Hong Hae-in (played by Kim Ji-won, left) and Baek Hyun-woo (played by Kim Soo-hyun) add an element of fun with the reversal of traditional gender roles. Courtesy of tvN

The hit drama “Queen of Tears” achieved a peak viewership rating of 21.6 percent on April 21, securing its position as tvN’s second-highest-rated drama, trailing narrowly behind “Crash Landing on You” at 21.7 percent in 2020.With just two episodes remaining, it is on the brink of potentially eclipsing this record and could rival JTBC’s “SKY Castle,” which holds a record viewership of 23.7 percent in 2019.The comic melodrama has enthralled audiences with its unique character development as the male lead, Baek Hyun-woo (played by Kim Soo-hyun), is dubbed the “heartbreak prince.” Unlike typical fairy-tale princes who simply add a touch of fantasy, Hyun-woo brings depth to his role.A brilliant lawyer, he engages himself in domestic life at his in-laws’ home, frequently seen cooking in the kitchen during the family’s ancestral rites. Although he initially confesses that he desires a divorce, Hyun-woo is ready to fight for his wife, Hong Hae-in (played by Kim Ji-won), breaking car windows with his bare fists to save her, if necessary.”Baek Hyun-woo is a subordinate character who can still be relied upon, and though he is in a weaker position, he remains steadfast,” says Park Jin-kyu, a novelist and drama critic. “This nuanced variation of the typical wealthy man in romance dramas has maximized his appeal, making him a character that is both pitiable and thrilling to viewers.”

Despite its incredible success, “Queen of Tears” has faced criticism for its lapses in story continuity and verisimilitude. The tale, filled with coincidences, tells of Hyun-woo, who unknowingly saves Hae-in from drowning during their childhoods. The two later reunite in high school and eventually marry after recognizing each other as adults. Critics argue that this diminishes the story’s plausibility.However, the drama’s popularity may be linked to the current trend of short-form content. In an era where platforms like TikTok force audiences to consume quick, impactful videos, viewers have become more invested in characters rather than narratives.This shift toward character-driven, episodic storytelling aligns with the preferences of younger audiences who are accustomed to engaging in content that pops like kernels — often referred to as popcorn brain.”The way ‘Queen of Tears’ highlights its characters mirrors the punchy, hit-and-run strategy of short-form content, says Yun Seok-jin, a professor of Korean literature at Chungnam National University. “In the age of short-form, consumers show more interest in character-focused episodes than in a centralized, message-driven narrative structure, and this trend is evidently contributing to the drama’s success.”This trend is evident in the viewer demographics of “Queen of Tears.” Interestingly, the drama scores a higher viewership rating among teenage boys (5.3 percent as of the April 14 broadcast) than in their twenties (4.3 percent) and thirties (4.9 percent).Given that older demographics typically dominate weekend drama ratings and teens are more engaged with YouTube, these figures are unconventional.

Pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik interprets this as a targeted success, “Character-centric drama direction that can generate memes and clips has hit the preferences of teenage viewers precisely.As new generations emerge, the style of drama productions is evolving. “When monitoring real-time viewership ratings, it’s noticeable that the ratings dip significantly when the focus shifts away from the main characters,” a veteran drama writer said on condition of anonymity. “The attention span of viewers is becoming so short that in youth-centric trendy dramas, the narrative is heavily concentrated on the protagonists, and the editing is now styled more like YouTube content.” The supporting characters are as uniquely crafted as the leads. Yeong-song (played by Kim Young-min), who lives in Yongdu-ri picking berries and caring for his cognitively declining mother, invites Hong Hae-in’s aunt Beom-ja (played by Kim Jeong-nan) to his home and engages in flirting over tea and madeleine treats.The image of a bachelor from the countryside serving madeleines as snacks adds a quirky touch. The drama’s cliched storyline about “a husband’s love for his terminally ill wife” diverges into unexpected territories through the distinctive characters.

The creation of such vibrant characters is a specialty of Park Ji-eun, the writer behind “Queen of Tears.” Known for her imaginative characters like the scholarly alien (Do Min-joon) in “My Love from the Star” and the quirky mermaid (Shim Cheong) in “The Legend of the Blue Sea,” Park brings her experience as a variety show writer to fashion “Queen of Tears” like a show.She orchestrates scenes reminiscent of the real-life wedding venue of Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin, who starred as a couple in her previous drama “Crash Landing on You” (2019-2020), and keeps the audience engaged with witty dialogue such as “Loyalty is like a coffee coupon. You don’t know someone is a regular until all ten stamps are filled.”The peak of KBS’s comedy show, “Gag Concert,” was helmed by producer Seo Soo-min, who contributed to the planning of “Queen of Tears.” Park and Seo previously collaborated on the KBS drama “Producer” (2015).Their reunion in “Queen of Tears” demonstrates the synergy of character-driven 슬롯놀이터 storytelling, once again proving successful in engaging viewers.

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