Comfort Couch: The Dramas You Turn To

It’s the end of another day. It’s been a particularly 2020 week (even if it’s now 2021).

Maybe you’ve ducked outside and fought your way through supermarket crowds of people who refuse to mask up and keep their distance. Maybe you weren’t allowed to leave the house at all.

Maybe you have family members who are ill, or those who need you, but who you can’t risk seeing. You set up zoom calls and texts and make phone calls but as soon as you go to bed their needs tug at your brain. Maybe you sleep like the dead and can barely roll out of bed in the morning. Maybe you haven’t slept properly for months.

Either way, things are hard right now for everyone. Really really hard.

So as you stumble into your living room or your bedroom or wherever you watch dramas, the thought of picking up something new sounds too much like hard work. What do you press play on? What gives you comfort when you need it?

One thing I’ve realised over the last few years – but especially over the last few months – is that we all have dramas where the act of watching becomes larger than the drama itself. These are dramas that are like comfortable old friends; being with them becomes about more than just watching them.

These are dramas we can sink into like a hot bath, ones where pressing play feels like coming home. These are the dramas we watch when we’re stressed and tired. They are the ones that get us through. Often they’re not dramas we’d even list as our best drama or favourite drama or even recommend to other people. Because our relationship to them is somehow about more than that.

For me this drama is Avenger’s Social Club (Buamdong Revenge Club). And the funny thing is that when I first watched Avenger’s Social Club it barely registered with me at all. It was nice, short, fun. But I was also a little disappointed. I had thought that revenge – big, satisfying, meticulous revenge – was going to be the point of the drama. Instead, Avenger’s Social Club can be a bit… naff. The revenge starts off as a revenge of chicken fights and bad sushi, laxatives and super glue. Revenge for people who are not used to fighting back.

And yet revenge isn’t really what it’s about at all. And that’s possibly what drew me to it after all.

I’m still not sure why I ended up pressing play on Avenger’s Social Club again. Parts of it clearly remained with me. Small parts. One character’s saturi. Another’s clueless but ultimately well meaning use of wealth. The lovely sense of found family. The good guys and the bad guys and the winning.

I found myself rewatching the show.
Again.
And again.
And then again.

Not all of it, of course. And not all at once. Just skipping through to parts that I found myself loving for reasons I can’t entirely articulate.

The social club formed by the four people wanting revenge is, in the end, its own point. The coming together. The permission to be oneself. The defiance of Koran social mores around age, hierarchy, profession, divorce and familial obligations. It is the club, not the revenge, that matters.

When I’m tired and stressed, there’s only one Korean drama that I turn to and this is it. One about three women from different walks of life coming together: a fish store ahjumma who simply wanted to live her life and raise her children; an abused housewife; and a Chaebol’s daughter who was raised like a delicate greenhouse flower. The group is rounded out when they are joined by Chaebol Kim Jung-hye’s stepson, Lee Soo-Gyum, who wants revenge against his uncaring parents. And this leads to one of my favourite parts of the show: the warmhearted and unconventional found family between the two. Kim Jung-hye, who always wanted children but can’t have them, and Lee Soo-Gyum, who needs a parent because the ones currently holding the job title are self-absorbed and narcissistic.

To say that Avenger’s Social Club is simple is not to accuse it of being simplistic. It means that it’s an easy, uncomplicated and emotionally-satisfying watch. Not one that will spawn any essays or play with emotional highs and lows. But one that tells an accessible and low-key tale of winning with the newfound support of great friends and new family. A drama that says that when things are at their lowest you will find somebody who is on your side. And that’s something I find comforting every single time I watch.

After a while, I found that the act of pressing play on the drama became about more than the drama itself. I have an emotional relationship with it above and beyond what happens on screen. It appeals to me on a level that’s almost subconscious, one where I can’t point to a particular element and say, “That’s it! That’s the reason I love it!” It’s comforting now, both in its familiarity and the emotional bond I’ve formed with it.

What about you? Do you have a drama like this?

I asked a few friends what this drama is for them and to try to explain their relationship to it: Mindy, whose love of Because This Life is Our First (Because This is My First Life) is as well known as it is epic; Sicarius who explains why she watches and rewatches Healer; and Egads, whose piece on her former comfort watch Goblin veered into a self-reflection on why it let her down in 2020.

Mindy – Because This Life is our First (Because This is My First Life)

If you told 2017 me that even in 2021 I would be fighting the urge to rewatch Because This is My First Life yet again, she would not be surprised.

