But after burning through seven in the last few weeks, I think I've learned a few lessons about how Korean dramas work and why they are so popular.
1. They rely very heavily on plot formula. Every drama I've watched has followed the basic formula I outlined a couple of posts ago, with the seeming exception of Oh! My Lady! about an actor who falls in love with a woman who blackmails him to get a job with a theatrical production company (she learns he has an illegitimate daughter and helps him take care of her and keep her secret in exchange for him agreeing to star in a stage musical). Except that it, too, follows the formula. The difference is that the formula applies to his relationship with his daughter, not the romance with the older woman.
Lesson: Formulas work.
2. They rely on stock characters and situations. Out of the seven, four centered around show business as the main or secondary plot, with a possible fifth in Coffee House, with a novelist as the main character and another main character who becomes a writer on a radio show. Three featured a main romance between an older woman and younger man (though maybe Gumiho doesn't count, since she was a 500-year-old mystic creature). Five revolve around forbidden romance between rich man and poor woman. Three feature characters who find expression in food (two by learning to make great coffee, and a third who is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained patissiere).
Lesson: Stereotypes are shorthand that make people feel comfortable with the environment quickly.
3. Every character starts out as a stereotype, but almost every one--even minor characters--grows beyond it. Sometimes they cheat--Seung Yeon's family in Coffee House becomes much less cartoonish by the end, but we don't really see how or why--but even the worst characters are given moments of real human emotion.
Lesson: Stereotypes can't satisfy in the long run.
4. Character is everything. As stated before, the plots are formulaic and the situations are familiar. The budgets don't allow for spectacle. So character writing and performances have to carry everything, and this is where the Koreans shine.
I may still watch some now and then, but it's not going to consume all my time the way it has recently, which is good. I'm starting to put the pieces of my life back together, and I'm approaching this summer with a pretty positive attitude. The divorce process may kill that, but it will take a few months for it to finalize (got to get those numbers together this week--urgh), so my summer at least should be good.