By Da Ye Kim
The so-called “Reply” series began in 2012 with a surprise success of the first season titled “Reply 1997”. Set in 1997, the drama featured a Kpop idol group-obsessed teenage girl and her friends. The show ignited retro phenomenon in South Korea and its success led to another season where the producers went back three more years and made a show titled “Reply 1994” (2013) The second drama did even better in terms of ratings and the actors in the show momentarily became huge celebrities after the show. The story, again, centered on a girl and this time she was obsessed with a basketball player. The most recent drama, “Reply 1988” (2015), which focused on the family stories of the five friends living in the Ssangmun-dong neighborhood in Seoul in 1988, reached the pinnacle of success of the series and broke the cable station rating record. In South Korea, three main broadcasting stations, SBS, KBS and MBC get most of the high ratings. The “Reply” series were all aired through a cable channel, tvN, and “Reply 1988” ended with 18.8%, meaning 18.8% of the population with TV watched the last episode, which is almost equivalent to 40% for the main three broadcasting channels. What made “Reply 1988” so popular? In this blog post, I would like to discuss two main secrets behind its success.
- Rewriting history: Replying to collective nostalgia
1988 is a special year for South Koreans because that was the year of Seoul Olympics and the first episode of the drama specifically showed the national zeal about the event. The producers of “Reply 1988” recreated 1988 Seoul with great amount of details. They built an entire set of the Ssangmun-dong neighborhood where most of the episodes took place. The five families in the show live on the same street, sharing everything from food to family traumas. One funny scene from the first episode has each of the four friends delivering one dish from one’s house to others’ and all five families end up eating the same dinner. (The fifth family does not even have to cook anything because they all share) Whereas 1997 and 1994 were fairly similar to the current days, 1988 Seoul was old and foreign enough to appeal to both old and young audiences. My mother recognized obsolete products and told me stories about them. Some food products, such as Ghana chocolate and old drinks, revived in the market as the show became more popular. However, technologies could not come back to the market, so the old movie theaters, VHS videos and popular radio programs were only remediated in the show. The opening credit of the drama can be interpreted as a representation of what Tim van der Heijden called “technostalgia, the reminiscence of past media technologies in contemporary memory practices.” (Heijden, 1) because it is a remixed video of past technologies such as analogue TV, filmstrips and old games shown with glitches. It features news coverage and music videos from 1988, but the way it is presented, imitating old technologies, provokes nostalgia of the obsolete technology and culture. The show itself is a time capsule, and the audiences can easily open up the past as the camera zooms in to the old TV screen in the opening credit. Throughout the drama, there are many episodes related to the characters’ experience with 1988’s up-to-date technologies, such as the one where one of the fathers keeps recording his home videos.
As the opening credit ends with a portrait of the five families of the Ssangmun-dong neighborhood, the viewers enter the “subjunctive” (Hillman, 1), or a personal point of view, mode of recalling 1988. In fact, the entire drama is a long flashback of Duksun, the female lead, and her husband remembering the past. The show keeps flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Interestingly, the present day scenes consist of Duksun’s personal interview with an unknown interviewer. Although the show was in a subjunctive mode, the story included enough details of the past to bring about the common nostalgia among today’s South Koreans of missing the good old days when neighbors lived together like families, when things were more slow- paced, and when romance did not require text messaging.
As the episodes progresses, time passes by and the show ends with a brief portrayal of 1994. The five families eventually leave the neighborhood because of gentrification and the show ends with a montage of abandoned streets with Duksun’s voice over narration remembering the irretrievable past. The last scene before the montage sequence has a unique dream element. As Duksun in 2015 remembers the room where the five good friends used to watch videos together, she goes back in time and meets them as they are in 1988. She tears up and asks, “why are you guys here?” Junghwan replies, “Where would we go?” Duksun’s memory is capsulated in that space in spite of all the destructions that the neighborhood had to go through. Ssangmun-dong of 1988 Seoul is the “context for the figural content” (Kilbourn, 3) of Duksun’s memory. The emphasis on the neighborhood space goes beyond the familial feelings in the narrative, and represents Kilbourn’s argument of moving images’ capability to “produce and reproduce social relations in spatial configurations” (3)
- “Interacting” with the audience: Maximizing fandom practice online
In all three seasons, there is one common concept:
“Who is the husband for the main female character?”
