When my sister first developed her obsession with K-pop (ahem, Korean popular music, for the uninitiated), she attempted various lines of attack to get me to share in the same fixation. And she wasn't off-base to try. The numerous and heavy-looking defenses of seriousness that I place around myself, when left to my own devices, have all fallen before to the most implausible pop cultural adversaries -- even when I knew at the moment of transgression that it would take me years afterward to purge myself of the dishonor; even when I knew I would have to submit to a stern regimen of Edwardian fiction and entries from the Criterion Collection to wash out the crime; even when it was Desperate Housewives. (As V.S. Pritchett describes his childhood love of the "Greyfriars" school stories (so memorably and sociologically dissected by Orwell), "I knew this reading was sin and I counteracted it by reading a short life of the poet Wordsworth.") But this time, my sister's incursions did not seem to avail, at least for a long while. It's not that the k-pop music videos she showed me bothered or offended me in any way. I was fine to have them exist out there for others to enjoy. I just didn't see that they needed to have anything to do with me.
Others would have accepted this live-and-let-live approach and dropped it. But my sister had one last device in her armory. One final siege weapon that had not yet been deployed. It so happened that a singer in one of the groups she loves most had a minor role in a period drama series called Hwarang: Poet-Warrior Youth, so she took up watching it. It was her first K drama. I caught a glimpse of it, flickering on her laptop screen, over her shoulder one day during the holidays. Uh oh, I immediately thought. Swords. Intrigue. Wackiness. Hijinks. There was a very real and terrifying chance that I might get drawn into this. "Do you want to watch an episode?" she asked me the next day, triumph in her eyes, "I'd be willing to go back to the beginning." Oh, and I did want to watch it. God help me, I did. And here was the greatest victory on her part of all -- she hadn't even had to corral me into it. I had come willingly at last. True, it wasn't quite K pop. Maybe we'll both never be listening to the same music (country and western never worked on me either). But the overlap between the various K genres was real enough that my sister had plainly won, and we both knew it. K dramas and K pop evidently even shared talent -- in this case, someone named Tae-Hyung, a.k.a. "V."
The enchantment was immediate. I was putty in this show's hands. In the first episode of Hwarang, a chief character named "Dog-Bird" is introduced. He is incredibly, almost supernaturally, bad-ass. At some point, one of the two no-goodniks he is chasing pauses to explain to the other -- I think it happens while Dog-Bird is still mid-air during an improbable leap over a bottomless ravine -- that people say he got his name "because he is like a dog -- and like a bird." In episode number two, a character breaks the fourth wall in order to explain to the camera that when the members of Hwarang play football (Hwarang being the titular group of young men who are "poet-warrior youth," and who don't appear to do a lot of poetry or war-making, but who spend a lot of time in communal showers) that this is different from regular football, because when Hwarang people do it, it is "beautiful football." My sister and I quickly decided that so long as there was at least one line that good in every episode, any absurdity or dullness in the rest of the hour could be forgiven.
And it always was forgiven. And it always was an hour. K Dramas, we soon learned, are a bit more unremitting than their Western counterparts when it comes to sheer length, and they don't appear to suffer from quite the same commercial pressures to ensure that there is always something interesting going on. (Maybe there are fewer alternative channels to turn to in Korea, when it really becomes a slog.) They can easily stretch out a mere modicum of forward momentum in the plot to cover the full sixty minutes, like fitting a skin over a drum until it thins to breaking point, and they know you'll still watch the whole thing (and they were right, in our case), so long as they front- and back-load the story. Even if the whole interminable middle of the episode has been comprised exclusively of recaps, flashbacks, and recycled footage, that is (there's a lot of one character's hand brushing another's, say, and this leading to a full clip-show of every time the two romantic leads have ever enjoyed anything remotely bordering on physical contact), this is all immediately forgotten and forgiven in the last five minutes of the episode, when we climax suddenly into our cliff-hanger and freeze-frame on two combatants' faces just before the end credits roll.
