Friday, June 20, 2014

Expectation and Fulfillment in Dramaland




Yes, I know it's been three weeks since we've blogged. You can blame a combination of hiding out in a cabin in the mountains for a week, having to work extra to make up for hiding out in a cabin for a week, and then just feeling like I wanted to vegetate and watch dramas instead of writing about them. But now I'm back in a writing mood, so look forward to more consistent posts!

In all of my vegetative drama watching, I've developed kind of a bad habit. I used to be a pretty strict one-drama-at-a-time kind of girl. Maaaaaybe two dramas if they were airing simultaneously. Over the last couple of months, however, I keep starting new dramas, getting to the last three to five episodes, and then putting them on the back burner for a new drama.

Part of the problem is that I'm woefully behind on reviews, so I don't want to finish more dramas before I review the old ones, but that's just a big fatty excuse because the truth is that I love drama beginnings. I love the excitement of a new drama. I love the suspense that builds to the moment of romance shared and feelings expressed.

This obsession with beginnings has made me think about what it is that compels viewers to watch (and love) entire dramas. I think a lot of it comes down to the balance between expectation and fulfillment in the drama structure.


The best writers build a sense of expectation at the front end of dramas. They give us little moments of partial fulfillment throughout the first few episodes, pushing us to keep clicking the "next episode" button in hopes of getting more. And more. And more.


The problem with expectation is that you can't put it off forever. If you only give your viewers little breadcrumbs for too many episodes, they will eventually feel bored and move elsewhere. For me, this was one of the big problems with Heirs. I think we all kept hoping that interesting things would happen, but nothing ever did. It was just the same love triangle standoff at the end of nearly every episode, and it eventually got dull.

Similarly, one of the fastest ways to infuriate viewers is to build infinite expectation without an equal payout at the end. If you're going to put off viewer fulfillment for a full twenty episodes, you'd better be a screenwriting genius and give us an entire episode that is twenty episodes worth of satisfaction. If you give us a handshake at the end of it all, we're gonna start throwing things at our televisions and inventing new profanities to express just how cheated we feel.
Not to name names, but....
You know who you are. Now go in a corner and think about what you did.

Sometimes, drama writers want to play with expectations, and that's okay. It's refreshing when the second lead suddenly turns into the first lead or when a clever twist pushes viewers to think. But even if you toss in a twist, it needs to have some hint of expectation. We want the second lead to get the girl, but it has to feel earned. We want to know that she's going to be happy with her choice. That's why the ending of Marry Him If You Dare was so infuriating. The show focused so heavily on building romantic expectations that refusing to fulfill that expectation made the entire series feel somewhat hollow. I would have been okay with a series about her personal journey and individual development if the every episode hadn't shouted "WHICH MAN WILL SHE CHOOSE???"
"No, no, we meant for it to be a searing statement on women and romance! That's why we spent the whole series building a tedious, endless love triangle! We swear!"

At the other end of the spectrum, you have dramas that are great at building tension for the first half of the series, but they fulfill the expectation too early, leaving empty space for the second half of the series. It's pretty typical to have the leads first kiss somewhere between episodes 7 and 12, which is a great gift to keep viewers invested. The problem is that many writers seem genuinely baffled after the big kiss. They spend the rest of the series scrambling to come up with appropriate romantic hurdles, but we all know they're just killing time to the inevitable finale. Does anyone actually get excited when a drama moves into the noble idiocy/birth secret/corporate shenanigans phase of the show?

This is one reason why I'm a pretty strong advocate of the 16-episode series for most shows. Series extensions are one of the biggest enemies to narrative tension. I have seen only a handful of shows where the episode extension was okay (and only because I loved those shows), and I'm not entirely convinced that I have seen any shows where it was a narrative necessity. Even shows that feel rushed in the last five minutes could have avoided trouble with better pacing in the middle sections. Wait, I take that back. The extension for Queen of Reversals allowed it develop a satisfying, if unexpected, ending, so that one is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe it's just because it was my first drama, but a good example of the balance between expectation and fulfillment has got to be Coffee Prince. As I watched, one of the things that enthralled me was how many heartfelt, meaningful moments it had sprinkled throughout the show. Unlike American romcom movies that ended after the big confession, Coffee Prince kept giving, and that's why I kept watching. It's proof that you don't need seven rounds of amnesia to keep people involved. With smart pacing, characters we can care about, and obstacles based in reality, shows can keep viewers engaged and satisfied.


One of the things that keeps me so engaged with You Are All Surrounded (aside from my love of action comedies) is the way that it builds expectation. With both the central mystery and the romance, the first ten episodes gave us enough hints to string us along. Episodes 11 and 12 get a pass because Lee Seung Gi's eye injury probably altered some of the script plans, but I keep hoping that the show will fulfill my expectations. It's getting to that stage in the series where the romance needs to start moving if it's going to keep my interest, and there's an opportunity for an engaging mystery as well.