I’ve never been a big lover of romance. For all my life, I’ve been as forever alone as Yoon Ji-ho is in the beginning of the show. Being a longtime watcher of kdramas, I of course consume a ton of romantic media, but it’s almost always the other themes of the dramas that really pull me in. The romance is an aside for me, one I hardly ever have strong feelings about.

So when I started Because This is My First Life, what pulled me in wasn’t the promise of romance or the cohabitation and contract marriage tropes that are absolute catnip for so many drama fans. Instead, my immediate interest was in the friendships, the familial relationships, and above all, the underlying feminist themes. I mean, the show starts right off the bat with the heroine bemoaning the struggles of living under a patriarchy! How could I NOT be sucked in?!

But as the show went on, I started doing things that were… uncharacteristic of myself. A squeal would escape from my lips as the leads held hands. I smashed the rewind button to watch the same scene between the OTP again. And again. And again. I would spend hours every day on Dramabeans and other sites to read the recaps, read the hyperactive reactions from other fans, watch the same gifs loop over and over again of all the best scenes, and watch them again on the tvN YouTube channel with no subs. This frenzy continued long after the drama ended, and while I’ve become a good deal less crazy about it than I was during those months, there was only one show I thought to turn to when I was stuck in an airport all alone at the very beginning of the pandemic.

I struggled for a while to figure out what it was about this show and about this relationship that was so different for me. The reactions I had were so intense, so visceral. Seeing Ji-ho walk the streets of Seoul at night in nothing but her pajamas only to wander to Nam Se-hee’s front door and be given a place to stay made me almost weep. Listening to Se-hee tell Ji-ho that she belongs in his home gave me actual heart palpitations. I’ve never been homeless! Why is it that these scenes made me feel this way? The answer was obvious, staring me right in the face: it’s not just about opening your home to someone, but opening your heart as well. And while I’ve never wanted for a roof over my head, I’ve certainly been wanting for a person in my heart.

I’ve always found it difficult to connect with people on a deeper level, and the pandemic has only compounded the problem for me. I often feel isolated and alone, like so many people nowadays, and watching two people who are so compatible with each other learn to love is so heartwarming for me that it’s almost overwhelming.

Ji-ho and Se-hee definitely have their communication issues, and Se-hee’s difficulty opening up is a major theme of the show, but there is such an easiness to their relationship even with all of the awkwardness. Se-hee spends so much of his life being told that he is weird, even from his friends and family, and yet it is in those “weird” things that Ji-ho finds comfort. A scene that has always stuck out to me, and that I have pressed play on way too many times, is in the very first episode. After Se-hee uses cat psychology to console her when they first meet, he quickly glances away, knowing that what he said are not the words people usually use to comfort one another. But those are exactly the words that Ji-ho needed to hear at that moment, and she is so overcome with emotion that she kisses him. When he says that he wants to marry her because he needs her, and not anyone else, her heart practically stops. 

They complement each other in such a way that it makes perfect sense that these two would write up a contract and get married. Of course they would! And even after their marriage they find ways to make the other person feel seen and understood, even if it takes time and effort for them to get to that point. They make mistakes, but they always make up for it in the end.

Hopefully, when life begins to go back to normal, I’ll be able to work on getting over my own relationship issues, but in the meantime I know I always have something to go back to when I’m feeling alone. No matter how isolated I feel, I can always watch Ji-ho and Se-hee spill their hearts out at a beach in Namhae and suddenly everything feels like it’s going to be okay.

You can find Mindy on Dramabeans or on her blog at Sunset Dramaland

Sicarius – Healer

Not being a big rewatcher, the idea of a comfort drama is somewhat hard to pin down.
There is no one drama that fits all my moods at all points in time and is the right brew for all situations. But then, one doesn’t need comforted at all times either, and a comfort drama does not need necessarily to be the be all, end all, cure all drama.
Nor does it need to be that elusive drama I find myself looking for sometimes that doesn’t exist.

The feeling of coming home in a drama however, that does resonate with me. And if that is a comfort drama, then it manifests itself the most through Healer.

No matter when I watch it or how, as soon as I open up the first episode, my heart sings; the opening notes of the titular OST playing over the camera movements of the opening sequence feels like the companionship of an old friend, one I still get excited to see.

It is something constant and welcoming, and there is something joyful and comforting in it.
I know this friend. I know this story. I know where it’s going, and how it’s going to get there.
I’ve sat in the chair opposite it by the fire many a time and listened to its tales. It tells its story well with excellent articulation. I trust it. And because I trust it, I know the emotional payoff will be satisfying, cathartic even.
Its familiarity is in of itself a reassurance and a comfort.

