The return of Korea’s leading actresses to the small screen this fall has been mostly disappointing. Lee Young-ae starred in “Inspector Koo,” Ko Hyun-jung in “Reflection of You,” and Jeon Do-yeon in “Lost,” but the dramas are losing viewers with every episode and their star power seems insufficient to carry a show.

“Jirisan,” which was subject to a lot of hype thanks to Jeon Ji-hyun in the starring role and top script writer Kim Eun-hee, was panned for its bizarre visual effects and a soundtrack that disturbed the flow of the plot.

Just a few years ago their presence alone would have guaranteed success, and each episode would spark a fad for what they wore and ate and which location they visited. Does that mean tastes are shifting?

“Inspector Koo” is a comic detective series, where Lee plays a reclusive game addict who was formerly s police officer and gets involved in investigating a mysterious series of murders. She tries to show different colors and shake off her usual glamorous image, but this has been met with a cool response.

Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture critic, said, “Inspector Koo” itself is a quite well-made drama, and Lee herself was at a point where she needed a change in terms of her acting style. But it seems like the audience isn’t ready to embrace that yet.” 

From left, Lee Young-ae, Ko Hyun-jung, Jeon Ji-hyun and Jeon Do-yeon

Jeon’s “Lost” was in the same predicament. The series costarring Ryu Jun-yeol is about a man and a woman who feel lost in life. Jeon and Ryu are excellent in conveying delicate nuances of emotion, and Hur Jin-ho’s directing is sensitive. But for a TV series, the plot unfolds too slowly.

Jung said, “Audiences these days want TV dramas that solicit an immediate response, something that offers not delayed gratification but an instant catharsis. People are now so used to six-episode series on online platforms that they expect quicker progress. The standard 16-episode series on TV channels seem too drawn out.”

Another reason is that audiences have become savvier. Ko’s “Reflections of You” is based on a short novel of the same title, a revenge romance that revolves around a woman who was totally committed to her own desires, and another woman whose life is overshadowed by her.

But the theme of revenge and romance has been overused in Korean dramas. Ko’s acting does not stand out either. Critic Kim Kyo-shik said, “If the stars don’t exceed the performances of their heyday, the audience just can’t see anything new beyond that.”

Jeon’s “Jirisan” saw ratings go up until the second episode, but that was it. It was criticized for awkward use of computer graphics and excessive product placement that prevented the viewers from focusing on the plot. These may be harsh criticisms since the practice is hardly new, but now the viewers are used to high quality dramas.

Song Hye-kyo is the only one of the country’s top stars currently doing well with “Now We Are Breaking Up,” which topped the charts, but her power of generating headline news seems to be somewhat diminished. “It feels like watching any soap that Song did in the past,” one viewer commented.

Critic Ha Jae-keun said, “It is no longer true that casting a top actor guarantees the success of a TV series. The competition has intensified” as there are more and more shows domestic and foreign to choose from with more cable channels and online platforms offering them. “Casting a top star may help grab attention in the initial stage, but in order to hold this attention, the content needs to measure up in terms of popularity, directing, scriptwriting, and acting.”

And a producer said, “Even an obscure newbie can instantly become a global star with funding from an online platform, well-written script and great directing. One top actor no longer determines the success of a film or a series.” 

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