Channel 4 recently broadcast a series entitled ‘The Greatest Shows on Earth’. The programme was headed by British TV presenter Daisy Donovan, who is a self-confessed television addict that set out to test a theory that a nation’s television can serve as a window into its soul.
Each hour-long programme focused on one area of the globe: Brazil, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi and lastly, South Korea. Donovan sets out to see how exactly each area’s wider culture links to their most popular programmes, often getting actively involved in productions.
It is typical of Channel 4 documentaries to tackle subjects that have not yet been covered, often because these topics are very niche or even controversial. Personally, I feel this makes for a more intriguing watch, it taps into a part of viewers curious about the taboo or simply quite strange and unusual. However, I am sure that I was not the only British K-Pop fan that was particularly excited to watch the episode that covered contemporary South Korean entertainment.
It has to be said though, that I was left with mixed feelings after watching. Daisy spent most of the time in the country with a perplexed expression on her face, frequently stating that she: “Didn’t get it” or that South Korean people will “find anything funny”. She spent time on the most popular South Korean variety show of the past decade ‘Infinite Challenge’, but I found it slightly annoying that there was no real mention of the iinvolved comedians’ talents or hard work. Television drama series are one of the biggest cultural exports of the country and yet they were given the briefest of mentions accompanied by a three –second clip of 2009’s ‘Iris’. Donovan consistently mentioned how highly slapstick comedy is held in South Korea, but seemingly looked down her nose at the genre, perhaps forgetting how popular acts like Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin were (and arguably still are) in the Western world.
After my initial feelings of injustice though, I persevered to see things from any Daisy’s point of view. It is clearly stated in the episode itself that the only things Donovan is familiar with in regards to South Korea are the tensions with the North and, of course, PSY’s 2012 viral hit ‘Gangnam Style’. Pushing all my personal knowledge and bias aside, I can see how overwhelming and ultimately foreign this experience would have been for her. Every culture favours different humour and, in my limited experience of the Eastern Asian kind, slapstick is indeed popular. This is something that I personally immensely enjoy about South Korean comedy, as it offers something the complete opposite of the typical dry British humour that is common in the UK today. Slapstick is something that I will never look down on as I can understand how much skill goes into executing it well (despite comedian No Hong Chul saying that it is actually the easy option), but I can see how it would not be to everyone’s taste and can come across as very childish and silly.
I can recall my first experiences of South Korean television and I definitely was not an instant fan. This is even despite being previously familiar with the crazy ways of Japanese television. I felt bombarded with the constant captioning and felt that the presenters and guests were often overly loud and excitable. The content of the programmes did not seem to flow very well and if you add the various sound effects and graphics to this complete with the occasional magnified face and grey column, it’s clear to see why many British viewers would be quite overwhelmed at first.
South Korean entertainers do tend to have a lot of enthusiasm and show a lot of excitement during programmes, anyone who has seen everyone react to 2AM’s Jo Kwon as he ‘ssanti’/’Kkap’ dances away will know this. I feel it is a part of the entertainer’s requirement to bring their full energy to the programme, but this is perhaps why Daisy thought that Korean people found anything and everything humorous. British presenters do not seem to get as directly involved in programmes here, but I suppose if a South Korean entertainer took a spectators approach, they would be subject to a backlash by some of the viewership. I feel that is simply a difference in cultures.
I was initially a bit sore that the comedians of ‘Infinite Challenge’ weren’t celebrated as much as I feel they should have been. However, fans of the individuals will understand that these men do not mind being shown as the village idiots. In fact, they often actively encourage that perception in the interest of making people laugh. The programme did highlight their high popularity within their native country, and perhaps I am upset on behalf of a group of people that are far too humble to be upset themselves.
The presenter Daisy herself also deserves some credit, throughout the series she actively took part and grasped every opportunity she was given with both hands. She was often thrown in at the deep end, surrounded by things she did not know in a language she couldn’t understand and while some things were subject to her typically British cutting sarcasm, you could see her real effort to bond with those involved. It was quite heart-warming to see her trying to slurp noodles and laugh along with Park Myung Soo’s and No Hong Chul’s interesting pronunciation of the words: “Burberry” and “Yorkshire Terrier”.
There might be a few holes that those familiar with South Korean television and culture could pick in this programme’s portrayal of South Korean entertainment, but considering Channel 4’s interest of showing the weirdest and wonderful facets of the world, you could say they have done a pretty good job.
[If you missed any of programmes in ‘The Greatest Shows on Earth” series, they can all be found here on the 4oD website.]
What did you think of the South Korea episode of ‘The Greatest Shows on Earth?
What about the whole series in general?
Let us know in the comment section below!