People in tracksuits with numbers on their chests, confined in a room where a deep mysterious voice tells them when to sleep, eat, and get ready to play. No, this isn’t about Squid Game. The Netflix show is now a full-fledged hit but while its violent spin on traditional children’s games is intriguing, the very game show format it’s built on isn’t actually new. In fact, there’s a name for it—variety shows.
Most Koreans or those who love K-pop culture would have remembered that in one episode of the game show Infinite Challenge, cast members played tug of war in a set made to look like two tall buildings, just like on the popular survival drama.
Though, unlike the bloody Squid Game, variety shows may just be the purest form of entertainment on TV. It’s one of the few things children, young adults, parents, and grandparents agree to watch, uniting the family for about an hour with its witty on-screen commentary. There are many different kinds of variety shows, but you’ll know it when you see it.
What Are Korean Variety Shows?
It’s difficult to describe a South Korean variety show to people who have never seen one. Game shows, talent competitions, and reality shows all fall under “variety,” but a common thread that runs through them all is that they’re (mostly) unscripted programs made for casual viewing that celebrates the light-hearted and silly. With the rise in popularity of South Korean pop culture, variety shows have now established their own followers, just like K-pop groups and K-dramas. Below are just some of the most common kinds.
So you want to watch… Korean Game Shows
Like Infinite Challenge, most Korean game shows involve contestants undergoing simple yet incredibly entertaining missions. Players are either set cast members or celebrity guests, offering a rare look at them, not as idols, but as people.
X-Man was a mammoth of a game show that ran in the early 2000s. Celebrity guests form two teams battle each other in “mini games,” all while figuring out who among the group is the “X-man” or spy. The show ended in 2007 but game shows remain popular in South Korea today.
The next generation of game shows includes Running Man, where celebrity guests and cast members play challenges like the now iconic name tag game. Led by host Yoo Jae-suk, its crew of “MCs” have become household names.
In the addictively funny New Journey to the West, hosted by Korean wrestling champion-turned-comedian Kang Ho-dong, cast members usually complete tasks while wearing costumes in exchange for “dragon balls,” a key for them to get a wish granted. Its games include “Yelling in the Midst of Silence,” an extreme pass the message where players are wearing headphones, and “People Quiz,” where players yell out names of celebrities and characters flashed in front of them. 2 Days & 1 Night takes it up a notch, putting cast members’ shelter and food for the day on the line in every challenge.
Now, challenges in these game shows are played in college retreats and adopted by idol group variety shows. Aside from the physical and mental challenges, Korean game shows also feature dancing, singing, and impersonations.
Watch this when you’re… looking for a good, easy laugh.
You’ll dig this if you like: American Ninja Warrior, The Amazing Race, Celebrity Family Feud
Watch list: Infinite Challenge, X-Man, Running Man, New Journey to the West, 2 Days & 1 Night, Great Escape, Knowing Bros, Weekly Idol
So you want to watch… Korean reality shows
Like most reality shows, those in South Korea offer a slice of life, whether in extreme situations or mundane ones. They’re low on drama when compared to The Real Housewives of the world, but are just as compelling, maybe even more.
In Law of the Jungle comedian Kim Byung-man and celebrity guests try to survive in remote locations around the world. They build tents, cook outdoors, spearfish, and hunt for wild boars, all while the camera is rolling. Away from the outdoors, I Live Alone is a look into the lives of celebrities, usually following them throughout a day. Like many Korean reality shows, it features an in-studio cast that reacts to the episode. While mostly lighthearted, it also shows celebrities real-life challenges, like feeling lonely.
Watch this when you’re… home alone and want company.
You’ll dig this if you like: Survivor, Terrace House, Keeping Up with the Kardashians
Watch list: Law of the Jungle, I Live Alone, Master in the House, My Little Old Boy, Hyori’s Homestay
So you want to watch… Korean travel shows
For those who have missed going on vacations, these shows are for you. While travel shows are common around the world, those in Korea are different in that they usually feature a famous celebrity, often singers or actors who don’t typically make appearances on TV shows.
Youn’s Kitchen has Oscar winning actress Youn Yuh-jung opening a pop-up restaurant, first in Indonesia, then in Spain. With the help of other celebrities in her “staff,” she conceptualizes the restaurant, develops recipes, and interacts with customers. Though it’s set outside South Korea, the show highlights the country’s popular dishes like bibimbap and bulgogi.
Welcome, First Time in Korea?, meanwhile, shows what it’s like to travel around South Korea. In each episode, a non-Korean living in South Korea invites family and friends from back home to a tour of the country. The show gives a preview of the cultural landmarks, eateries, sceneries, and challenges that await visitors.
Watch this when you’re… feeling adventurous.
You’ll dig this if you like: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Long Way Up
Watch list: Youn’s Kitchen, Welcome, First Time in Korea?, Grandpas Over Flowers, Three Meals a Day
So you want to watch… Korean mukbang shows
Mukbang, which in Korean literally means “eat while broadcasting,” is huge online, all over the world. But in South Korea, they’re on TV too. As the name suggests, these shows are all about eating.
On Tasty Guys, comedians travel across South Korea to discover the country’s best eateries. The hosts never seem to get full and fill their stomachs throughout an episode. Spots featured on the show go on to become very popular, with visitors wanting a taste of their grilled beef entrails, dumplings, cold noodle soup, and more.
Those curious about South Korea’s drinking culture should watch Paik’s Spirit, which has restaurant tycoon Baek Jong-won and a celebrity guest conversing over food like samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), jogae gui (baked clams), and jeon (fritters), and, of course, traditional Korean spirits like soju and makgeolli. It’s like listening in on the conversations and unlikely bonds formed in the country’s pubs every night.
Watch this when you’re… eating lunch alone at home, or when you’re craving ramen late at night.
You’ll dig this if you like: Somebody Feed Phil, Street Food
Watch list: Tasty Guys, Paik’s Spirit, Star’s Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant, Baek Jong-won’s Alley Restaurant
So you want to watch… Korean singing competitions
By now, most around the world are familiar with K-pop. But what might be unfamiliar to the uninitiated are the singing competitions on South Korean TV. Some promise careers for budding superstars, while others are purely for entertainment.
In Show Me The Money, thousands of rappers compete for a chance to win big and, perhaps, get famous. The format differs in every season but it usually goes like this: In the first round, contestants crowd in a warehouse-looking studio while waiting for their turn to spit bars in front of judges. Those who pass go on to rap on stage before judges decide if they pass or fail. The next rounds consist of a diss battle and making a track to a beat produced by one of the hitmakers judging the show. The few who are left after all these preliminary rounds face a live audience and perform original songs that later become chart-topping hits.
For something less serious, there’s shows like Hidden Singer, where a panel of celebrities must figure out who among the people behind a curtain is the famous singer, and who is not. The show is such a hit that it has put old songs it featured back on the charts.
Watch this when you’re… wanting to hit the karaoke bar.
You’ll dig this if you like: Rhythm + Flow, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent
Watch list: Show Me The Money, Hidden Singer, I Can See Your Voice, Masked Singer, High School Rapper
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