In episode 12, we finally get a scene where Soo Sun starts to recognize Dae Gu as more than a little brother or a detective partner, but I have to admit that the reliance on the old rescue hug left me wanting more. Here's hoping episode 13 starts to move towards the fulfillment end of the spectrum!

29 comments:

  1. So glad to have you back! This is a great post and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I also love the excitement of beggining a new drama, it is a bit like falling in love. Some dramas, as you said, fail to meet our expectations and they leave us with a sour taste. I am so glad you mentioned Coffee Prince, I just watched it for a second time and I fell in love with it again and it's the type of love that lasts because it does give us meaningful moments throughout the whole series. I am also currently watching You are all surrounded and I feel the same way, they need to fast track the romance bit for me to keep clicking for next episode. I am curious though about how the writers are going to build another major conflict since they arrested Boots already. Looking forward to your next post. Greetings from Europe :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic summary, I couldn't agree more! One other problem I find is when a drama is mostly flirty and fun until the mid-series kiss but then the writers create a hurdle of such tragic proportion that I know the only thing I'll see for four episodes is moping and flashbacks. I have to struggle through, hoping for the rare sweet romantic breadcrumb to satisfy me. These end-of-series problems are always easier to take if the writers managed to create a secondary story or couple to pull me through.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Someone on Dramabeans suggested a birth secret, and, given how often the assemblyman says "That boy should not be in this world," that sounds about right. I don't particularly like the actor who plays the assemblyman, so I'm not thrilled to have him getting increased screen time. I think the last couple of episodes might have had more romance if Seung Gi hadn't injured his eye. I have my fingers crossed that the romance takes off soon!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm not a hue melodrama person myself, so as soon as the tears start flowing, I start fast forwarding. I do love a good secondary story. There's nothing that bumps a drama to the top of my favorites list like side characters who have their own interesting stories.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ugh, yes. Mid-series hurdles are the worst.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is my biggest pet peeve with many dramas. I can put up with many silly plot twists as long as the story moves at a good pace and secrets don't stay secret for too long, but when there are all these secrets that no one wants to spill, and the pace is slower then a snail, it just makes me want to pull out my own teeth.

    I've been really impressed with You're All Surrounded so far in this respect. In every respect really, but especially in this one. Apart from the one big secret that overshadows the entire story and probably won't be revealed until the very end, none of the other secrets stay secret for very long. The writers have been really good about moving things along without losing the audience. Even the slowness of the romance hasn't bothered me too much, because everything else is being done so well. (I'm also just a sucker for stories where the guy falls first and has to suffer through a few episodes of the girl not noticing/acknowledging his feelings. It's always the girl who falls first and then gets thrown around like a rag doll by the guy for umpteen episodes. That just gets so old so fast.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'd make a meaningful and long comment, but I am busy crying in the fetal position over the drama that knows who it is.

    I'd say the same about non-romantic shows. Like dangling the "she will survive" carrot, making that survival the entire point, then giving it. Then going "Gotcha!" and taking it away. You can probably guess which series I am talking about.

    I like a series which accepts its level. Those trying to be "poignant" and hide behind their fingers end up giving non-endings and never delivering on that carrot, thinking that's very meaning, such deep, wow. Stop trying to be "edgy" and close your damn stories. Close them by giving what was promised, promised with full knowledge the eventual fulfillment of it would keep your audience watching.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I really enjoyed this post! One of the major reasons I have like a million dramas forever on the backburner is just for all the reasons you've described. I think that Korean entertainment needs to stop chasing the dollars if they want more quality endings for dramas. While I know the live-shoot system is not completely to blame (travesty's like "Full House 2" that started funny and then went crazy soon after were filmed completely before airing), I think that the writers and producers and cable companies etc. need to work carefully to maintain a balance that will make for good television and something satisfying to all the viewers. Even "King of Dramas", which talked extensively about this, suffered from a weak ending. I also think that just some editing would help so much! Okay, I'll stop now with the crazy, long comment, but yeah...I have a million thoughts about this.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I typically have the opposite experience with dramas. Yes, I have sometimes been disappointed by dramas with lame endings, but I almost always find it a slog to get through the first few episodes of a drama. I am bored by the plot exposition, and I dislike how the female protagonist is often embarrassed and humiliated early on. It usually takes a few episodes until I really start to develop a connection to the characters, and become invested in their stories.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Wow, you just made me realize why I often see comments from people on a drama saying "push through the first boring episodes, it's worth it." I almost never understand why they think the beginning is boring ... well, and I still don't ... but maybe they, like you, are beginning-strugglers. And I'm an ending-struggler by nature!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I also prefer shows where the guy falls first. It gives the girl some sense of control over her life. With You Are All Surrounded, I have been pretty pleased with the romantic development overall. If they would give us just a few more scenes of Dae Gu pining, I wouldn't even care if Soo Sun had feelings for him at this point.

