A well-known Korean saying goes: “In 10 years, even rivers and mountains change.” In TV Land, however, that time span would be less, and in Korean TV Land, it would even be shorter. We don’t have a “seasons’ concept for TV dramas so they play more like a one-off mini-series; only a handful of daily TV dramas have been broadcast for years. Locally produced sitcoms are not as popular, either, and very few are being broadcast on non-cable networks. They don’t last years, either.
Variety shows are a bit different. Unlike TV dramas or sitcoms, they tend to go on interminably if the ratings are good. Korean variety shows tend to be a mix of comedy, sitcom, and reality show all put together, and since commercial breaks are inserted between entire shows and not in the middle of them, it’s quite easy to get immersed in a particular show and get hooked. (FYI: Cable channels do not follow this system and will have tons of commercials mid-show.)
Anyway, the Korean variety show scene has changed a bit since the “Top 10 Korean Variety Shows” post here on the Korea Blog in 2011 and with the first half of 2013 behind us, here’s a look at the shows which are being talked about.
They weren’t on the list back in 2011, but these shows are creating a buzz:
Daddy, where are we going? (아빠! 어디 가?) on MBC
What was the proved rule for ratings again? Kids and animals, right? Well, since animals are being covered by the numerous cat videos on YouTube, seems like broadcasters are going in the “kids” direction. There have been several kid-centered variety shows in the past and some which are still going, but a new show came on this year blowing up the ratings like nothing else.
“Daddy, where are we going?” features five celebrity dads and their kids: Actor Sung Dong-il (성동일) and son Jun (준), announcer/MC Kim Seong-ju (김성주) and son Minguk (민국), actor Lee Jong-hyuk (이종혁) and son Junsu (준수), footballer Song Jong-guk (송종국) and daughter Jia (지아), singer Yoon Min-su (윤민수) and son Hu (후). The parent-child duos go on an overnight trip somewhere in the countryside to explore and connect with one another. Because the kids are very unpredictable – their age ranges between 5 and 9 – the show practically writes itself.
Not to mention the dads. Dads are rather invisible in Korean society, especially when you’re a kid growing up. Most dads work very, very, late during the week and tend to spend the weekends napping or surfing on the couch, or moodily pushing the shopping cart buying groceries at the huge “mart”s. (Hey, they’re overworked and exhausted.) Having conversations during meals was discouraged until very recently – it was considered bad manners to address elders while eating – so all in all, it’s quite difficult to get friendly with your dad.
Also, dads rarely do anything at home. Despite more and more women being in the workforce, the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and taking care of the kids still mostly remain “mom jobs”. Dads rarely know how to do the most basic things. For celebrity dads with crazy work schedules, this would be even more blatant.
For the kids, going on a trip with their dads alone was pretty unfamiliar. For the dads, they were clueless about how to even go and feed the kids; meals are meant to be prepared by the dads in the show. It was hilarious in the beginning to see the dads baffled about how to make rice, cook fish, or even wash vegetables.
The kids and dads have evolved during the time the show has been broadcast. The dads are more adept at cooking and taking care of the kids, the kids are more familiar with talking to their dads about their feelings and such. The parent-child bonding isn’t forced nor scripted, and all the duos have very different characters so there is always someone to whom you can relate, which explains the show’s extreme popularity.
Besides, the kids are super, super cute. Minguk, being the oldest and the intellect announcer’s son, is the most knowledgeable and eloquent; Jun, who is too young to be that cool but is, shows incredible leadership and bravery; Junsu makes everyone smile being cheerful, bubbly, and very mischievous; Hu, whose uber-cute eating scenes have literally pushed sales of certain foods to new heights; and Jia, the only girl, who is a total Daddy’s girl but not too frilly to act like a boss from time to time.
There even was a family special when the kids’ siblings went along for the trip, and the siblings’ popularity along with ratings, shot through the roof. People are saying the show should revamp a bit, but even keeping its current format, it’s quite certain it’ll be on air for quite a long time.
Law of the Jungle (정글의 법칙) on SBS
So this show has been around since the autumn of 2011, after I wrote that initial post. It didn’t take a lot of time to garner people’s attention, though. The show centers around the comedian Kim Byung-man (김병만) and his “tribe” as they explore unfamiliar “jungles” around the world. It’s a sort of survival reality show starring entertainers without the “playing games” aspect, which is prominent in most Korean variety shows.
