In Defence of binge-watching

I’ve always been a binge-watcher. But I’ve also always been guilty about it. I even wrote this forbidding story about binge-watching addiction when I was a full-time journalist. I was so worried about this escapism I was letting myself turn towards so often that a while ago, I asked my therapist to fix this habit for me. But she asked me an important question that changed the way I looked at the habit: “Is the problem that you’re doing it, or is the problem that you think it’s bad?” 

As far as revelations go, this one was not that ground-breaking. But it made a world of difference to me. And it may perhaps do to you too. 

I’m a huge K-drama fan. Binge-watching is the only way I watch dramas. I refuse to follow them as they’re airing because I believe that dramas are meant to be binge watched. Let me explain. 

There are several elements that make K-dramas so compelling; so addictive. One of the strongest contributing factors I believe is the length — not as short as a movie that leaves you wanting more, yet not as long as a typical English language series that goes on for multiple seasons. This is perfect, as I often say to friends I want to convert to Kdrama watching, because it’s like taking a book and picturising every single page. So, wonderful little scenes that may not directly be important to the story progression, running gags that are funny because of their repetition, and the silly things happening in the background still get to exist.

What does that give us? A story where all the supporting characters have depth; a completely believable character development arc; and a more natural way bonds are formed on camera — be it friendships, love or family bonding. And these are what make Kdramas get to us, and find a place in our hearts. So just like how I would not prefer to read a compelling novel over a while with week-long breaks, I do not prefer my drama episodes spaced apart. 

While hundreds of English (or Hindi) language series are now available for binge-watching on online streaming services, they’re not a match for the experience of binge-watching a Korean drama. The mini-series format is perfect for such condensed consumption. Unlike typically multi-season English language series, in K-dramas, character development, relationship arcs and other elements of the story are perfectly paced to be satisfactorily wrapped up in sixteen episodes. They’re made for a marathon. 

So binge-watching K-dramas is the only way I can let the concentrated amount of emotions, warmth, laughter, suspense, and tears hit me in the most affective way. It’s a preference, like wanting to drink espresso over cappuccino. This way, I grow to like the new friend, I internalise the catch-phrases, I start to fall in love and I worry as often and long as deeply as the character in the show. 

Korean Drama Reaction GIF by The Swoon - Find & Share on GIPHY

I believe in living the dramas, you see. I go to sleep and wake up with some of those feelings remaining with me at the back of my mind. So when I go back to the next set of episodes that night, I get sucked right in into the familiar world that I’m now a part of. Almost like meeting a friend after work and asking them to fill me in on what happened in their day. 

But it is true that such an existence is unsustainable and even sounds detrimental to your real life in some way. Which is why I do not watch dramas back to back. I give myself the time to soak in the one that just ended and naturally let go of it over a few days or weeks. 

And the part sounds scary — as if you’re losing your real life if you let yourself get so involved in dramas — I’ve realised that it is the other way around. I seek out dramas when I feel low, when I don’t have social commitments with friends, and when I’m craving some human feelings (such as during this COVID lockdown). Dramas do not displace, but supplement my real life. They’re not grey shadows that drag me down to a Hotel California that I can never leave. They are like a warm hug, giving me a dose of human connections, emotions and comedy that I miss in my life. 

I learnt from therapy that certain activities — like reading, painting, gardening and playing an instrument — allow people to experience ‘grounding’, which is a state in which you’re completely absorbed into something that you can snap out of your anxious thoughts. It’s a good thing, and not easy to find for everyone! So if watching escapist dramas for hours does that for you, by all means, you should enjoy it. Just make sure you still manage to sleep enough, so you’re as ready for your real life as you are for the next episode of the drama. You deserve both 🙂

Crash landing into K-dramas in 2020

Throughout 2020, it’s been fascinating seeing the shift in the conversation in the mainstream around K-dramas in particular, and Korean entertainment in general. The Oscar for Parasite and the one-inch-subtitle barrier comment from Bong Joon-Ho earlier this year (can you believe it was only this year?) set the tone for tens of thousands, if not lakhs of people discovering and falling headlong into the rabbit-hole of Hallyu.

Until now, dramas were rarely mentioned, if ever, in general conversation among “regular” folks. The conversations about dramas and gushing and agony over the dreaded second-half ruin happened regularly – but in communities like Dramabeans or Viki, or fan spaces on twitter where the primary aim was to talk about and discover like-minded drama-fans. I know, because I was an active participant in these spaces. Sometime during the second half of the year, I decided to move away from fandom spaces for a while. It felt like I was parceling different parts of my identity into different pockets – and while that worked splendidly for me in the past, it felt like something I wanted to try to move away from, as an experiment.

What was then unexpected was seeing the many, many, many people on my “regular” timeline – journalists, writers, everyday office workers -talking about dramas and what they were currently watching, gushing over them, and using GIFs that feature Korean actors and musicians liberally. There were multiple longform pieces trying to dissect the appeal of Hallyu in India, and yet more YouTube video reactions and reviews. What was this alternate timeline (heh) I was a part of suddenly?