    ReplyDelete
  12. One of the clumsiest offenders in the "trying to be edgy" category has got to be Nail Shop Paris. In the last episode, one of the characters actually talked about how awesome open endings are right before setting up their own "open" ending. It was clear from the start of the show that the writers were using edginess as an excuse for lazy, nonsensical writing.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The live shoot is definitely a factor in all of this, especially when it comes to extensions. Most of the time, it's a question of "Can we get higher ratings with more episodes?" as opposed to "Can we get a better story with more episodes?"

    ReplyDelete
  14. I have a strict two-episode rule for almost all new dramas. I don't always love the first episode, but I can usually get into it within the first two hours. The one big exception was Nine: Nine Times Time Travel. I'm so glad that people told me to stick with it past the first four episodes because those episodes were way less compelling than the rest of the series.

    ReplyDelete
  15. More scenes of Dae Gu pining. Yes please!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Exactly! Oh money greediness. Quality is so much better than quantity.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I also tend to give dramas at least two episodes, and sometimes more. Some of the dramas that are 20 or 24 episoders often take about four or more episodes to get going. I know that Gaksital didn't really hit it's stride until about episode 6, and Cruel City after episode 4.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Examples of shows I found slow or annoying at first, but later loved: Shut Up Flower Boy Band, Scent of a Woman, I Hear Your Voice. I am currently completing a Gentleman's Dignity, which I stopped watching in episode 3 last year, but now am really liking it. I tried really hard with My Love From Another Star, but gave up in episode 6 - I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of the characters. Is it worth another try?

    ReplyDelete
  19. At some point in "My Love from Another Star" I just resigned myself to being satisfied and then just allowed myself to love the chemistry between the leads. There is most definitely more to love than to hate. I wrote a bunch of posts for the drama, but I still haven't finished my final review...

    ReplyDelete
  20. I guess my difficulty is I'm just not feeling the chemistry between the leads. When I think there is chemistry, I am willing to overlook major narrative problems (Lie to Me for much of its run, for example), but I guess this particular pairing just isn't doing anything for me. It's too bad, because I was really looking forward to this drama based on my enjoyment of the lead actor in Dream High.

    ReplyDelete
  21. To be honest, I'm having trouble finishing My Love from Another Star, as well. The female lead grew on me until I really liked her, but I'm not finding the central conflict all that compelling. Looking back, I can see how Lie to Me is filled with cliches, but I give it a pass because it was one of my very first dramas, and the kissing scenes are fabulous.

    ReplyDelete
  22. And if it doesn't work, there are always plenty more dramas to watch ^^

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think if I hadn't been watching it as it aired, I might not have finished it. If I remember correctly, I really loved episode 15, and episodes 19 and most of 20...but yeah...there were so many plot holes and stuff that drove me crazy, that I just decided to enjoy the parts I loved - Kim Soo Hyun and Cheon Ji Hyun ^^

    ReplyDelete
  24. I have only heard about this by the hashtag some friends use on Twitter. WTFParis. So I can imagine it did plenty to earn that name.

    If you don't end your story, then you didn't finish your work. They should not pay such people a full salary, when they refuse to write the whole thing and demand that viewers do. It's your damn job!

    ReplyDelete
  25. "I don't particularly like the actor who plays the assemblyman.." hah, sounds like somebody saw Nine: Times Time Travels ;)

    ReplyDelete
  26. Yeah I'm totally the same as bergenia. This beginnings vs ending debate seems to stem from Plot vs Character preference as once I become compelled or interested in characters, I'm usually in for the long haul. That said, character assassinations usually occur in the last few episodes so it's led to some crushing disappointments.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I'm hoping the 'birth secret' is just a fake out meant to keep us from the truth. I know they did that already with the whole 'Is Tae Il gay?' thing (although I don't think that issue has actually been resolved yet), but I really, really hope I'm right. Like you, I really don't like the actor playing Assemblyman Yoo (I didn't like him at all in I Hear Your Voice, and so far, my opinion of him hasn't improved with this drama). The idea of him being Dae Gu's father is just...blegh. Do not want.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I'm the exact same way as you. I can usually make it through 10-13 episodes before having to quit. (I don't think I've ever quit a drama any earlier then that, actually.) It's always the midway point where I start to really struggle. But I've learned that I have to stay away from any and all in-depth reviews or episode recaps, because the second I spoil even a moment of the story, I lose all interest in watching it.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I am so guilty of this. I recently made a list of all the dramas I've watched and was a little bit ashamed to see how many I never finished! Some I got completely bored with, some I still mean to go back to "someday". It's hard to sustain interest after that rush of a new drama...it's addictive! It just makes me love the ones I do watch all the way through (and multiple times for some) that much more.

    ReplyDelete

Total Pageviews