The other merciful compensation of the K drama genre is that there is always only one season. It may last twenty-five hours. You may wonder at various moments in the course of it why you are doing this to yourself. But you know it will never linger on for ten or fifteen years after it has outlived its usefulness. There is no room in these things for Ross to get four divorces, or for Homer to make guest-star-studded voyages to every single country in Europe.
The magic of Hwarang has so far proven difficult to fully replicate. I was so broken up by the enormously gratifying conclusion of the series that I had the closing theme playing on my computer for weeks afterward every morning, and I wondered at times what I was going to do with myself emotionally now that it was over. It wasn't quite the last episode of Buffy, but it wasn't too far removed from it either. It turns out, according to Wikipedia, that the show was a bit of a commercial flop in its native country. Oh well, a prophet is never accepted in his own hometown, as the Bible says. For my sister and me, it was decidedly an event.
Since then, we have watched one other period series all the way through together, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, and started a teen drama, Boys Over Flowers. Both have had an undeniable appeal, don't get me wrong -- from the untranslatable titles on down (what is a Ryeo, I ask? It's not the name of any character in the series, as far as we can tell. Why is it the only word in the title that does not have a counterpart in English? And what can it mean to say "boys over flowers." Like, she prefers boys over flowers? But there aren't any flowers in the series, apart from the boys.). But neither series has truly captured our scarlet hearts in quite the way that Hwarang did. Perhaps one's first love in K drama is always the most intense.
Moon Lovers -- I could never remember the title so would generally shorthand it to Moon Unit, or perhaps Moon Unit Zappa -- really did have its moments. But I ultimately am not able to forgive its ending. The series tells the story of a plucky (they are always plucky) contemporary Korean woman who drowns in a pond and wakes up in a palace in medieval Goryeo surrounded by nine handsome princes. (There is always such a harem of beauties for the female protagonist to select from in every K drama, whether it be the "Hwarang" itself, the princes, or "F4" in Boys Over Flowers, and they always each have some particular distinguishing quality -- much like the members of a K pop boy band). So anyways, this woman is feisty. She is spunky. She is, as already mentioned, plucky. The nine boys cannot help all eventually falling for her charms, even as they are powerless to protect her against insidious designing outside forces. She is also a cosmetologist. And after our beauty school dropout eventually goes back to modern society (I forget how -- maybe she drowns again), the big reveal at the end is that, because she carried some of her cosmetic skills with her to the middle ages, she was actually the ancient inventor of the very same "Bulgarian Rose Cream" that she now sells at her ISOI parlor. Gasp! It must be one of the dumber grandfather paradoxes ever penned.
My dad, with whom we were watching this (actually, my sister and I managed to compel both our parents into viewing the last few episodes with us, since we happened to be on a visit home at the time), had a long career in corporate marketing. He knows a product placement when he sees one. He was therefore the first of us to look it up. And lo, it turns out that the Bulgarian Rose whatnot is, deplorably, a real thing. ISOI is a real company (though neither has medieval roots, to the best of my imperfect knowledge).
The crass commercialism of this was pardonable. But it was just too absurd and outrageous that this product would not only be featured in the storyline, but would be the culminating revelation of twenty-six long hours of dutiful television watching. It was the most egregious example of the "Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine" let-down that I've ever encountered in actual life. "A crummy commercial??" I roared, echoing Ralphie, metaphorical decoder pen in hand. The bathos of it was just vertiginous. It was as if "Also Sprach Zarathustra" had just ended in a tiny raspberry. Our mother, seeing all this as well, observed "Well, there's a reason they call them 'soap' operas."
For all of its acknowledged feebleness, however, Moon Lovers nonetheless proved an exemplary specimen on which to test our theories about K drama as a genre. We had, from the very first episode of Hwarang on, already begun working on a full taxonomy of K drama tropes (my sister is a Biology teacher, and tends to take a Linnaean approach to whatever corner of reality is nearest to hand, at any given moment). The trouble with our taxonomy, however, was that we only had one example to draw on, which does not really a taxonomy make. So we were thrilled to have Moon Lovers there, to try out some of our hypotheses. So far, we have not been forced to abandon any of our theoretical tropes. Even Boys Over Flowers, only three episodes in, has already confirmed several of them.
