On Air
온에어 (2008) SBS 21 Episodes
Broadcast Melodrama, Romantic Comedy
Grade: B+

Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

On Air (2008) was a popular melodrama, with high ratings, about what goes on behind the scenes in the making of Korean dramas for television. It did for K-dramas what the drama Producer (2015) did for Korean variety shows: depict the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in creating the entertainment which interests us on Korean television. When the show emphasized and examined the intricate workings of making K-dramas I was fascinated and really learned a lot, but when the show focused on the love quadrangle between the four leads, Kim Ha Neul, Park Yong Ha, Lee Beom-soo and Song Yun-ah, I often became frustrated. I had such a huge case of the common K-drama phenomenon Second Male Lead Syndrome (I call it Second Male Leaditis Disease) in this drama that it hurt! I really wanted Kim Ha Neul's character with Park Yong Ha's character from episode one on, and I knew that chances were high that wasn't going to happen. I can count on less than one hand the number of Korean dramas where the female lead ends up with the second male lead.


The very best parts of On Air had to do with showing us the truth of K-drama making. For instance, when they showed us what REALLY goes on behind the scenes during script readings (when there are no cameras taking pictures of the actors) I was fascinated. Ordinarily we the public only see still photos of the actors smiling, reading their scripts together, seemingly all friendly with one another, so I enjoyed seeing what really goes on during script readings: the strong disagreements that often result with writers and other actors about how to deliver their lines, and flesh out their drama characters! It's not always smooth sailing in that department, as they would have you believe in real life by the pretty pictures they take of official script readings. Not everyone in this industry gets along with one another, far from it!

I also enjoyed when the drama showed the many sacrifices crew members have to make in order to be involved in this profession, the time demands that keep them away from their families, often during major life events. How often have you thought about the lighting crew on a show you watch, for example, where the lighting engineers have to miss their kids' graduations or a family funeral because the latest drama star needs her lighting done "just so" to look her most beautiful for the cameras? Making a drama is an ensemble under-taking and this drama shows that very clearly. They have strict schedules to fulfill and no flexibility if anyone becomes ill or has a family emergency.
When they showed both male leads Lee Beom-soo (playing studio producer Ki-joon Jang) and Park Yong Ha (playing director Kyung-min Lee) together, I was more interested in those scenes, compared to the scenes with the annoying, less attractive second female lead, Song Yun-ah (who played the temperamental chief drama writer named Young-eun Seo at the station -- I had the same rather negative reactions against her in Hotelier). When they focused on the gorgeous female lead Kim Ha Neul, who played the lead actress named Seung-ah Oh, I became even more interested in the story. I had a really hard time relating to the second female lead in this show because she was ordinarily an hysterical type who whined a lot about her lot in life, her profession, etc. and it got on my nerves. Her character should have been thrilled she got to a point in her career where she could write for dramas, but often she thought everyone was picking on her instead of just disagreeing about a certain plot point or character she was writing. She was a single mother and practically the only time she showed a softer side was when she was with her young son, when not working at the station. How could any man find that attractive, I wondered constantly, and much preferred when either of the two male leads had scenes with the first female lead, Kim Ha Neul! She -- as usual -- was gorgeous. Even when her character was petulant and sphinx-like it was understandable. Unlike the second female lead character, she had not had a strong family support system to fall back on in life. She was essentially physically and emotionally abandoned by family and had to become hard on the outside in order to survive in the acting world. Her grandmother had wrongly blamed her for the death of her parents and the poor thing had nowhere to turn for love. For awhile she ended up under the influence of shady types in the industry. After her success as an actress became solidified she put her career on the line for the other lead characters more than once, and I found that admirable.