But it’s more than that also.

I could sit for hours with this friend, and they could, and will, tell the same familiar story over and over again but each time they tell it I will get something new out of it.
With each new telling I see something I didn’t see before. The lines on the page and behind the page become clearer; the metaphors I can pull from it, the ideas of truth and trust, the complexities and earnestness of the characters, the open ending but the demons still defeated.

But I think ultimately maybe it’s the idea that good storytelling itself is comforting.
A story that resonates and continues to resonate with me, and one that is told well is a comfort.
A combination of familiarity and integrity.

Healer is a story and world that feels lived in; it FEELS like a story with a place and life of its own rather than just something constructed for base entertainment.
It’s a story that makes you forget you are watching something made.
And each part and note of it is played and done so well and with obvious intent, the result is both the ultimate comfort food, and the satisfying full course meal; an old friend, like coming home, a relief, nostalgic, revitalising, and heart-warming, all at once.

As the title suggests, perhaps somewhat ironically, or perhaps that was the writer’s intention, (but nonetheless definitely one hundred percent cheesily) – Healer: the act of healing, to heal, the drama that heals.

I feel the need to bring up two other dramas as honourable mentions for comfort dramas: although neither I have seen as many times as Healer, both Sassy Go Go and When We Were Young 2018 hold for me the comfort of stories told well.
Sassy Go Go for being just so Good and Wholesome-
When We Were Young 2018 for being what I simply call a “kintsugi” drama; kintsukuroi being the Japanese art and philosophy of repairing broken pottery with gold: it broke me into a thousand pieces and stitched me back together with gold.

You can find Sicarius on Dramabeans or on Instagram as Ingleweiss Art

Egads – Goblin

Write about your comfort watch. Write about Goblin, she said. 

I thought it would be easy. I mean, where’s the difficulty in writing about something you love? 

Spoiler alert: It’s hard. 

But the difficulty in it isn’t because words are hard, even though they are. The difficulty is that in the last year, nothing was a comfort. So, digging into the why this particular drama had drawn me in took some thought. And you know what else has been difficult lately? Yeah, thinking. That’s difficult too. 

To organise my thoughts, let’s break this down: Why Goblin? Well, it has a lot to love. The cast, the magic, the banter, the bickering, the emotional manipulation, the locations, Gong Yoo… Yep, that’s a lot to love, and maybe it’s also important to tell you that Goblin is my first kdrama obsession. So, if one were to think weirdly metaphorically about it, the candy-coloured Taiwanese dramas Netflix threw my way were my intro into non-western media viewing, and maybe Goblin was then the obsessive angsty teenage crush – okay, this is too weird even for me. Thinking this way just leads to the twisty odd parts of my mind. See my problem here?

Let’s try something else. If Goblin was a comfort watch before the unmitigated disaster called 2020, why was it not a comfort during that dumpster fire disaster of a year? Why for that matter were none of the shows, movies, or books I usually consume over and over again so completely useless when I needed them most? 

What is at the core of stories I returned to time and time again before everything was awful? 

First, there’s the obvious love story centring Goblin, and in the other narratives I adore, but even if you ignore the basic squickiness of Goblin and Eun-tak’s relationship, that isn’t necessarily what comes to mind when I think of this drama. 

Well, there’s also the characters and their place inside their world. They are in society but not necessarily fitting within society. Goblin, Reaper, and Eun-tak, all three of them, in different ways and for different reasons, are living on the edges and in the shadows of the world as an immortal, a grim reaper, and an abused orphan teen. This thought seems to track with the other stories I turn to again and again. So, outsiders and misfits: check. 

Next, what is this world they are in? The physical space they live in is very far from and very different than the one I enjoy. But more than that, Goblin’s Korean home is beautiful and a little strange, while his alternate home in Quebec is magical but also more strangely real to me. Again, I’m thinking that an aspirational and slightly magical location appears to be something I’m drawn to. So, cool and interesting places and spaces: check. 

Finally, what is the purpose of the story? What journey compels the narrative forward? Central to the story of Goblin is that both he and Reaper are given a do-over of sorts. I mean, that’s the very simple way of describing their purpose, but I’m not wrong. Whether it’s reincarnation, immortality, moving to a stranger land compels my interest. I guess you could say, a re-do, another go, a fix-it if you will seems to be something I like. So, second chances: check. 

Okay, we have outsiders in interesting places who get do-overs. 

