K-drama’s new attraction: Senior citizens

Shows helmed by seniors, such as K-drama Dear My Friends and Singapore's Super Senior, draw fans with their realistic plots and characters

K-drama Dear My Friends' on-screen son and mother played by Lee Kwang Soo (left) and Kim Hye Ja.
K-drama Dear My Friends' on-screen son and mother played by Lee Kwang Soo (left) and Kim Hye Ja.PHOTO: VIU
Super Senior's cast (above from left) Zhu Houren, 61; Chen Shucheng, 66; Hong Huifang, 56; Jin Yinji, 67; Xiang Yun, 54; Richard Low, 63; and Wang Yuqing, 54.
Super Senior's cast (above from left) Zhu Houren, 61; Chen Shucheng, 66; Hong Huifang, 56; Jin Yinji, 67; Xiang Yun, 54; Richard Low, 63; and Wang Yuqing, 54.

Minutes into Dear My Friends, a Korean drama fronted by seniors, its protagonist writer wonders out loud: "Who would buy books about old fogeys?"

It is as though she was reading the minds of viewers accustomed to watching fresh-faced leads: Would audiences take to a drama helmed by on-screen mums and dads?

The answer is yes. The recent success of Asian television shows featuring older actors in their 50s and older proves that such shows have an audience and can even attract a younger demographic.

Marketing communications manager Agnes Koh, 35, decided to catch Dear My Friends because of lanky hunk Jo In Sung, who has a minor role. The ongoing series is available on the streaming platform Viu.

Now she is hooked on the original plot and says: "The older cast makes it totally different from the usual K-dramas. It provides a different perspective. I like the realness of their stories. I saw things in the characters that remind me of my aunts and mum."

In South Korea, the tvN drama has a steady following tuning in to watch the golden cast, who are in their 60s and 70s. Each episode has an average rating of 4 per cent, a respectable figure for a cable network programme as such shows do not often breach the 1 per cent mark. (Last year's huge cable hit, Reply 1988, hit an average rating of 12 per cent.)

Hongik University assistant professor Lee Soo Jin, who is in her late 30s, points out that viewers of all ages are tuning into the series in South Korea - from her co-workers in their 30s to her mother's friends in their 60s.

The Seoul-based liberal arts professor says via e-mail of Dear My Friends' cast: "The senior characters are no longer mums or dads of younger protagonists. They are protagonists the story develops around. They have their own mums, friends, siblings and children. They want to have fun with their friends, dream of romance and miss their mother. They worry about how to die well, but also worry about how to live well."

For some, the show is an antidote to the deluge of fluffy, rose-tinted romances featuring youthful, beautiful actors and actresses.

Think of the global mania that ensued after Descendants Of The Sun (2016) captivated audiences with the whirlwind romance of leads Song Joong Ki, 30, and Song Hye Kyo, 34.

Fresh graduate Hannah Lee, 23, says: "I used to be an avid K-drama fan, but I stopped watching because I was bored by the fantasy-like romance story as seen in Descendants Of The Sun. I like that the Dear My Friends cast is older and predominantly female, which can be a turn-off for some viewers who want some eye candy."

Nor is Dear My Friends an anomaly. The popularity of another tvN title, Grandpas Over Flowers, prompted follow-up seasons, a Chinese remake and an upcoming American version. The travel reality show follows four elderly actors in their 70s on backpacking trips to overseas destinations.

Singapore's own veteran-helmed drama Super Senior was the second highest-rated Channel 8 drama last year, reaching an average of 962,000 viewers an episode.

The show's executive producer Soh Bee Lian admitted that there were initial concerns about lacklustre audience reception. But good ratings and positive feedback proved that the worries were unfounded.

Local family dramas have previously incorporated issues such as dementia and conflicts between mothers-in-law and daughters- in-law, says Ms Soh, 56. But Super Senior shines the spotlight on senior characters and the acting chops of consummate actors such as Xiang Yun, 54, and Chen Shucheng, 66.

Though Super Senior was inspired by Singapore's ageing population and some of the challenges faced by the elderly, including the loneliness that hits after a partner dies, Ms Soh also wants to relay the positive message that seniors can live well too.

"The elderly are often painted in a pitiful light in dramas. It's not true that they are just waiting out their last days."

Channel 8 viewer Koh Kar King, 59, says that even her working adult children are amazed by the can-do spirit of the senior actors as they dive and execute hip-hop dance moves in the show.

Mr Amos Quek, who does administrative work, has been inspired to lead an active lifestyle when he retires. The 55-year-old says: "I can identify with the characters. As I approach retirement, I'm looking out for courses at the community centre. I don't want to just sit around, read the newspapers and wait for meals."

Such dramas also serve as food for thought for younger audiences, such as 28-year-old public relations manager Adrienne Ser. The Dear My Friends viewer says: "Despite all the drama - illness, abuse, tragedy - the positive vibes from the show lessen my fear of ageing. It can be like a second youth. The show also helps me understand my older kin better."

•Dear My Friends is available on viu.com and the Viu app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Silver generation is TV gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe