Recently I caught a few Korean dramas on Netflix. It was a novel experience for me. Beyond an old show that played on Foreign Variety Programs for the government TV, growing up in Cairo, I had never watched any Korean series. I wasn’t really in the headspace to compare dramas back in the day.
So I consider “The King: Eternal Monarch” my first “real” Korean TV show. And let me tell you, I was beyond pleasantly surprised. It was everything I want in many dramas. A male lead who expresses how he’s feeling honestly? Check. A female lead, who (beyond the doubt natural to someone being told a crazy story) doesn’t play ‘hard to get’? Check. Light hearted, funny conversations and deep, well-developed scripts and characters? Check. And beyond all of that, ZERO emotional cringe factor. Zero.
No real doubt as to whom loves whom, or a lead male cheating on his S. O., or a female lead torn between two guys. None of that vomit. Just a mild, understated storyline about an old friend who has a crush on her, with a little hint in one single scene that maybe she was interested in high school. Or at least flattered by the idea. So understated it’s not even a storyline. A half-theme, maybe. Safe to assume this was a nodding tribute to Western TV.
ALL of the above, and the show makers still managed to make it interesting and engaging. Fast-paced enough to keep a modern audience’s attention, funny enough to keep us laughing, and deep enough to be emotionally fulfilling. And the cherry on top of all that, is a mysterious little boy who shows up at the weirdest moments and when asked who he is or what he’s doing or why he’s so weird all he says is. “I warn people of danger and defeat the enemy.” I think that kid is my new spirit animal.
I also love the work done on one of the secondary villains. The lady playing Prime Minister. So multi-dimensional and atypical, she’s a pure joy to watch. A beautiful but ruthless opportunist, you look at how well she dresses and her luxurious tastes and assume she’d be ashamed of her humble beginnings. But no. Her openness about her past is matched only by her openness about her ruthless ambition. The former is exemplified by her visits to her mother, who runs a tiny fish shop/restaurant.
It becomes apparent that the Prime Minister has leveraged her humble beginnings for votes as a “woman of the people” and that she’d rather her mother only pretended to work for show, since she was happy to financially support her. She sleeps in her dingy old room with ease, and eats from the same food her mother will be serving her security guards later. For a TV villainess fond of dressing elegantly in designer brands and living luxuriously at her own house, this is beyond surprising. She may be visiting primarily for optics, but she does so with a very good will and doesn’t even seem to resent it a little in private.
The latter, her openness about her ruthless ambition, is demonstrated in several scenes, but perhaps one of my favourite ones is when she’s dining with The King and quizzing him about not being married yet. The King notes that she speaks of this frequently, then very directly and uninvitingly asks her if she has designs on marrying him herself. Without batting an eyelid or losing a step, his Prime Minister instantly responds with “Can I?”. The King of course delivers a lightning riposte, because he’s a very well-written character as well, and beyond being open about his feelings is quite witty, and knows how to take brazenness in stride. But the impression the Prime Minister makes is lasting with the audience.
On the off chance any makers of that show read this; Guys, I didn’t go to film school, but as an audience member: You’re doing almost everything right. At least everything I can think of up till now. Keep doing what you’re doing. I LOVE that you don’t need any cheap romance cringe factors to make the story exciting. Rock on.
To the rest of the show makers in Korea: At this point I’ve caught like three or four Korean series in total, and I’ve noticed you guys manage to keep stories fun while keeping the feelings on screen honest and the romance cringe factors quite low. If I am correct and this is a current trend in Korea, please never change that. Do not allow Western TV to influence how you write your shows in that regard. You’re already miles ahead of the game.
Disclaimer: it seems unnecessary but just in case any readers are curious, I was not paid to write this piece or promote this show (Although I’m not above doing that because I’m a writer and my time costs money). I wrote this on my own initiative. Because I wanted to. Because the show was just THAT good.