The very best thing about all these tropes, I should mention as a preliminary matter, is that they are utterly unlike anything you would recognize as clichés of Western TV and cinema. You're going to hear them and think -- huh? Really? That's something that happens a lot? This is what makes these tropes worth cataloguing in the first place. If they were just, say, the insight that there's a "meet cute" moment and a wacky sidekick in every series, we would not be here today, investing time in this post. No, these tropes are a genuine cultural isolate, worthy of our anthropological study.
Here's a brief sampler to get us started. Number one: there's always some adorable young one among the core team of "beautiful men," who is always played by a member of a K pop band (in Hwarang, this is the aforementioned Taehyung -- in Moon Unit, it is whoever plays the character Eun, one of the princes -- thanks to my sister for knowing and being able to point this stuff out). So far, that's not so strange. But the trope is that this adorable one is always killed two-thirds of the way through the series in some ghoulishly ironic, desperately tragic, and utterly unnecessary way. Usually by their own brother. Often as some unintended consequence of something else. And you're just left there watching it and saying, Whhhaaaa? And also, tearfully, Waaaaahhh!
Trope number two: there's something going on about brothers and sisters in every series, something between brothers and sisters. There is, in short, a level of comfort and social acceptance around implied or sublimated incest that is, well, surprising to the Western viewer. I don't at all mean to pick on Korean culture about this. The world's societies and colloquial idioms -- including our own -- are full of romantic metaphors that appear to be drawn from family life -- often in a way that's best not to think too closely about, or to observe from the outside. In our American popular culture, say -- or, at least, in our pop culture in the bad old days when I was still aware of it in any direct way, perhaps it has all become more wholesome and egalitarian since then -- everybody was someone else's "baby," if they were an object of romantic interest in a song. There are also those more repellant phrases: "who's your daddy?" "Sugar daddy." Etc. To be fair, there are also "hot mamas," mamacitas, etc. There's plainly some freaky stuff happening linguistically among us as well.
My point is just that, if the governing metaphor for sexual and romantic life in Western culture is some kind of skeazy Freudianism -- which is probably why something as preposterous as psychoanalysis could take root among us in the first place -- then in Korea is seems to be all about brothers and sisters. If Oedipus is the psychological ancestor of Western humanity, then the equivalent figure for Korea would have to be -- what -- Lord Byron? As the whole world now knows, thanks to "Gangnam Style" -- to be an "Oppa" is an aspirational thing for the would-be desirable male in Korea, and it technically means older brother. So too, a sexy older woman with whom a young Hwarang or F4 member wishes to flirt is a "Noona" -- older sister. (Sorry to belabor the obvious, but this was all new knowledge to me, when all this K-pop business was suddenly intruded into my life last year.)
Thus, in Hwarang, we find our female lead seriously believing (incorrectly, it turns out) that one of the male leads, Dog-Bird, is her brother. Yet she is falling in love with him. And while this would be a source of dramatic tension and conflict if it happened in a Western series (and it probably wouldn't) -- and would certainly lead, at least, to a great deal of confusion and handwringing along the lines of "but we're related!" -- it doesn't really seem to be an issue in K Drama. Mostly what she feels, when she finds out he's not her brother, is betrayed that he lied to her. She even remains disappointed for a long time afterward that he is not her brother. And when she explains all of her welter of conflicted feelings about him to a friend, early on in the series (when she still thinks they are siblings), the friend replies -- and I'm going to go ahead and commit this to transistors on the Google servers somewhere, even though, despite the fact that I have reviewed Philip Roth novels and Samurai Cop on this blog, it stills feels like the most inappropriate thing I've ever written on Six Foot Turkey -- "older brothers always feel like that; they are like when you have gone to the bathroom somewhere and forgotten to wipe."
