How would you react if you were suddenly teleported into your favorite television show? It’s something we’ve all fantasized about, whether you’re wondering how you’d cope with a zombie outbreak like All of Us Are Dead, what it would be like to explore strange new worlds in Star Trek, or who you would fall in love with if you tumbled into Bridgerton. Who hasn’t wished their life was like television?
It’s not an abstract concept in Dramaworld. Claire Duncan (Liv Hewson) is tired of working for her father. Caught up in her new Korean drama, Taste of Love, she wishes her life was more like the will-they-won’t-they relationship of restaurant owner Joon Park (Sean Dulake) and sous chef Seo-yeon (Bae Noo-ri).
Claire fantasizes that Joon will swoop in and take her from her humdrum life, a fantasy that becomes reality when she literally falls into Dramaworld, a magical realm just beyond our screens in which all Korean dramas happen concurrently. The realm is separated by unseen forces and governed by strict rules, which includes a decree that all leading men must take hot, steamy showers at least once a series. When the stories ends, characters lose their memories and everything resets for the next set of dramas.
When Claire arrives, she’s quickly hustled away by Seth (Justin Chon), a facilitator whose job is to drive leads towards drama’s natural endpoint: True love’s kiss. But dramas aren’t playing out like they’re supposed to. Leading men aren’t catching women before they fall, no enemies are becoming lovers, and there’s not nearly enough karaoke. “There must be a reason for this incompetent white girl to be here,” Seth complains.
It appears Dramaworld has chosen Claire to set things right. Unless she and Seth can instigate true love’s kiss, Dramaworld will cease to exist. To do so, they need to drive Joon and Seo-yeon together, all while abiding by the rules of Dramaworld, which are based on K-Drama cliches. It’s fun, unpredictable, and incredibly weird.
Labeling K-Dramas as cookie-cutter is a little unfair, as the popularity of east-Asian media on western streaming platforms has largely dispelled the perception of Korean television as a monolith of easily identified tropes. Korean media has also embraced a greater breadth of genres, something Dramaworld addresses in Season 2. But Dramaworld’s mockery of its subject material feels like its comes from a place of love, and the recent success of drama Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha on Netflix shows that cliches remain a key part of Korean television.
As zany as Dramaworld is, like all good science-fiction it asks an important question. Amid the silliness, it makes viewers reflect on the power dynamic between an author and their characters. Fictional characters have no agency and, when you stop to consider the implications of Dramaworld, a realm in which outside forces govern every move, thought, and decision, it becomes horrifying.
The fallout from not being in control of your own actions is central to the plot of Dramaworld, especially in Season 2, when characters must confront whether living in Dramaworld means living at all. Is a world that robs people of their autonomy a world worth saving?
Dramaworld explores the illusion of agency in fiction, a concept that can be difficult to wrap your head around, in an accessible way that’s concealed in an otherwise light-hearted serial. Yes, this is a sci-fi show that deals with serious themes, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.
Creator Chris Martin described Dramaworld as “a gateway drug to K-Dramas.” But it’s more than that, serving as a perfect dissection of the tropes of Korean television past and present. Crucially, the parody never feels mocking, instead serving as an accessible backdrop to an examination of human self-determination and, as Liv Hewson suggested in an interview with Rama’s Screen, “a love letter to K-Dramas and… a love letter to people who love them.”
Dramaworld’s unique strangeness filters through the many genres it embraces. In doing so, it becomes a perfect primer for western viewers unsure where to start with Korean television. A cooperative series between the US and South Korea, its mix of western and Korean sensibilities (and dialogue delivered by a number of bilingual actors) makes it less daunting than many K-Dramas, easing you into the diverse world of Korean television. Think of it as K-Drama 101, albeit with weretigers.
Dramaworld is streaming now on Amazon Prime.