Kim’s tribe features regular members and new members for each destination. They are currently on their eighth trip, this time to the Himalayas. They have been to places such as Namibia, Vanuatu, and Madagascar in the past, not necessarily all “jungles”, but you have to take the title as a metaphor for “away from urban civilization”. It’s like watching a nature documentary featuring a bunch of clueless city folk, which creates hilarity in itself, but also educational. You are introduced to other cultures, and there are sobering moments when you see the members suffer and trying to deal with the elements.
Kim is famous for being a master (달인) at everything. There is seriously nothing the man can’t do. Martial arts, gymnastics, pantomime, slapstick comedy, but he also possesses mad survival skills such as building shelters, fishing, hunting, even climbing trees. He always had said he was a country boy but not all country boys are quite that skilled. It’s amazing to watch how easily he makes things with the things he finds in the vicinity; I remember an episode when he made a children’s swing set out of tree branches and vines, much to the amazement of not only his tribe, but a real tribe in the jungles of South America whom they were visiting. He is also rather fearless, which comes in handy when all the other city bumpkin members are freaking out.
For the viewers, you can vicariously live the adventurous life through the TV screen, safely in the comfort of your fully equipped home, which is probably the basis of the show’s popularity. It is also interesting to see how certain celebrities react in true life situations, stripped of all their comforts. I especially think the female celebrities are hardcore, not only because it’s extremely physically exhausting, but also because they are shown without any trace of makeup. (In close-up! Who would’ve thought a Korean actress/singer would be brave enough to do so?)
The show has been criticized for staging the “jungle-ness” and hardships, and the program director has frankly admitted the dramatic factor may be exaggerated at times, but then, it’s a variety show and not a documentary, so that is to be expected. Most viewers can tell the reactions of the members are genuine, and with new destinations to follow, I predict this show will be around for a while.
Real Man (진짜 사나이) on MBC
The official English title is the singular “man”, but it’s actually “men” we’re talking about. In Korea, you’re not a “real man” until you’ve completed your mandatory military service. It is something we Korean women don’t have to go through, and there’s even a saying that if you want to bore your girlfriend senseless you can talk about the military or football, or playing football in the military, but that doesn’t mean women are insensitive about it. Korean men sacrifice approximately two years of their young lives learning how to be prepared for war and all of us have dads, brothers, sons, relatives, and friends who’ve done their service; it’s a basic part of Korean life. There’s even a word to describe “someone who has completed his military service”: 군필자. But what really goes on? What is everyday life like for a soldier?
Every Korean man I know who has done his military service shudders at the thought of doing it again, but some entertainers thought they just might do it for a TV show. After all, it’s a variety “show”, so it can’t be “real”, can it? Boy, did they think wrong.
“Real Man” basically threw a bunch of celebrities into a military unit as the lowest ranked private – who cares whether some had already completed their service or not – and just let the cameras roll. They were expected to go through all the training like any other soldier doing his service (although the schedules must’ve been changed a bit to accommodate them). They weren’t getting any special treatment at all; they were even sharing barracks with regular, non-celebrity soldiers, and had to answer to the senior ranked officers as any other junior would, even if the senior was practically half their age. (Age is important in Korea, as you know.) The show stars actor Kim Soo-ro (김수로), comedian Seo Kyeong-seok (서경석), actor Ryu Soo-young (류수영), comedian Sam Hammington, singer/actor Son Jin-young (손진영), and recently added actor Jang Hyuk (장혁) and K-pop idol Park Hyung-sik (박형식) of ZE:A to the cast. With the exception of Park and Hamminton, everyone has already completed their service, albeit years ago for Kim and Seo, who are in their 40s. In fact, Park is the only “young one” in the group. Son is nearing thirty and the rest are in their 30s, so watching them go through the rigorous training is just plain interesting.
