[Changing Tastes] I’m sorry for ever doubting you, family dramas
Father Is Strange
When initially planning out the theme for this month, I had family dramas on the mind; I’ve been gravitating toward them in the past year or two in a way that surprised me, because I’ve long been overwhelmingly a fan of 16-episode miniseries. Short and sweet, with just enough time to explore a central conceit, blow it up into conflict, resolve it, and move on to the next show. It was enough of a stretch to get into 24-episode dramas—50 hours were just too much commitment for a genre I’ve always thought of as less innovative, less exciting, and less engaging than the sexy miniseries format. I wanted the young, trendy, energetic stories of rom-coms, of the sort that careened from one hilarious shenanigan to another and launched Hallyu sensations.
But the more I thought of the reasons for the shift in my own watching tastes, the more I felt like it was a longer journey than simply a yearlong detour into family-weekender waters, and that ever since starting this site ten years ago, my tastes have been shifting. Partly it’s because I have more dramas under my belt now; I’ve dabbled in genres I hadn’t before, and found something to like in almost every category. Partly it’s also that I’ve grown up, and while the foibles of early adulthood make for cute rom-com hijinks, you start craving more diversity, more life experiences to live out vicariously through the beautiful people of dramaland. And partly it’s been that the very act of analyzing dramaland has changed the way I analyze it.
There’s something very distinct that changes in the way you watch a drama to recap it, and I have found that most of the time it enhances the viewing process—good shows seem even better when close examination reveals intelligent planning or thoughtful writing, for instance. On the flipside of that, of course, bad shows often come off worse under the added scrutiny; what you might gloss over in a casual watch becomes glaring when it becomes your job to describe in detail what’s happening. (Occasionally a bad show will yield the so-bad-it’s-funny type of recap experience, which is a much-appreciated way of turning something painful into something entertaining, but also sort of the white unicorn of recapping experiences.)
When I was the only writer running Dramabeans, my personal tastes in shows largely dictated what I chose to recap, but there was also a vague, mild sense of pressure that I ought to also cover shows that drew the most interest, that most people would be interested in following. I never picked up a show I felt I would dislike, but this approach did lead me down some rocky paths and terrible shows. I can’t say I’ve ever regretted a decision to watch or recap anything, and sometimes you learn the most from watching someone do something badly, pointing out in giant (figurative) neon lights what exactly not to do with a drama if you want to retain interest.
That said, the best part about having a staff is feeling freedom from that expectation; I feel satisfied knowing that there’s breadth of coverage without necessarily being obligated to provide it personally. Because there’s a huge difference between watching television because you want to, and watching it because you feel you have to! I consider it a privilege to be able to watch TV as a job, but let me tell you, it’s a depressing thing to have the strain of your job kill your joy for one of your biggest pleasures. Reclaiming that pleasure has been key (to keeping my sanity, and also keeping this site going).
Sons of Sol Pharmacy
But, back to family dramas, which prompted this whole ramble in the first place. There’s something incredibly comforting in the familiarity brought by a genre where so many of its offerings follow the exact same format, employ the same template of characters, and draw from the same pool of tropes and plot scenarios. People often speak of coloring inside the lines as though that’s a bad thing—as though the true picture resides outside of established lines. (Never mind that flouting discernible shape makes the resulting picture unintelligible!) But there’s skill in playing with rules and creating engaging narrative out of familiar stories, and nowhere do you see that more at play than in the tried-and-true weekend family format.
I find such a wild variance of quality within the family drama format that I can’t believe I ever painted them all with the same brush. Some are absolutely trite, tired, makjang-fests of dislikable characters and ridiculous plots, although one could say that of any other genre, really. Others are buoyant and charming, and manage to feel fresh even with all those familiar setups, and I’d argue that those familiarities deepen the sense of comfort we derive from these shows; we can feel safe within the confines of this genre and relax into the characters and everyday conflicts. And while family dramas are almost never without romance (often multiple romances, often one for every twenty- or thirty-something main character), I appreciate that they take the time to explore other types of love relationships, because not everything in real life is about romantic love.
I grew up with an endless stream of family dramas playing in the household, but it wasn’t really until 2009’s Sons of Sol Pharmacy that I felt in one that sense of addiction and excitement that I’d only felt with miniseries before. It had the sprawling family that you saw in every other show of its kind, with multiple generations of relatives living under one giant roof, with four siblings at the center (four tends to be a popular number in this genre) navigating careers, family conflicts, and lovelines. But it also had that extra spark that made it a particularly cheerful, humorous experience, using its conflicts to move the story but not wallowing in them.
I guess you could say I’ve been chasing that high ever since, sometimes getting entangled in a series of mediocre shows in the process, though it always feels worth the effort when you stumble on an Ojakkyo Brothers or a Father Is Strange. It led me to this/last year’s more lackluster Father, I’ll Take Care of You (again with four siblings, multiple generations, and career and romance foibles—but lacking the spark), which is why following a writer from one show to another isn’t always a surefire bet. Another case in point: I found Three Brothers low-key charming and took up King’s Family from the same writer, which was probably among of the worst-written dramas I’ve seen, although it had the grace to be over-the-top nutty in a way that made it absurdly entertaining. (The writer’s next weekender, Our Gap-soon, was not so lucky.)
Father, I’ll Take Care of You
What makes these dramas such comfort food for me is because sometimes you want to be able to engage with something emotionally without necessarily straining to follow it intellectually. That doesn’t mean these shows are dumb, of course, but rather that they speak to a different source of gratification. I think there’s often an impulse to defend one’s choices, because we see taste as an indicator of discernment, or maybe even intelligence. (When really, taste is just taste!) Or maybe there’s that urge to label something a guilty pleasure before someone else has the chance to put it down, or to feel hurt when others don’t have the same warm reactions. I regret ever wasting time thinking along those lines, because life’s too short to make choices based on what other people might think of them, and I’m already busy enough trying to watch the things I want to watch!
Because that kind of thinking presupposes that we all watch television for the same reasons, to be challenged intellectually and stimulated by complex characters and thoughtful plots and Oscar-level performances. Really, though, entertainment is its own end, and we’re all free to define what entertains us as we see fit. There’s no absolute standard for entertainment; anything that makes me feel and react is something to be valued. If I could do any one thing with Dramabeans, it’s to empower us all to embrace what makes us happy and what we enjoy. Whether that’s brain-twisting complexity, insightful character developments, goofy romances, or family dramas that provide a cocoon of comfort and make you feel at home.
Father Is Strange