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Run Baby Run August 27, 2014

Posted by blith3 in TV.
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The first time I watched Running  Man, I had no idea what it was. My family and I were visiting my uncle who was awaiting heart surgery at the nation’s premiere heart institute. Whilst my father and mother monopolized the conversation, I turned my attention to the muted TV and saw an Asian guy creeping up to masses hidden under blankets, only to jump back in surprise when middle-aged ladies popped up from under the blankets. As there were no subtitles, I had to really concentrate to figure out what was happening, but the entire episode – which included a water game and an elimination race – was the most HILARIOUS thing I had ever seen in a long while (for the curious, google Running Man Episode 56). I never got to know what it was called, though I had pegged it to be of Japanese origin.

Fast forward nearly a year later and after a few weeks of catching up with the latest in Korean entertainment (she has her phases), my mother invited me to watch a show with her, saying she wanted to point out to me this guy that she had grown fond of – Jung Yonghwa from the band CNBLUE (full name:  Code Name Beautiful Love Unique Emotional).

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I had to hand it to my mom, she had found Korean gold…two times over. I could see why my mom liked Yonghwa – he’s good-looking, he’s agile and he thinks on his feet. The latter two, you probably wouldn’t expect to pick up on a TV show. But that’s where the second pot of gold comes in – Running Man is not just any show, it is a variety show of the most elite kind! I got hooked on the show almost immediately and it was only after watching a few episodes, did I realize that this was the random Japanese show I saw last year.

So, what is Running Man? It may not be as immediately and internationally recognizable as other TV series like say, CSI or The Voice, but trust me, when I say that it’s one of the highest rated shows in the world. Or…you could just Google it to be sure.

Now, I know what Western-influenced readers are thinking. Variety shows usually fall into one of two categories – improvisational comedy and/or musical sketches or gameshows. This is where Running  Man breaks the  stereotypical mold by combining elements of both – which I understand is the norm of Korean variety shows – and, this is what sets it apart from its counterparts, ups the ante completely.

Into it’s 4th year, Running Man comprises a core cast of seven Korean celebrities who – judging from the episode count – seem to film every single Monday. They are joined each week with other guest celebrities to play mind-bending games that test their physical, mental, emotional and social strengths. It may sound cheesy, but wait…the devil’s in the details.

You see, the show is not confined to filming on a stage or studio – it can range from a rural Korean village to a famous Korean mall to even tourist spots in foreign countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Macao, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia. None of the cast members, including the guest celebrities, know what they will be playing for the day. And these games are no walk in the park often requiring them to interact with members of the public and with the longer, trickier games taking (by my estimation based on the captions that appear on the screen) possibly over an hour to play and film. Plus, there’s always a twist to each game – forcing the players to think on their feet. And again, they film across the seasons! From water games during the summer to open-air cooking during the dead of autumn to running the indoor of buildings in the middle of the winter nights, it’s true testament to what is required of those involved in the show – from the Project Directors (who design and vet the games), the film crew, the Running Man cast and even the guests.

The most entertaining game though, hands down, is that which gave the show its name. A staple and fan favourite, cast and their guest celebrities are placed into teams with the sole objective of eliminating the other team from the race. To do so, players have to remove nametags stuck on the backs of individual members. Most people would think “safety in numbers” and so, to discourage a herd mentality and to prolong the game, cheats are scattered around the canvass area for the players to find to swing the odds into their favour. Of course, because it’s a variety show, the parameters of the race changes from time to time, such as only eliminating players in a specific order or in pairs or even switching between the teams to be the “hunter” or “hunted”. In such cases, bells are attached to the shoes of hunter players and trust me, the ringing of the bells as a “hunter” approaches down a quiet hallway it scares the bejeezuz out of the audience as much as the “hunted”. It’s during this game that you see the smarts of the players shine through and you know they really mean it…because you never know when the prize up for grabs is plain old GOLD.

Crazy, right?

To add on to the complexity of the show, some episodes serve to also promote certain TV shows coming out in Korea, presumably those produced by the TV network that owns Running Man, SBS Broadcasting. During these themed episodes, the level of detail that goes into planning a Running Man episode becomes crazily apparent and I must say, it does successfully and effectively ignite interest in the promoted show. If you think about it, it’s marketing at its most genius really. Not only do you attract the interest of the primary market in Korea just as the show is being released, but now with the Internet, it also serves to expose to the international market to other shows they might not have known about and create secondary demand.

Of course, the genius of the backstage can only go so far in terms of sustaining the popularity of a TV show. To me, what really speaks to the audience is the chemistry of the core cast who provide dialogue that is arguably better than anything written by top screenwriters around the world. Their playful banter, sometimes innocent, sometimes steeped in not-so friendly rivalries, translates even with the subtitles (let’s face it, subtitles often ruins shows)! And because the interaction is so organic, sometimes bits of their personal lives are dredged up, much to the glee of fans who come off feeling that more connected to the cast. In addition, because the cast are such good terms, individual members are sometime bestowed nicknames when specific events happen and are referred to in subsequent episodes (the production crew helpfully clue viewers in by complementing with brief flashbacks) – just like how it happens in real life.

And so, here is the brief 411 on the Running Man cast:

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Jae-Suk, YOO: MC. The unofficial leader of the cast and arguably, the most popular cast member amongst fans in Korea. Also known as Yoo-ruce Willis for his sharp senses and ability to barely scrap through tough situations.

Suk-Jin, JI: MC. Eldest member of the cast and the most patient of all. Also known as Big Nose Hyung (or Big Nosed Brother) for his seemingly large nose.

Jong-Kook, KIM: Singer. Physically and mentally the most formidable cast member. Known as Spartakooks for his physical strength likened to that of a Spartan gladiator, or Mr. Capable for his superior analytical and tactical intellect.

Ji-Hyo, SONG: Actress. The only female cast member and coincidentally, the one who has scored the most gold wins so far. Known as Blank Ji for her poker face or Ace Ji for her sharp intellect and her seemingly endless good luck. One-half of The Monday Couple (as Running Man only films on Mondays).

Hee-Gung, KANG aka Gary KANG: Rapper, Lyricist, Businessman. The most serious and steady cast member. Known as Peaceful Gary for his cool, sometimes clueless demeanour. One-half of The Monday Couple.

Dong-Hoon, HA aka HAHA: Comedian. Reformed on-screen playboy, he is also shortest and one of the slyest cast members. Known as Haroro for his likeness to the Korean cartoon penguin, Pororo.

Kwang-Soo, LEE: Actor, Model. The youngest and tallest cast member with a penchant for bending the rules to the point it’s almost breaking them. Known as Prince of Asia for being arguably the most popular cast member to fans outside of Korea or Kwangvatar for his running style akin to the aliens in Avatar.

I love watching Running Man because it’s entertaining without dumbing down your faculties by playing up on the (faked out) drama. So, despite its relatively long duration at 1.5 hours per episode, I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to unwind for the day.

It’s almost serendipitous that shortly after Running Man finally registered on my radar, that it was announced that half of the cast would be coming to Malaysia for a promotional event. Suk-Jin oppa, Jong-Kook oppa, Haha oppa and Ji-Hyo eonni, I hope to see the four of you on 1 November 2014!