Oh, but there's more. In Moon Unit, every single character is at least a half-sibling of the others, since they are all the offspring at some remove of the king and his many concubines. Yet this never seems to be a barrier to any of them marrying each other. They really just go ahead, like Lannisters, or Hapsburgs, or the Ptolemies. "Oh, so it's like Ancient Egypt," my mother pointed out unflappably, when we explained the premise of the series she was about to watch.
As for Boys Over Flowers -- admittedly we have only just begun the thing, but already we have had a scene in which one of the male leads is talking to his cronies about the female protagonist. He claims that he can't stand her, but they are catching on that beneath his public veneer of loathing are the first stirrings of a major crush. And the way they announce this knowledge to him is as follows: "Ohhh, I know who she looks like... she looks like [the guy's] sister!" I haven't figured out yet if they are referring to an actual sister that he has, and whom she resembles, or if they are saying she looks like she could be his sister. But either way, her appearance as someone who could be a member of his immediate family is treated as grounds for implying that he has a crush on her. Again, Whhhaaaaa?
But this remark, off as it must seem to Western ears, actually betrays a biological insight, just as the Oedipus complex does -- though not the one that Freud thought. Reading up on the "Westermarck effect" -- again, courtesy of Wikipedia -- one learns that people actually do tend to feel sexual attraction to people who are genetically similar to them -- just not to people with whom they have lived in close contact for the first six years of their life. In the ordinary course of growing up in a family, therefore, a child does not develop sexual feelings toward its immediate relations. This process is interrupted, however, if children grow up without contact with their siblings or parents -- say, because of some late Victorian system of wet-nurses and boarding schools (as Freud did). Thus, Freud may actually have felt sexual attraction to his mother. Wilhelm Reich certainly did. And thus began a whole bizarre tangent in Western intellectual history. We might have been spared the whole thing, if Freud and Reich etc. had realized that their feelings were the product of a very specific set of conditions that are not universal to the human family structure. The Oedipus complex: the primal and timeless human fate? -- or an incommodious accident produced by the distinctive lifestyle of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie? (It does seem rather cruel -- enough indeed to turn anyone into a Freud or a Reich -- that late Victorian society would be at once among the most straight-laced and repressed of social orders and the one that, by its very structure, was bound to generate the most unrealizable and impermissible sexual desires.)
Thus, the proliferating imagery in K dramas of "Noonas" and "Oppas" does not necessarily signify that everyone is secretly motivated by a repressed sexual longing for their siblings, and will spend the rest of their lives in a hopeless quest for a surrogate. It's actually entirely possible for people to be attracted to someone who looks like they could be their sibling -- but not to their actual sibling. My sister is fond of this story about how apparently in Iceland the population is small enough -- and people tend to be interested in people who share genetic material with them enough -- that it was necessary to create a dating app that allows people to easily check whether or not they are related, and thereby to screen against the possibility that they have accidentally just started seeing someone who is actually a near cousin or other close relation.
There's something remarkably liberating to me about this "Westermarck effect" realization. All this time, Freud has been telling us that what we nearly all experience as a subjective reality -- the experiential truth that we are not in fact attracted to our immediate relatives -- was merely the result of repression, false consciousness, an internalized taboo. And there's no real way to refute him on this point, either. As Arthur Koestler once pointed out, what we have in Freud is a "closed system of thought." Any attempt to deny the insights of psychoanalysis is itself an expression of psychic "resistance," according to his scheme. But now, here at last is a chance to do to Freud what Marx did to Hegel's dialectic -- turn him on his head. It's good to know that we actually do not want to do the things that we, as far as any of us can tell through self-examination, do not want to do. I recall that in Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism, read a long time ago, the author remarks that he finds it somewhat baffling that the quest for emancipation from the incest taboo was evidently such a salient theme for Shelley and Byron ("[h]e loved but one," we learn of Childe Harold, "And that loved one, alas! could ne'er be his.") The same idea crops up in Wagner too, Shaw observes. "It is as if one said, 'It is not wrong to stand on one's head,'" says Shaw. "The reply is: 'You may very well be right, but as nobody wants to, why bother about it?'"