(Note: This applies only to mainland India where dramas are still a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the Northeastern part of India, where they have been pretty much part of the mainstream culture since the late 90s.)

In the past, whenever dramas were talked about it was with a sense of slight defiance and defensiveness – “yes, I like these, so what?” and with a sense of talking into the void if you were having these conversations with someone who wasn’t a fan. You’d be met with puzzled looks (if they were being polite) or downright incredulity or, more often, sneers (if they were well-versed with the stereotypes around dramas). When you met someone who also claimed to watch dramas, you’d test the waters with a question like “Ohh, dramas, you mean like… Boys over Flowers?” and cement the friendship (or leave a wide gap) depending on their answer to that question.

This year, with the pandemic, Netflix’s aggressive algorithm pushing its shows at viewers, and the dearth of live-produced television from the rest of the planet (South Korea’s entertainment industry wasn’t as badly affected), more Indians crash landed into dramaland (pun intended) via Hyun Bin in Crash Landing on You than ever before. When I posted a K-drama meme on Instagram, a college friend I hadn’t spoken to in years DMed saying she was an avid fan now thanks to CLOY, and part of multiple Hyun Bin fan pages on Facebook! There’s a separate conversation (rant?) to be had about the new kind of Netflix drama fan and what this means for K-drama viewership, but Netflix India reported a whopping 370% increase in the viewership of K-dramas in the past year.

Personally, it was a year where I didn’t watch too many dramas by my usual standards. There were some dramas that I really enjoyed (Hospital Playlist, School Nurse Files, I’ll Find You on a Beautiful Day, Forest of Secrets 2), some that gave me company through some very lonely times (Extracurricular, Chocolate, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay) some that helped me stumble through my first heartbreak in what seems like forever (Into the Ring, My Unfamiliar Family) and like every year, some that I watched through to their very end, just don’t ask me why, (Record of Youth, TK:EM, More than Friends) and of course, more actors and actresses and writers added to my list of people to watch out for.

I’ve written about this before, but dramaland, more so than most other things I can think of, can become a place for endless distraction, and somewhat healing. Even when it is excessively commercial, it offers respite from Real Life, along with a dash of hope – and we could all use this in this dreadful year from hell.

If this is your first year in dramaland – welcome and hope you find lifelong friends (in fans around you to spazz over dramas with or in lovely drama characters) who help you power through whatever the next few years bring us. If you’ve been in this for longer, hello! and hope we get through what is apparently going to be a lean year for dramas the next couple of years going forward.

On cancer, caregiving, and finding comfort in the familiar via Korean dramas

Two minutes on a chilly Bangalore morning in July 2016 that I still don’t remember (I blacked out) changed my life. I fell off the motorbike I was driving, smashed half my face, lost four of my front teeth, and fractured my nose. I went from living the life 16-year-old me had dreamed of (writing for a living, living in a Big City with friends) to gulping food through straws and was back in my bedroom in my parents’ house.

In the year that followed the accident, I quit my journalism job and moved back home to finish the treatment, had a surgery, and found myself with lots of free time in between umpteen dental visits.

I had exhausted my to-watch list and was looking for something new to watch on Netflix when my eyes fell on a pastel-hued thumbnail featuring a confused woman. The show was called “Hello, My Twenties” and was apparently about four young women in Seoul, South Korea, who share a house and how they learn to navigate work, love, and life. That sounded like it could have been my friends and me, so I clicked play. I’ve been watching Korean dramas ever since.

This was because, after watching them on and off in 2017, dramas had become a crucial coping I would come to rely on – maybe a tad excessively – in 2018. I spent most of the year as a primary caregiver for my father who was diagnosed with cancer.

The worst part of caring for someone with cancer is not the endless hours spent at the hospitals, waiting for tests, waiting for doctors, waiting for nurses, waiting for results, or watching your loved ones go through painful procedures over and over again. The worst part is the uncertainty.

Our regular experience with doctors and diseases is that they know exactly how long it will take to cure your ailments and what to do – antibiotics, twice a day, for five days; an allergy shot; a prescription of vitamin D to be taken once a day for a month.

With cancer, however, there are only ifs and maybes and questions no one has the answer to. Five years – time that you wouldn’t think was significant otherwise – is the most hopeful metric doctors can offer, if that. Cancer means a 60% chance is very good news, and there are no guaranteed results even if you follow everything by the book.

As I navigated this world, I turned to Korean dramas to give me the sense of stability that I couldn’t hope for from real life.

Most weekly dramas are 16 episodes long, and air twice a week. When I started watching a drama, I didn’t know what my father or my family would look like in the eight weeks it would take for the drama to finish airing. But I could depend on knowing that in the drama at least, the loose ends would be tied up, the bad guys would get their due, and there might even a happily-ever-montage for all the characters.

I think what I liked the most was that, if I chose to, I could skip episodes 11-14 where the Bad Stuff usually goes down – parental disapproval; the ghost possesses one of the leads; the serial killer is out to get the lead’s family’s lives – and get to the reasonably happy ending.