In the case of Sam Hammington, who is Australian, it is even more incredible, because it’s just unfamiliar ground. He is quoted as saying that “the army isn’t like what it looks like in the movies” during one of the earlier broadcasts. Watching a non-Korean trying to adapt to what is one of the most relentless authoritarian social settings that can ever be is immensely fascinating. Granted, Hammington has lived in Korea for quite a while and is fluent in Korean, so he’s rather Koreanized and familiar with the sense of hierarchy and order, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be moments of conflict.
It’s not only Hammington, either. Conflict arises everywhere. The older newbies are reliving their service days while trying to adapt to new systems, keeping up with the younger men, and also be on the receiving end of orders. The others are also trying to blend in with the regular soldiers, while those who haven’t experienced military life are just trying not to collapse.
Because no one, I repeat, no one, is slacking off. No one is goofing around because this is a variety show. No one is cracking jokes unless it’s down time. No one is taking this not seriously.
Doesn’t mean that the show is a documentary, though. The men stay for a week at a certain military unit, and during that time they not only go through various types of training (some of which are hardcore), but also go through lots of male bonding; among themselves, and among the regular soldiers. Because the show features people with distinct characters of different ages and backgrounds, it’s interesting to watch the social dynamics unfold in such a restricted environment, and they all know how to have fun when they have the time.
Special “army only” concocted food has also been a scene stealer, especially in the case of Hammington who seems to fall in love with every new food as it shows up. (Banana latte, anyone?) He, like the kid Hu of “Daddy, where are we going”, is being noted as the new star in TV food scenes. You really want to eat whatever he is eating on the show after watching.
So, “Real Man”? For men, it’s a show to revive their memories (good and bad) of military service, or a glimpse into what is to come; for women, it’s a view into a world which is an essential part of our lives, but at the same time, alien. A show which tells us what it takes to become a “real man”, which is much more than just knowing how to shoot a gun or rappel headfirst into the ground.
Immortal Song 2 (불후의 명곡 2) on KBS
To be truthful, you really can’t call this show a newcomer. In fact, it has been around since 2007, but the new format started in late 2011. (Thus the “2”.) The ratings were sluggish in the beginning in the new format (probably due to being pitted against a top show at that time), but has been steadily rising since then and has entered the stable phase.
The show is basically a song competition. Not with “regular”, “normal” people, but with actual singers, entertainers, and K-pop idols who are confident about their singing chops. Each week, two acts are pitted against one another while covering a song from a Korean music legend. The legend might be a singer, band, or songwriter and they are usually present to see the groups compete and give their comments. However, the winner is decided by the studio audience, who give their votes right after the performances. The show is set up like a tournament, with the winner of each round advancing until someone gets a higher vote and knocks them out.
What is interesting about the show is that you see the groups preparing from the get-go: how they decide the song, how they arrange the original song, with whom they collaborate, how they put the whole act together. The groups are unaware who their opponent is going to be until right before they go on stage, so that adds to the suspense.
The show has introduced some interesting new arrangements and interpretations of legendary songs, and also some very interesting collaboration groups. Recently, hip hop dancer Poppin Hyun Joon (팝핀현준) and his wife Park Ae-ri (박애리), who is a traditional Korean changgeuk performer delivered a stunning version of Arirang and several members from the top 4 K-pop boybands of the ‘90s created a project group “HOTsechgodRG” (핫젝갓알지) for a performance to make all fangirls happy. The show debunks the rumor that current K-pop idols are all show and no substance quite well.
The history of Korean popular music goes further back than what is called K-pop these days, so there are much more songs and legends to be introduced to the younger generation while bringing back fond memories for the older ones. The show also showcases great singers who don’t fit into other music shows but who definitely deserve a chance to be on national TV. Not necessarily “new” singers, but those who are underappreciated and yet to be fully discovered by the main public. I’ve discovered new faces thanks to this show, and the spectrum of my music listening has been broadened.
SNL Korea on tvN
So it’s not killing the ratings in the whole scheme of things, but considering it’s on cable, SNL Korea is creating lots of buzz, in media and on social networks. SNL Korea is the Korean version of the American variety show SNL (Saturday Night Live), and it’s being quite faithful to the original format so far. I was skeptical about how satire would be portrayed, especially political satire, but due to the fact that this show is on cable and not on public airwaves makes a huge difference. (So much so that some spoofed politicians and celebrities have threatened to sue, which proves that the show if making good use of satire.)
