K-Variety

K-variety, or Korean Variety, is a reality genre that falls somewhere between talk show and game show, and, as far as I can tell, typically involves a group of mostly 30-or-40-something-year-old men doing slapstick for about an hour or so while younger, prettier guests promote whatever song or movie they're working on.

There's a lot of different k-variety, but most of the stuff that gets translated has a k-pop focus or features a lot of idols as guests. I tend to avoid this kind of media because I just don't care. But the creativity of the producers and the fixed-member casts that come from all corners of the entertainment world is something that is pretty unique to variety. Each member of the cast typically has a certain "character" that they "play", even if they just appear on the show as themselves, so there's a lot of improv too which does a lot to offset the immaturity. Yes the humor is still often really cringy (in a bad way), and yes there is sometimes a laughtrack, but I can certainly appreciate jokes that don't rely so heavily on truly irrelevant pop culture or politics. It's easy to enjoy without consuming ton of other media beforehand, and it doesn't make you mad when you think about it afterwards!

I will watch pretty much anything subbed by Baechu Squad even if I disagree with some of their localization choices. They're the closest thing to iSUBS, who undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Running Man, and I've realized its important to appreciate things while you have them :(

Running Man 런닝맨

I think Running Man is the first variety one might come across for someone looking for that kind of thing. Since the format has changed a ton over the years, it's hard to explain what this show is about. But it started as a program in which the fixed-member cast and guests ran around various landmarks and buildings in Seoul. The guests are interviewed and they play games. But it's probably best known for “Name Tag Elimination.” Name Tag Elimination is a game of tag in which the name tag attached with velcro on the back of the member's uniforms must be removed. Except for very early episodes, each game of NTE has its own rules, obstacles, or something like side quests, to make NTE more difficult, more interesting, or more chaotic. They don't play anymore because the cast is too old to run around like that, but if you can get over some interesting fashion choices from a decade ago, it's definitely still watchable! I obviously haven't seen all 500+ episodes (and I really don't watch as often as I used to) but there are a lot of really good ones!

Favorites

Episode 91 — Return of Yoomes Bond

This was the first Running Man episode I ever watched and I was pretty much hooked. The whole episode is a game of Name Tag Elimination. The members start off in individual cells, which they then have to escape. How quickly manage to escape, and what they do afterwards, pretty much sums up each of the "characters" and their role on the show. It's very fun!

Episode 222 — Martians vs Venusians

A 1 vs 6 Name Tag Elimination game, except no one realizes that they're on the same team, and everyone is wearing a dumb alien costume the entire time.

Episode 336 — Member's Week(?)/Strongest Member

The members dress up in cringey costumes and have to use embarrassing "super powers" to eliminate the other members. The last one standing is the winner. This is the first appearance of Kwang-vatar, and there's even a surprise "guest"!

Episode 505 — Eliminating Intruders: The Secret of the Traditional Village

A very Busted!-esque episode in which the members have to solve the mystery of the village without being eliminated. Lots of short improv skits from the members.

Episode 544 — Running Investment Conference: Masters of Investment

The members play a stock market simulation game where they go back in time 10 years and have to earn money by predicting what the market will do. The game is very simple but it's a lot of fun, and it's actually quite informative.

Episode 556 — We Will Find Spring

This is one of the better later episodes. Two guests go on a competitive blind date with Jeon So-min and Song Ji-hyo. The other members are split into teams to tell each guest what to do in order to "impress" So-min and Ji-hyo through an earpiece. Chaos ensues. They eat an Italian dinner without using their hands.

Hangout with Yoo / How Do You Play? 놀면 뭐하니?

I don't know what this show is, but since I'm generally a fan Yoo Jae-suk's projects, I ended up giving this one a try. How Do You Play? is a true variety show, there's so much variety. Basically, it started as a show for Yoo Jae-suk to do whatever he wants and ended up filling the void left by the end of Infinite Challenge.

The first arc of the show, or Yooniverse, was a simple camera relay, where Yoo Jae-suk hands some kind of vlogging camera to a celebrity, and then they give it to another celebrity, who gives it to another. A relay. This was kind of boring so I couldn't get into it. I really only started watching from the beginning of the SSAK3 project, where Yoo Jae-suk teams up with Rain and Lee Hyori to form a sort of 90's pop trio for a summer-approrpiate single. Of course, they ended up releasing a full album, had a dance choreographed, shot a music video, etc. The three of them of course have a long showbiz history together, but as far as I know this is the first time they've done music together. Despite Yoo Jae-suk being the only one of the three who (debatably) doesn't have a background in music, he didn't hold them back at all. They all worked together really well, and despite not being around or having any particular connections to the era they emulated, I could feel the nostalgia.

