Women Write About Comics was given the opportunity to watch the first two episodes of VIKI’s new series, Dramaworld, ahead of its release on Sunday, April 17th. Angel gives an overview of the show and its context while Aimee, Angel, Claire (who will go by “Real Claire” for this review, because the show stole her name), and I watched the episodes and broke down how we felt about the show thus far. We come from different backgrounds and have various experiences watching Korean dramas (or K-Dramas) so we ask ourselves: How well did Dramaworld do?
What are your first impressions of Dramaworld?
Angel: I wasn’t sure what to think when I first read the show synopsis and watched the trailer. As much as I appreciate the effort from the Korean and American teams, I’m much more interested in the Korean drama storylines than I am in Claire’s storyline.
Aimee: I’m not sure how I feel about Dramaworld: I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. The trailer gave me the impression that this series would be an enormous racist mess. However, after watching the first two episodes, while I still have some concerns, I found that, well, at least it wasn’t racist. The Korean storyline within Dramaworld seems interesting, but I don’t actually understand Claire’s storyline at all, and Claire as a character was so cringeworthy that often the series was hard to watch.
Ardo: When it was first announced, I was pretty excited. I had just started watching dramas from Japan and Korea around six months ago, and I would get some context from friends throughout my viewing experience. So a partnership between China, Korea, and the US to bring the attention of dramas to the wider audience in the West sounded intriguing. Overall, I thought it was an interesting show that got me to laugh, and I’d like to see how the rest of the season will look. I liked that they have an option for subtitles that not only provide English subtitles when Korean is being spoken, but also Korean subtitles for when English is spoken. At least in our advance copy.
Real Claire: I was perplexed. It seems pretty strange to change the format of the popular thing in order to celebrate its popularity—adding white Americans speaking English to a show as the bulk of the premise seems less “Korean drama,” more a new, different thing. Discovering the episodes were so short, and the semi-parodic sense I got from the melodrama in the opening “drama” montage, gave me more confidence in the project as an interesting concern, an original product, but didn’t restore much of what I got from the press copy. After the first episode, the series looked more to me like a study of fandom as coping mechanism, effectively a character profile of a person who is not happy with their life (I found Claire believable and sympathetic, if not as eloquent as a drama-about-dramas might need to really satisfy an analytical viewer like moi) more than a study or commentary on the phenomenon, specifically, of Western viewing of Korean dramas.
Korean dramas are both accessible to non-Korean viewers and deeply rooted in Korean culture. Dramaworld seems to be aiming for this same effect, with Claire’s entrance into her favourite Korean drama. What did you think of Claire and her place in this new space, and how she interacts with it?
Angel: I guess I’m trying to understand the rules of Dramaworld, in the sense of how do people end up there? Is Claire the first non-Korean person to be brought into Dramaworld? I’m not sure I’m going to get those answers within the show, so it’s challenging for me to understand how her existence is justified and why so much of the story rests on her shoulders.
Aimee: I’m not sure I actually understand the concept of Dramaworld. Dramaworld seems to exist parallel to the real world and requires facilitators to come in and help the drama move along when it is stuck, but little background on facilitators is provided. I don’t understand how they are chosen or how many there have been in the past. I also don’t understand why Seth, the one (Korean) facilitator Dramaworld already has, is not enough to keep things in Dramaworld moving. Why is Claire necessary at all? At one point in episode two, Claire directly asks this question, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an answer beyond, “Maybe there’s something special about you in particular?” But so far, the story has done little to explain why she may be “special” or important to this world, so I don’t know what to make of her foreign presence in this Korean space.
Ardo: Both Aimee and Angel have hit it on the head. I’m all for escapism and how we can use foreign media to help with that escapism in ways that our homegrown media may not. Claire obviously wants to escape her life. Granted, we’ve only seen the first two episodes, but those two episodes don’t really convince me of Claire’s presence over the other facilitator, Seth, played by Justin Chon (who I love). I do think that line, “Maybe you’re special,” does have a different weight to it when it’s directed at a white character surrounded by Korean characters especially a Korean character who seems to already fulfill the facilitator role.