I loved watching how beautiful Kim Ha Neul played her character in this show, and especially the contrasts between her actress character and how she had to portray different characters on screen. For instance, they showed us what happens technically in a typical telephone scene in a drama. One actor is in bed and the phone rings and he picks it up and puts it to his ear, while the actress speaking over the phone is in a booth with audio equipment which makes her voice seem distorted through telephone lines. Kim Ha Neul's character, while talking into the audio equipment, spoke with girlish charm and emotion, depicting a weak and easily flustered character, but when the director yelled "Cut!" she was immediately back to her real self, a down to earth and practical, no nonsense actress who expected others to do her bidding so that she could excel. You can see Kim Ha Neul's extraordinary gifts as an actress in this show in every single scene, and it's no wonder she won several acting awards for her performance in On Air


Another reason I really enjoyed this drama was because of lovely Park Yong Ha, who played a rookie director in the drama. This was his second to last drama before his tragic suicide in 2010. (His last was Story Of A Man a year after On Air). He also won several awards for his gentle and introspective performance here; his character was just a nice guy, with a decent sense of humor, whom I found fabulously appealing and attractive. (Not to mention he looked at his most handsome in this drama compared to any other he was in, including Loving You and Winter Sonata).

Park Yong Ha, looking so handsome
in On Air that it pained me!

In contrast with the older Lee Beom-soo, playing the producer, who was so good with Yoona in The Prime Minister And I in 2013, Yong Ha was the most appealing male presence in the drama. He really listened to the other characters and cared about them. He wasn't just in his career to promote himself. He liked the work and was willing to learn, without putting his ego first. So often I would melt inside during his scenes, and wonder once again why he ended it all in real life only two years later, when he had so much talent, and so many people in the industry seemed to love him and would have helped him if they had known he was suffering. I am writing this review in 2015, approaching the fifth year anniversary of his death (June 30th, 2010), and sometimes I still feel the tears sting my eyes when writing about him or looking at his pictures or watching him act. 

I particularly loved the on location shots in Taiwan when all four leads were together and their characters were discovering each other as human beings, finding out what made each other "tick". Anytime Park Yong Ha and Kim Ha Neul had scenes together I would doubly melt, like when he grabbed her hand and led her away from fans and paparazzi, and I wished again that their characters would end up together. They had a lot of chemistry together; Ha Neul had far more chemistry with Yong Ha than she did with Lee Beom-soo. I couldn't believe the drama writers couldn't see it and wouldn't adjust their script accordingly.

Song Yun-ah with Park Yong Ha in On Air
Why did you like her? WHY??? WAE???

Yong Ha was so good looking I thought of Lina Lamont's line in Singin' In The Rain, "They'd come to see me if I played opposite a monkey!" Haha. I would have watched Yong Ha with anyone, but really did not want to see his character end up with the whiny scriptwriter gal! No! Meanwhile, her character seemed to have the secret hots for Lee Beom-soo's character, so I would talk back to the screen, "Yes! Please, please take him instead! Leave Park Yong Ha alone" LOL! The two lead female characters did NOT like one another and were constantly on the outs. In one funny scene in a Chinese massage parlor the two guys were in one room naked having a massage, while the two women were in another room naked having massages. The two guys knew the actress and scriptwriter did not get along, and fantasized about what would happen if they got into a cat fight in the other room while naked. Oh how I laughed and giggled at these scenes!

The Funny Massage Scene

Another fun reason to watch On Air is because of all the cameo appearances by different stars playing themselves as actors and actresses. It's a challenge to play "Spot the Celebrity" in each episode. The series features 27 star cameo appearances, among them Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Jung-eun, Lee Seo-jin, Kim Min-joon and Yoon Se-ah, who had previously worked with writer Kim Eun-sook and director Shin Woo-chul on Lovers in Paris, Lovers in Prague, and Lovers. Song Yun-ah also asked her celebrity friends to appear on the show, namely Lee Hyori, Kang Hye-jung, Uhm Ji-won, and comedian Kim Je-dong. If you love Korean actors like I do you will smile at everyone you recognize when they turn up.

Usually many of the side characters in dramas add a lot of spice to a drama, but here I have to be honest: many of them bored me or tried my patience. I kept feeling they were wasting time that could be better utilized showing more romantic scenes or more behind the scenes about drama-making. There seemed to be quite a few older Ahjummas in this show who had thorns in their characters and did nothing but complain and meddle, and I truthfully would just fast forward through their scenes. I understand the industry wants to give roles to as many actors and actresses as possible, of many age ranges, but the main story of a drama shouldn't be put on the side-burner to accommodate them.

Every once in awhile and go back and revisit favorite scenes in this drama On Air. It's really quite enjoyable overall, and if you have any interest at all in how K-dramas are produced then you should definitely check it out.