“The World of the Married” (JTBC)/ "Itaewon Class" (JTBC)/ "Crash Landing on You" (tvN)
The first half of this year was an especially bumpy road for Korean television. Although the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 halted some productions for a while, small-screen content came into a new limelight as a source of joy and comfort for people stuck at home in the period of quarantine.
JTBC becomes big name
JTBC ran strong last year with “Sky Castle,” which set a record viewership rating for the cable channel. And the broadcaster has further built on its success this year.
“Itaewon Class” kicked off the year smoothly for the network. Based on a popular webtoon of the same title, Korean heartthrob Park Seo-jun showed chemistry with rookie Kim Da-mi. The story of Park Sae-ro-yi chasing success captured young viewers and the series ended at a high of 16.5 percent in the ratings.
Koreans thought they had had enough of deadly love affairs -- until they saw “The World of the Married.” Even with the six R-rated episodes that set the series apart, the “Doctor Foster” remake quickly gained popularity and at its 12th episode outran the previous highest viewership mark of 23.8 percent set by “Sky Castle,” ending with a new record 28.3 percent on its final episode. As a result, producer Mo Wan-il and lead actor Kim Hee-ae were named best producer and best actress for TV, respectively, at this year’s Baeksang Arts Awards.
Not everything worked out, but drama powerhouse tvN also had its ups. Studded with stars in leads Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, “Crash Landing on You” broke tvN’s viewership record in February with the unrealistic romance between a South Korean chaebol heiress and North Korean military officer. Taking the baton next, “Hospital Playlist” from star director Shin Won-ho and writer Lee Woo-jung was a massive hit despite only airing once a week.
Among the three major local broadcasters, SBS showed fair scores for many of its dramas, including the second season of medical drama “Dr. Romantic,” Namkoong Min’s “Stove League” and “Hyena,” featuring Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hye-soo.
“Extracurricular” (Netflix)/ “Stove League” (SBS)/ "Black Dog" (tvN)
New writers debut big
The first sports-themed drama in Korean TV, SBS’ “Stove League” from rookie writer Lee Shin-hwa was a huge hit. The baseball drama captured even those viewers who have never been a fan of the sport with its no-frills story that moved the limelight from the players to the front office.
Scriptwriter Jin Han-sae of Netflix’s “Extracurricular” also shot to fame with the 10-episode series. The son of star TV screenwriter Song Ji-na -- who created some of Korea’s best-known TV series including “Sandglass” (1995) and “The Legend” (2007) -- Jin takes a huge first swing with a story revolving around teenagers meddling in prostitution and human trafficking.
Even ahead of the two smash hits, TV dramas coming from new writers have continued to catch viewers’ eyes this year. TvN’s “Black Dog,” showing the competitive ecosystem of Korean private school teachers, came from rookie writer Park Ju-young, whereas financial crime series “Money Game” was the drama debut for veteran radio scriptwriter Lee Young-mi.
Some may pass off the glory to beginner’s luck, but most of the new scripts were not actually so new. Lee had won an award for his “Stove League” script from MBC in 2016, but had to wait almost four years until it materialized with SBS. During the hiatus, Lee focused on more research and interviews with related officials to add greater detail.
Sometimes personal experiences became a source of creativity. Jin had revealed that “Extracurricular” was based on his own experience and thoughts as a teenager, whereas Park had written the “Black Dog” script from her three years working as a teacher. Lee, who had received critical acclaim for the realistic portrayal of economic bureaucrats in “Money Game,” stated that not only did she write the script based on her years of experience in finance shows, she also requested experts in the field to proofread the scripts.
"Kingdom 2" (Netflix)/ “The King: Eternal Monarch” (SBS)/ "A Piece of Your Mind" (tvN)
Stars shine bright, burn out
Several big-name actors, well accustomed with success, had their ups and downs.
Ju Ji-hoon and Bae Doo-na made successful returns in the second season of zombie thriller “Kingdom” on Netflix. With the story helmed by star screenwriter Kim Eun-hee, the first season, released in January 2019, took the Korean zombie genre to the global level, and the second season was acclaimed as having outperformed the first by critics and viewers worldwide.
Korean sweetheart Kim Tae-hee returned to the small screen after five years with tvN’s “Hi Bye, Mama!” While this was her first appearance on TV since her marriage to singer Rain and giving birth to two children, the show failed to meet expectations boosted by Kim’s popularity and ended with a relatively low rating of 5.1 percent on its last episode.
Worse for tvN came with romance-drama “A Piece of Your Mind,” starring Jung Hae-in. Despite Jung’s stellar popularity, the series maintained poor ratings of between 1 and 2 percent throughout its run and, in the end, was forced to reduce the number episodes from 16 to 12.
Perhaps the most anticipated yet most disgraced was SBS’ “The King: Eternal Monarch,” starring Lee Min-ho. Coming from star writer Kim Eun-sook of “Descendants of the Sun” (2016) and “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (2016), Lee had chosen the blockbuster fantasy piece as his post-military comeback production. Criticisms on the farfetched story and poor acting by Lee and his counterpart Kim Go-eun, topped with excessive placement product, however, failed to impress viewers, as it finished with single-digit ratings.
By Choi Ji-won (email@example.com