When it concluded, I kept watching to see the following projects, too. The Refund Sisters project was shortly after, born from a passing comment from Lee Hyori during SSAK3. Yoo Jae-suk stepped back to take on a sort of producer/manager/executive-decision-maker role for this, but he was definitely an important part of the group. He brought together Uhm Jung-hwa, Lee Hyori again, Jessi, who's been doing really well in variety lately because she's crazy, and Hwasa. All four of them are known for a sort of “girl-crush” image across different generations of K-pop (the name Refund Sisters comes from a joke about how scary they would be asking for a refund). Jessi and Hwasa in particular have had quite a few clothing (or lack of clothing) controversies. Aside from Uhm Jung-hwa, I don't really care for their music individually, but it was fun to see the group interact. Since they couldn't perform live because of COVID, Yoo Jae-suk and the show simulated a live audience using pre-recorded fanchants as a surprise for the group, it was quite touching! I wish my school could have done that for my graduation.

There were a few short projects between Refund Sisters and MSG Wannabe, but they weren't that interesting so I skipped most of these episodes. Honestly at this point I'm a little tired of the music projects. But MSG Wannabe was actually probably my favorite out of the 3 music projects I followed. MSG Wannabe is a sort of parody of SG Wannabe, an all-male vocalist group (I don't know the proper term but think Boys II Men or The Temptations). Yoo Jae-suk once again played director and held a blind audition for this group instead of more or less picking them himself as with SSAK3 and Refund Sisters. It ended up with a group of 8 talented singers with varying levels of success in the music industry, pulling of some impressive...well, singing. As usual they released original songs, but also a cover of a cutsey k-pop girl group song. There are no language barriers when it comes to the humor of 50-year-old men singing the equivalent of “ohmigosh!” in full sincerity. Also, it was nice knowing that many of them had interest in continuing to work with each other afterwards.

The present How Do You Play? has become How Do You Play?+ and now Yoo Jae-suk basically has a fixed-member cast that accompanies him on projects. This cast made up of good variety personalities that play well off of Yoo Jae-suk's style of humor, but not so well between each other yet. I think Lee Mi-joo shines more in another Yoo Jae-suk show, Sixth Sense, but she's fun here, too. Lee Kwang-soo was a guest on How Do You Play? before, and as inappropriate it would be, I wish he could have moved from Running Man to How Do You Play? instead of leaving the variety world altogether. As I mentioned earlier, it's filling the hole Infinite Challenge left behind. I never got into Infinite Challenge and just ended up prefering Running Man, perhaps due to accessibility at the time. I don't watch every episode, and it's not as good as golden era Running Man, but I don't think it's had its own golden era yet, so I hope they keep trying things.

The Great Escape 대탈출

I was actually pretty late to this one and didn't start watching until the 3rd season, but it quickly became one of my favorites. The cast completes escape rooms. Actually, while I like and am familiar with most of the cast members, as none of them were new to variety when the show first aired, they aren't terribly important to the show. Instead, I love the creativity behind the designs of the escape rooms! They're extremely impressive by any standard, and I think the whole series is worth watching. The first season is very much standard puzzle solving, but the later seasons usually have some kind of larger plot. I think both approaches are interesting!

Favorites

S1 Episode 1-2 — Private Gambling Hall

This is the first episode in the series, and even though it has a slow start, this is a very impressive escape room! Pretty good puzzles.

S1 Episode 11-12 — Taeyang Girls' High School

A high school run by a mysterious cult. This is one of the more interesting episodes, since it's so heavily driven by the plot of the escape room. The less-straightforward "puzzle" solutions are great, and the members are even required to put on a sort of performance as part of the escape.

S2 Episode 1-2 — Mirae University/Black Tower

It starts off normal-looking enough, but quickly descends into a sci-fi horror. Even though "room" is very large, you can tell how much effort and planning went into every tiny detail. And of course, the final moments of the escape are the most suspenseful in the series!

