The Toxicity Inside the Escapism

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The Toxicity Inside the Escapism

Dramas are one of the greatest forms of escapism. They offer a world of beefy men and beautiful women, one where every setback is just another bu

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Dramas are one of the greatest forms of escapism. They offer a world of beefy men and beautiful women, one where every setback is just another building block in the inevitable happy ending. The bitterness always has enough sweetness to take out the sting and make the suffering worth it. Yet they are not perfect, and have unpleasant truths baked into their reality that we, the audience, consciously overlook in order to indulge our fantasies. Dramaworld 2 questions the morality of this. While the original was a love letter to the K-drama, Dramaworld 2 is an examination of its flaws.

Dramaworld 2 has only recently been made available to stream outside of Asia via IMDb TV, but was originally aired as a web drama on TVing and iQiyi. It has only been a few months since Claire (Liv Hewson)  and Joon (Sean Dulake) prevented Seth (Justin Chon) from destroying Dramaworld. Everything seems settled–with Seth seething over the loss of Seoyeon, Joon starring in gangster drama Undercover Love 1988 with new leading lady Jiwon (Ha Ji-won), and Claire attempting to move on with her new friend Evan (Brett Gray)–only for everything to be tossed awry when an addition is made to the rules of Dramaworld, allowing for Claire and Joon to have a second season. Teaming up with former facilitator Doug (Daniel Dae Kim) and his daughter Sam (Choi Myung-bin) plus Seoyeon (Bae Noo-ri) and her new leading man, Woosung (Henry) from a vampire versus were-tiger urban fantasy drama, the unlikely allies once again have to save Dramaworld from Seth’s machinations.

While the idea of a world of dramas was used mainly as set dressing and a framing device before, Dramaworld 2 takes advantage of its tripled runtime to dig into the meta-structure of dramas. There are many instances of the meta being played for comedy–Joon and Claire having an epic fight about their relationship while Evan awkwardly tries to get a snack out of the fridge is outright hysterical–or for exposition, using jokes about how it feels like it’s been years since season 1 to show that it has only been a few months.

But more often, the meta nature of Dramaworld is used to inform and dictate the plot of Dramaworld 2. Joon is a leading man, and as such, his only concern is reuniting with his true love, Claire… which is a problem because he does not care about saving the world, and has serious prioritization issues. Claire, meanwhile, is now an official leading lady, complete with a love triangle. She loves Joon, but is so afraid of messing anything up that she is too willing to go along with whatever is in front of her. This trait seems to set off a domino effect that results in the outcome of the story: Claire strings along Evan and accidentally breaks Joon’s heart, splintering the heroes and pushing Joon to join Seth.

Except it didn’t. The biggest trick in Dramaworld 2’s writing is not pulled against the characters, but the audience. We still expect everything to play out like a drama– for characters to fit archetypes, for reunions and true love, and most importantly, for resolutions. Dramaworld 2 ends instead on an epic cliffhanger: the ladies of the heroic alliance surrounded on all sides by Seth’s flunkies, including and especially Evan, who has been a mole all along. A massive twist in the literal last two minutes, with no hero, no hope, and no ending; it all feels completely wrong. And yet, therein lies the brilliance–Dramaworld is broken, so of course Dramaworld 2 is broken. It is becoming more real, and in real life, not everything gets tied up in a bow.

This is one reason Dramaworld 2 works better as a binge than spaced out. The other is that while it has a definite focus, it takes its time getting there. The first half can feel a little meandering, with wacky hijinks there for their own sake. Yet there is a real core to this show, one that it trusts its audience to figure out on their own. Dramaworld 2 is about entitlement.

Every negative action shown in this series can be traced back to some form of entitlement. The most obvious is male entitlement to women. The core of Seth’s army is Second Leads Anonymous, a coalition of all the drama nice guys who didn’t get the girl. We see them in a meeting, lamenting their love lives, and it is revolting. They treat women like items on layaway, believing that if you give a woman enough basic respect and kindness, you get a girlfriend. Friendship is worthless, and the women’s feelings don’t even come up, because if you don’t get sex as a reward for niceness, what is even the point?

Even the heroes aren’t exempt from this–Doug and Jiwon were happily married for years, even having a child, with her treating her drama life like an acting career. Yet, when Doug decides that their life is destabilizing Dramaworld, he erases Jiwons’ memories of him and Sam without her consent. Doug thinks he knows best, and thus is entitled to control Jiwon’s life.

There are other forms of entitlement beyond the romantic. Seoyeon’s father feels entitled to dictate his 500 year old daughter’s life. Ga-in (a returning Kim Sa-hee) feels entitled to power, Hyun the gangster (Jung Man-sik) to control the lives of his underlings, and Sam to mess with the state of the world to appease her own sense of romance. Seth is able to weaponize this underlying sense of entitlement by playing into it–by offering people what they “deserve” and encouraging them to take out their frustrations on those who have what they want, rather than changing their own lives.

What makes this exploration of entitlement so potent is that the entitlement may be rooted in the dramas, but the most entitled people are from the real world–Seth, Doug, and Evan. Seth turns against dramas and love itself because in real life and dramas, he was denied the love he wanted. What Seth ignores is that he never genuinely loved anyone else; he was far too wrapped up in his wants to consider theirs. Doug erased his wife’s memory of her child. Evan, even with the hindsight that he was a mole and trying to break up Claire and Joon, acts like a real person. Chasing Claire despite her protests, trying to be romantic when he knows full well she has a partner, insisting Claire would be happier with him because he’s right there; this is a guy most women have known. And like most real men, Seth, Doug, and Evan learned this mindset from the media.

This makes the actual leading men, Woosung and Joon, stand out even more, by showcasing their genuine love against the entitlement and obsession of the SLA. Both of them love unselfishly, prioritizing the welfare and happiness of their women over themselves. Even when Joon believes Claire has left him and moved on with Evan, he does not take it out on her. He doesn’t try to win her back, but accepts her choice and tries to cope with his own pain himself. He does not always do this well, but Joon understands that love is wanting the best for someone and respecting their decisions, even if it hurts you. This gives the final shot such power: it may appear that Joon has given up and joined Seth, but it is just as likely that Joon is channeling his pain into rebellion. He may not have Claire, but he can take down the monster who destroyed his home–ironically living his life on his own terms for the first time.

Dramaworld 2 is a worthy successor to the original. It carries the same sense of wit, dark humor, and genuine love for dramas. Given that almost the entire cast returned five years later, joined by a slew of new heavy hitters, it just gives the sense of everyone being happy to be there. And while the love for dramas is still at its core, Dramaworld 2 challenges its audience not by condemning losing yourself in dramas, but asking what you take with you when you leave. After all, life is like a sandwich: sometimes there are toppings you just don’t need.

(Images via IMDB TV. YouTube)

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