This Westermarck business about people being attracted to people who are genetically similar, but not to people they've actually grown up with, also provides us with an alternative explanation of all those cases from literature and history that were so often treated as proof texts for the Freudians. Like those odd stories in Genesis in which Abraham and Isaac are repeatedly presenting their wives as if they were their sisters before various foreign potentates. ("My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter!" as they say in Chinatown.) And then later on, the foreign king in question observes the pair of them in flagrante, and the jig is up (for some reason, the king never contemplates incest as a possibility). The Freudians have of course seen in all this the evidence of repressed incestuous impulses or the like. But perhaps we can now explain, thanks to Westermarck, why societies entertain fantasies that border on incest, but that don't actually involve it. Perhaps we can also now explain K Dramas. They are not talking about anything so unusual -- they are just doing it in a surprisingly unselfconscious way, or what seems like such to outsiders. Done.
Except we're not quite done yet. There is one other K-Drama trope, Trope #3, that is also rather astonishing to a Western audience, and that seems to similarly cry out for an explanation. This is the fact that, in K Dramas, the villain succeeds. He triumphs over his rivals. If every K-drama boils down at last to a choice on the female heroine's part between two men, then we can be sure that she will choose the evil, rich one, rather than the noble-hearted but poor one. It is the perfect reversal of one's Christian expectations. And while it doesn't actually happen this way in Hwarang (both the male leads in that series are actually pretty good people) it did basically happen in Moon Lovers, and one can tell already that it is on its way in Boys Over Flowers, only three episodes in. It happens often enough in K Drama, in fact, that this trope has actually been named in the fan culture, long before my sister and I started in on our great systematizing project. It is called "Second Lead Syndrome" (I owe the discovery of the term once again to my sister, of course). It refers to the fact that, in every series, there will always be some absolutely lovely and decent human being, with no obvious objection at all against him, who just gets totally shafted at the end of the series in favor of the tall, brooding, rich, mean one.
The especially fascinating thing about this, though, is that it's not like these shows are lacking in social conscience. There is nearly always some oppressive and arrogant elite who are running things at the start of the series, and who are justly condemned by our egalitarian rebel protagonists. Perhaps it stems from South Korea's relatively recent struggle against U.S.-backed right-wing authoritarianism and its ongoing internal conflict about the powerful Chaebols that played such a role in the country's most recent political scandals. Or perhaps it comes from Korea's longer-standing struggles against the imperialism of its neighbors, the American occupation, etc. But whatever the cause, every K Drama manages to make its democratic sympathies clear in the first few episodes, in a way that truly warms the cockles, at least of this old sea dog. (This indeed was part of what drew me so irresistibly to them on first viewing). In Hwarang, Dog-Bird is an outcast who manages to infiltrate the capital city, but who could be killed if he is discovered by the ruling classes because entrance is technically forbidden to commoners. In Moon Lovers, meanwhile, our main character is constantly defying the rules of caste and class that are enforced by the other members of the damiwon. She is the underdog, who spends most of the series in a condition of servitude.
In Boys Over Flowers, so too, our protagonist is the lowly daughter of a dry-cleaners, who is transferred against her will to a fancy school for the children of Chaebol overlords that is controlled (literally -- we never see a teacher or any other adult around, and the show makes no effort whatsoever to explain this) by four rich popular kids. She rebels against their cruelty, sticks up for their victims, and insists on eating her mother's home cooking rather than the opulent food options on offer at the school cafeteria.
The problem with all this, however -- the thing that kind of starts to undercut the whole triumph of the little guy message -- is that we know she will also end up marrying one of the four of them, at the end of the series -- despite or perhaps because of her rebellion. And who are we kidding -- we already know which of the four it's gonna be -- it's going to be the worst of the lot, the only one who's actually being given much of a character and presence so far, the mega-rich one, who is the offspring of the school's founders.
