By: Caroline MacLellan
March 24th, 2023
From listening to South Korean pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK to adding Korean skincare into daily beauty routines, many elements of South Korean pop-culture have become globally well-renowned, including an increase in consumption of Korean Dramas, or K-dramas, for short.
Dubbed Hallyu (Korean Wave) by the South Korean government, this phenomenon includes the spread of Korean pop-culture to the global community, as well as a growing interest in “Korean traditional culture, food, literature, and language.” While K-pop music is undoubtedly the most well-known aspect of Hallyu, Korean TV Dramas (K-dramas) are beginning to rival K-pop’s popularity in the global community.
A shining example of this increasing popularity is South Korean drama “Squid Game”, which took the world by storm in September 2021. It quickly became the most watched Netflix series of all-time and in the first 28 days of its release, “Squid Game” recorded a staggering 1.65 billion hours watched. No other K-drama has succeeded so immensely before, at least not on an international scale.
But other K-dramas, though not as wildly popular as “Squid Game”, are taking over Netflix’s non-English TV Top 10 rankings every week. For example, the second most watched K-drama on Netflix is the 2022 zombie thriller “All of Us Are Dead”, coming in at almost 700 million hours watched. Another popular show, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”, spent 20 weeks in the top 10 and surpassed 600 million hours watched as of October 2022. Most recently, “The Glory” has taken off on Netflix, gaining over 160 million hours watched in its first 4 weeks on air.
Netflix’s watch hours aren’t the only indicator of K-dramas’ increasing popularity though. Asian entertainment streaming service Rakuten Viki saw a 43% increase in subscribers from 2021 to 2022 to a total of 53 million subscribers. The streaming site contains a wide variety of Asian TV dramas and movies, but its Korean and Chinese selections are the most extensive. Due to the increased amount of Korean-related content provided through their service, as well as the recent drastic increase in subscribers, it’s clear that more and more people are watching K-dramas every year.
But the rapidly increasing popularity of these Korean series also indicates that something sets K-dramas apart from other TV series. Dedicated viewers, actors, producers, and even directors have a variety of thoughts on why K-dramas are unique, as well as why those unique qualities contribute to their popularity.
For example, on the success of “Squid Game,” many viewers have described the show as thought-provoking, exciting, and unique in concept. Other K-dramas receive similar feedback from viewers. Other watchers like K-dramas because they believe they’re different from traditional TV, but especially unique from Western television.
One of the biggest differences between K-dramas and English language TV series is the lack of sex and nudity. While many popular Western shows like “Game of Thrones”, “The Witcher”, and “Euphoria” are filled with graphic scenes, K-dramas rarely ever have them. For that reason K-dramas are more accessible to all ages. It also allows the drama creators to build more complex emotional scenes that don’t solely rely on sexual tension.
Aside from the lack of graphic scenes, K-dramas have astounding prowess in creating profound emotional connections between their viewers. K-dramas typically feature character-driven plots and are filled with complex character relationships and emotions, so viewers often find it easy to understand K-drama characters and the obstacles they encounter.
Additionally, K-dramas frequently tackle global societal issues, including “social injustices such as economic disparity, class hierarchy and abuse of power” that viewers may be able to relate to.
For example, “Squid Game” explores the grueling struggle of those in working class Korea, while “The Glory” showcases a woman’s plot to take brutal revenge on her school bullies. Romance K-dramas feature such plots as well, but typically focus on “two people from very different backgrounds learning to understand one another.” Such juxtaposition is often compelling to potential viewers, thus drawing them to the romance genre as well.
It’s not that other countries’ TV series don’t tackle such issues or plots. But K-dramas do it in such an emotionally poignant way that viewers find themselves rooting for the protagonist, criticizing a character’s poor decisions, or berating (and sometimes praising) the antagonist in every moment of the viewing experience.
As such, K-dramas often have the viewer contemplate the morality and humanity of its characters in some of the simplest ways, thus creating an emotional experience for viewers that no other country’s productions have been able to replicate.
Apart from the above distinctions, K-dramas’ short durations are another selling point. Most K-dramas are only one season long with an average episode count of 16-20, making them quickly consumable.
Recently though, and particularly on Netflix, K-dramas have started adopting the multiple season model. For example, “Squid Game” only has 10 episodes in its first season, and has a second expected. More examples include apocalyptic horror drama “Sweet Home” and the aforementioned “All of Us Are Dead”, both of which have upcoming sequels.
But the format of K-dramas has never been make-or-break for avid fans, who will voraciously consume any quality K-drama they can get their hands on. The more digestible nature of K-dramas though is certainly a contributing factor to their increasing popularity. After all, a whole K-drama is as long as two seasons of “Game of Thrones.”
It’s clear that K-dramas have a multitude of unique qualities that have driven their incredible new popularity. As K-dramas become more accessible worldwide on popular streaming platforms, fans hope more and more people will try something new and fall in love with the genre. After all, the more people watch K-dramas, the more K-dramas get made—and according to fans, who doesn’t want more K-dramas?
Caroline MacLellan is a junior studying Public and Professional Writing, with a minor in Japanese. In her free time, she loves watching Korean dramas, reading manga and creative writing.