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IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

In hindsight, it's quite hard to imagine the state of the K-drama blogosphere in 2002, when I started writing about this strange, at the time rather arcane world. Sure, the industry had been making inroads into Southeast Asia for a good couple of years with the puppy love dramas of Yoon Seok-Ho and Choi Ji-Woo's star vehicles. But short of pockets of the Asian-American community on Soompi.com and the occasional curious westerner, a precious few were aware of the fact that South Korea had a vibrant TV industry; that its people were completely obsessed with the medium, enough to watch dramas in droves (with ratings more often than not crossing the 50% mark); and that its maturation wasn't one of the new perks of the democratization movement in the early 1990s, but had actually started decades before.

13 years later, and if I had to describe the feeling it would probably be akin to what my grandma felt seeing street lights amidst the rubble in the deep countryside, in the aftermath of WWII. Korean dramas on Hulu, having dedicated channels in Japan, making tens of billions of won in exports every year. And with it the sheer number of blogs, communities, magazines and newspapers talking about Korean dramas. A bit overwhelming, you'll agree. That the Hallyu (Korean Wave) that once swept Asian shores like a tsunami has transformed into a smaller creek that keeps flowing at a slower but pretty consistent rate, it should be acknowledged by most honest fans of the medium. “We've” gone from a bestseller to a steady one, which is not always a bad thing, at least in my view. But one thing's been rather missing in all this fervor for these strangely charming, often unnerving dramas: a greater sense of perspective.

I've always been fascinated by how for a country with such rich and interesting history, its inhabitants are rather uninterested in the past – in any facet of life, all the more reason when it comes to popular art. Worse yet, once something stops being a “current” event, it is relegated to oblivion so quickly that you wonder whether Koreans are truly interested in dramas, or merely obsessed with the frenzy of the moment that a popular (and often populist) event show generates – a bit like a fiend slowly but surely being desensitized by the whole addiction process. Perhaps because I'm a history buff first and foremost, I always found this rather disrespectful towards the medium. What does the present become without putting it into a greater context, if not fleeting emotions in a vacuum? Feelings that can never be assessed properly when you're actually experiencing them; moments that need a certain detachment to be understood, a sense of purpose that goes beyond the frenzy of the moment. For that to work you need context, cultural and social at that. You need to understand what animates Koreans outside of that TV box at the moment to truly comprehend why or as a result of what a show becomes an event. But without a firm foundation in history that is nearly impossible.

Have you noticed throughout all this Korean Wave “bubble” how rarely “pundits” ever talk about this industry before 2004, when 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) swept Hong Kong and 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata) began creating marital issues in Japan? How so precious few people will stop a moment to consider that maybe the auteur theory works for television as well, and a writer or producer's past work inevitably influences whatever is coming next. You'll hear of random dramas and stars, but never in a cohesive narrative that creates a sense of history. This will sound like back-patting of the highest order, but I believe that in the last twenty years only two “outfits” strayed off that path: the crew responsible for Korea's first ever TV drama print magazine, Dramatique.

And, well. Me?

Nobody is claiming that my opinion is a bit “more equal” than the others. It's just as flawed and limited in its scope. But with more experience comes the ability to understand context, to connect themes, to put things into perspective in a way that someone who's only watched K-dramas for a few years can't. After 23 long years of dealing with my love-hate relationship with K-drama – after subtitling countless shows, writing about them online and in print for over a decade, and even befriending industry people -- I think I have a vague idea of how this world works. Just a vague one. So why not do what I always wanted to do, but never really had the time or was prepared to do in the past? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the first real Encyclopedia of K-drama. It might work a bit like Wikipedia in the sense that as the site grows you'll be immersed in a gigantic hypertext world. But the difference is that one guy is doing all the work – which means lots of work for me, but also consistency. What you see now are just recent entries. But in the upcoming months and years you'll see not only links leading to cast and crew profiles, to timeslot histories, to past rating records. To every single drama that has even been broadcast on Korean TV, most of them (at least from the mid 1980s onwards) reviewed at least in brief, and as complete as you'll ever find on the Internet.

That's the point. You can find bits and pieces of what this site will feature in other places on the net. Sometimes even in English. But one site to put all this info together, in an easy to access way? One site that can connect the dots and finally create that historical linearity, that sense of perspective this industry so badly needed? This is the first. The only one.

Not saying it's for everyone. Just for the smart fan…

THE SCORING

Tired of hearing "this is awesome!" for everything, random 10s thrown at middling fare, or lack of any consistency in grading shows? We've got a pretty effective way of rating dramas and movies made of four categories, on a 1~100 scale (with 1 obviously being ungodly crap, and 100 the Holy Grail):

  • PRODUCTION: not only production values (cinematography, editing, music, CG, action choreography, lighting), but also the director's touch in handling performances, and how cohesively he manages to translate text into visuals.
  • WRITING: scripts mean a lot more in the realm of TV dramas than they do in a world dominated by visual storytelling like film is, but it always helps to have a coherent, cohesive narrative with clear thematic consciousness and depth. You'll see that storytelling that has lasting power and characterization that scratches the surface is often rewarded, while tonal shifts and pandering to the audience are vilified.
  • ACTING: it's not about Oscar performances, but how well the actors manage to imbue what the script and everything surrounding it managed to create. It's the ability to gel with one's one characterization and the ensemble cast that surrounds him.
  • INTANGIBLES: anything not immediately quantifiable by the previous three categories. It could be the zany pizzazz of a black comedy, the enveloping pathos of a drama, the kinetic charisma of an action film. Some works are a lot more than the sum of their parts, and this is here to account for that. It is, needless to say, the most subjective of all three categories.

An average of the four categories gives us the final, overall score.

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