I was living my own episodes 11-14. But there was no skip button for real life. I desperately wished for a skip button for real life.

I was so wrapped up in the world of hospitals, blood tests, gastro-intestinal feeding tubes and learning the side-reactions of the 12 medicines my father had to take every day, and keeping up a façade of being strong, that I isolated myself from those around me, and shut down.

Instead, I found solace from the dialogues meant to soothe troubled characters I didn’t have much in common with. The very sentences I would have deemed corny or cringe inducing had they been in my mother tongue (just because you’re not crying doesn’t mean you’re not sad. Just like how smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy) allowed me to access an emotional space I was denying myself otherwise.

My father’s oncologist, a kind, portly and balding sixty-something man would try to take some time out to talk to me whenever I went to him to discuss my father’s prognosis. Once, he took a long look at me and said, “You’re withering. I don’t think you can go on like this for much longer, you need to make some changes.” I cut my hair the shortest it was after kindergarten. I didn’t think I was in a position to make any other changes.

I could only give my friends vague answers when they asked me how I spent my days. How could they understand the minutes of “real life” my mother and I snatched between waking up, calculating the calorie count of my father’s feed, preparing it, cleaning the feeding bag, flushing his tube with a syringe before the feed, monitoring the intake of the feed, flushing the tube with a syringe after the feed, cleaning the bag, and repeating this process every couple of hours before sleeping?

I continued. I watched dramas – on my phone while waiting for the chemo infusion to be completed, on the laptop in the last hour before sleep that was completely mine, on my phone again waiting for reports, for yet more doctors, and while shuttling between hospitals and home.

By this time, I had started learning Korean. Perhaps because I could pick up the elegant alphabet, Hangul, in less than a week, or perhaps because it sounded familiar due to the dozens of hours I’d spend listening to it every month, Korean was the only language that stuck, among the four languages I was trying to teach myself on the apps Memrise and Duolingo.

Journaling in Korean with the few words I knew allowed me to articulate, if it could be called that, and accept the situations I was in.

아버지는 죽을 수도 있고 내가 있는 일은 없다.

Soon, I fell violently ill. A severe fever and cold rendered me immobile for a few days and it was the first full break I had got from caregiving in months. I knew it was my body’s way of responding to the continued stress and burnout I had been experiencing.

I kept putting off starting therapy but I started going for walks with a special “K-pop for morning walks” playlist full of up-tempo tracks I had created. My Korean listening now extended to music as well. I started colouring too. I couldn’t afford another bout of illness – the first one proved to be very hard on my poor mother.

Caregiving had turned me – a TV junkie – off most shows I would have loved otherwise. I started watching Killing Eve. It featured a brilliant performance from Eve and Villanelle in their cat and mouse game. I couldn’t finish it. Eve wasn’t going to get killed and Villanelle certainly wasn’t to going to get caught. It would end in what I would have previously thought was a great cliff-hanger. I would have to wait a year or two until the next season. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that open ending. As for waiting for a year? A week looked very precious.

Caregiving also means you are always aware of exactly how much pain your charge is in from a scale of 1-10, and carry it around in small notebooks. “Is the pain a six now? That’s better. The medicine is working then. It was an eight, two hours ago.”

What I loved about the golden age of Television – that it captured the nuances of the mundane and the miserable, the cruel irony of life, how real it got, and despite everything how life went on anyway – were the very things that put me off it. I was seeing enough of those in the wards and waiting rooms where I spent most of my waking hours.

The sometimes cliché plots, recycled tropes, and embarrassingly earnest characters that make some people dismiss Korean dramas, were the very things that kept me going back to it.

In a good drama, you root for the character, you celebrate their successes, you have intense second hand embarrassment at their clumsiness. You despair at their hardships. Good dramas have heart, and they make you feel.

When I stopped to think about it, I realised the comfort I derived from dramas was similar to one I derived from reading genre fiction – due to their superb use of narrative, and showing us the uniqueness in the universal.

I found out through online drama communities that I was not the only one who took solace in them this way. I live in a city called Hyderabad, in southern India, but I could have easily been from Singapore, or Syria, or Egypt, Australia or America – all countries where some of the drama-fans I’ve spoken to were from.

All this is not to dismiss the problematic content in some dramas – the sexism and the casual glorification of family violence. Some friends ask me how I continue to watch dramas despite this. Maybe I’ll grow out of it someday, maybe I won’t, but I wonder if they would ever question someone who closely follows American pop culture because of the misogyny in shows like Two and a half Men. 

Now, I’ve come to my own episode 15 where things have settled down, but not fully resolved. I no longer have to track my father’s pain or weight-loss every day. We still have to go the hospital for a treatment every couple of months, but the cancer has almost disappeared, and we are cautiously optimistic.

For the first time in 14 months, I can, without great fear, look forward to something. I’m thinking about finishing the first season of Killing Eve this weekend. I’m not certain what episode 16 has in store for me but it sure includes a drama or two.