Looking at my list of favourites, (With Goblin at the fore because that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about here. So sorry for going rogue.) and those three points sum up fairly succinctly my favourite shows, movies, and books. Admittedly, most have a love story too, but that’s usually tied to the do-over, so we’ll just ignore that today because as I said earlier, I want to ignore the slightly squicky Goblin/Eun-tak romance. Okay, it’s a really problematic romance. 

But anyways, I’m focusing now. I swear. Oddballs in amazing spaces getting a second chance. 

I think what draws me to the stories I love is that I see a little of myself in the characters. Now, I’m not saying that I’m an immortal god like Goblin, or an orphan like Eun-tak. And no, despite the rumours and my preferred clothing choices, I am not a reaper (but if there is an afterlife, that would be my job of choice). That familiarity though allows for some emotional catharsis that I don’t always allow myself in real life. It’s more than just having a good cry, it’s about the whole spectrum of feeling that in real life can sometimes just leave me feeling a little too exposed. It’s so much safer to experience it through the buffer of fiction, don’t you think?

Additionally, if Goblin’s house had been a staid two story family home on the outskirts of town, I’m not sure that I would have returned to this drama time and time again. The undeniable pull of his strange stone home with books tucked into corners and nooks, speaks to my bookish soul more than any mansion overfilled with expensive antiquities. Add in Reaper’s tea room, and more organisational, everything in its place; heart sings with glee. All those tea cups in all those cubbyholes are just so beautifully satisfying. Not to mention, Reaper sending the souls of the dead to just where they belong. These are both spaces I could easily spend an enjoyable day or two or more in, and maybe I did more than a few times through my screen. Because there can be a sense of homecoming to places you love that you’ve never actually been in, and these were spaces which welcomed me. 

They were spaces that welcomed me. This is why this has been so difficult to write. Past tense. I haven’t watched more than a minute or two of Goblin since 2019. I still call it a favourite, but events of the last year might have temporarily leached the comfort out of this favourite.

It’s only in writing this I think I begin to understand the why of it more clearly. First, feeling the cathartic emotions is just not like the release valve under normal pressures, but there are so many feels in real life right now that the added release is unwelcome and maybe even overwhelming. Next, in normal times, the escapist fantasy of being somewhere else is welcome and fun and it feels good to dream of new places. But for the present, that fantasy is undeniably unreachable and impossible, and maybe seeing it is no longer welcoming but a reminder of what I can’t do. 

I didn’t mean to go dark and sad, but like my favourite stories, sometimes the dark and sad is just before the happy ending. And I do love a happy ending even if it is a little weird and ambiguous like Goblin’s. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, or reincarnation, or immortality, or ghosts, or any number of mystical ideas, but I do believe in second acts, and that things can and will change for the better. That is what really drew me to Goblin: the long game of circling back in order to right injustices, and learning to atone and fix the harms you’ve inflicted. But not in a pat happily ever after, everyone is forgiven, and they all walk off into the sunset arm in arm kind of way. No. Forgiveness is not the endgame because life and death are too messy for that. Instead, we learn. And eventually, we move forward. And then, hopefully, we do better. 

So, I think in this year of both chaos and constricted stasis, I couldn’t watch a lonely god living like a spectre and watching the events of centuries pass by him while barely living within them himself. But maybe now this new year, with new beginnings, and new opportunities that give rise to hopefulness for the future, will allow me to once again revisit this old favourite. We’ll see. In the meantime, this has been a strangely self-revealing look at myself, and I do apologise for going a bit off track. Okay, a lot off track. However, this journey has been an interesting one for me. How about you? Have you lost touch with some of your old favourites? Care to tell me some of them and if you might give them another try?

You can find Egads on Dramabeans

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2 thoughts on “Comfort Couch: The Dramas You Turn To

  1. I’m the kind who watches even sadder dramas when I need comfort but sometimes you’ve had enough. That’s when I tune into Jealousy Incarnate. It still holds the title of the wackiest humor in kdramaland for me, maybe alongside Wohoo Waikiki. So it’s either I delve into pure sorrow or pure laugh out loud fun (which I guess is both depressing lol). Great writeup and suggestions LT and everyone.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This is such a lovely post, thank you for your suggestions!!! Right now, the drama I would like to rewatch is Just Between Lovers. Maybe because it is January and the weather is so cold and gloomy. Maybe because crying about a fictional character’s journey through life is easier.
    The other dramas I like to rewatch are TKA, Avengers Social Club, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo,Dear My Friends and Please Come Back Mister!

    Liked by 4 people

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