With this month’s release of “Blackpink: Light Up the Sky” on Netflix, K-pop documentaries seem to be on the precipice of mainstream popularity in the United States. But reality shows about the genre, which allow audiences to see the hard work behind the bright lights, have a long and storied history in South Korea, dating back 20 years. In 2000, the seminal show “g.o.d.’s baby diary” followed early K-pop group g.o.d. as it cared for a baby named Jaemin, and in 2009, Blackpink predecessor Girls Generation did the same for a 9-month-old named Kyungsan in the first season of “Hello Baby.”
Though assigning such ordinary tasks to flashy stars may seem odd, ingenious Korean television producers realized that fans needed to humanize their idols and see them in scenarios more relatable than the usual onstage or backstage vignettes. Continuing the grand tradition of forcing often shy K-pop stars to come out from behind the microphone and into the public realm (or TV’s semblance of one), Blackpink guested this month on the antics-filled variety show “Running Man,” where the singers performed a tongue-in-cheek dance routine and played a game of tag dressed as bunnies.
Idol diaries, or views into the daily lives of K-pop stars, are also nothing new. Catching a glimpse of daily dance rehearsals and time in the studio is customary for K-pop fandom — because of these intimate documentaries, a new group’s fan base is formed in real-time even before its debut performance.
Interpreting the conventions of idol reality TV can be an adjustment for a non-Korean audience, which likely isn’t used to seeing its pop stars feed milk to random babies, hop across a field wearing pants full of sweet potatoes or fail repeatedly at dance routines. But learn the ropes and you can expect conventions as absurdist and reliably predictable as you’ll find in K-drama, and fuel your K-pop obsession in the process. Here are six series to get you started.
BTS needs no introduction after its many reality series, but "In the Soop" reveals another side of the fierce septet. Even if you’ve followed its tour life (via “Bon Voyage”) or its tutelage under Warren G and Coolio in “Hustle Life,” its latest, which debuted this summer, is a surprise. Like other Korean series set in the countryside, “In the Soop” is a view into rustic life, from the time-honored Korean tradition of cooking outdoors to learning how to fish. Of course, there’s time for leisure, from video games to custom-painting a pair of sneakers. The boys are basically just chilling in the woods (“soop” means forest), and the BTS Army, as the group’s fandom is called, couldn’t be happier to escape with its idols for a pastoral vacation.
But serious heart-to-hearts also ensue, with member V confessing to Jungkook that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on him, and that he felt empty in the absence of live performances and the support of the BTS Army. Like others, the pandemic has shown the boys that, far from being bulletproof, they too are vulnerable to the stress caused by a sustained period of social isolation.
All-Korean American boy Eric Nam, the endearing presenter who also hosts the weekly "K-pop Daebak" show, presents this English-language series of absurd games pitting competitors Ashley of LADIES CODE, Jae of Day6, BM of K.A.R.D., Peniel of BTOB, Jamie Park and Amber Liu against one another. The confused cast gamely stumbles its way through charades, Jenga, flip cup and even preparing Nam a sandwich while blindfolded. Nam, meanwhile, gently pokes fun at K-pop conventions and calms a mutinous cast that threatens to rebel against his nonsensical rules.
In this diabolical simulation of Korean society’s haves and have-nots, some K-pop star wannabes get to stay in a luxe, three-story, Gehry-esque complex with a gym, dance studio and rehearsal rooms. The rest have to stay in a poor man's house but are told their low-ranking status need not be permanent. If they hustle hard, they can make it into the I-Land building and stand a chance of winning the whole shebang — a contract with Bang Si-Hyuk, the founder of Big Hit, BTS’ label. Meanwhile, three judges, including two retired K-pop stars who succeeded before the intense competition of the internet and social media kicked in, watch them squirming like bugs from 37 screens in a high-tech control room.
K-pop reality shows are all about forging a deeper connection to a band, and this view into the goofy, human side of MONSTA X humanizes the tough group. The series plonks the seven-member boy band into absurd situations, from staffing a daycare center to caring for a menagerie of monkeys, raccoons and walruses at a local zoo. The members also engage in a series of silly variety games, including “The Amazing Race”-style scavenger hunts and absurd footraces with sweet potatoes spilling out of their pants. In the second season, the crew suits up to perform all the essential roles in a K-drama, with Kihyun cast as a schoolgirl heroine, I.M. as the wicked mother-in-law, and four of the guys strutting into the room like a “Boys Over Flowers” crew of cool boys.
This audition survival show winnows 101 competitors to 11 stageworthy ones. The great, and the mostly not-so-great, sashay, shimmy, rap and croon, proving that the road to K-pop perfection is often cringeworthy, sometimes hilarious, and paved with the shattered dreams of those who failed. The successful show, launched in 2016, soon spawned versions in China and Japan but was rocked by a voter manipulation scandal, with 272 viewers suing the show for electoral fraud. Despite it all, “Produce 101” can be as entertaining as “Star Search” and diminishes none of the fresh-faced sheen of earnest idol wannabes.
Known for its song “Hellevator,” an anxious howl against the isolation and pain of modern society, this band of eight skews more emo than the usual winsome boy band. Its catalog mirrors the nightmarish “Hell Joseon,” a term coined to represent Korea’s socioeconomically divided society (aptly portrayed in the film “Parasite”). In the video “Mirch,” robber barons, clad in furs and top hats, shake their canes as a crew of masked protesters back up the boys. So it’s no surprise that their reality show is more challenging than the average idol show, with the millennial and Gen Z members (youngest member I.N. is only 19) writing their own music (an uncommon allowance in the K-pop industry) and ad-libbing their raps as JYP founder J.Y. Park criticizes their work, displaying their generational divide.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.