Must See Korean TV: 21st Century Family (21세기가족)

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Thank you very much to Maria, whose synopsis instantly sold me on this recent drama:

…I’ve seen a lot of Korean dramas and they almost always find a way to disappoint me in the way they portray women, sexuality or both. This little drama is quite refreshing. Unusual in that it’s only 8 episodes long, it openly talks about issues like teenage sex, puberty, the difficulty married couples have getting sex regularly, and even one episode about viagra. To be fair, I have taken the last nearly 9 months away from watching dramas, so maybe things have heated up out there when I wasn’t looking. But this is the first time I’ve seen sexually related issues being dealt with so frankly and humorously…

If you think it already sounds a lot like Modern Family, you’d be quite right — it’s explicitly modeled on it, albeit without a gay family. See here for a helpful family tree, starting with Lee Deok-hwa (이덕화) playing the father role that Ed O’Neill does in the US original, and DramaTic for some historical context on Korean sitcoms, which helps you better understand what makes this one so different. In particular:

…the word comedy [was removed] from the show’s promotion to avoid all the implications it brings to the table, at least in Korea – namely, the idea that sitcoms should all be about a relentless succession of mindless gags punctuated by the good old laugh track. It’s an intelligent expedient, which highlights this show’s priorities better than any trailer or presentation would. This, in other words, is a back-to-basics approach, while at the same time exploring different answers to the usual formula.

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s so easy to find with English subtitles then — I just watched episode 1 here, and although frankly I found it a little slow after all that build-up, it was still quite enjoyable. Also, crucially, it only had precisely one cringe-worthy moment for me, when Oh Yoon-ah (오윤아) behaves quite childishly in the police-station towards the end. Considering how routinely women behave that way in most Korean dramas, making me turn the TV off in disgust within 5 minutes of watching, it was very refreshing not to see it for a whole 40 minutes here.

Anybody else seen the show, and/or like a detailed episode by episode discussion (à la Dramabeans) over the next 8 weeks? Please let me know!

9 thoughts on “Must See Korean TV: 21st Century Family (21세기가족)

    • With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I’ll be able to sorry – to my great surprise and disappointment, episodes 2 and 3 were no different to any other Korean dramas, full of all the normal cliches and women acting like children, and didn’t deal with any social and/or sexual issues at all (although it does involve babysitting, I was wrong about episode 2 being about sexually frustrated married couples wanting time away from kids; that must be later). I do know though, that episode 4 covers teenage sex, the mother finding condoms in her daughter’s bag, and so that looks interesting, but with nothing positive to say about episodes 2 and 3 then an episode by episode discussion wouldn’t really be the best format I think. Instead, once I finish the series I’ll probably do a big post covering all 8 episodes.

  1. Yeah, I was going to say that I’m disappointed in this drama after reading your very positive post about it. I’ve only watched 2 episodes though, so I’ll keep watching it ’till episode 6 or more if it becomes really interesting.

    The 1st and 2nd episodes were full of stereotypes indeed (women can’t drive, are stupid, childish, act like prudes when it comes to sex, are superficial/into stardom/take a lot of pride in their looks). I’ve noticed how dramas always love to humiliate women. The only women who are able to have meaningful and interesting conversations that have nothing to do with themselves/men/kids/looks/food are often the boring/arrogant nerds with the stereotypical awful glasses.

    But I’m giving this series the benefit of the doubt as I’ve heard good things about it. Thanks for recommending it!

    • My apologies, and, just preparing to watch the last episode myself as I type this, I too am very disappointed. It certainly had a lot of potential, definitely has some moments here and there, and in broaching sexual subjects at all is indeed a refreshing change from most Korean dramas (albeit in my limited experience that is), but like you say it relies on many of the same old stereotypes in the process. Also, the character of 정용필, the 20-something brother, is very annoying for being so infantile, while 90% of 13 year-old 나봉수’s screenstime is spent either saying he’s dizzy so please can Mum cook him some noodles, or staring at women’s breasts looking like he’s intellectually handicapped (the complete opposite of disarmingly intelligent Manny in Modern Family).

  2. It’s OK, I enjoyed it anyway, the nerd girl was interesting.

    It is indeed a nice and refreshing change to have such topics in Korean dramas, I agree. I shouldn’t have expected much more than that even if this show was aired a bit late in the evening. I believe they’ll fully get there eventually, with other dramas in the future, I guess they (producers and Korean media) have to take it slowly.

    I’ve finished this series. This family doesn’t strike me as very 21st century, the only uncommon thing (for a Korean drama) is that they remarried with kids involved and that the dad has remarried with a much yonger woman. The parents are very “Korean” to me and traditional. They don’t discuss mature stuff with their children (the teenagers) and just freak out. They eventually just suck it up regarding their annoying/intruding in-laws, no matter how much they wanted to move out. Just like many families used to in the past. Oops, sorry, this is some major spoiler for the readers :(
    And yeah, being overweight or obese doesn’t make one lazy, childish or slow/dumb. I’ve been seeing that in other dramas. It was frustrating to see him act like that.
    The last episode ended in a slightly surprising way to me, I was like “wait, is this the last episode?”. Maybe I’m just used to longer TV series.

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