On the slice of life genre and my top three slices of life K-dramas

Written by Frances Nito

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What is the slice of life genre?

A lot of Korean drama viewers may be familiar with this term, but for those who are not, a slice of life means “realistic representation of everyday experience in a movie, play, or book.” As a genre, it depicts naturalism or relatability to everyday life.

Viewers may not necessarily be going through the same exact situation depicted in the movie or book, but the recurring themes of friendship and family, the struggles of everyday life, as well as the stark portrayal of our enduring human nature is what makes this genre very beautiful and very appealing to a lot of people.

A heartwarming scene from Reply 1988 | Deok Sun with her father and younger brother | Photo from Korea Bizwire

The slice of life genre is a prevalent recurring theme in a lot of K-dramas. Varying from hospital to office and even school dramas, the K-drama land has perfected the recipe on how to make the best slice of life dramas.

The base and most important ingredient in slice-of-life genres is the casting. A good ensemble not only means the actor and actresses must accurately portray their characters to the best of their ability, but they must also develop a good rapport with the whole cast and their characters to produce a seamless and tight woven drama that will leave the audience yearning for more.

A hilarious scene from the Prison Playbook | Je Hyeok with his prison gang | Photo courtesy of tvN

The second equally important factor is the plot. The everyday issues and struggles the character(s) must go through is what makes a K-drama fall under the slice of life genre. The main plot does not necessarily have to relatable to everyone, such as life in prison in Prison Playbook or life as a surgeon in Hospital Playlist, but it is the human interaction and everyday struggles that essentially counts. In a way, this factor is what makes or breaks the whole drama.

A throwback scene from the Hospital Playlist | The first encounter of the five friends | Photo credit to Dramas with a Side of Kimchi

Finally, to top it off, insert (in all the right moments) a heartwarming soundtrack. This is bound to captivate not only the attention of the viewers but all of their emotions as well. If you have watched any of the three dramas I will further discuss in this blog, you are bound to remember the emotional and nostalgic songs, Youth by Kim Feel and Chang Wan Kim, or Hyehwadong (or Ssangmundong) by Park Boram from Reply 1988 as well as the intro rap song OK by BewhY with Gray and Bravo, My Life by Eric Nam from the Prison Playbook. There is also the phenomenal rock performance of the Canon by the Mido and Falasol band in the Hospital Playlist.

As common as it may sound to make a slice of life K-drama, no one else can pull it off as perfectly as the director Shin Won Ho and writer Lee Woo Jeong, the brilliant brains behind Reply 1988, Prison Playbook, and the Hospital Playlist, my top three K-dramas in the slice of life genre.

(Director Shin Won Ho and writer Lee Woo Jeong also worked together on Reply 1994 and Reply 1997 and co-worked with writer Jung Bo Hoon in Prison Playbook.)

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Reply 1988 (2015) | 20 episodes

Photo courtesy of tvN

Plot: Set in the nostalgic period of the 1980s, this drama revolves around the lives of the five friends and their families who lived in the neighborhood of Ssangmun-dong.

The Slice of Life: If there is one word to describe this drama, it would be: nostalgia. I was not born in the 1980s and definitely not as a Korean citizen. I did not experience the exact same things the Ssangmun-dong gang did, but it made me reminisce and remember my own childhood and growing up years. The years I would hang out with my friends to play on the streets, the times when I would run away from my household chores, and the only concern I had in life was how to tell my parents I got a poor grade in Mathematics and Science. I think this only goes on to show that despite the differences in our culture and time period, there are universal experiences we are all undergoing and relate to as human beings.

Another beauty of this drama is that you can take your pick on who you relate to the most among the Ssangmun-dong gang. You can either relate to Jung Hwan’s rich kid problems or to Sun Woo’s responsibilities as the family’s breadwinner. Personally, since I came from a big family with four older sisters, I related with Sun Deok Sun (played by Lee Hye Ri) the most. It made me laugh that the culture of hand-me-down clothes and shoes doesn’t only exist in the Philippines and her love/ hate relationship with her older sister is just all too real and relatable. I probably fought over the same things as room sharing issues with my own sisters as she did with Bo Ra. Her struggles as the middle-overlooked child also hit home, being a middle child myself.

Overall, family issues such as ordinary sibling rivalry (minus all the political and rich power struggle), complex child-parent relationship, and the notion of best friends for life portrayed in this drama is what makes Reply 1988 fall under the slice of life genre. A beautiful must watch (if you have not) and always one for the books, no matter what you’re going through in life. However, a word of caution: this drama will surely make you cry and laugh until you are rolling on the floor, will make you love the Ssangmun-dong gang (ultimate squad goals), and will give you a heavy dose of second male lead syndrome!

