More dramas about women in the workplace. More fantasy storylines. Bigger production budgets. More dramas inspired by webtoons. These are a few trends viewers noticed while watching Korean dramas in 2019.
A variety of real-world cultural trends influenced the storylines of the year’s drama plots, while increasing global interest in Korean media prompted business collaborations that boosted production budgets.
One trend that attracted attention in 2019 was the increasing number of dramas about women in the workplace. Women make up 40% of the world’s workforce, so it’s a subject viewers can relate to, and, according to viewer reactions, proved to be a welcome improvement over drama plots that focus on women being rescued by and competing for men.
“We saw a surge in female protagonists in the general drama trend for 2019,” said Andrew Lee of OnDemandKorea, a drama streaming site. “Among these, female characters took much more of a leading role than before.”
Dramas based on webtoons, such as What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim, Her Private Life, Love Alarm, Extra-ordinary You, Tale of Nokdu and Pegasus Market, also had a good year.
“The Tale of Nokdu is another webtoon-based drama with a male character who pretends to be a woman to hide his secrets,” said Sarah Kim. “It was good to have a cross-dressing drama, which has not been produced since Coffee Prince.”
It was also a good year for comedies. Two well-cast comedies focused on politics, another on serial killers, and yet another on k-pop fans, but the year’s most popular comedy centered on a crime-fighting man of the cloth.
Choi Si-won starred in My Fellow Citizen as a charming con man who runs for office. In The Great Show, Song Seung-hoon plays a has-been politician who adopts a family to bolster his chances for re-election. Yoon Shi-yoon plays a timid office worker who might be a serial killer in Psychopath Diary, while Park Min Young played a curator and secret fangirl in the romantic comedy My Private Life, but the ratings winner was Kim Nam-gil in The Fiery Priest. The comedy, which co-starred Lee Ha-na, broke records for its time slot.
2019 saw deals signed between Netflix and CJ ENM Entertainment and Studio Dragon, as well as a Netflix deal with Korean broadcaster JTBC. An influx of international investment resulted in bigger production budgets, which are needed for on-location filming. Memories of Alhambra, starring Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye, was filmed in Spain and Encounter, starring Park Bo-gum and Song Hye-kyo, was filmed in Cuba. Some scenes from the December drama Crash Landing on You, starring Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin were filmed in Switzerland and Mongolia.
Increasing international investment has also sparked innovation.
“Now with a long-term business contract with Netflix, we have the chance to try out a variety of experimental projects,” said Kang. “Studio Dragon is planning on making and distributing over 30 TV series in 2020 through various platforms.”
According to Minyoung Kim, director of content at Netflix Korea, 2019’s drama successes proved that great stories can “come from anywhere and be loved anywhere.” Compelling content can travel beyond borders and cultural barriers.
“In 2019, we saw two major trends in the stories that came from Korea; 1) The big-scale productions such as Kingdom and Vagabond, and 2) The shows that focused on unique storytelling with creative edges in their narrative like Search: WWW, When the Camellia Blooms, and Love Alarm,” said Minyoung Kim.
Second seasons, not usually associated with Korean dramas, did become more common this year, with Chief of Staff airing a second season in 2019 and subsequent seasons for other dramas already in the works. Netflix dramas such as Love Alarm and First First Love, with an average length of 16 episodes, were split into two seasons of eight episodes.
Dramas such as VIP, starring Jang Nara and Lee Sang Yoon; WWW: Search, starring Lim Soo-jung, Lee Da-hee, and Jeon Hye-jin; and Her Private Life, starring Park Min Young and Kim Jae Wook, all showed women successfully managing their careers and finding positive ways to resolve problems with other employees, including the other women in their teams.
“This year there were many dramas featuring competent female characters with social achievements, who solve problems actively by themselves in Search: WWW, VIP, Melo Is My Nature, and Graceful Family, said Sarah Kim, SVP of content and partnerships at Rakuten Viki, an international streaming site.
VIP shows women co-workers dealing with problems that range from staging work-related special events to combating workplace sexual harassment. Search: WWW focuses on the careers and relationships of women working in the web portal industry.
“Romance led by female characters instead of the predictable and conventional love story gained favorable reviews from many female viewers,” said CK Kang, CFO at Studio Dragon, a South Korean production company under CJ ENM’s E&M division. “What’s notable is that most viewers seemed to enjoy the plot of the three female characters struggling through and overcoming conflicts in the workplace more than the love relationships with male characters.”
Women run most of the businesses—from bars to law firms—in one of the year’s most popular series When The Camellia Blooms, starring Gong Hyo-jin and Kang Ha-neul, while Be Melodramatic is a comedy that depicts the concerns, relationships, and everyday lives of thirty-year-old women.
“From this we can see that dramas depicting everyday life, plain love stories and what ordinary people experience in life were popular in 2019, and blockbusters received relatively less attention,” said Kang.
A few dramas also featured single parents as central characters, exploring the struggles they faced. Jung Hae-in played a single father in Spring Night, while Gong Hyo Jin played a single mom in When The Camellia Blooms. The subject of single parenthood was considered from different angles in The Great Show.
“Korean dramas are reflecting more realistic characters and backgrounds than in the past,” said Kang. “Sometimes they portray divorced couples or single parents, and sometimes there are even main characters who are plain geeks or have personality issues. Viewers seem to relate more to characters that can be seen commonly in everyday life or plots that they might actually be able to experience in real life.”
While such real-life situations engaged viewers, fantasy genres were also very popular.
“There is a trend in Korean drama where an influx of fantasy or realism drama waves come and go,” said Lee. “This year was obviously the year of fantasy high-budget dramas.”
The 2019 fantasy genre roster included Hotel Del Luna, Extra-ordinary You, Memories of Alhambra, My Absolute Boyfriend, Melting Me Softly, Love Alarm, and Welcome 2 Life.
“The most popular fantasy series on Viki from 2019 was none other than Hotel Del Luna,” said Sarah Kim. “The writers, the Hong sisters, also wrote the popular fantasy series A Korean Odyssey, The Master’s Sun, and others that were loved for being very moving.”
What’s expected trend-wise in 2020?
The most anticipated second season of Studio Dragon’s works in 2020 may be Stranger, a crime series about a reserved prosecutor and a warm-hearted police officer uncovering the truth behind a murder.
Signal 2, the second season of the 2016 tvN drama Signal, with its original trio of stars, is also expected to air in 2020. A second season for the saga Arthdal Chronicles, produced by Netflix, is being discussed, but the date for its return has not yet been set.
“The second season of Kingdom is scheduled to launch in March,” said Minyoung Kim, “And our new original series including The School Nurse Files, My Holo Love, Extracurricular, and Twogether are planned to roll out.”
Fantasy is expected to be as popular as ever. Set to air in 2020, Hi, Bye, Mama! is the story of a ghost mother, played by Kim Tae-hee, who comes back to her husband and daughter as they begin a new life after her tragic loss.
The King: Monarch of Eternity will be Lee Min-ho’s comeback drama after serving his two-year mandatory military duty. The drama, which co-stars Kim Go-eun, is the story of a Korean emperor who tries to close the doors to a parallel world that were opened by demons.
How different will 2020’s drama trends be? What will viewers like? Great writing and acting are likely to do well no matter which trend dramas follow.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.