The main cast of comedians led by the ever sarcastic and “adult humor genius” Shin Dong-yup (신동엽) are doing a brilliant job, and I was also surprised how some of the starring guests have jumped in wholeheartedly at poking fun of themselves; the episodes with members of K-pop idols HOT and Shinhwa are legend. It is quite risqué, has its cringe-worthy moments at times, and not quite mainstream, but considering this is Korea, I still regard this show a great success.
I am not going to rehash this list; not much has changed in the shows’ formats since 2011. (Go check out the original post.) Gag Concert (개그콘서트, KBS), Infinite Challenge/ Infinity Challenge (무한도전, MBC), Running Man (런닝맨, SBS), Quiz that Changes the World (세바퀴, MBC), and 1 Day, 2 Nights (1박 2일) are still going strong.
Among the above, Running Man has gained popularity since 2011, and I believe is quite popular in other Asian countries. Although Song Joong-ki (송중기) and Lizzy (리지) are gone, the rest of the original cast is still there and carrying on. On the other hand, although 1 Day, 2 Nights is still doing okay in the ratings, it is no longer the untouchable one to catch. There has been a cast and production crew change; most notably main comedian Kang Ho-dong (강호동) and main program director Na PD (나PD) are no longer with the show, which some say is the reason for its decline.
THE ONE TO WATCH
Halbae over Flowers (꽃보다 할배) on tvN
Saying that this is the most anticipated variety show of the year would be an understatement. The show’s program director is none other than the famous Na PD who directed the original “1 Night, 2 Days” during its golden age.
“Halbae” would translate into something like “Gramps” or “Grandpa”. The official English name might use the proper word “grandfather” but that isn’t the nuance the Korean word portrays. It’s commonly used in Gangwon-do and Gyeongsangnam-do dialect, but for others not in those regions, it’s a word that evokes familiarity and closeness.
The show features four of the most revered Korean “grandpa” actors, actors whom every Korean has seen during their lifetime: Lee Sun-jae (이순재), Park Geun-hyeong (박근형), Shin Goo (신구), and Baek Il-seob (백일섭). If you’re a Korean drama or movie fan, you’ve probably seen all of them, even if not familiar with their names. Like the F4 idols of “Boys over Flowers” fame, these grandpas are being hailed as the “H4”; H for halbae, of course. Since they are already popular as great actors – yes, they all are great actors, unlike some actors today – the show has already garnered m.uch attention even before its first broadcast.
The grandpas will be backpacking – first trip is to Europe – which is something I’m sure they have never, ever done before. The crew will have very little intervention so they will have to rely on their own wit and senses. They are all over 70 years old, which probably made the production crew nervous about the physical demand such a trip would ensue for elder celebrities used to a luxurious lifestyle. Their solution? They have attached the “young” 42 year old actor Lee Seo-jin (이서진) to the group and are introducing him as the “porter/ baggage carrier” in the promos. There’s a teaser promo video which shows that Lee was tricked into being in the show; he thought he was going on a European trip to film a show with girl K-pop idols. (Ha! Brilliant ploy on Na PD’s part.) Lee will probably be doing all the maknae (막내, youngest) duties with a group of actor senior, really senior, seniors. Which not only puts the crew at ease, but also the viewers. We grew up with these grandpas; we don’t want them to suffer (too much) or have anything bad happen to them, so having Lee on board is great.
The show’s first broadcast is on July 5th, 2013. The only downside is that it is on cable.
Comparing with the list from 2011, some shows are still being broadcast but have fallen off the popularity list, while some are just gone. I haven’t mentioned certain new shows because despite having “power casting”, they’re not power showing in the ratings, nor creating much interest outside the existent fanbase of the K-pop idols on the show. (There is almost always a K-pop idol on a new Korean variety show.) Some just flopped and were quickly whisked away to the Land of the Forgotten, some are just simply struggling. But this can change. As I’ve mentioned before, TV Land changes fast. Only the first half of 2013 has passed. Who knows? I might have to write a completely different post at the end of the year.
*All photos are from the official sites
*Romanization of names follows the official spelling of the celebrities
Top 10 Korean Variety Shows 2011 http://blog.korea.net/?p=4201