Arts & Entertainment

No, Korean TV isn’t Just About K-Dramas: Here are Five Korean Variety Shows Worth Checking Out

These Korean variety shows give their Western counterparts a run for their money.
IMAGE Unsplash/Wikipedia
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Early this year, Netflix launched its first Korean drama series titled Kingdom, a six-episode historical period drama...with zombies. Netflix liked the show so much that even before it streamed the first season globally, the show was already picked up for a second season.

Indeed, Korean dramas have already reached the global stage, as proven by the immense popularity of its stars and the tourism money Korean entertainment generates for South Korea’s economy. But there’s one particular type of Korean TV entertainment that remains underrated to most: Korean variety shows.

The Rise of Korean Variety Shows

This TV show format is only more recently explored by local Korean broadcasters, in contrast to K-Dramas that have been popular since the '90s. As KPop stars reach astronomical popularity, variety shows have become the venue for them to reach out to fans. But in the early 2010s, variety shows explored a whole new format as they veered closer into reality TV. This paved the way for more unconventional variety shows, stepping away from the shadow of their Western counterparts.

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Below, we round up some of the novel and bizarre Korean variety shows that are worth checking out. 

1 | The King of Mask Singer

Last year, a video of a man dressed in a unicorn costume, singing a heartfelt rendition of the Broadway hit, Tomorrow, in a South Korean reality show, went viral online. For the most part of the clip, the man’s face is completely covered by a funny-looking mask, as a live audience, together with a panel of Korean celebrities, guess the supposed actor behind the costume. One panel member comments on the contestant’s excellent English diction, while another didn’t even bother clapping after the performance, as if unimpressed by the presentation.

The three-minute clip didn’t showcase any reveal, but the next one linked to it proved that it was a satisfying watch. The male singer took off the mask and the studio erupted in surprise: it was Deadpool himself, Ryan Reynolds. The Hollywood actor paid a visit in one of South Korea’s most popular reality shows, The King of Mask Singer, as part of the press tour for Deadpool 2 in Asia last year.

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The Hollywood actor is only one of the many surprising guests in the hit Korean reality singing show. The whole premise is odd, but what draws audiences is the thrill of seeing the person behind the masks. Most of the time, the singers behind them are Korean stars. Still, even for someone who isn’t entirely into Korean entertainment, the show is a satisfying watch just for the satisfaction of seeing the reaction of the live audience once the masks are taken away.

The show has since been remade in the US as The Masked Singer, which airs on the Fox network.

2 | Chef, Please Take Care of my Fridge
The show isn’t a serious competition per se, nonetheless, high-caliber chefs battle it out in a studio kitchen to craft the best-tasting dish. The catch is, the ingredients the chefs may use are limited to what’s inside the refrigerator of a specific celebrity. The show’s producers literally take the fridge out of the homes of a Korean star and let esteemed chefs make the most out of what’s available. And they all have to do this in 15 minutes.

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Yes, it’s a weird set-up. But gimmicks aside, foodies may enjoy watching the chefs’ techniques shine through. It’s interesting what they can come up with during a limited time and using mostly ordinary ingredients. Some Korean stars say they are so busy that their fridges have nothing but expired takeout or Korean side dishes made by their moms. In one instance, a chef prepared a custard on a pan as the only ingredients in the fridge were fruits and eggs. The challenging premise seems to have impressed even celebrity and Michelin-star chef Gordon Ramsay that he guested on the show in 2017.

3 | I Live Alone

The title may make the show sound like a slow-burn indie drama, but fortunately, it’s anything but lonesome. The show features a day in the lives of Korean celebrities, showcasing how they spend their most ordinary days at home. It’s mostly a snapshot on the lifestyles young Koreans lead today, especially at a time when Seoul is fast-becoming one of the richest cities in the world. The loose and seemingly unscripted set-up gives a more entertaining take on this TV format. As the guest featured goes through his or her mundane tasks, the viewer may even gain some surprising insights on home management and independent living. It helps that the guest featured provides commentary, giving each episode a more personal feel. It’s not as dramatic as most reality shows of the West, rather, it presents the idea that celebrities are just like us.

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4 | Return of Superman

The show isn’t easy to define. On one hand, it looks like a kids’ show; on the other, it’s a jarring commentary on the demands of modern parenthood, simply veiled as a feel-good variety show.

The show features kids with their celebrity dads as they spend 48 hours without the “superman” in the family, mom. As she takes a much-needed break, the dad takes over the house and has to do parenting chores and homemaking by himself.

This dynamic makes the show an interesting watch especially for workaholic dads who may not be as hands-on as they hope to be to their children. The show unravels endearing and heart-tugging questions from kids, giving the featured celebrity dad and the viewer something to think about: In a society that demands fathers to be mere providers, how do dads take a more loving role in the family?

As expected, the kids steal the limelight in the show, especially when they go through small and big moments with their fathers, from their first word spoken to their first trip to the beach. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the kids featured are just simply charming.

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5 | Busted!

At a time when crime and thriller dramas seem to be the main genre of high-caliber TV, Busted comes as a welcome outlier in the familiar territory. A group of Korean celebrities is forced to go on a multiple-day excursion as they learn they are “sleuths”, imbibed with the DNA of a top detective.

Now that already sounds ridiculous, but the next episodes are worth seeing mostly for the mysteries the celebrities have to unravel. The group’s main challenge is to find the person behind their skills. To do this, they have to solve crimes and finish challenges in every episode as they are led to the main suspect by the end of the season.

The show makes for entertaining TV not only when the celebrities are found in an unconventional predicament, but also because of the overarching question of the show: Who’s the culprit? While the conventions they are in are obviously scripted, the stars get to let loose once in a while which makes the show feel “real.”

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It’s the first Netflix-produced Korean variety show, and just last year, it was renewed for a second season, months after the first was launched. If anything, it only shows how the Koreans have mastered the TV format.

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Elyssa Christine Lopez
Elyssa Christine Lopez is a staff writer of Esquire. Follow her on Twitter @elyssalopz
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