Hooked on Korean Soap Operas

By Michael Kaufman

Sick of the mindless garbage permeating his TV screen, my friend Tom Karlson began watching Korean-language historical dramas on cable TV. This was around 20 years ago and they didn’t have English subtitles like they do now.

It didn’t bother Tom that he spoke no Korean. He found it a challenge to try to figure out the story as the characters, garbed in period costumes unfamiliar to most westerners, shouted, waved their arms, hugged, wept, and waded into fierce battles.  Truth be told, Tom really didn’t care if he couldn’t figure the story out. He said it was still more entertaining than watching some tired retread of an American sitcom. I could see his point but I still thought he was more than a little bit  nuts.

Tom will no doubt be amused to learn that I became addicted a few months ago to a Korean soap opera called “The Road Home,” which aired weeknights on WMBC (Cablevision channel 20) from 9:20 p.m. to 10 p.m. After the final episode  ran a few weeks ago it was replaced by one with the strange title, “Jolly Widows,” to which I have now also become addicted. 

When I first started watching “The Road Home” my wife and children made fun of me. But one by one they got hooked as well. This was good because if any of us missed the show there was usually at least one family member who could tell the others what happened. Did Songtae find out the baby is his? Is Dr. Yu still in a coma?  Did Hyonsu’s family accept Suin? Is Sumi still acting like a bitch? What’s going on with Jisu and Hiro? Juho and Shinae?

So far I’m on my own with “Jolly Widows.” The rest of the family, still shaken by the unexpected and abrupt ending of  their beloved “The Road Home” (which I alone was able to watch) have thus far boycotted the new show, which I can only presume is due to some misplaced loyalty on their part.  But I sense a crack in their armor: my wife Eva-Lynne has poked her head in a few times when I’m watching and seems at least mildly interested, especially when there is something that pertains to Korean culture.  I have never watched more than a couple of minutes of any American soap opera, but I doubt anyone in them ever oohed and ahhed over the mudfish stew they were having for dinner.

Unlike “The Road Home,” in which all of the main characters’ families  were well to do, the primary characters in “Jolly Widows” are from different social strata and class backgrounds. This makes for some interesting interactions. It took me a few episodes to get all the subplots but I have a pretty good handle on the whole thing now.  I have a feeling Eva-Lynne might soon be making a chart to help her sort out the “Jolly Widows” characters like she did for “The Road Home.” Because the names of some characters seem confusingly similar to people unfamiliar with Korean culture, she often resorts to designations like “pretty woman” to describe someone on her chart. In “Jolly Widows,” for example, there is a woman named Yun-jeong Ha, whose daughter is named Jeong-ah Lee. One guy is named Jin-woo Han and another, unrelated, is named Jun-woo Lee.  Jun-woo Lee looks more like a North American Caucasian person than he looks Korean, so Eva-Lynne might call him “American man.”

I was going to try to describe the plot for you but I just can’t do it justice. I located a description on line from something called AsianMedia Wiki that is likely to be even more deficient but it will have to do for now. (I’m tired and I have to file this piece soon.) Here goes:

“Two women became widows on the same day, same hour. Yun-jeong Ha becomes the matriarch of the family of her husband. Yun-jeong supports them because she feels guilty about her husband’s disappearance. Dong-ja Oh, Yun-jeong’s sister-in-law, has been living with Yun-jeong’s help as well.

“After the terrifying day of losing their husbands, the two women have been living as each other’s good companions. However, now they become implacable enemies because of their children!” (Aside: Damn! This hasn’t happened yet in the show…grrrrrrrr.)  “What would happen if their daughters rival each other in love? What would happen if Yun-jeong’s husband, who everyone thought was dead, appears before them as the future father-in-law of Dong-ja’s son?” (Another aside: AAAARGH! Why did I have to find this description?) “Could Yun-jeong and Dong-ja’s relation go back to the good old days?”

Trust me. It is better than this. Try watching it some time and let me know what you think. You too Tom.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.


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