Where Have All the Good K-dramas Gone?

When I started blogging about K-dramas five years ago, K-dramas as a whole were new and shiny and exciting. Sure, I knew some of them were completely ridiculous (Lee Min Ho's Boys over Flowers hair comes to mind), but they were charming and addicting in a way that was different from most of the American shows I watched. I have a distinct memory of sitting on my couch over Thanksgiving break, unshowered at 3:00 p.m., hitting "play" on the next episode of Coffee Prince, and loving every minute of it.

For the last year, I've lost that K-drama–loving feeling a little. So what happened? Is it me getting jaded and overthinking a genre I used to enjoy? Is drama quality really going downhill? Or are external forces impacting the way international fans interact with dramas? Maybe all of the above?

First, a disclaimer: I'm coming at this post from the perspective of a K-drama fan living in the United States. I know my experience accessing and discussing K-dramas differs from that of local Korean viewers or even other international fans across the world. I'm just observing how the landscape in my region has impacted fans and viewers here.

Are K-dramas Getting Worse?

Tough to say. I can't remember the last drama I absolutely adored from start to finish and couldn't wait for the next episode (Radiant Office, maybe?), but it's been at least a year. Everything since then has ranged from moderately enjoyable to "You are a garbage writer who writes garbage finales." 

K-drama trends
I don't care about doctors. Ditto lawyers. But if there's one thing I know about K-dramas, it's that they loooooove trends, and doctors and lawyers were the two hottest trends of the last couple of years. 

Who can really blame the networks for airing legal drama after legal drama when those were the only shows pulling in higher-than-lackluster domestic ratings? From the sounds of it, some of those legal dramas last year had truly stellar headlining talent, but no amount of Ji Sung is going to convince me that "Let's watch everything go wrong for 20 episodes while some rich baddies get away with rich baddie stuff" is my cup of tea. And that's mostly okay. 

But would it be the worst thing in the world to give me a smart, funny, thoughtful romcom starring Jung Kyung Ho and Han Groo? (I will take Jung Kyung Ho and Go Ah Sung in Life on Mars in a pinch, though.)

Pickier viewing

I also have to own that my drama tastes have probably changed over time. I can think of a bunch of dramas I binged start to finish early in my drama-watching days that I would drop immediately now (*cough*Prosecutor Princess*cough*). I'm definitely pickier nowadays, probably because I've had a chance to watch some really, truly fantastic shows in the meantime.

Plus there was the novelty factor. Before Secret Garden, I had never seen a show that actually used amnesia as a plot device—after seeing shows like Nice Guy that go for the double amnesia, it starts to get a little eyeroll-worthy.

I also have to remind myself that there's a bit of time bias at play here. It's like those people who insist that all music from [insert decade of choice here] was sooooo much better than what we have today, but they forget that only the best stuff continues to get airtime. You think everyone in the 1780s was a Mozart? Nah—we just stopped listening to all the washouts.

The same goes for K-dramas. It's easy for viewers (or me, at least) to romanticize dramas of past years when I had the ability to pick and choose from a vast library of content that came before. There are plenty of pre-2012 dramas I haven't watched because they got terrible reviews. Now, though, I've already picked through most of the shows people regularly rave about, and I'm left narrowing in on the currently airing dramas—of course it's going to seem like there aren't as many standouts to choose from.

2018 Battle of the K-drama Licensing Rights

Still, though, I had many of the same drama-watching habits back in 2014 and 2015, and I ran into a much higher proportion of high-quality simulcasts back then. There's a little more at play here than just changing habits.

Possibly one of the biggest hits to American K-drama fans over the last year has been a lack of legal access to shows. Yes, back in the K-drama days of yore, fans had to scour the internet, hoping that illegal fan sites would subtitle their favorite shows. But for as long as I've been a viewer, Viki and DramaFever managed to license and subtitle the vast majority of K-dramas. The immense uproar whenever a show didn't get picked up right away by either site was often a sign that we (American) K-drama fans really did have access to legal subs for most dramas.

In 2017, that changed. We saw both heavy-hitters losing out on licensing rights as the Big Three (KBS, SBS, and MBC) decided to branch off and form their own streaming service, Kocowa. Then, after a trend of licensing less and less K-drama content over the last few years, Netflix made a deal with cable provider JTBC to air much of its content exclusively. Initially, some fans took a "What's the issue with more streaming options?" mentality. As a cynic with some background knowledge of the K-drama licensing game, I wasn't as optimistic. 

Either way, we can now see some of the results over the last few months. Viki and DramaFever have both lost out on a fair amount of content, Viki ended up adding a higher-tier plan to allow access to some Kocowa content, tvN (which isn't part of the Kocowa trifecta) became a total crapshoot on whether anyone would get any of its shows, and anyone hoping to see JTBC dramas like Age of Youth 2 or Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food gets to sit and twiddle their thumbs, wondering when it will finally show up on Netflix. 

Or you can give up on all of that nonsense and find *ahem* alternative options that will probably give your computer the electronic version of syphilis. 

Sometimes I'll be lucky and find access to a show as it airs, but the farther we get from the premiere date, the less enthusiasm I feel to follow along. 

Dying Fan Discussions

When you fragment when the international fandom gets access to shows, you also fragment the discussion. Some people watch raw or scour the internet for illegal subs so they can follow along with the simulcast, while others end up waiting until weeks—or months—after the show first airs.

In a similar vein, if you poke around Dramabeans, you'll see that it's not nearly as active as it once was. I've read that the site has been struggling with technical difficulties over the last few months, so I'm definitely not implying they're under any obligation to publish more when they're busy fixing stuff. Still, Dramabeans is probably a first stop for many new K-drama fans, and when their recaps suddenly dwindle to one lone recapper, it's hard not to feel like no new shows are airing—or maybe that the new shows just aren't worth talking about.

I wouldn't have noticed any of this early in my K-drama days. I started out with fully complete dramas, and I didn't watch my first live drama for months. Now, though, I enjoy the hype of watching a show at the same time as everyone else and seeing how other fans react in real time before we all know how a series will end. When you're not sure who's watching what or where they're going to discuss it, some of that enthusiasm starts to fade.

Is It Just Me?

With all that being said, is it just me? Or has anyone else been feeling the same sense of drama malaise of late? If I'm just not watching the right shows, let me know so we can get through the drought together!