S2 Episode 5-6 — Mugan Prison

An actual prison break instead of a traditional escape room. Not really any puzzles to solve, but this one made me laugh a lot so I liked it.

S3 Episode 1-2 — Time Machine Lab

The cast uses time travel to save a life and defeat capitalism. The puzzles and plot were fine, but I generally don't care for time travel plots. What's the most impressive by far is how they managed to make it look like the members actually time-traveled. The set design is fantastic.

S3 Episode 2-3 — Dark Villa

Part of the Villa of Shaman story. The escape is done almost entirely in the dark. A little frustrating since the members are too scared to explore much, but I think I would be too in this situation!

S4 Episode 7-8 — Crazy House

The cast goes inside the mind of a murderer using a board game. This episode is the objective best, it easily outshines the rest of the season. The set engineering is amazing. The puzzles are great.

This is behind-the-scenes footage from the Crazy House episode. It doesn't have subtitles, but I don't think they're necessary. It shows how they built the set, the rooms actually move! Out of all of the Great Escape "rooms," this is the one I would want to play the most if it were possible!

Girls' High School Mystery Class 여고추리반

I'm not really sure how much of a "variety" show it is. I mean, a celebrity cast making jokes is definitely there. But this show is kind of like a live action point-and-click adventure. If Busted! reduced its scale a little so everything was less chaotic and made sense, I think it would have been like this.

Essentially, the members have to LARP their way through a plot and solve some puzzles along the way. It's similar to The Great Escape, and the story takes place in the same 'universe'. It's lighthearted, not necessarily funny (other than the fact all of the main cast is obviously too old to be in high school), but it's fun to see the story unfold and you really feel like you're there along with the cast trying to figure it out. This one is really special since an all-female cast is pretty much nonexistant in variety world, and I do like half-scripted shows quite a bit.

The plot of first season of this show is that the members have enrolled as students in a prestigious high school known for its ability to get its students into SNU, and then join the school's mystery club. However, the school seems to be hiding some kind of secret that past mystery club members have been unable to solve. Can they uncover the truth?!? (Yes)

In the second season of Girl's High School Mystery Class, the girls transfer to a new high school with a more cheerful and friendly atmosphere. On the surface, anyway. This season's mystery involves an annonymous chat room and poison. The cast has to track down the killer before they can strike again. The second season is more cleanly executed than the first. While there aren't really any traditional logic-based puzzles or riddles, and a lot of the clues were the oppostie of subtle, you could tell that the cast was really immersed in the mystery and everyone gave their best effort, which made it a lot of fun. My only complaint is that the final episode concluded without answering all of the questions, but perhaps that's inevitable with half-scripted shows.

Bloody Game 피의 게임

Pizza Game Bloody Game is (another) not-quite-variety-but-kinda competition/puzzle/escape game show that unfortunately comes with unneccessary celebrity commentary but other than that, it's quite interesting! The show seems to be loosely inspired by Squid Game and Parasite, but also follows in the footsteps of similar shows like The Genuis. The premise is that 10 mostly ordinary people live together in a mansion for two weeks. They play a few games, but most of the show is centered around psychological warefare, since someone has to be voted off at the end of each game. The last person standing at the end gets money. However, there is a twist! The "losers" actually get banished to a dingy basement instead of booted off of the show.

Halfway through though, the show gets a little messy. It's entertaining for sure, but the cast starts to become a little too..."creative." Well, I'm not sure why some of the players were cast at all. Really a mixed bag. It's a survival show, but since some of the players don't want to lie or betray or lose their pride, they make dumb decisions, reveal too much information, or even sacrifice themselves for no reason. Crying and vowing to avenge their friend who was betrayed with the same conviction as if their entire family was slaughtered before their eyes. Flirting with the enemy the next episode. You can almost see the very moment it stops being a game for each player. I don't think such a show would work in a more individualistic society.

A fun observation is that pretty much everyone drinks and smokes pretty heavily. Due to broadcast regulations, cigarettes (but only ones that are lit) have to be censored, but so much of the show's alliance and betrayal discussion happens in the designated smoking area. It got difficult to tell who is who unless I was paying attention to the voices, but shapeless blob diplomacy made everything feel so much less dire. So it was even funnier when the interview footage had them discussing strategy like they were generals at war.

Actually I think this show is kind of like a very small scale, less-islandy Survivor. But I haven't seen Survivor in many years so I might be terribly misinformed.