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Runnnig Man poster

When my non-K-drama-watching living-in-Europe friend mentioned Running Man (SBS) to me, that was the moment I realized that Running Man was a Phenomenon. Admittedly, she read about Running Man while on a trip to Asia. But, still. “Goodness,” I said, “You’ve heard of Running Man? That’s really hardcore Korean television. Even I don’t watch Running Man!”.

That, of course, was before Running Man finally lured me into its vortex with its diabolically clever trick of guesting actors. Sooner or later, your favorite actor is guesting on Running Man (Oh Man Seok! Oh Man Seok!) and you have no choice but to check it out. Then you find yourself intrigued by the group dynamics and all the in-jokes that everyone else finds so hilarious. You find yourself watching more episodes to try to figure out what on earth is going on. And before you know it, you are totally hooked and devouring old episodes (hopefully selectively, not watching all 200 back issues).

Oh Man Seok on Running Man

I console myself by noting that I’m not the only person on the planet afflicted by Running Fever. What makes Running Man such compelling viewing? What is this evil time-sucking creature called the “variety show”, anyway?

Basically, it’s a form of reality television. And don’t we all have a love-hate relationship with reality tv?

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I’ve been in a bit of a drama slump lately. So it was terrific that at one stage there were not one, not two, but THREE current dramas I was eager to watch. Yes, folks, the drama gods are smiling kindly upon our Wed-Thurs slot!

JG poster

If you know me, you might try to guess which one I like the most. And you would probably be wrong. Because I was totally wrong in my own predictions! You might expect me, famously grumpy and unimpressed by fluff, to be most on board with the serious fare, right? At least, that’s what I expected. So wrong!

FtLYposter

Of the three, when they started airing concurrently a couple of weeks ago, the first one I would rush to watch would be… Fated to Love You (MBC). The fluffy, derivative one. I know right! So unexpected. It’s Okay, It’s Love (SBS) is coming in a close second for me. Joseon Gunman (KBS) is falling behind. What? How did that happen?

IOILposter

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*Warning: Somewhat spoilery*

After I finished watching Secret Love Affair, I had trouble sleeping (for other reasons) and found myself thinking about the show in the dark on my bed. A sign, surely, of a good show, that one thinks about it after it’s finished.

I thought long and hard about the ending. To be honest, I didn’t love it. I thought it was a tad facile. I didn’t hate it, though, it was just okay rather than bad. I thought about how perhaps I in particular and we the television audience in general have grown so used to over-stimulation and over-dramatization, that an ending that doesn’t blow us away with charred remains scattered all over the floor might seem dull.

Secret Love Affair ep15 - non-spoilery

I thought about how some people got so bored with the show they dropped it, and yet others love it to pieces. What a funny thing taste is, eh? And how I myself wasn’t exactly addicted or compelled – I easily dropped it for a few weeks in the middle – and yet how much I do actually like it. I still think it was rather slow. But I didn’t find it tediously so, and I suspect the show would hold up to a re-watch marathon. In fact, I already want to re-watch the last episode, knowing how it ends, to pick out the clues and catch all the subtleties.

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Wow.

I was so moved by that ending. I’m going to have to go off and have a little think about the show before I can write very much about it. But in the meantime here’s a short first reaction…

It didn’t turn out as I expected. And while little more than usual happened, still not nearly as much as you might expect from the last stretch of a drama about a Secret Love Affair. And yet the ending, while not what I predicted, felt completely right and organic. A teensy weensy bit indulgent, it has to be said. But I forgive it its soap-box moment because it stayed so classy to the end.

Secret Love Affair episode 15 Yoo Ah In

What makes it so terribly moving? I was practically in tears at the end. Is it because it’s about Lurve? That doesn’t usually move me, to be honest, in itself. Is it the gorgeous music? The Mozart that I love? The Dvorak that leaps and sparkles? Is it the phenomenal acting? (Bravo, Yoo Ah In! Bravo! Well done again, Kim Hee Ae! *standing ovation*) Is it the beautifully elegant directing? Is it the irresistibly wistful tone? Is it the whiff of Brahms, of the potent mix of classic art and love that can not be denied? Is it the strong tinge of sadness?

All these things. But mostly, because with PD Ahn Pan Seok’s usual magic, the people and story feel real to me. Nothing feels meaningless or manipulative. It all feels like an authentic, heartfelt story of real people. Of a real complicated woman within whose breast beats a heart of equal part good and evil, funk and courage, and beauty and spoils. Of a man who in being true to himself and his art is wise beyond his years. And of life that is usually messy, sometimes held together precariously by compromise, occasionally surprised by nobility, and lifted by the possibility of redemption for those who have the courage to reach for it.

Secret Love Affair episode 15 Kim Hee Ae

So, how was this episode for you? Those of you who are still on board this slow train.

This episode was a wow for me. Just… WOW. The dinner party from hell. The slow burn. Fury of Thwarted Grand Passion expressed through musical performance, which should have been cheesy but really wasn’t; rather, it was something unspeakable that stabbed me in the heart.

Secret Love Affair ep14

Again, nothing much actually happened. Nothing was particularly surprising. But I was just gripped and on the edge of my seat.

This will all end in tears. Surely. I don’t see how else it can otherwise stay true to its escalating sense of doom.

Another quietly insightful episode.

Great art, in my opinion, is about the human condition. Not, primarily, about plot. What happens is not nearly as important as how, which is not as interesting as why.

Secret Love Affair ep13

Secret Love Affair exemplifies this. When things start heating up, instead of having more things happen, like coincidences designed to make you gasp or scenes designed to manipulate your emotions, PD Ahn Pan Seok and writer Jung Sung Joo turn inwards. This may not make for titillating television, but it does make for very compelling art. We turn to why Hye Won leads the life she does and makes the decisions she does. We turn into Sun Jae’s helplessness and frustration. We look inwards into their joy and despair. We dig into the people around them, as crisis peels off whatever thin layers they have left.

Another slow, elegiac episode.

How great is it that they incorporated Billy Joel’s Piano Man? I thought it would be the more sentimental New York State of Mind, since Hye Won was talking about her life in New York. But Piano Man is better. At first I thought, haha how obvious. Sun Jae is a the Piano Man, of course. But as I listened to the song (along with Hye Won and Sun Jae), I remembered that the song is about lost dreams and finding oneself trapped. How amazingly fit. It’s a song about musical talent reduced to scraping a living, which puts the entertainer on the same level as his audience and forms a special bond.

Secret Love Affair ep12 Billy Joel Paino Man

So, ok, let’s name the elephant in the room. This show is slow. Very slow. I mean, it’s beautiful and sensitive and elegant and all that, and I personally appreciate all these qualities. But nothing happens. Mind you, I do feel it. I do understand the slow stew of passion and pain. But sometimes, in television, we need a bit more movement.

It has crossed my mind that maybe Ahn Pan Seok started out with only twelve episodes’ worth of plot because he anticipated, consciously or subconsciously, that he would get the End of the World end-this-show-now chop again. But he didn’t get the chop, and now he has to figure out how to fill in all the gaps. How ironic that this show, the weakest of his trio of A Wife’s Credentials, The End of the World and Secret Love Affair, should be the most well received. It makes me feel a bit sad. Mind you, I’m very grateful to Yoo Ah In for investing this show with star power and hence staying power; and who can begrudge the boy anything when he’s doing such a great job? But the ways of the world do make me feel sad, sometimes.

Secret Love Affair ep12

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