An Irregular Update - 1/15/2022
Crashing, Class, and Cha-Cha-Cha
Previously I explained how Squid Game wasn’t the only major South Korean drama in September of last year. Subsequently I explained how it’s also far from the only original Netflix drama last year. Now, I get into the subtlest distinction- how most successful South Korean dramas on Netflix aren’t even Netflix dramas at all. The invisibility of these distinctions in mainstream English press was a major source of irritation to me last year. There aren’t just the sexist dimensions of acting like romantic comedy/dramas don’t count as real television. There’s also the fact that obscuring the existence of these dramas at best makes a piece Netflix public relations copy, and at worst engages in rank racist condescension that only an American company like Netflix could allow South Korean television to soar to international heights.
This story starts with Crash Landing on You, a tvN drama from late 2019 about a South Korean heiress that lands in North Korea after a paragliding incident gone awry. The show was popular with South Korean drama fans from the start but took on international proportions when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and people were more inclined to stay inside. The show was hugely popular throughout Asia and beyond, prompting a huge financial boon for Studio Dragon that has led them to take on a more aggressive strategy over the last two years toward producing new content.
Crash Landing on You wasn’t a one-off success for the model either. Almost immediately thereafter, Itaewon Class was a similarly big hit. The jTBC Studios produced drama had similar big-name stars, and a similar strong concept as it centered around a restaurant entrepreneur in the trendy Itaewon district of Seoul. Start Up was another noteworthy success from later 2020 with similar themes. Last year also saw the screwball gangster comedy Vincenzo and the moody college romance Nevertheless and the seaside pastoral Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. As we speak Our Beloved Summer is fulfilling a similar niche.
Aside from their worldwide popularity on Netflix the main connecting thread between all these shows is that they were made for television. Netflix only held distribution rights. While the popularity of original Netflix productions has been scattershot at best, these TV programs have had a much more consistent performance. It helps that at one or two episodes a week, viewers often have to keep coming back for weeks at a time. This is often the only way to tell the difference between Netflix originals and Netflix exclusives- even if Netflix itself avoids distinguishing the two to give the impression that they produce all of it in-house.
In reality, Netflix is important mainly as a means of distribution. They aren’t changing the game in terms of how these dramas are made, they’re just making it easier for South Korean dramas to find an international audience, and for drama production companies to capitalize on that audience. That’s the full story- something that was quite obvious at the time to anyone who actually paid any attention to the industry, but which was virtually nonexistent in the era of Squid Game hype. And so South Korean dramas will continue- forgotten, much as Gangnam Style and Parasite were, as fads that never received the contextual explanations they deserved.