"My Husband Got a Family" has been a significant cultural phenomenon in South Korea, and has brought in record-breaking ratings, nearly hitting 50% nationwide in its last episode. Even though it only finished this week, it's already being planned for use as part of an international Korean language learning program using Korean dramas.
I take some slight, smug satisfaction in that I started watching this show before it became super-popular. I was flipping channels once several months ago when I saw something that was clearly a bad date montage. In Western, bad date montages communicate that the dating world sure is crazy, and tend to do relatively little to advance the narrative or characterization. This is because the focus is almost entirely on the wacky dates. This show did something quite different- it was the heroine who was overreacting. The "bad dates" were saying normal humdrum things, and then she would seize on some specific fact to throw them out in a huff.
The heroine's name is Yoon-Hee. She's a writer for television dramas with a major phobia for in-laws (that was the part that kept setting her off- anytime a man mentions how close he is with his parents). Yoon-Hee had resolved that she would rather not marry at all than marry with in-laws. Lucky for her, she meets a doctor named Terry Kang, who was adopted in the United States and doesn't know his biological parents, and marries him.
Terry Kang (whose original name is Gwi-Nam) was left behind by accident at a traditional Korean market when his mother suddenly suffered labor pains. He still has faint memories of this event and wants to find his biological parents, but has no idea where to look. However, he and his wife are forced out of their apartment by rising rent prices. They end up having to take residence in a section of a house owned by...Gwi-Nam's biological parents, and his extended family, including three sisters, a grandmother, an uncle, aunt, and their son.
Korean Drama gets a lot of flak for its reliance on contrived coincidences. Certainly this show has enough of that- in addition to what sets the plot off, two of the three love interests for the sisters have familial ties to Yoon-Hee, unbeknowst to any of them at the start of the story. This is implausible to be sure, but different manners of implausible abound in American television. After I came to enjoy this show's charms, it felt silly to begrudge this show for having a very specific kind of implausible.
There's a couple of different ways I usually consume media. The first is analytical. That is, with the right tropes, I could look at a show and go "oh, I see what you're doing there". The second is meta-analytical, where I think "oh, I see what you're doing. And you know it, too", as characters in the show outright admit to their use of genre convention. You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly does something different. I watched it and thought "oh, I see what you're doing. And you know it...wait, or do you? Are you screwing with me? You're screwing with me aren't you?"
A show that messes with the head of its audience may not sound very fun, but when the show in question is a comic drama, it's outright delightful. I described the basic set-up to the show above, and all of this is clearly telegraphed in the first episode. It isn't until several episodes that the characters in the show become aware of this, even though there's numerous false starts before the secret is discovered in such a way that we're as surprised when it happens as the characters are. There's not even so much of a hint at a fourth wall- the writer and the viewer clearly know that this is scripted television, but the characters don't have the slightest clue.
The romantic subplots work in a similar way. Each sister has a love interest, but a great deal of time is spent on set-up, to the point that when the plots finally do get moving, the directions are rather perplexing. One sister's plot is put on hold for so long and her character is developed in such a way that the romance itself is almost incidental. Another sister is so obnoxious and immature you don't really even want her to get together with her love interest.
The last sister engages in a fairly traditional romance narrative that is quite exceptionally well-done. The fact that neither of them have romantic affections for the other at the beginning of the series is part of the charm and what makes the full development of the relationship so compelling. The story expertly makes good use of the fact that the show takes place over 29 weeks to make the romance's progression utterly believable. Obstacles and missed opportunities for the blossoming of the relationship are less frustrations, and more cognizance of the fact that real-life romances do not work this way.
What makes the last sister's love story work so well is that, even before there's any hint at romance, they have excellent repartee. In comedic terms, he's the goofy guy and she's the straight woman. He guns for a reaction, and she doesn't give it to him. To be clear, though, she doesn't deadpan. Rather, she makes the jokes funnier by reacting to his statements as if they were legitimate queries, and responding to situations in a way that makes perfect objective sense even if it defies the narrative logic that he (and the audience) are expecting. At one point a plan to get close to her by watching a scary movie together fails, because she just watches in a studied manner while eating popcorn even while everyone else in the theater is screaming. Their collective inability to correctly quantify their interactions only magnifies the humor. A later scene imagines a comically adorable montage of their potential married life. Part of the montage involves her shrieking at a sc ary movie while he hugs her close.
There's plenty of comedy elsewhere, as well. Yoon-Hee's aggressive, forceful personality is a direct instigator and factor behind many of show's movements, even when she's interacting with single episode cameos. The stability she has with her husband is an important backdrop to the show- in many ways it's an idealized relationship, but in terms of comfort and stability rather than excitement or romance, though they certainly have their fair share of that, too. Several sequences involve the annoying sister imagine her relationship with the overbearing Yoon-Hee in the Joseon era, where Yoon-Hee plays a convincingly cruel sister-in-law. Who, thanks to the Josen era's highly conservative sexual norms, has a ridiculously coquettish relationship with her normally openly affectionate husband. I can go on about little moments like this indefinitely, and can remember the plotting of entire scenes. Even in a foreign language, the comic timing is that well-done.
There are at least a dozen sub-plots going on that I could count, and they often interact with each other, begin, and conclude in ways that are difficult to predict. It oftentimes feels as if this is actually several different television shows that just so happen to share the same characters. All of this combined to make the characters feel more real to me- we all sometimes have funny days or depressing days, and sometimes the whiplash can be pretty bad but you know what? We all have days like this. In modern American narrative criticism the term "melodrama" is practically a slur- so it's been a strange trip watching this show and realizing that I identified with these characters more than any others I've ever seen on television before. Even the ones who were acting like idiots, I at least understood why they were acting like idiots.
Now, fold all this with plots that veer into contrived territory, or with characters who have no apparent redeeming features but who, according to the rules of the narrative we're supposed to like. The result is often outright perplexing. I could not figure this show out right until the last episode. There was only one possible ending that made any real sense, but the storyline is so all over the board that I really wasn't at all sure. I've never seen a writer engage viewers by blithely encouraging us to question her competence before. Indeed, the entire notion sounds completely insane and unbelievable in that sentence even though I watched her do it. At this point, you may imagine, the plot contrivances I mentioned earlier are a pittance.
As usual, the caveat applies that (especially for the early episodes) I couldn't fully understand what was going on, and can't perfectly gauge every event that happens in the series, particularly the more script dense dramatic sections. I do know that I enjoyed it, and would go so far as to say that it encapsulates a lot of what makes Korean Drama appealing worldwide- it makes jokes and deals with serious issues without patting itself on the pat for doing so in a very witty way. This is a show I could have a beer with- and did, in fact. Since I don't have a TV at Dongguk University I had to watch the last four episodes in restaurants. Definitely worth the extra effort.
By William Schwartz
"My Husband Got a Family" features Kim Nam-joo, Yoo Joon-sang and Yoon Yeo-jeong