All three “reply” dramas go back and forth between the past and the present, and play a game with the audience. Each episode provides clues for which of many male characters would be the husband, and the true identity is only revealed in the last episode. In one episode there would be clues hinting at character A, while the next episode points at character B. At the end of each episode, fans went online and deciphered the clues. The “husband trick” was very useful in terms of building an expansive and strong fandom for the series because many people started to team up online rooting for their favorite candidates for the husband. According to Henry Jenkins, “as the community enlarges and reaction time shortens, fandom becomes much more effective as a platform for consumer activism.” (Jenkins, 4) Devoted fans of the series were looking forward to the “husband search” part for “Reply 1988” even before the show started. When casting was announced online, fans immediately began guessing which of the actors would be the next husband.
One important aspect of South Korean dramas to remember here is that dramas are made almost live. It is very common that the drama goes on air while the last two thirds of the show is still in the making process. The production schedule is very tight and many problems have been raised. So! South Korean dramas CAN take audience opinions into account for the productions. Viewers’ voices do matter in the country. With that being said, different fan groups arguing for their favorite characters could have affected the writers’ decisions. The audiences were aware of their influence and the producers knew the audiences’ awareness.
Many of early episodes showed romantic moments between Junghwan and Duksun. Since it was obvious that Junghwan had feelings for Duksun, thousands of fans began rooting for Junghwan. His character matched the current “ideal” male fantasy for Korean women. Although he was often mean to her, he did care about her secretly. His character was very similar to that of the husbands in other “reply” dramas and such similarity convinced many viewers that Junghwan would be the husband. Fans online created a neologism “Uh-nam-ryu”, which is an abbreviated term for a sentence saying “Ryu Joon Yeol (name of the actor playing Junghwan) is meant to be the husband.” Fans made remixed videos with clips of Junghwan and Duksun. Fan art and parody videos swept across online communities.
By the time Junghwan syndrome began to overwhelm the online fandom, the writers shifted the focus to Taek. On episode 10, Taek revealed his feelings for Duksun in front of all the guys. With a new possibility of Taek being the husband, the fans started taking sides. Taek’s character was more romantic and caring than Junghwan. He had a sense of innocence and kindness that made him almost childlike, but such character resulted in more maternal affection among female viewers. A group of “Uh-nam-taek” fans emerged online. Towards the end of the series, Junghwan and Taek had fairly equal possibilities due to very deliberate writing.
When Taek was almost “announced” to be the husband in the last episode, thousands of “Uh-nam-ryu” fans felt almost betrayed. People made videos showing why it did not make sense for Taek to be the husband. Even some of Taek’s fans argued about how their romance seemed rushed towards the end.
It’s possible that the writers were determined to have Taek as the husband from the very beginning, but Junghwan became too famous unexpectedly. It’s possible that the producers ran out of time to fill in the blanks in the storyline to make Taek being husband more believable. Or it is even possible that Junghwan syndrome blinded thousands of viewers to recognize subtle clues pointing at Taek. No matter what the reasons are, I think the “husband controversy” is worth studying. The controversy is a rare example where the audience participation resulted in a competition between the audience and the producers of the show. Although the director and writers have the ultimate decision, the audiences were tricked to think that their voices would contribute to the ending. Or the “Uh-nam-ryu” syndrome among the fans might have caused the writers to make a surprise turn at the end. In both readings, however, I think the interaction between the audience and producers is crucial. It shows that that the two parties influence each other.
Many fans recreated new endings for the drama to display their dissatisfaction. The remixed videos showed who the audiences wanted to remember as the husband, instead of who the actual husband is. The remix and parody videos are used here to rewrite the history within the show. For remix examples, click here.
The elements of nostalgia and maximizing the fandom practice contributed to the success of the series. The drama not only rewrote the history, but also encouraged the audience to rewrite what the creators have written. Since the show is 20 episodes long, I could not cover all the details of it but I really recommend the drama! You can watch it on dramafever.com
*For more details and personal account on the show, please visit dayescinema
Heijden, Tim van der. “Technostalgia of the present: From technologies of memory to a memory of technologies.” 2015.
Hillman, Roger. “Goodbye Lenin (2003): History in the Subjunctive.” 2006.
Jenkins, Henry. “Interactive Audiences? The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of Media Fans.” 2002.
Kilbourn, Russell J.A. “Camera Arriving at the Station: Cinematic Memory as Cultural Memory.” 2013.