In order for you to appreciate why this is such a problem, I have to make it clear that these "first lead" jerks are not just rich. They are impossibly, fantastically, Van Veen-level wealthy. The Malfoys would not even be in the same competitive category here. In Moon Lovers, the First Lead is the king of the whole realm. In Boys Over Flowers, he has a different pair of hand-designed shoes flown in to him every day from Italy; he has a staff over whom he appears to wield absolute authority (at one point his goons kidnap and chloroform our female protagonist, and this is presented as wacky good fun); and he comes to school every morning in a helicopter.
Also, these First Lead jerks are not just mean, let me be clear. They're not just snotty. They are not, in other words, just playing the Veronica to the Second Lead's Betty. They are, like, evil. In Moon Lovers, he at one point rolls the female protagonist's best friend and fellow servant up in a carpet and has her beaten to death with sticks. This happens after he has gotten romantically involved with our female lead. In Boys Over Flowers, First Lead man sacks a female servant for spilling a single drop of tea, after which she faints on the spot at the prospect of being suddenly cast out on the streets. It is a moment quite reminiscent of the other show's carpet-beating all around. First Lead also sicks his fellow students on anyone who defies him -- including our protagonist -- on orders to physically assault, bully, and publicly humiliate them to the point of attempted suicide. The series even begins with one victim trying to throw himself from the roof of the school, while his classmates gleefully watch and film the episode, though fortunately he is saved by our protagonist. Thus, when our detestable four popular dudes exchange bets on "how long the new girl [our heroine] will survive," one has the horrifying realization that they may mean this literally.
In short, K Dramas just have a higher standard of mean. When they want to do evil, they really go for it. In their Western equivalents, we'd just have the nasty popular kids snub the main characters at a party, or maybe pull a mortifying prank. Here, they actually attack, kidnap, and maybe even try to kill people. And then, the main character falls in love with them!
Now, it's not that the entire value system in the K Drama world is different from anything that we -- the Western audience -- might recognize. All this savage behavior is still presented as reprehensible, and we glory so long as our plucky protagonist is fighting back against it. And when the female lead does choose the bad boy in the final episodes, the show doesn't seem to expect any of us to be particularly pleased about this conclusion. In Moon Lovers, it is painfully obvious that everyone's sympathies are still with Jung, our Second Lead. "But he's such a nice guy!" my sister and I -- and all viewers everywhere -- cried in disbelief. Jung says something to our protagonist, as she's drifting off into her death that will really be her rebirth into the modern world, along the lines of "You'll remember me in the next life, won't you?" And she says: "No, I won't remember any of you." Man, that's cold.
Instead of Jung, she chooses the creepy king who rolls her friend up in a carpet and beats her to death. In another scene, this same king orders a whole household and all its servants butchered. The idea is never revisited, so my sister and I were left saying, "Wait, so did that actually happen? Did he just kill a whole bunch of innocent people?" To be fair, our female protagonist doesn't seem happy about all of this either. She is even mad for a little while about the whole killing her best friend thing. But the king brushes most of this off with a little commentary about the immense stress involved in holding high office, and about the difficult decisions that are sometimes thrust upon one by being in a position of authority. There's a lot of "Don't ask me about my business, Kay" and "My father is no different from any other powerful man."
Moreover, as should already be clear from our description of Moon Lovers, there is not necessarily any dramatic reformation of character at the end of the series that might justify our protagonist's newfound affection for the First Lead. Still less -- as my sister pointed out -- is there any overhaul of the social order that is presented as so diabolically unfair at the start of every K Drama. So, we don't quite have here the kind of situation that Orwell complained about in Dickens, where a trenchant social critique is undermined by all these social problems suddenly being implausibly ameliorated at the end of the story by the appearance of a "good rich man" or a converted Scrooge. Here, the social problems are not ameliorated, and the rich man does not convert. Well, except for in the more amiable Hwarang, where -- although Dog-Bird *spoiler alert* turns out to have been the true heir to the throne all along, thus kind of ruining the whole "he's an oppressed commoner/outsider" thing -- it is nevertheless implied that he brings genuine social change at the end of the series. But in Moon Lovers, the king figure is, it is implied, at most slightly better for having met our female protagonist than he would have been otherwise. Oh, and he now has access to ISOI Bulgarian Rose Cream because of her, which is the really important thing.
