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The Rise and Rise of Déjà Vu in Netflix K-Dramas

Netflix Original K-Dramas are extremely successful, but are they becoming oversaturated and underwhelming?

Squid Game cast from left: Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Jung Ho-yeon
From L to R: Actors: Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung from Squid Game. (Credit: Netflix)

In late April of 2023, CEO Ted Sarandos announced that Netflix would invest $2.5 billion into Netflix Original K-Dramas.

When meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Sarandos stated,

“We were able to make this decision because of our great confidence in the Korean content industry, and we will continue to make great stories.”

Netflix has the support of previous releases to earn this confidence. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s hit TV show Squid Game, a gritty survival show that criticizes classism and capitalism in South Korea, crushed records in 2021. It’s the most-watched Netflix show of all time, achieving a staggering 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first month.

But it’s not just the success of Squid Game that has Netflix investing. At the end of the year in 2023, Netflix released a list of 18,000 Netflix titles and their hours watched. 8 of the top 50 titles hail from South Korea, including The Glory, taking 3rd place with 622.8 million hours watched. 

South Korean Netflix Originals are doing amazingly well on the streaming platform. Nonetheless, as Netflix is investing heavily in its South Korean market, western Netflix Originals continue to suffer. 

The fall of quality Western Netflix Originals 

Netflix is gaining a reputation for canceling or interfering with celebrated shows on its platform. In 2019, Netflix baffled fans with the cancellation of the American show The OA after two seasons. Even though Netflix states it was due to the ambitious budget, it was a foreshadowing of the platform’s future cost-cutting. 

Another show, Shadow and Bone, a British series adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, was released in 2021 with great reviews and promising viewing hours. However, season 2 did not have the same happy ending. 

Viewers complained about weak writing and plot points. Showrunner Eric Heisserer explains that there was pressure from Netflix that permeated in the writer’s room. 

One of the mandates that we received from Netflix going into Season 2 was, ‘We loved the way that the Crows’ storyline integrated with the Alina storyline eventually, and you have to perform that magic trick again.’”

Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone
Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone
Credit: Netflix

Combining different book series from the same universe worked incredibly well in the 1st season. However, trying to fit multiple other books from a trilogy and duology in the 2nd season made protagonist Alina Starkov and the Crows’ storyline rushed. Season 2 suffered from this, leading to the show’s cancellation. 

While the loss of these shows is unfortunate, the positive reinforcement of content lacking in originality is more disheartening.

Is Netflix backing the wrong shows? 

Alongside these disappointing cancellations, Netflix simultaneously supports shows with minimal substance for monetary gain. 

In the same end-of-year list in 2023, Netflix revealed that the television series Ginny & Georgia had almost a billion hours watched from seasons 1 and 2 combined. The show was so successful that they were renewed with a guaranteed season 3 and 4. 

But it’s not its riveting plot points or characters that have viewers staying. Its cringe dialogue and character choices are the only asset to its uniqueness. Who could forget Hunter Chen tap-dancing awkwardly down the hallway? Here’s a high-budget, quality scene from Ginny & Georgia.

Netflix has also struck gold with My Life with the Walter Boys. The show follows Jackie, a Manhattanite forced to move to Colorado with the Walters after the tragic death of her family. She falls into a love triangle with two of the Walter boys, hence the imaginative title. 

The show was renewed for a 2nd season only 12 days after its release. However, there’s nothing new or original about My Life with the Walter Boys. While shows and films have a base formula, a love triangle between brothers adapted from a Wattpad novel does not have the same production value of other accomplished Netflix content. 

So, is the platform bound to repeat the same cycle with the influx of South Korean Netflix Originals?

History repeats itself in Netflix K-Dramas

Fans are starting to notice repeated and unoriginal elements within Netflix K-Dramas. One trope that continues to be produced is the poor employee falling in love with the rich CEO. 

Business Proposal, a 2022 K-Drama, follows Shin Ha-ri pretending to be her friend on a blind date. Little does she know the CEO of the company she works at, Kang Tae-moo, is the suitor. A 2023 K-Drama, King the Land, portrays the relationship between Cheon Sa-rang, an employee at a luxurious hotel, and Gu Won, the heir to the company. Notice a pattern here? 

It’s not just the overarching stories that are the same. Many Netflix K-Dramas have the exact same details, scenes and sponsorships. Every employee needs Kopiko candy to stay awake in the office or a Subway sandwich for lunch. The female love interest’s parents own a fried chicken restaurant. Netflix even recycles the same hospital room set for every drama that needs it (which I’ll allow since it’s cost-effective). 

Viewers of these shows get watch fatigue from the repetitiveness. The way South Korean shows are structured doesn’t help. On streaming platforms, western shows will typically have 8-10 episodes, from half an hour to an hour long each. In South Korea, a show has 16 episodes a season, anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half long each. 

While sitting through a lackluster series usually only takes a day, you have to commit to South Korean shows. So why would a K-Drama viewer want to watch something they’ve seen countless times before, just recycled and repackaged? 

This complaint is most recently seen with the show My Demon, which just released its final episode on January 20th. A demon loses his powers saving an orphaned businesswoman, and they fall in love as they figure out how to return his magic. Audiences loved the concept and blossoming romantic tension between Jeong Gu-won, played by Song Kang, and Do Do-Hee, played by Kim Yoo-jung. 

Song Kang as Jeon Gu-won with Kim Yoo-Jung as Do Do-Hee
Song Kang as Jeon Gu-won with Kim Yoo-Jung as Do Do-Hee
Credit: Netflix

However, viewers became annoyed with the past-lives trope introduced later in the series, showing how the characters have been connected throughout time. Now, fans of the show have grown cold, many stating that the chemistry between the two protagonists did not sustain the energy and intrigue of the series. 

Even though Netflix does not have an issue with canceling South Korean content, they do seem to be falling into the same business model that has plagued Western Netflix originals. 

Will Netflix see any Major Impact? 

Netflix is not a stranger to losing subscribers and market value. In April of 2022, the platform lost 200,000 subscribers due to competition and stagnant company growth.

K-Dramas and Korean content continue to support the platform, but at the end of the day, Netflix is a business. These repetitive shows represent consistent monetary value that few quality shows have achieved. But, the few that become as popular as a rom-com or Wattpad novel dominate the platform, like Squid Game.

Instead of spending money on several copies of the same plot, Netflix should continue the tradition of ambitious, high-production-value content that got them to this point. If not, Netflix will see a loss in subscribers and interest in their original content, including their South Korean media, which is now $2.5 billion richer.

Written By

Junior Screenwriting major at Chapman University

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