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Independent female leads: Key to success for TV dramas in 2022

Shows with strong female leads likely to continue

By Lee Si-jin

Published : Dec. 14, 2022 - 16:20

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Actor Kim Hye-soo plays the role of charismatic judge Sim Eun-seok in “Juvenile Justice.” (Netflix) Actor Kim Hye-soo plays the role of charismatic judge Sim Eun-seok in “Juvenile Justice.” (Netflix)

Female characters, who were once limited to men’s sidekicks, lovers or mothers in TV series, are making a splash with powerful women leading this year’s Korean drama trend.

As more Korean actresses tried to break the country’s stereotype of women -- as needing men’s protection and help -- diversity in female characters is no longer new in Korean dramas.

While many attempts were made to put women in central roles, no noticeable results had been seen since MBC’s period drama “The Great Queen Seondeok” (2009), in which actors Ko Hyun-jung and Lee Yo-won were applauded for their portrayal of charismatic women who dreamed of taking the throne.

Then, top Korean actor Kim Hye-soo heralded the arrival of powerful women characters in Netflix’s legal drama “Juvenile Justice” earlier this year.

The 10-episode court drama presented Sim Eun-seok (played by Kim), a charismatic judge, in offering a look into Korea's juvenile offenders and depicting some fundamental social problems.

“Juvenile Justice” topped Netflix’s Korean and non-English TV series charts after its premiere on Feb. 25 and was viewed in 190 different territories.

The baton was passed on to cable channel tvN’s “Twenty-Five Twenty-One,” presenting the friendship between two teen fencers Na Hee-do (played by Kim Tae-ri) and Ko Yu-rim (played by Bona).

The series featured a special bond between the female characters in a genre locally known as “womance."

While the romance of Na Hee-do formed a major plot line, many viewers were mesmerized by the teen athletes' relationship, evolving from an athlete-fan relationship to rivals and then best friends.

“Twenty-Five Twenty-One” topped the ratings among television shows airing in the same time slot for more than a month. The rom-com series soared to the No. 1 slot in 10 countries, including Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and more.

Actor Park Eun-bin plays a newbie lawyer Woo Young-woo in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (ENA) Actor Park Eun-bin plays a newbie lawyer Woo Young-woo in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (ENA)

Korea’s summer was dominated by cable channel ENA’s courtroom series “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.”

After its premiere on June 29, the legal drama stole the viewers' hearts with a rookie attorney named Woo Young-woo (played by Park Eun-bin), who has an extraordinarily high IQ of 164 and is also on the autism spectrum.

“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” was considered a second “Squid Game,” when it recorded a total of 23.95 million hours of viewing a week after its release.

In a testimony to its popularity, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” was the second-most popular searched keyword on Google among South Koreans this year, according to the US tech giant Google.

Cable channel tvN bet on the continued success of female-centered series when it released “Little Women,” a mystery thriller, and a period drama “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” in the second half of this year.

“Little Women” -- a series about three Oh sisters and their differing views on various social events -- ranked sixth and stayed in Netflix’s global top 10 chart after making it to the chart on Sept. 19, almost two weeks after its premiere. Meanwhile, “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” remained strong, staying in the top 5 of the Korean Netflix chart.

Culture critic Hwang Jin-mi believes that the trend is likely to continue in 2023.

“TV series are mostly enjoyed by female viewers. And they have seen enough Cinderella stories, in which a woman from a poor background falls in love with a prince-like male lead,” Hwang told The Korea Herald.

“I think content creators realized the viewers’ desire for diversity in female characters. With the actresses’ performances and abilities in presenting powerful stories now proven, I think the viewers can expect to see more of such dramas,” the culture critic added.

JTBC’s “Thirty-Nine” presented a different style of “womance” with a trio of best friends -- Cha Mi-jo (played by Son Ye-jin), Jeong Chan-young (played by Jeon Mi-do) and Jang Joo-hee (played by Kim Ji-hyun) -- and their love life on the brink of turning 40.

Presenting the women's 20-year friendship, that is stronger than their familial bonds and romantic attachments, “Thirty-Nine” captured both local and global viewers’ attention and ranked in Netflix’s top 10 chart in March as well.