My favorite line: “In some ways, one’s own family is the most oblivious. But… what is so important about knowing? In the end, what helps you overcome obstacles is not brains, but someone who will take your hand and never let you go. In the end, that’s family. Even for heroes, the people they go back to, in the end, is family.” – Sun Deok Sun, Reply 1988

Prison Playbook (2017) | 16 episodes

Photo courtesy of tvN via OneHallyu

Plot: With only a few days left to be part of the major league, a star pitcher unexpectedly ends up in prison where he meets individuals who either wants to be him, befriend him, or kill him.

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The Slice of Life: Coming from the fun and light Reply 1988, Prison Playbook is comparatively darker and more serious. Its theme focuses on the reality of life and the nuggets of wisdom that can be found in the most hopeless place in the world, the prison. From the get-go of this drama, it is essentially impossible to relate to the struggles of Je Hyeok (played by Park Hae Soo) in life. When he was just starting out to become a professional baseball player, he had an accident that nearly made him give up before even making a name for himself. When he finally had his shot, he unexpectedly landed in prison after saving his sister from an attempted assault. Given these circumstances, you would find yourself often asking while watching this drama, is there anyone else who has more wretched luck than this man? Apparently, yes. It is Je Hyeok himself.

Though this drama has a serious theme revolving around prison life and a little bit of politics with plenty of dark humor, it is still a very recommended must-watch. The ultimate lesson of this drama or the nuggets of wisdom prison life imparts to all walks of life is to learn how to roll with the punches that life throws our way and to begin again and again and again no matter what, no matter how. Some say that this drama glorifies criminals; I think it shows that they are still human at the end of the day, with raw emotions, and has made wrong decisions. This is what makes Prison Playbook a slice of life drama.

My favorite line: “How could you have worked harder? How could you have possibly tried harder? What more could you have done? You did your very best, but you weren’t given any opportunity. So just blame the world instead. The world should have tried harder. The problem was that the world never gave you an opportunity. So, cry and curse all you want, but don’t beat yourself up.” – Kim Je Hyeok, Prison Playbook

Hospital Playlist (2020) | 12 episodes

Photo courtesy of tvN

Plot: Set in Yulje Medical Center, the drama revolves around the career, friendship, and lives of five medical surgeons as well their day-to-day interactions with their patients.

The Slice of Life: After coming from Reply 1988 and Prison Playbook, the Hospital Playlist is a bit of a mix of both previous dramas, but with its own personal charms from the all-star cast to the plot. Though medical drama is a common theme in K-dramas, what makes this drama stand out is how it provides a fresh perspective on the daily life and struggles of surgeons. From not being able to eat a proper meal during work hours to being always on-call even on their day-off; this drama was able to encapsulate the essence of what it truly means to be a doctor, a human being who can only do so much and can also feel grief, pain, loss, and love. In this way, this drama is a timely salutation to our front liners.

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Despite its serious theme, this drama was also able to pull a light, comedic side with the endearing friendship of the five medical surgeons and the nostalgic throwbacks to their med school days in the ’90s. Once again, very much like in Reply 1988, you can also take your pick on who you relate to the most among the five, from the perfect Dr. Chae Song Hwa (played by Jeon Mi Do) to the funny genius Dr. Lee Ik Joon (played by Jo Jung Suk), the terror Dr. Kim Joon Wan (played by Jung Kyung Ho), the chill introvert Dr. Yang Seok Hyung (played by Kim Dae Myung), and even to the pious heartthrob, Dr. Ahn Jung Won (played by Yoo Yeon Seok).

An additional charm of this drama is that PD Shin Won Ho and writer Lee Woo Jeong incorporated every now and then subtle references or characters from their previous dramas to give fans and viewers feels overload, like Moo Sung and Sun Young’s (from Reply 1988) special appearance in one of the episodes.

This drama has only twelve episodes, but it is releasing a season two next year so watch out for it!

My favorite line: “Do you know why doctors only give vague answers such as “We cannot be sure yet,” “We do not know yet,” and “We need to observe a bit more.” Doctors must take responsibility for their words. So, we must be careful with our words. There is only one thing we, doctors, can tell our patients with certainty: “We will do our best.” – Ahn Jung Hwan, Hospital Playlist

Essentially, slice-of-life dramas are one of the most endearing to watch because of their relatability factor in our everyday lives. I believe there is something comforting in knowing that we are not alone in our everyday struggles and seeing it on screen makes it seem more bearable, even if for a short while. Slice of life dramas also offer nuggets of wisdom that no other genre can provide.

If you have time, I highly recommend try watching any of the three dramas I discussed in this blog. Who knows? You might just find a little bit of comfort, laughter, and warmth in these trying times.

My other favorite slice of life K-dramas are the: Misaeng: Incomplete Life, My Mister, and Because This is My First Life. What about you? What is your top three slice of life K-dramas? Let us know in the comments below!

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