2020 was an unusual year and with the end in sight it seems like the right time to see if any unusual trends shaped Korean dramas. A few trends stand out alongside bigger production budgets, more international interest in k-media and more dramas airing on a host of ever-expanding streaming platforms such as Netflix, iQIYI and Wavve.
Storyline trends that stand out are a surplus of serial killer dramas, with mass murderers featured in at least 10 dramas this year; plus more dramas featuring strong assertive female characters and a selection of dramas that reflect shifting perspectives on social conventions.
Serial killers were featured in Tell Me What You Saw, starring Jang Hyuk; Nobody Knows, starring Kim Seo-hyung; Born Again with Jang Ki-young and Lee Soo-hyuk, The Game Toward Zero with Ok Taecyeon and Lee Yeon-hee, Psychopath Diary with Yoon Shi-yoon and Park Sung-hoon, Memorist, starring Yoo Seung-ho; Missing: The Other Side, starring Ko Soo; Flower of Evil, featuring Lee Jun-ki and Moon Chae-won; Stranger with Bae Doona and Cho Seung-woo and The Good Detective, starring Son Hyun-joo and Jang Seung-jo.
Why was this year a great year for fictional serial killers—from the comical Psychopath Diary to the killer love story in Flower of Evil? The prevalence might reflect recent news stories. In Sept. 2019, with the help of DNA, the South Korean police finally identified the real life serial killer who murdered 10 women between 1986 and 1991. Regarded as Korea’s first serial murder case, it was also the case that inspired Bong Joon-ho’s film Memories of Murder. The case was finally put to rest in 2019, but the terror the memories induced echoed on the small screen in various 2020 storylines.
The second interesting 2020 k-drama trend was strong female characters, a trend that has accelerated over the past few years, with female characters being physically stronger and professionally more powerful than the Cinderella female leads of past years. Every year fewer female k-drama characters need—or want—to be rescued by the male Prince Charming lead. Some of this year’s k-drama heroines were not only strong single-minded women but quite determined in their pursuit of the men they wanted, such as Kim Da-mi’s character in Itaewon Class. A few of 2020’s female characters could be considered—by generally conservative k-drama standards— to be sexually assertive.
In Backstreet Rookie, Kim Yoo-jung doggedly pursued her convenience store boss, played by Ji Chang-wook. The drama generated some online controversy when Kim, playing a high school student, asked Ji’s older character for a cigarette and then kissed him. In Hyena Kim Hye-soo’s scrappy lawyer character starts the drama by seducing Ju Ji-hoon’s character so she can steal his secrets. Then she dumps him. Seo Ye-ji’s character in It’s Okay Not To Be Okay is so sexually aggressive that her attentions make Kim Soo-hyun’s character uncomfortable. Her pursuit of the male character was described as sexual harassment on social media and at least 50 formal complaints were filed with Korea’s Communications Standards Commission.
Harassment was explored in a few dramas. The sexual harassment that models can face was touched on in Record of Youth, while school and workplace harassment were featured in the storylines of Itaewon Class, Mystic Pop Up Bar and Extracurricular.
This year’s dramas also reflected shifting perspectives on social conventions. In Oh My Baby, Jang Nara’s character gives up on the prospect of marriage and seeks a sperm donation so she can be a single mom. Her quest exposes her to ridicule but also changes perceptions about sperm donation and single motherhood in her immediate environment. A few female characters dismiss marriage altogether. Between singlehandedly raising her daughter and saving a film company, Song Ji-hyo’s character in Was It Love has no interest in dating, while Hwang Jung-eum’s character in Men Are Men is determined never to marry. Such characters reflect a current reality in which more young Korean women decide not to marry or even date.
LGBTQ issues also surfaced in more k-dramas this year. Most notably, Lee Joo-young played a transgender character who transitions and is accepted for it in Itaewon Class. Gay characters were featured in Sweet Munchies, My Unfamiliar Family and Record of Youth, whereas the web series Where Your Eyes Linger focused on a gay romance.
Many of the dramas that explored social issues or featured controversial characters were not produced by Korea’s terrestrial TV stations but rather by streaming platforms with an eye toward an increasingly international audience. Despite the controversy occasionally generated by these socially cutting-edge plots, Korean dramas continue to focus on the traditional themes that make them such an effective form of entertainment—the importance of achieving justice, having humility and defying obstacles to find love.