So that is as close as we come to having a classic redemption-through-love story on our hands. The female protagonist very slightly improves the First Lead. It's not quite Beauty and the Beast.
Okay, so -- why on Earth would it be this way? Why would our storytellers write it to have this outcome?
To acknowledge the most obvious possible explanation first, these shows are an exercise in wish fulfillment. So of course our poor, put-upon protagonist is going to end up marrying the rich guy and inheriting the castle. Wikipedia informs us that apparently the Korean branch of the Young Women's Christian Association issued a critique of Boys Over Flowers after it aired, accusing it of promoting the "Cinderella" fantasy. And while this is all true enough, it is a bit -- to borrow a phrase from Nabokov's Strong Opinions -- "like looking for allusions to aquatic mammals in Moby Dick." Yes, yes, we all know that the daughter of the dry cleaners is going to one day be riding in that helicopter as it touches down on the school's manicured lawn, and that she'll never have to touch a wine stain or a wrinkle-resistance fabric again. From diapers to Dior./ That story., as Anne Sexton helpfully summarizes.
But this doesn't quite settle the matter. Because if it's just pure wish fulfillment, why couldn't we have made our First Lead into a guy who was both rich and super nice?
Well, perhaps because we wanted to have our cake and eat it to. On the one hand, we wanted to preserve our democratic credentials by glorifying the poor and negatively depicting those who -- as George H.W. Bush would politely and self-exoneratingly put it -- "have means." But on the other hand, we still want our poor protagonist to come out of it all with the money and the power.
But all of this, of course, would have been far more easily resolved if we had just opted for the Belle and Beast solution, mentioned above. We could just have a total, 180-degree moral transformation of the evil First Lead. We also could have just neglected to include the inconveniently perfect and unnecessarily hurt Second Lead in our series at all. So... why?
Maybe, at last, it's because evil is a little bit sexy. And if this quality were rinsed out of our First Lead entirely by the series' end, part of his initial appeal would be lost. But this is, ultimately, what is most fantastical and implausible about these shows of all. In order to be done effectively, the sexy kind of evil needs to be implied, distant, and not actually very evil. Someone can be implied to be, say, a powerful mobster -- but if you actually observe any of what that involves, the idea will quickly sour on any normal person.
Seen up close, actual evil is ugly, and kind of pathetic -- not sexy or romantic at all. Mostly because it is based in selfishness, and moral stupidity. You don't actually want someone you care about to be evil, believe it or not. There is a brief novella by André Gide, Isabelle, which explores this theme in depth. The protagonist becomes infatuated with the daughter of the house where he is staying on the basis purely of her photograph and her scandalous reputation. It has been suggested that she was responsible for the death of a previous lover, and he begins to entertain all sorts of fantasies regarding her. But when he actually meets her in person at last, and he discovers that she is remorseless and self-pitying about the past events of her life, he suddenly finds her not only reprehensible, but insipid and boring. "She recriminated against fate; she lamented that in this world poetry and sentiment are always in the wrong [...] Not a word of regret for anyone but herself! What! I thought, is that the only way she can love?" (Bussy trans.) He decides after this point that he would rather spend his time with the groundskeeper and the homely young scion of the house, who are the only people left after the rest of the estate has been forced into bankruptcy, and who are the only ones who still seem intent on caring about anyone besides themselves.
Perhaps our K-dramas, then, are actually a little too realistic for their own good (not a line of criticism you'd expect, when you are talking about shows that feature a high school student who's also the head of an international crime syndicate and a king who is defeated by the expedient of being gradually frightened to death by lightning). These shows' evil people do too vividly and plausibly evil things. The First Leads are, in the end, just selfish jerks. And that rather drains the romance out of it.