Drama series focus on the unemployed, underprivileged

Anna Park, Oct. 18, 2016, 10:24 a.m.

Viewers respond to TV shows that depict youths’ plights 

In “Drinking Solo,” newbie lecturer Park Han-na struggles to capture students’ attention in the cutthroat world of Korean private education while pursuing romance with her co-worker. Kim Dong-young, one of her pupils, crams every day to pass the exhausting state exam that will reward him with a stable job as public servant, all the while working part time so as not to burden his lower-middle class family. 

Recent television shows are nabbing viewers by spotlighting the plight of Koreans today.

As the country’s growth rate stagnates in the 2 percent range and last year’s youth employment rates clocked in at 26.9 percent, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, viewers are responding to the less-than-rosy but honest portrayals of reality.

The setting of “Drinking Solo” -- which began airing Mondays and Tuesdays last month on cable network tvN -- is Noryangjin in Seoul, the mecca of private institutions that specialize in classes for civil service exams. There, students study into the night for years at a time with no promise of success, consoling themselves with cheap food and drinks. Highly relatable to the 20s to 30s demographic, the show boasts an average of 4 percent viewership, according to Nielsen Korea, a solid figure for a cable series.

Korean dramas have been tracing the hardships of life at the workplace for several years now. Successful shows in this category include 2013’s “Queen of the Office,” starring Kim Hye-soo as an all-competent part-time worker, and 2014’s “Misaeng,” featuring Im Si-wan as a struggling, underprivileged office worker. “Misaeng” has now become an icon of modern Korea, often referenced by tired salarymen.

Another recent series exploring the feverishly competitive nature of the Korean workplace is “Jealousy Incarnate,” which began airing Wednesdays and Thursdays on SBS in August and is available to international viewers on streaming site Viki.

The central character is weather broadcaster Pyo Na-ri, played by Gong Hyo-jin, whose dream of becoming a news anchor was initially foiled by her third-rate college education and lack of connections and money. Despite her insecurities, Pyo perseveres in the workplace, gritting her teeth amid unfair treatment.

The show is currently scoring a decent 11.7 percent viewership, according to Nielsen Korea.

The limelight on the downtrodden “reflects the current state of society,” according to culture critic Jung Deok-hyun. Considering that “the genre of TV drama series is especially sensitive to current trends,” the popularity of shows like “Drinking Solo” is a testament to what kind of social issues ail viewers the most, he noted.

One thing that makes these recent series stand apart from those in the past is their “stark realism,” according to drama critic Yoon Seok-jin. “Before, Korean dramas would paint a romantic picture of life despite the hardships. Now, it’s more about showing life as it is.” 

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