of this discussion of live-watching and marathoning — and the highs and lows of both — actually tell us about watching dramas? It’s a lot about pace. Pace is an essential component to any story, and for serialized stories like K-dramas that rely on pulling in viewers two nights a week for weeks at a time, that pace is essential. Sometimes productions nail it, and the plot moves with the perfect amount of ebb and flow. Conversely, sometimes a lagging plot can be more easily skated over when you’re watching at a breakneck speed.
This dichotomy almost begs the question: is there a best practice for watching dramas? Or is each drama an individual case? While I could say that a drama like City Hunter should be gobbled up in a delicious marathon, and a heavy drama like Misaeng should be enjoyed live with the appropriate amount of headspace between installments, these are just my opinions, and the way of watching them that worked for me. Everyone’s experience with a story is different; that’s a story’s power.
Whether you’re a live-watcher, marathoner, or the juggler a carefully-balanced combination of both (like me), the pace at which we consume a story has a lot of bearing on how we experience it — and enjoy it.
- What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim: Episode 1
- Park Min-young considers romancing Park Seo-joon in tvN’s Why Secretary Kim
- Answer Me 1988: Episode 1
- The gang is assembled for Answer Me 1988
- Im Shi-wan: “I had to take Misaeng”
- Misaeng: Episode 1
- Park Min-young: Over her slump and keeping busy
- City Hunter: Episode 1