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Makjang riles up Korean TV watchers: The scandalous morning soap operas are criticized for promoting stereotypes

Dec 06,2018
이미지뷰
Left: a character on the SBS daily series “Happy Sisters” reacts as doenjang, a soy bean paste, is thrown at his face. Right: the CEO of a conglomerate, left in white hat, yells at his granddaughter after realizing she was adopted on the MBS show “Secrets and Lies.” [SBS, MBC]
Although K-dramas are a driving force behind the spread of Korean popular culture around the globe, there are several dramas that specialize in going way over the top - known locally as “makjang dramas.”

The word “makjang” refers to daily soap operas that jump the shark by using ridiculous scenes to keep viewers hooked.

A dive into 14 daily soap operas aired over the past year by the three major broadcasting companies - SBS, KBS2 and MBC - reveals that most of them repeatedly include cliched tropes and outrageous scenes such as birth secrets, memory loss, adultery, fatal illnesses and planned murders.

Thirteen out of 14 of these dramas involved scenes in which the lead characters were shocked after learning that their parents were not their biological parents. This is exactly what happens in one scene during KBS2’s “Lady Cha Dal-rae’s Lover,” after one of the characters realizes that his kind and caring mother is actually his stepmother. On MBC’s “Secrets and Lies,” the CEO of a conglomerate kicks his granddaughter out of his home when he realizes for the first time in 20 years that she has been adopted.

Scenes related to adultery and murder also appear in 12 of the dramas, or 86 percent. On SBS’ “Happy Sisters,” a doctor gets caught in an affair with another woman by his wife and is ordered to perform a hysterectomy on the woman.

In the currently airing KBS2 series “Love to End,” the ambitious businesswoman played by actor Hong Soo-ah gets involved in assault, kidnapping and even murder.

Recently, a viewer posted on the drama’s official website criticizing the show’s inappropriate scenes.

“I don’t understand why a public broadcaster is airing such [violent scenes] at a time when families gather together to watch television,” the person wrote.

Themes of memory loss, 10 dramas, and incurable illnesses, 6 dramas, were also common in the series.

According to a screenwriter, the reason why public broadcasters feature such extreme or cliched themes in their daily soap operas has a lot to do with how long the shows air.

“Daily dramas usually contain 100 to 120 episodes, which air for five to six months straight. Even though a month’s worth of episodes are filmed in advance, we have to write a week’s worth of scripts every week. It’s especially hard to think of creative ideas when we are behind schedule and are in a rush to write the scripts. That’s when we usually end up using those cliches like birth secrets and sudden memory loss.”

Some point out that these themes spark increases in viewership.

“When our ratings reach a standstill and we reveal the truth behind [a character’s] birth, there is a sudden increase in viewership,” said a drama producer with 20 years of experience. “Even though we agree not to use makjang elements prior to the filming of the series, we often end up discussing who to kill when our ratings are not high enough.”

According to another drama producer, “Dramas are usually obsessed with trying to show something [that hooks people’s attention.] [We usually] get impatient when we think about our viewers changing channels for boring storylines.”

But not everyone criticizes makjang dramas. Daily dramas originate from American radio dramas sponsored by soap manufacturers in the 1920s. Their simple storylines with outrageous yet comedic themes were highly appealing to the working class, who were worn out by the end of the day from their jobs.

“Screenwriters of daily soap operas are all experienced and skilled,” said a drama screenwriter. “[The good part of] cliched topics is that they keep people hooked in the storyline without boring them. It’s sort of a promise.”

The writer added, “In some ways, they are didactic because they make clear distinctions between the good and the evil while entertaining people at the same time.”

According to drama critic and professor at Chungnam National University Yun Seok-jin, “Viewers feel relief and a sense of superiority when watching the ‘evil person’ get punished.”

But it remains difficult to see all of the cliches in a positive light.

“What was considered makjang in the past now seems to be the basic elements of a play,” said culture critic Kim Gyo-seok. “I’m worried that these cliched elements will contaminate the drama market if they keep appearing on daily dramas.”

The viewership of the daily soap operas on the three major broadcasters is currently on a steady decline. According to reports by data analytics company Nielsen Korea, the drama with the highest ratings reached 23.7 percent last year on KBS2 but only 15.7 percent this year. At SBS, the number has fallen from 14.5 percent to 10.3 percent. MBC’s series “Person Who Gives Happiness” which aired from November 2016 to May 2017 was not successful - reaching only 10.9 percent of viewership - but neither were the series that followed it, like “Return of the Lucky Pot” (14.3 percent), “Enemies from the Past” (12.4 percent) and the currently-airing “Secrets and Lies” (11.5 percent).

These broadcasters tend to “share” their viewers by airing their daily dramas at different times. For instance, MBC’s “Secrets and Lies” reruns are at 7:50 a.m., followed by the SBS series “I Am the Mother Too” at 8:40 a.m. and KBS2’s “Lady Cha Dal-rae’s Lover” at 9 a.m.

The same applies to dramas that run at night. Since March, MBC has stopped airing morning dramas and instead played reruns of their nighttime daily series.

According to drama critic Gong Hui-jeong, “The cliche of birth secrets has distorted the way people think about remarriage with stepmothers or stepfathers. I understand the [intentions] and the role of daily soap operas, but they should really restrict the usage of raunchy and violent cliches.”

BY NOH JIN-HO [yeo.yerim@joongang.co.kr]