Real Claire: I enjoyed the performances, and I am a fan, on the whole, of metafiction. “Person goes into thing they like” is a really fun premise (I remember a story I wrote when I was ten, which featured someone Just Like Me going from fighting mummies in a video game to fighting mummies IN a video game). I liked and enjoyed the diegesis—but I’m not able to disengage from my awareness of the white-centrism, especially since my introduction to K-Dramas has been entirely via the help, recommendations, and welcome of non-white Western viewers.
I think that this script has a lot of potential to reach devoted fans (the feeling of fandom is given a lot more focus in the second episode, as opposed to the feeling of needing fandom in the first) and to allow them, or I guess us (I feel older than the target audience? Dramaworld-Claire is around twenty; I’m twenty-nine), to reflect on fandom, on what they get out of their building fluency with story mechanisms, structures, and “tropes.” Claire, functionally, will be doing nothing more than ticking the boxes that make stories flow; enabling meet cutes, misunderstandings, etc. These are things that happen in stories—she’s doing the same thing as she would be as a fan outside of Dramaworld. Instead of yelling at a screen “go around the corner!!!” before the character goes around a corner, she’s anonymously ensuring that the character goes around the corner. She’s following “the rules,” (of K-drama) not, so far, making them. She’s not as much an active agent as somebody suggested to be special and different might regularly be. She’s not here to change K-Dramas, but to reify them. At least, by episode two.
As fiction about fan feeling, as an expression of audience gratification, as a series employing many Asian and Asian-American actors, it succeeds for me. A white girl named Claire. But I know that I’m not the one special chosen audience member, so it’s not for me to be like, “Yeah, tops.”
Real Claire mentioned the format of the show being different from actual Korean dramas and so: What did you think of the format, and do you think new viewers (in this case, Western viewers) could use this as a gateway into watching Korean dramas?
Angel: I find it hard to consider this question without a real understanding of the show’s objectives. If Dramaworld is meant to be a lighthearted introduction to Korean dramas and the fans that love them, then I think the length and format of the show is both an advantage and disadvantage. The short bursts are good to keep people watching, but they’re definitely not enough to really let the story go into any real depth. Some fans will love the little nods to their love for Korean dramas, while some—like me—will find it less than appealing because of the lack of meaningful commentary on why Western fans love Korean dramas.
I do find the commentary lacking, especially in its centering of a white woman in the story. The nature of the show means you’ve got to have even a little familiarity with Korean dramas to get the significance of Claire’s entrance into Dramaworld and why she loves them. When all we know about her character pre-Dramaworld is that she sees Korean dramas as an escape, that says more about her than it does about the appeal of the dramas themselves. That’s not a bad thing, but it switches the conversation from “Hey look at these Korean dramas and the wide range of things they do that are great!” to “They are a great escape for Western fans because they’re so different” without ever going into why.
Aimee: I think Dramaworld would need a serious change in direction for it to be a real gateway into watching Korean dramas for new viewers. My issue with the series so far is that I don’t think it makes K-Dramas seem interesting or inviting to someone unfamiliar with them—especially since Dramaworld is painting them as a “foreign” fantastical escape for Claire, rather than showcasing them as an actual medium of entertainment enjoyed by both Korean and non-Korean fans.
The way Dramaworld is set up is a huge reason why, if its purpose is to introduce a new audience to Korean dramas, I think it fails. Claire is meant to be someone the viewer sympathizes with, but her interest in Korean dramas appears so severe that I’m not sure someone would try to understand why she loves them so much, or why she turns to them in particular as an escape. What is it exactly that she likes about Korean dramas over other forms of entertainment? And what is Dramaworld trying to tell people specifically about Korean dramas and their viewers?
Dramaworld’s intention—since it is centered around a white, American girl—might be to illustrate that these dramas appeal to people beyond their national audience, but I don’t think Dramaworld does a good job of delving into this. Claire’s portrayal seems so extreme to me that it feels kind of insulting, as if she is the caricature of a foreign Korean drama fan. Her passion and enthusiasm for dramas isn’t what I found unbelievable—I also adore K-Dramas, and I can understand why Claire would turn to them for an escape. However, when the drama fan in your pro-drama series is too busy yelling at the characters in the drama she is watching to notice that someone is trying to rob her father’s restaurant there is a problem. Scenes like that make Claire’s interest in K-Dramas feel more like a parody than an actual appreciation, and I fear that Dramaworld will end up driving people away from K-Dramas and their fans instead of inspiring anyone to actually watch a Korean drama and discover for themselves why they charm so many people internationally.