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6 Super-Addictive Korean Variety Shows

February 05, 2021 Charlotte Cho

My idea of a perfect night in? Calling in an order of jja jjang myun, delivered to my door before collapsing on the couch to catch up on my favorite Korean variety and reality shows.

My DVR used to be backlogged with shows like Modern Family, Better Call Saul and Orange is the New Black, but they’ve fallen to the wayside for variety and reality shows like 1 Night 2 Days, Infinity Challenge and Superman Returns.

Variety is hugely popular genre of television in Korea and while A-listers in the States wouldn’t think twice about turning down a show where they’re forced to play games, sleep outdoors, or try to run through absurd obstacle courses, it’s par for the course for Korean celebs. That means you’ll see Big Bang’s Taeyang getting his shorts stolen during a game of water basketball or Jo In Sung jumping rope until 3 am to try and get something to eat.

Media personalities are so carefully created in Korea that seeing them totally out of their element is refreshing…and frankly hilarious. Variety is where typically highly stylized celebrities get a chance to show their real, human side. The hosts and producers of these variety shows don’t shy away from getting laughs and ratings at a celebrity’s expense, either (keep an eye out for the text commentary that scrolls across the screen they add in post-production, too). Here, I’ve rounded up 6 Korean variety and reality shows that are on constant rotation to queue up stat (and yes they're easy to watch with English subtitles!)

2 Days 1 Night
Actors, rappers, rock stars and comedians Cha Tae Hyun, Kim Jun Ho, Kim Joo Hyuk, DefConn, Jung Joon Young take on absurd challenges over the span of 2 days and 1 night. They play games like nose tug of war (clothespins pinched on noses and attached to rope) where they’re fighting for basic necessities like food or shelter (the losers sleep outdoors in a tent in snow or rain or shine). The chemistry between the five men is palpable and they are constantly ribbing one another, making it seem like I’m watching a group of overgrown kids away at sleep away camp.
Watch on: with English Subtitles

Infinity Challenge

Another show that presents their celebrities with absurd challenges, Infinity Challenge is hilariously hosted by comedians and is entirely unscripted. If you love ‘90s Kpop, try starting with the “Saturday Saturday Is a Singer” episode where the show brought together old-school bands like Turbo, S.E.S, Jinusean, and Cool 20 years after their heyday for a blowout old-school performance.
Watch on: Hulu with English Subtitles

Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook

Yu Huiyeol, an A-list musician who goes by the moniker TOY, hosts a weekly music show that weaves in intimate interviews with the singers, songwriters, and the Kpop groups that are featured. It’s always a good mix of current hits and underground artists, and a good way to keep a finger on the pulse of Korea’s indie music scene. Yu Huiyeol is great at teasing his interviewees and asking unique, non-media questions (like when he pokes fun at G-dragon’s outfit or teaching Henry how to sing like a proper Korean).
Watch on: KBS Worldwide Youtube with English Subtitles

Human Condition

With a revolving cast of actors, comedians, musicians and anchors, the show is all about educating celebrities (and the general public) about different social issues as they live for a week with restrictions. For instance, their missions may be that they cannot create any trash, or try to live their currently lifestyles on part time wages. The show is hilarious as the celebs go through their uncomfortable hijinks, but always ends up being both emotional and illuminating.
Watch on: KBS Worldwide Youtube with English Subtitles

Running Man

The entire episode is a long race as guest celebrities come on to compete against the permanent cast (a motley crew of former pop stars, actresses, actors and comedians). Guests and crew are surprised with a mission and ensuing obstacle courses that make for action-packed and weirdly gripping television. It’s gotten so popular in Asia that they’ve even filmed on-location in places like Macau, Beijing, Taiwan, and Indonesia.
Watch on: with English Subtitles

The Return of Superman

This reality show showcases father-child relationships and is one of my personal favorite shows. It’s turned a Korean tradition on its head and shown conservative, patriarchal families that being super-involved in your child’s life is infinitely rewarding. You watch clumsy new dads try and connect with their kids after moms leave them for the weekend alone with their children. My favorite relationship to this date is Epik High’s rapper Tablo who become absolute mush for his daughter Haru. It’s an honest show about how hard it is to be a parent, but heartwarming to no end.
Watch on: KBS Worldwide Youtube with English Subtitles

—Diana Ryu

Diana Ryu is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has been featured in Refinery29, Lucky Magazine, TimeOut, The Huffington Post and The Zoe Report. She most recently ghostwrote a book and (happily) spends most of her time and money on Korean beauty products and food.

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